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  • Millie Morse

Seeking the High Ground: American Space Strategy

Disclaimer: This piece was originally drafted in May 2021 and has not been altered since its initial submission.

The international system has again turned its attention toward space and mere presence is no longer enough. The militarization and weaponization of space is on the horizon as the United States, China, and Russia announce plans to increase their presences and capabilities there. The problems of expansion in space are multifaceted, not least of which are the political and strategic challenges. Though the United States has had some sort of presence there since the 1960s, this is an entirely different type of military engagement. Renewed interest in space engagement is a chance to assess and intentionally apply appropriate means to our defined ends while also permitting the United States to utilize emergent strategy as part of a grand strategic plan. Space strategy should be a stark departure from missteps keeping the United States bogged down in Forever Wars. Aligning means and ends is extremely important for the success of this new branch. Poor establishment of norms and definitions could lead to an aerospace version of perpetual conflict. Concomitantly, the United States is experiencing a period of power decline and re-imagining of state identity. Time is a factor in this situation, but the United States must refrain from racing toward space on its own and must rely on active alliances for collaboration on space ventures.

Space has held the United States’ public attention since the 1950s. Even after the United States lost the Space Race, subsequent administrations continued to fund and expand American capabilities regarding space, exploration, and defense. The most formative policies in the 21st century originated in the Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations. The Bush-era policies laid a foundation for space as a security concern but were followed by contradictory policies from the Obama and Trump administrations.

The Bush Administration

The Bush administration released a new National Space Policy (NSP) in August 2006 which laid the foundation for policy governing the conduct of American space endeavors.¹ The policy was particularly impactful because it officially defined the role of United States diplomacy in space as one encouraging other nations to join in its vision.² It was the first time that space was incorporated as a necessary component of American National Security as well as Homeland Security.³

The Bush administration set the precedent that the United States would not be limited in access or use of space, and accepted the international agreements in place except arms control.⁴ This administration also established the Constellation program, a mission intended to use the moon as a stopping point on the way to Mars by 2020.⁵ The rejection of arms control and push toward the American vision for space caused concern as the language intimated a break from Outer Space Treaty conditions.⁶ These were founded fears, but the concern would be short-lived. The NSP-2006 expired with the publication of NSP-2010 and the National Security Space Strategy (NSSS 2011).

Space Strategy: Obama vs Trump

The Obama administration, in opposition to the National Security designation of space, slashed NASA's budget and canceled the Constellation project.⁷ The administration instead sought to rely on commercial space flights and International Space Station (ISS) partners for ferrying needs. The National Space Policy (2010) published by the Obama administration characterized space as a wondrous new domain in which peaceful nations could conduct business and learn.⁸ The main principles emphasize responsibility, adherents to the international law preventing national claim of sovereignty over celestial bodies, and the right to access space.⁹

NSP-2010 effectively mimicked all UN space treaties and agreements, which is a shift from language of the NSP-2006. The document also sets out to have crewed missions be on the Moon by 2025 and manned orbits of Mars by the 2030s. Further review of the National Security Space Strategy (NSSS 2011) indicates that the Department of Defense (DoD) and Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) mirrored the White House’s objectives and assessments.¹⁰ The sole point of discord between the NSP-2010 and NSSS 2011 was the explicit statement that “Space is vital to U.S. national security and our ability to understand emerging threats, project power globally, conduct operations, support diplomatic efforts, and enable global economic viability."¹¹

While NSP-2010 intimated the importance of space, it did so in a palatable, idyllic manner. The NSSS emphasized the growing complexity of an increasingly competitive space and the immense strength the United States gains from being the leading power in space. Over the course of both Obama administrations, the United States backed away from strong language regarding space and American intentions while slashing NASA’s budget. The Trump administration, in recognition of the significance of space and the rise of peer competitors, returned to NSP and strategies akin to NSP-2006, beginning to restore and to re-invest in space in December 2017.

Over the course of his tenure, Trump released NSP-2020 and five Space Policy Directives (SPD) that redirected NASA to return to the moon ahead of a manned Mars trip and established the Space Force, the first new military branch since the Air Force in 1947. The NSP-2020 is surprisingly similar to the 2010 edition.¹² Each emphasizes the importance of adhering to International Space Law and maintaining peace. However, NSP-2020 contains clear language indicating the intent to expand American influence and uses the word military, unlike the 2010 edition.¹⁰ Although it does not directly state that there is a concern for American decline in space, the militarized policies indicate that defense agencies anticipate a burgeoning threat to American space access and use. In 2020, rather than publishing a revised NSSS, the DoD published the first Defense Space Strategy (DSS).¹³ This document explicitly states the United States has goals to be achieved over 10 years by both the Space Force and the newly-established US Space Command. It also directly identifies China and Russia as peer competitors who have stood by and watched as the United States pulled back from space.

