Tag Archives: Space

The Next Great Space Race: From a Sprint to a Marathon


By Madison Fox

In 2010, during a speech at the John F. Kennedy Space Center, President Obama ushered in a new era of American space exploration, marked by intense partnership with United Sate’s industry leaders.1 In the past, specifically during the Cold War Space Race of the 1960s, the United States’ achievements in space served as a bright beacon of the power of free markets, society, government, and innovation.2 Now, as tensions rise once again, and not only as space exploration but habitation become realistic possibilities, America will once again be called upon to lead. In this work, I hope to illustrate how the U.S. has done so thus far, and will continue to do so in the coming decades, with particular assistance from their most valuable resource, competitive innovation.

In the past decade, NASA’s budget has been on the chopping block. In fact, since 1993, NASA’s budget has never exceeded 1 percent of the federal budget; this is in stark comparison with 1966, when NASA received 4.41 percent of the entirety of the federal budget, it would seem the U.S. government no longer sees space exploration as a priority.3 Yet, many world-renowned scientists, businessmen, and even historians feel otherwise. The quest for space exploration has evolved to a quest for space habitation. The more humans learn about the universe we live in, the more aware we have become of our own precarious position in it. All of humanity’s achievements could come to a succinct end at the hand of any number of cosmological events, over which we have little to no control. While it may seem like science fiction or a doomsayer’s heedless cry, the possibilities are very real and must be considered in all their weight.

Threats to humanity are not solely man-made. While weapons of mass destruction are reaching far greater levels of effectiveness, possibly in space, Mother Nature maintains her own arsenal. The most obvious threat to humanity, and the threat that wiped out our predecessors on this planet, is an asteroid. The massive number of asteroids in our solar system mean that an asteroid strike is not just a possibility but highly probable; in fact, estimates put the likelihood of dying of an asteroid strike as high as 1 in 200,000, the same as dying in a passenger aircraft crash.4 As recently as 1908, a relatively small object, only 200-ft wide, landed in Siberia and brought with it the destructive power of 1,000 Hiroshima bombs, leveling 100 miles of forest.5 A mere 81 years later, a much larger asteroid passed within 400,000 miles of Earth, in a space Earth had occupied only 6 hours earlier. The effects of asteroids can be as “harmless” as a Hiroshima bomb or as harmful as Carl Sagan’s nuclear winter theory, and even extinction, as was the case with the dinosaurs.6 It is not  a possibility we can dismiss as sensational, but one for which we must actively prepare. But even if asteroids aren’t convincing enough, other threats like the reversal of Earth’s magnetic field, giant solar flares, and rogue black holes, all have strong precedence in scientific research and would lead to cataclysmic results for our home planet.7

Our realization of the Earth’s precarious position in the cosmos has been the gun that set off the next great space race: the race to Mars. No longer in the realm of science fiction, billions of dollars have been invested by both private and public entities to assess the feasibility of the red planet as a harbor for humanity. The leaders of the effort are NASA and SpaceX, who have been working together over the past decade, a true testament to American economic and scientific principles.8 There has, in effect, been a divvying up of responsibilities between NASA and corporate space enterprises. Companies like SpaceX, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Orbital ATK, have taken on the physical logistics of space travel, after NASA retired its space shuttle program in 2011.9 Since then, it has shifted its focus on to the research required to achieve successful and sustained life beyond Earth, and it has been effective in doing so. As Elon Musk, the founder and head of SpaceX stated, his company’s mission is to build a modern day Union Pacific Railroad, but it is NASA’s mission to promote the feasibility of moving “West.”10

In December of 2008, NASA awarded two of the most forward thinking corporations in the world, Boeing and SpaceX, contracts for completing cargo shipments to the International Space Station.11 While the companies are perfecting their spacecraft, NASA has relied on Russia for transport to and from the American-funded and Russian-built International Space Station. Since 2006, the United States has been paying Russia for seats in it spaceship, Soyuz, the only spaceship on Earth able to transport humans to and from the ISS.12 In 2007, NASA was paying $21.8 million per seat for a ride in the Soyuz.13 In 2011, however, when NASA grounded its shuttles, prices skyrocketed, with the most recent estimates coming in at roughly $81 million for a 2018 seat.14 As tension builds, it is high time the United States took its mark in the next great space race.

World War II enlightened man to his own destructive power, and resulted in the Space Race of the 1960’, a quest for faster, cheaper, better missiles to dominate outside threats. In this present environment, with tensions between nations and ever increasing offensive capabilities, and Mother Nature in all her power and unpredictability, it is no longer a question of if the United Sates will compete in the next great space race, but how. Gone are the days of 250,000 miles, the distance to the moon; the next space race will measure around 250 million miles, the distance from our home planet to our neighbor, Mars.15 Only through sheer human ingenuity will man achieve such a goal, and it is the economic, scientific, and social climate of the United States that will allow us to break the ribbon across the next finish line of human exploration.

Madison Fox is a junior at The College of William & Mary. She has spent the past academic year studying abroad at Oxford University, resulting in a deep respect for both pubs and America. Upon graduation, she intends on pursuing a career in financial consulting and to eventually earn MBA. 


Grush, Loren, The biggest lingering questions about SpaceX’s Mars colonization plans. The Verge, September 28, 2016. http://www.theverge.com/2016/9/28/13087110/spacex-elon-musk-mars-plan-habwwharton.upenn.edu/live/news/1619-the-implications-of-the-privatization-of-space#.


1. Barack Obama, ” REMARKS BY THE PRESIDENT ON SPACE EXPLORATION IN THE 21ST CENTURY” (speech, John F. Kennedy Space Center, Merritt Island, Florida, April 15, 2010), NASA.

2. Barack Obama, ” REMARKS BY THE PRESIDENT ON SPACE EXPLORATION IN THE 21ST CENTURY” (speech, John F. Kennedy Space Center, Merritt Island, Florida, April 15, 2010), NASA.

3. Shi, Lina. “The Implications of the Privatization of Space Exploration.” Penn Wharton, University of Pennsylvania, Public Policy Initiative.

4. Stephen, Petranek. “10 Ways the World Could End.” Filmed September 2002. TED video, 29:42. Posted September 2007.

5. Stephen, Petranek. “10 Ways the World Could End.” Filmed September 2002. TED video, 29:42. Posted September 2007.

6. Stephen, Petranek. “10 Ways the World Could End.” Filmed September 2002. TED video, 29:42. Posted September 2007.

7. Stephen, Petranek. “10 Ways the World Could End.” Filmed September 2002. TED video, 29:42. Posted September 2007.

8. Loren Grush, The biggest lingering questions about SpaceX’s Mars colonization plans. The Verge, September 28, 2016

9. Shi, Lina. “The Implications of the Privatization of Space Exploration.” Penn Wharton, University of Pennsylvania, Public Policy Initiative.

10. Loren Grush, The biggest lingering questions about SpaceX’s Mars colonization plans. The Verge, September 28, 2016

11. Shi, Lina. “The Implications of the Privatization of Space Exploration.” Penn Wharton, University of Pennsylvania, Public Policy Initiative.

12. Dave Mosher and Skye Gould, Introducing NASA is paying Russia more than $70 million to bring an astronaut home in this spaceship tonight (Business Insider, September 6, 2016)

13. Dave Mosher and Skye Gould, Introducing NASA is paying Russia more than $70 million to bring an astronaut home in this spaceship tonight (Business Insider, September 6, 2016)

14. Dave Mosher and Skye Gould, Introducing NASA is paying Russia more than $70 million to bring an astronaut home in this spaceship tonight (Business Insider, September 6, 2016)

15. Petranek, Stephen. “Your kids might live on Mars. Here’s how they’ll survive.” Filmed March 2015. TED video, 17:14.

Featured Image: SpaceX’s Falcon 9 Heavy first stage land landing. (Photo: SpaceX)

China: Connected Strategic Themes Across Contested Global Commons Pt. 1

Are there connected Chinese strategic themes that cut across the contested and interlinked global commons (domains) of maritime, space, and cyberspace? If so, what are they and what could the United States do about them?

By Tuan N. Pham

Last November, I wrote an article titled “China’s Maritime Strategy on the Horizon” highlighting a fleeting strategic opportunity for Washington to shape and influence Beijing’s looming and evolving maritime strategy. I posited that Chinese maritime strategists have long called for a maritime strategy; China’s maritime activities are driven by its strategic vision of the ocean as “blue economic space and blue territory” crucial for its national development, security, and status; and Beijing may be trying to fill domestic legal gaps that it sees as hindering its ability to defend territorial claims in the South China Sea (SCS) and East China Sea (ECS), and justify its growing activities in international waters. The latter point is underscored by recent media reports from Beijing considering the revision of its 1984 Maritime Traffic Safety Law, which would allow Chinese authorities to bar some foreign ships from passing through Chinese territorial waters. If passed, this will be another instance of China shaping domestic maritime laws to support its developing and evolving maritime strategy, and part of a larger continuing effort to set its own terms for international legal disputes that Beijing expects will grow as its maritime reach expands.

I then further suggested that Beijing’s forthcoming maritime strategy will shape its comportment and actions in the maritime domain in the near- and far-term, and perhaps extend into the other contested global commons of space and cyberspace as well. In Part 1 of this two-part series, I explore this potential cross-domain nexus by examining the latest Chinese space white paper and cyberspace strategies. In Part 2, I will derive possibly connected strategic themes that cut across the interlinked global commons and discuss how the United States could best respond.   

China’s Space Activities in 2016 White Paper (December 2016)

“To explore the vast cosmos, develop the space industry, and build China into a space power is a dream we pursue unremittingly.”