The DSS does not present a real strategy but lists off a set of goals. The document appears to be a push against poor “Public understanding of their reliance on space systems, the changing character of the space domain, and the significantly growing counter-space threats to the United States and its allies and partners.”¹⁴ The creation of a new military branch as well as a new command center has shed light on the inadequacies of growing cyber and space demands.With the formal endorsement from the Biden administration securing the Space Force’s future, scholars and practitioners alike are attempting to “figure out the cake under the icing.”¹⁵

Military Aspirations & Legal Limitations

Now that the United States has committed to a military defense of (and presence in) space, the government must contend with the constraints of law despite its aspirations. In 2019, Air Force Space Command held a conference with military strategists, space experts, and scholars to determine the most likely space scenarios over the next decade.¹⁶ Although the conference was intended to produce short-term, midterm, and long-term strategic goals, ultimately produced eight potential “Space Futures.” Taking the advice of the DoD, NASA, NATO, industry, and academia, the conference resulted in suggestions to conduct both emergent and grand strategy as Space Force is the first and only military space agency in the world. Other spacefaring nations house their equivalent structures within their air defense groups. The conference report is rife with references to the necessity of American space power and the potential for China to eclipse it. Of the eight “Space Futures” presented, three hold central that American power will dominate, three hold central that Chinese power will dominate, one suggests total destruction, and one suggests that contemporary relations will hold. Four of these were acceptable to the conference attendees. The key commonality between these is the supremacy of American and “Allied'' military powers. While the aspiration is security through control, the establishment of an American military base in space is both unprecedented and specifically prohibited by law. Though there are few formal space laws, those in effect put pressure on nations to dominate space peacefully.

There are very few laws pertaining to space and all five were created within the UN. However, the United States has signed and ratified all of them through the UN, as have Russia and China, the United States’ main peer competitors in space. In theory, all three powers are bound to respect space as a peaceful domain, refrain from claiming sovereignty over any celestial body or the moon, and have unhindered access.¹⁷ The only additional tenets pertain to the rescue of astronauts, the moon as a stateless body, and liability for space objects damaging Earth and other countries’ properties.¹⁸ The Outer Space Treaty, composed of conventions and agreements dating back to the 1960s, did not anticipate the militarization of space. This treaty was put in place to prevent escalation in space during the Cold War. The basic assumption was that no nation would create a military agency that addresses space, therefore preventing a new front from developing. Space was meant to remain a field for scientific studying and discovery. The dueling perceptions of space as a zone of peaceful discovery vs. military domain are evident in the space policies put forth in the Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations.

Bush and Trump released policies pushing the United States toward militarization of space while Obama advocated for policies more in line with the UN Outer Space Treaty. The contemporary tension between law and military aspirations arises from American designs maintaining power in space. At this point in time, the United States is facing the first threat to its space dominance since the Cold War. China launched the main module in its lunar station on 29 April, and Russia’s recently affirmed its decision to break away from the ISS and join China’s venture.¹⁹ These developments tangibly threaten United States national security interests as stated in NSP-2020 and DSS.²⁰ The United States must contend with a new form of malign foreign influence while adhering to law predating contemporary capabilities in space.

Strategy & Feasibility

The question then becomes, what is feasible? Of the four positive Space Futures, only two align with DSS goals for American power in space. The DSS establishes a 10-year objective with no clearly demarcated intermediary steps. It is far less precise than the NSSS and uses the inflammatory language similar to that of NSP-2006. Grand strategic approaches have failed the United States in the past, whether from execution or formulation, and the DSS contains elements of grand strategy that do not inspire confidence. The plan does not address the problem, which appears to be a forest without a path. It talks around the general challenges posed by competition in space, but does not suggest a place to start. Space in this capacity is not familiar territory and requires more emergent strategies with an explicitly stated end goal.

Because there is no indication of intermediary steps or hints of adaptability, it appears that no use of emergent strategy is factored into the strategy designs. This makes the DSS’ borderline suggestive language of a full American militarization of space all the more worrisome. The formation of the Space Force itself has also been taken as an intent to militarize and weaponize. There is also a question of means and ends. The Clausewitzian critique couples with grand strategy critiques. The goals are lofty and visible, but no actionable path is outlined.²¹ Secretary of Defense Llyod’s April 30th, 2021 policy speech matches these concerns. He called for the United States “to prepare for a potential future conflict bearing little resemblance to 'the old wars' that have long consumed the Pentagon.”²² While the DSS provides a solid foundation for space goals, it is unlike that it will be executed as a strategy. Space does not yet have a strategy that will increase tensions and that should be preserved until a committed plan can be vetted. The fatigue of repeated military failures over the last twenty years combined with the new leadership in the White House means official action will likely be more in the vein of realist constructivism than the emboldened liberalism of the 1990s and early 2000s. The United States is not in a position to be the aggressor in space. Nevertheless, contemporary events with China and space have increased an already tense relationship.