On December 27, 2016, China’s Information Office of the State Council published its fourth white paper on space titled “China’s Space Activities in 2016.” The paper and the preceding 2011, 2006, and 2000 papers largely follow a pattern of release, sequenced and synchronized with the governmental cycle of Five-Year Plans that are fundamental to Chinese centralized planning. Last year’s paper provides the customary summary of China’s space accomplishments over the past five years and a roadmap of key activities and milestones for the next five years.

Since the white paper was the first one issued under President Xi Jinping, it is not surprising that the purpose, vision, and principles therein are expressed in terms of his world view and aspiration to realize the Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation. Therefore, one should read beyond the altruistic language and examine the paper through the realpolitik lens of the purpose and role of space to the Chinese Dream; the vision of space power as it relates to the Chinese Dream; and principles through which space will play a part in fulfilling the Chinese Dream. Notable areas to consider include Beijing’s intent to provide basic global positioning services to countries along the Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road in 2018; construction of the Belt and Road Initiative Space Information Corridor; strengthening bilateral and multilateral cooperation that serves the Belt and Road Initiative; and attaching the importance of space cooperation under the Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa (BRICS) cooperation mechanism and within the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).

Although the white paper is largely framed in terms of China’s civilian space program, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is subtly present throughout the paper in the euphemism of “national security.” The three references in the purpose, vision, and major tasks deliberately understate (or obfuscate) Beijing’s strategic intent to use its rapidly growing space program (largely military space) to transform itself into a military, economic, and technological power. In short, China’s space program does not have structures in place that make meaningful separation between military and civil programs, and those technologies and systems developed for supposedly civil purposes can also be applied–and often are–for military purposes.

The white paper highlights concerted efforts to examine extant international laws and develop accompanying national laws to better govern its expanding space program and better regulate its increasing space-related activities. Beijing intends to review, and where necessary, update treaties and reframe international legal principles to accommodate the ever-changing strategic, operational, and tactical landscapes. All in all, China wants to leverage the international legal framework and accepted norms of behavior to advance its national interests in space without constraining or hindering its own freedom of action in the future where the balance of space power may prove more favorable.

China’s National Cyberspace Security Strategy (December 2016)

“China will devote itself to safeguarding the nation’s interests in sovereignty, security, and development in cyberspace.”

On the same day as the issuance of the “China’s Space Activities in 2016” white paper, the Cyberspace Administration of China also released Beijing’s first cyberspace strategy titled “National Cyberspace Security Strategy” to endorse China’s positions and proposals on cyberspace development and security and serve as a roadmap for future cyberspace security activity. The strategy aims to build China into a cyberspace power while promoting an orderly, secure, and open cyberspace, and more importantly, defending its national sovereignty in cyberspace.

The strategy interestingly characterizes cybersecurity as “the nation’s new territory for sovereignty;” highlights as one of its key principles “no infringement of sovereignty in cyberspace will be tolerated;” and states intent to “resolutely defend sovereignty in cyberspace” as a strategic task. All of which reaffirm Xi’s previous statement on the importance of cyberspace sovereignty. At last year’s World Internet Conference in Wuzhen, Xi boldly exclaimed, “We should respect the right of individual countries to independently choose their own path of cyberspace development, model of cyberspace regulation and Internet public policies, and participate in international cyberspace governance on an equal footing.”

Attendees listen to a speech by China’s President Xi Jinping shown on a screen during the opening ceremony of the third annual World Internet Conference in Wuzhen town of Jiaxing, Zhejiang province, China November 16, 2016. (Reuters/Aly Song)

Both the space white paper and cyberspace security strategy reflect Xi’s world view and aspiration to realize the Chinese Dream. The latter’s preamble calls out the strategy as an “important guarantee to realize the Two Centenaries struggle objective and realize the Chinese Dream of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” Therefore, like the white paper, one should also read beyond the noble sentiments of global interests, global peace and development, and global security, and examine the strategy through the underlying context of the Chinese Dream. What is the purpose and role of cyberspace to national rejuvenation; the vision of cyberspace power as it relates to national rejuvenation; and through which principles will cyberspace play a role in fulfilling national rejuvenation? Promoting the construction of the Belt and Road Initiative, raising the international telecommunications interconnection and interaction levels, paving a smooth Information Silk Road, and strengthening the construction of the Chinese online culture are some notable areas to consider.  

The role of the PLA is likewise carefully understated (or obfuscated) throughout the strategy in the euphemism of “national security.” The 13 references in the introduction, objectives, principles, and strategic tasks quietly underscore the PLA’s imperatives to protect itself (and the nation) against harmful cyberspace attacks and intrusions from state and non-state actors and to extend the law of armed conflict into cyberspace to manage increasing international competition – both of which acknowledge cyberspace as a battlespace that must be contested and defended.   

The strategy also puts high importance on international and domestic legal structures, standards, and norms. Beijing wants to leverage the existing international legal framework and accepted norms of behavior to develop accompanying national laws to advance its national interests in cyberspace without constraining or hindering its own freedom of action in the future where the balance of cyberspace power may become more favorable.

China’s International Strategy for Cyberspace Cooperation (March 2017)

“Cyberspace is the common space of activities for mankind. The future of cyberspace should be in the hands of all countries. Countries should step up communications, broaden consensus and deepen cooperation to jointly build a community of shared future in cyberspace.”

On March 1, 2017, the Foreign Ministry and State Internet Information Office issued Beijing’s second cyberspace strategy titled “International Strategy for Cyberspace Cooperation.” The aim of the strategy is to build a community of shared future in cyberspace, notably one that is based on peace, sovereignty, shared governance, and shared benefits. The strategic goals of China’s participation in international cyberspace cooperation include safeguarding China’s national sovereignty, security, and interests in cyberspace; securing the orderly flow of information on the Internet; improving global connectivity; maintaining peace, security, and stability in cyberspace; enhancing international rule of law in cyberspace; promoting the global development of the digital economy; and deepening cultural exchange and mutual learning.

The strategy builds on the previously released cyberspace security strategy and trumpets the familiar refrains of national rejuvenation (Chinese Dream); global interests, peace and development, and security; and development of national laws to advance China’s national interests in cyberspace. Special attention was again given to the contentious concept of cyberspace sovereignty in support of national security and social stability – “No country should pursue cyberspace hegemony, interfere in other countries’ internal affairs, or engage in, condone or support cyberspace activities that undermine other countries’ national security.” The strategy also interestingly calls for the demilitarization of cyberspace just like the white paper does for space despite China’s growing offensive cyberspace and counterspace capabilities and capacities – “The tendency of militarization and deterrence buildup in cyberspace is not conducive to international security and strategic mutual trust – China always adheres to the principle of the use of outer space for peaceful purposes, and opposes the weaponization of or an arms race in outer space.” Incongruously, a paragraph after discouraging cyberspace militarization, the strategy states that China will “expedite the development of a cyber force and enhance capabilities in terms of situational awareness, cyber defense, supporting state activities, and participating in international cooperation, to prevent major cyber crises, safeguard cyberspace security, and maintain national security and social stability.”


This concludes the short discourse on the latest Chinese space white paper and cyberspace strategies and sets the conditions for further discussion. Part 2 examines possibly connected strategic themes that cut across the contested and interlinked global commons of maritime, space, and cyberspace, and strategic opportunities for the United States. 

Tuan Pham has extensive experience in the Indo-Asia-Pacific, and is published in national security affairs. The views expressed therein are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Government.

Featured Image: June 3, 2013. Assembly of the Shenzhou-10 spacecraft and the Long March-2F carrier rocket at Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Jiuquan, northwest China’s Gansu Province. (Xinhua/Liang Jie) 

The Final Frontier – The Future of Defending Space as a Global Commons (Pt. 2)

By Tuan N. Pham

Part 1 of this two-part series outlined a conceptual framework for characterizing the dynamics that contribute to instability and stability in the space domain. It made the case that instability arises when there is a real or perceived lack of order and security with the worst possible outcome being the “Thucydides Trap” – a rising power opposes a dominant power leading to a great power competition for space preeminence. On the flip side, it also made the case that stability arises when there is a real or perceived sense of order and security with the best possible outcome being the universal acceptance that “space is big enough for everyone and it is in everyone’s best interest to keep it free for exploration and use by all.” With this backdrop, Part 2 will focus on the ways and means the United States can employ to reduce instability and reinforce stability in the space domain while maintaining space preeminence into the 21st century.          

U.S. Space Stability Challenges

Preeminence Puzzle. As the guarantor of the global economy and provider of security, stability, and leadership because of its powerful military and vast network of allies and partners, the United States delivers global public goods that others cannot. A case in point is the current volatility of the South China Sea. Without the stabilizing presence of the U.S. Navy operating on the high seas there, Chinese assertiveness and unilateralism could destabilize the region, damaging both regional and global commerce and possibly leading to an unwanted conflict. Thus, there is a strong need going forward for a comparable guarantor of the freedom of space (a net provider of space security) to ensure the free flow of space commerce, a leadership role that calls out to the United States, supported by allies and partners, to fill.

Just as maritime preeminence is necessary to guarantee the freedom of the seas, so too is space preeminence needed to guarantee the freedom of space. By committing to space preeminence, America will better protect its critical strengths in space; enhance its space deterrence posture by being able to impose larger costs, deny greater benefits, and encourage more restraint; prolong its terrestrial preeminence; and reverse the growing perception of American decline.

Decline is a deliberate choice, not an inevitable reality. Having complementary policies and strategies in contested domains fosters unity of effort, optimizes resource allocation, sends a strong deterrent message to potential adversaries, and reassures allies and partners. To do otherwise invites strategic misalignment and miscommunication and encourages potential competitors to further advance their counter-balancing efforts. Put simply, if the United States does not preserve its current strategic advantages in space, a rising power like China may gradually eclipse America as the preeminent power in space which will have cascading strategic ramifications on earth.