As space is a domain currently controlled by the United States, establishment of a joint Sino-Russian station poses a direct threat to American assets in space. Signals and image intelligence capabilities are the United States’ greatest intelligence contributions to the defense community. The creation of a new space station or lunar habitat by a competitor threatens those capabilities. Theorist Sun Tzu’s precepts that intelligence is key to good decision-making informs the defense of American intelligence assets in space and exemplifies Thucydides’ realism. Thucydides’ observation that a rising power will come into conflict with the seated power applies here.²³ Rather than another traditional Cold War with China, the Thucydides’ Trap may be tripped in space. The strategy employed must be both emergent and grand strategic, an uncomfortable mixture for the United States. This will be one of the Biden administration’s more important legacies. The Biden administration will be the first in decades to confront a real and imminent threat to United States power in space.²⁴ His administration will be forced to act quickly. The United States no longer has the luxury of leaving space relatively unprotected; technological advancement and new neighbors in space will force Biden’s hand.

Policy Suggestions

The United States needs to optimize the use of the new Space Command structure with a multidimensional approach. This new space race requires both the domestic and international components. Firstly, the United States needs to adopt a “shield” approach. The shield should aim to reduce confusion and obfuscation of the dearth of the legal framework surrounding space. Secondly, the United States should adopt a double-side “spear” approach. The combination of the shield and spear approaches will allow maximum maneuverability for Space Force and Space Command.

The Shield

This component should rely on creating cyber norms in rules of engagement in space that augment the outer space treaty. This is called the “Shield” because it will utilize the same UN networks that space conduct is currently housed in and because it establishes the landscape for future interactions. Because China and Russia have announced a joint intent for a new space station and China has already launched the initial capsule for a lunar landing, the creation of norms is absolutely necessary. In 2010, the United Nations debated the establishment of cyber norms.²⁵ It ultimately failed when Russia, China, and Cuba voted it down. It is a crucial element of the “shield” because a lack of norms means no country is sure of what cyber interactions have significance and which do not. Artificial intelligence and a reliance on technological systems are already key elements of the ISS and with the establishment of a new space station created by enemy nations, creating rules of engagement and defining cyber landscape is crucial.²⁶ Cyber Norms will not remove the problem of attribution as a source of concern. However, the establishment of some type of rule will prevent unnecessary escalation and slow the space race.

The Spear

This component relies on the establishment and maintenance of alliances that are well as properly funding Science and Technology endeavors. Domestically, the United States needs to refocus its spending on science and technological research and development.²⁷ This has been referenced in all previous National Science policies, but this funding has been neglected due to unfocused intent. Internationally, the United States should create an international consortium of like-minded states.²⁸ It is imperative that American morality remains confined to its borders; security must prevail over all other concerns. Chief among these partners should be India, Japan, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, and the GCC, Egypt, South Korea, the UK, and the European Space Agency. The United States should aim to make an international network of allies with interest in 1) deterring the expansion of Sino-Russian influence and 2) keeping space free and peaceful. France should be considered due to French-American history and despite their new cooperative agreement with China.²⁹ The United States should not neglect African nations that are willing to join this consortium to counterbalance Chinese economic investment on the continent.


Space strategy will be one of the greatest challenges in the coming decades. The Air Force Space Command Conference and the DSS indicate that government organizations are giving space considerable thought. However, it is moving dangerously toward grand strategy parlance that is very similar to the last 20 years. Not only should the goal be to balance means and ends, but to establish norms and definitions. This is an entirely new field of engagement for all the spacefaring nations. The Outer Space Treaty is a short-term solution to a looming problem of militarization and weaponization. A space race is once again upon us, and it’s the United States to blame. Allowing China to attain MFN status and to join the WTO out of an assumption that democracy would naturally follow was arrogant. Further underestimating China or Russia is unwise. The alliance of Russia and China is a dangerous combination of the number two and three space technology powers in the world that demands response, but the response must be measured and the competition accurately assessed.³⁰

The United States needs a combined emergent and grand strategic plan to address space. China already has the capabilities of mobile launch sites, four commercial launch sites, and a five-year space plan the world watched become reality last week.³¹ There are now 13 spacefaring nations. Of those 13, China is the largest threat because of economic power and their newfound partnership with Russia. China has dedicated plans balancing means and ends, engaging in emergent strategy, and working toward a grand strategic goal. The United States is capable of responding with its own well-rounded plan, but that requires a departure from the strategy legacy of the last 20 to 30 years. China has found the cake under the icing and forging the path in the forest. The United States should start to do the same while there is a chance to catch up.

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