This greater role will demand more analysis and planning to address the anticipated challenges of domestic fiscal constraints; emerging and resurgent space powers; potentially destabilizing space competition; escalation control; and establishing and maintaining partnerships for collective space security through risk sharing and burden sharing – similar to the challenges now facing the U.S. rebalance to the Indo-Asia-Pacific. The puzzle for American policymakers is whether it may be more cost-effective to invest now and maintain the current strategic advantage in space or pay more later to make up for diminished space capabilities and capacities while accepting greater strategic risk in the interim.

Workers prepare the TacSat-2 micro satellite for thermal vacuum testing at the Space Vehicles Directorate. (Air Force photo) 

Domain Dilemma. America fundamentally has two space deterrent and response options – (1) threaten to respond in the same domain; (2) threaten cross-domain retaliation to underwrite the deterrence of attacks on U.S. space capabilities. The former represents a vertical escalation if the response is disproportionate to the attack, and possibly “some” horizontal escalation depending on the target sets. This could result in large amounts of space debris and the resetting of international norms of behavior by legitimizing space attacks. The latter option represents a vertical escalation if the response is “perceived” as disproportionate to the attack, and horizontal escalation respective to the other domains. Nonetheless, the scope, nature, and degree of action must ultimately strike the delicate balance between the need to demonstrate the willingness to escalate and the imperative to not provoke further escalation in order to maintain space stability. The dilemma for the United States is where, when, and how best to deter; and if deterrence fails, where, when, and how best to respond.  

Reliance/Resilience Riddle. Enhancing and securing space-enabled information services (SEIS) is now essential to U.S. national security, a daunting task considering that space has become more and more “congested, contested, and competitive” and less permissive for the United States. Therefore, the current strategic guidance – 2010 National Space Policy (NSP), 2011 National Security Space Strategy (NSSS), and 2012 DoD Space Policy (DSP) – directs the U.S. government to reduce the nation’s disproportionate reliance on space capabilities and the vulnerability of its high-value space assets through partnerships and resiliency, respectively. The riddle for America is how best to manage the dichotomy between reliance and vulnerability through resilience.

Offensive Counter-Space (OCS) Conundrum. Space warfare is intrinsically offense-inclined due to the uncertainty, vulnerability, predictability, and fragility of space assets; and ever-increasing OCS capabilities to deceive, disrupt, deny, degrade, or destroy space systems. The latter can be destabilizing (warfighting capability) or stabilizing (deterrence) depending on one’s perspective. Hence, the conundrum for the United States is not whether or not to possess OCS capabilities – but how best to use them to deter and retaliate if deterrence fails; what type, how much, and to what extent should they be publicly disclosed; and how to leverage the existing international legal framework and accepted norms of behavior to manage them without constraining or hindering one’s own freedom of action.

Moreover, OCS capabilities continue to grow in number and sophistication driven by the “offense-offense” and “defense-offense” competition spirals influencing military space policies in Washington, Beijing, Moscow, and elsewhere. OCS developments to defeat defensive counter-space (DCS) measures drive further OCS developments for fear of falling behind in offensive capabilities and encouraging a first strike by an adversary, while DCS developments to mitigate OCS measures further drive OCS developments to remain viable as deterrent and offensive tools.     

Refining Military Space Capability  

Develop Cross-Domain Deterrence Options. Deterrence across the interconnected domains may offer the best opportunity to deter attacks on U.S. space capabilities, and if deterrence fails, retaliate across domains to deter further attacks. Prudence then suggests the need for some level of active planning prior to the onset of increased tensions and hostilities. American policymakers and defense planners should have on hand a broad set of potential cross-domain responses to the threats of space attack or the space attack itself. The responses should be organized by the levels of force application, provocation, and risk; dynamic enough to accommodate the ever-changing strategic, operational, and tactical conditions; and part of a larger menu of policy options to better manage tensions and escalation during pre-hostilities and identify off-ramps during hostilities. On balance, the decision on whether or not, when, and how to implement these responses should be viewed through the lens of cost and risk imposition, proportionality, strategic policy coherence, and desired outcome.        

Continue to Increase Resiliency. Strengthening the resiliency of the U.S. national security space architecture may offset the offensive inclination of space warfare by lessening the vulnerability and fragility of space assets, assuring retaliatory capabilities, and denying benefits of OCS operations.

Building up space protection capabilities will decrease the vulnerability and fragility of high-value space assets by presenting more targets (disaggregated space operations, micro-satellites), hiding targets (signature reduction), maneuvering targets (dynamic orbital profiles for unpredictability and threat avoidance), hardening targets (strengthened space assets and networks against kinetic and non-kinetic attacks), and complicating targets (hosted payloads on commercial, civil, and allied or partnered nations satellites).

Mission assurance can be sustained by responsive launch capabilities (launch-on-demand services for rapid reconstitution of degraded or lost space capabilities), Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) program (mass production of microsatellites in a short period of time), and “sleeper” orbiting satellites (standby spares that will activate when needed).

Launch of Chinese military communications satellite (Xinhua)

Mission continuity in a degraded, disrupted, or denied space environment can be ensured by the following measures: developing standard operating procedures for continuity of operations; hosting some SEIS in commercial, civil, and allied or partnered space systems as part of a surge in space capability and as a measure of redundancy; building and sustaining alternative terrestrial-based systems to reduce SEIS reliance – chip-scale combinatorial atomic navigator for precision, navigation, and timing services; high-altitude long-endurance unmanned aerial systems for persistent ISR; and fiber-optic cabling and terrestrial radio and microwave communications devices for secured C2.  

Continue to Invest in OCS Capabilities. The heart of the matter remains what type of OCS capabilities (reversible, irreversible, or both) and how much. Regarding the latter, some argue none or limited quantities are required while others call for robust OCS capabilities. Whatever the right answer may be, it is difficult to see how one can deter or retaliate if deterrence fails without “some” OCS capabilities, especially considering that potential competitors like China and Russia are actively developing their own OCS capabilities to challenge U.S. space preeminence, and by extension, terrestrial preeminence.

Strengthening Space Governance

Since the elimination of OCS capabilities is unlikely, attention and effort should be placed on managing them instead. The extant international legal framework and accepted norms of behavior offer some ways and means to reduce OCS capabilities to a manageable level, restrict their proliferation, and establish constraints and restraints on their employment. The space powers should review the existing international agreements and legal principles, and determine what additional conventions or provisions are needed. Goals can be to set acceptable limits of OCS capabilities; renounce the first-use of OCS; establish confidence-building measures; and limit the possession of OCS capabilities to select space powers and out of the hands of “pariah” states (North Korea and Iran) and undesirable non-state actors (terrorist, criminal, and business groups).  

Space powers should also review and update current treaties and legal principles to govern the changing strategic, operational, and tactical landscapes, particularly those overseeing activities in space, registration of space objects, and space sovereignty. States should negotiate new treaties to manage emerging space challenges like space debris, RF interference, and other space threats. Finally, parties must develop new capabilities and protocols for verifying treaty compliance and enforcement.               

The international community should seek to empower the United Nations (UN) governance of space and space activities, particularly in the areas of regulation, arbitration, and collaboration. The UN should consider further defining and codifying the rights and responsibilities of nation-states with respect to their activities in space through a UN Convention on the Law of Space (similar to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea); establishing the International Space Authority (similar to the International Seabed Authority) for the regulation of space-based resources; and forming the International Tribunal for the Law of Space (similar to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea) for arbitration of space-related disputes. Transform the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs into an empowered World Space Council to promote international collaboration in space, manage emerging space challenges, and act as a forum for global contingency planning and preparedness for potential space threats.

Expand Partnerships. The 2010 NSP, 2011 NSSS, and 2012 DSP call for building enduring partnerships with other space-faring nations, civil space organizations, and commercial space entities to share benefits, costs, and risks; strengthen extant alliances through increased cooperation across the various space sectors; spread SEIS reliance to others; and provide greater space deterrence and stability through collective defense. That being said, partnerships also carry with them risks and concerns. Risks include the unpredictability of horizontal escalation (attack on U.S. space assets with hosted payloads involves other parties) and greater potential damages and unintended consequences (more interdependent players and things that can go wrong). Concerns center around autonomy (transparency, response, and responsiveness constrained by other parties), operational security (information sharing, technology transfer, and increased risk of insider threat), legality (intellectual property rights, loss compensation, and sovereignty), and the interoperability of disparate space systems (varying levels of sophistication amongst partners). All things considered, the benefits outweigh the risks, and concerns are manageable in varying degrees.

Partners should build on extant bilateral/multilateral partnerships to complement and supplement U.S. space capabilities. They must leverage emerging opportunities like the Memorandum of Understanding between the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, and Australia for joint space operations and Japan’s plans to develop a military space force by 2019. These partnerships may vary in nature, scope, and extent depending on the strategic and operational imperatives, costs, risks, and domestic legal constraints; and could involve capacity building, information sharing, technology transfer, interoperability, integration, and joint operations.   

Partners should promote international collaboration and foster shared reliance on space-enabled capabilities in the fields of scientific exploration (International Space Station, interplanetary probes, and manned space flights), commercial ventures (launch vehicles, micro-satellites, space tourism, and space mining), global positioning system or GPS interoperability (United States, Russia, European Union, and China), shared space situational awareness or SSA (Space Fence and Geosynchronous SSA Program), space-based observations (climate change, weather, and humanitarian assistance/disaster relief), space debris, and asteroid defense.


At the end of the day, space stability occurs when there is universal acceptance that “space is big enough for everyone and it is in everyone’s best interest to keep it free for exploration and use by all.” Moving forward, there is a common interest in safeguarding the collective need for guaranteed freedom of space under the imperative for all space-faring nations to support an international framework that encourages cooperation and manages competition in the space domain.  

Tuan N. Pham is widely published in national security affairs. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Government

Featured Image: Launch of Russian military satellite (Russian Ministry of Defense)

The Final Frontier – The Future of Defending Space as a Global Commons

Space is big enough for everyone and it is in everyone’s best interest to keep it free for exploration and use by all. This is part 1 of a two-part series that outlines a conceptual framework characterizing the dynamics that contribute to instability and stability in the space domain. Part 2 will examine the ways and means the United States can lessen the former and strengthen the latter while maintaining space preeminence into the 21st century. Both parts are follow-on articles to a previously published piece on policy considerations for a deeper and more balanced U.S. space posture.  

By Tuan N. Pham

Many Americans view space through the prisms of history, entertainment, and exploration. Our parents grew up during the space race between the United States and the former Soviet Union, culminating in Neil Armstrong’s historic landing on the moon. We spent our youth watching popular movies and shows like Star Wars and Star Trek, while witnessing the realization of science fiction into science fact in the forms of the Space Shuttle, International Space Station, and unmanned interplanetary space travel. Our children may be the first space tourists, traveling to the heavens in commercial space vehicles. Our grandchildren may become the first space colonists, living in space and on the moon, an asteroid, or perhaps Mars. Our great grandchildren may even become the first interstellar space explorers, venturing beyond our solar system and possibly to the stars. Yet despite this popular conception of space, very few Americans know, understand, and appreciate the stark reality that we now live in a world where “space systems allow people and governments around the world to see with clarity, communicate with certainty, navigate with accuracy, and operate with assurance.” Space must be understood as a global commons – much like airspace, the oceans, and perhaps even cyberspace – where secure access and established norms ensure economic growth and political stability.

Indeed, the rapid growth and development of the global economy has heralded a new era where an ever-increasing number of nations and organizations use space for military, economic, commercial, and scientific benefits – making it more “congested, contested, and competitive.” The now pervasive and interconnected nature of space capabilities and the world’s growing dependence on them also mean that “irresponsible acts” in space can have worldwide, indiscriminate, and damaging consequences on earth. Therefore, space preeminence is that degree of preeminence in space of one force over another that permits the conduct of operations by the former at a given time and place without prohibitive interference by the opposing force (freedom of action). Such a preeminent position does not imply space dominance, a far more demanding position that would be difficult to sustain in any event, given globalized technology growth and offsetting space countermeasures.

Many space observers and pundits believe that within the next 5-10 years the evolving space environment may become increasingly destabilized due to the continued development, deployment, and proliferation of offensive counter-space (OCS) capabilities by various nations and perhaps some organizations. The unique dynamics of competition and cooperation in space must be thoroughly understood in order to shape a sustainable future in this domain that will be so critical to humanity’s future.

Dynamics of Space Instability

Instability arises when there is a real or perceived lack of order and security with the worst possible outcome being the “Thucydides Trap” – a rising power opposes a dominant power leading to great-power competition for space preeminence. The principal drivers of space instability include (but are not limited to) competing space powers, space-terrestrial preeminence linkage, the offensive-inclined nature of space warfare, and destabilizing partnerships.    

Competing Space Powers. The United States is the preeminent space power, and enjoys unprecedented and unrivaled national security advantages derived from its space capabilities. Other space powers have taken notice with some potential competitors (and possible future adversaries) developing significant capabilities to erode the U.S. strategic advantage in space and protect their own growing reliance on space capabilities. According to the 2015 United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission’s Report to Congress, Chinese military leaders regard the freedom to use space-based systems and deny the adversary access to space-based systems as central to enabling modern informationized warfare.

Space-Terrestrial Preeminence Linkage. Potential competitors are also acutely aware of U.S. terrestrial preeminence enabled by space preeminence, and see an opportunity to undercut the former through the latter. Of particular concern is a rising China, who appears to be asymmetrically targeting American dominant warfighting capabilities and exposed dependency on space assets. This is problematic for the United States who has more vulnerable high-value space assets and is more reliant on space capabilities than the other space powers. America has a disproportionate amount of vulnerable high-value space assets. Of the 1419 active satellites orbiting the earth, 576 are owned or affiliated with the United States. The next closest competitors are China (181) and Russia (140) with the former increasing rapidly in terms of quantity, quality, sophistication, and capability. America is also disproportionately dependent on space capabilities with its 278 government- or military-operated satellites, providing unmatched national security advantages in worldwide situational awareness, decision superiority, and military capability. Therefore, U.S. deterrent or response actions limited to just the space domain where the stronger power has more to lose than a weaker power may not be practical, sustainable, or even desirable.

View of LEO Satellites (green) and Debris Ring (red) from the 2007 Chinese ASAT Test (AGI)

Offense-Inclined Nature of Space Warfare. “A space power that strikes aggressively should, in theory, have the advantage, or at least get the greatest possible use of whatever OCS capabilities it has invested in.” Ambiguous indications and warning, attack attribution, and battle damage assessment; uncertain resiliency and assured retaliation; and vulnerability, predictability, and fragility of space assets give the operational and tactical advantages to the attacker and increase the strategic temptation to attack. All in all, OCS capabilities are attractive options for a weaker power because they offer asymmetric means to undermine the terrestrial preeminence of a stronger power by exploiting its reliance on critically-enabling space capabilities.      

Destabilizing Partnerships. Exclusive enterprises can be perceived by excluded parties as indirect efforts to isolate and undermine them. Look how Beijing perceives Washington’s rebalance to the Indo-Asia-Pacific, Trans-Pacific Partnership, and efforts to strengthen and expand the principled network of economic and security relationships as part of the greater U.S. containment policy of China’s rise, and to a certain extent, justification for its regional assertive actions and validation of its sense of aggrieved historical victimhood (strategic narratives).     

Dynamics of Space Stability

Stability arises when there is a real or perceived sense of order and security with the best possible outcome being the universal acceptance that space is big enough for everyone and it is in everyone’s best interest to keep it free for exploration and use by all. The principal drivers of space stability include (but are not limited to) stabilizing partnerships, common space dangers, space deterrence, and space governance.     

Stabilizing Partnerships. The ubiquitous benefits of space affect the everyday lives of people around the world. Hence, multi-national corporations are collaborating more and more in space. They see vast business opportunities for shared profits and shared costs in the lucrative areas of space situational awareness, scientific exploration, commercial ventures, and space tourism. In the geopolitical realm, inclusive enterprises share risk and promote mutual trust and cooperation amongst the parties involved. If all share the same risk, then a space attack on one is a space attack on all.    

Common Space Dangers. There are over 60 nations and government consortia that own and operate satellites. All of whom share the same domain; common interest of stability, security, and sustainability; and desire for free access to and use of space for all. Space debris accumulated over six decades of space activities impacts current and threatens future space operations and activities. The U.S. Department of Defense tracks approximately 22,000 “man-made” objects in addition to the 1419 active satellites. Nonetheless, there may be as many as hundreds of thousands of additional pieces of debris that are too small to track with current sensors. There is also an increasing global awareness of potential catastrophic space threats (asteroid, solar events, cosmic radiation, etc.) and a growing interest for global contingency planning and preparedness.

Space Deterrence (Keeping the Peace). Many space strategists view deterrence through the doctrinal lens of imposing costs, denying benefits, and encouraging restraint to deter or make an adversary believe that starting a war or escalating a conflict would be worse than not doing so.     

Imposing Costs. OCS capabilities are necessary at some level to enable deterrence and retaliation if deterrence fails, unless space assets can be given far greater resilient capabilities than the little they have today. Moreover, OCS capabilities like nuclear and cyber (and developing hypersonic) weapons are now permanent fixtures of the strategic arsenal. In other words, the genie is out of the bottle. Those who possess OCS capabilities are unlikely to surrender them. Those who do not have OCS capabilities will try to acquire them, while those who do have OCS capabilities will try to prevent others from getting them.

U.S. ASAT (Anti-satellite) missile launch on Sep. 13, 1985. Taken at the Pacific Missile Test Range in California. (USAF/Paul E. Reynolds)

Denying Benefits. Resilient space architecture “may” be able (in varying degree) to blunt the effectiveness of OCS capabilities; offset the offense-inclined nature of space warfare by lessening the vulnerability and fragility of space assets; reduce the temptation for a first strike; and assure a second strike capability.

Encouraging Restraint. Uncertain consequences in terms of second- and third-order effects and uncontrolled escalation may give pause to the attacker and possibly decrease the temptation to attack. A space attack can inadvertently impact the attacker as well in terms of degraded or lost global services, space debris, political costs, and indirect economic costs.     

Space Governance (Managing the Peace). An extant body of international agreements (treaties) and legal principles forms a framework of accepted norms of behavior for the space domain. However, more diplomatic and legal conventions are still needed to manage the constantly evolving strategic, operational, and tactical landscapes in space; and enhance the space stability thereof – particularly in the areas of space debris, space traffic regulation, resource exploitation, OCS capabilities, arms control, and arms reduction.


This concludes the short discourse on the dynamics of space instability and stability; and sets the conditions for further discussion in Part 2 on the ways and means the United States can employ to reduce instability and strengthen stability in the space domain while maintaining space preeminence into the new century. Decline is a deliberate choice, not an inevitable reality.    

Read Part 2 here.

Tuan N. Pham has extensive and diverse experience in national security affairs. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Government.

Featured: GULF OF ADEN (June 1, 2016) Guided-missile destroyer USS Gonzalez (DDG 66) transits the Gulf of Aden. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Pasquale Sena/Released)