Tag Archives: Space

The Influence of Naval Strategy on the Future of Spacepower

By Dylan “Joose” Phillips-Levine and Trevor Phillips-Levine

Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic. The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute. Hoping to resolve the matter with a blockade of deadly battleships, the greedy Trade Federation has stopped all shipping to the small planet of Naboo, rich in raw materials vital to the economic health of the Republic.1

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away… Trade Federation officers must have read Alfred Thayer Mahan’s naval classic, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History. In true Mahanian fashion, the Trade Federation massed their capital battleships to blockade Naboo.2 The Trade Federation pays homage to the East India Company that once controlled the trade routes and paved the way for Britain to become a world power.3,4 In The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, Mahan believed that sea control could be gained in part by blockades – an observation borne out by Great Britain’s ascent as an economic and military powerhouse.5 Renowned navalist Milan Vego offers further guidance of how to ensure sea control in his canonical book, Maritime Strategy and Sea Control: Theory and Practice.6 In it, Vego demonstrates through historical examples that sea control can be achieved by strategically positioning forces in straits and chokepoints. Mahan’s focus on blockades combined with Vego’s theory for sea control in straits and chokepoints can guide United States interplanetary grand strategy as the United States, China, India, Russia, the European Union, and countless others shift their sights towards the final frontier.

Straits and Chokepoints

Vego asserts that sea control, in its simplest form, is the ability for a nation to use a given part of the sea and associated air (and space) across the spectrum of conflict to deny the same to the enemy.7 Applying Vego’s definition of sea control and its application to specific geographic regions, the importance of straits becomes evident. Straits or “chokepoints” are a textbook case of sea control limited to a specific region and have remained of great importance throughout history. Nations that control these chokepoints can asphyxiate the enemy by halting commerce causing major economic impacts or denying freedom of maneuver in wartime. During the Napoleonic War, the British had a vested interested in ensuring a neutral Denmark and thus neutral Danish Straits. The plains to the north provided timber for the British and French Navy and were also critical for transporting grain amongst other vital commerce. A century later, Germany’s de facto control of the Danish Straits prevented Britain from reinforcing its Russian ally during the First World War. During the Second World War, the occupation of Denmark allowed Germany to leverage the full economic resources of Scandinavian countries while denying the Royal Navy access to the Baltics.8 Even in a galaxy far, far away the Trade Federation realized the importance of blockading Naboo by placing their battleships in key locations with the goal to leverage the full economic resources of the planet.

Admiral John Fisher, the First Sea Lord of the Royal Navy and founding father of the Dreadnought battleship, identified the strategic importance of Straits when positing this rhetorical question, “Do you know that there are five keys to the world? The Strait of Dover, the Straits of Gibraltar, the Suez Canal, the Straits of Malacca, the Cape of Good Hope. And every one of these keys we hold.”9,10 Although oversimplified, his aphorism still rings true today. In March of 2021, the M/V Ever Given became lodged in the Suez Canal disrupting commerce and causing an estimated 9.6 billion dollars of economic damage per day.11 Ships once waiting in line to transit the Suez Canal extended their voyage and incurred additional fuel and crew costs by sailing around the Cape of Good Hope to their destinations.12,13

Fig. 1. Ships sailing around the Cape of Good while the Suez Canal was blocked in March incurring extra fuel, time, and crew costs. (BBC graphic)

Lagrange Points and Halo Orbits

The same analogy holds true for space travel. Despite the incomprehensible distance, times, and vastness required for interplanetary travel, the chokepoints of sea control can also be distilled down to Lagrange points for space control.14 Lagrange points are specific points (orbits) between any two orbiting celestial bodies where gravitational and centrifugal force negate each other, resulting in orbits that can be maintained with little to no propulsion.15 In simpler terms, only five Lagrange points (labeled L1 through L5) exist between planets and their respective moons or the Sun and its planets.16 Due to the gravity-stable properties and low fuel requirements of Lagrange points, they are ideal for satellites and are understandably well known by space agencies. In 2017, the Director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, Dr. Jim Green, proposed the radical idea of placing a magnetic dipole shield at Lagrange point L1 in the Sun-Mars system to create an artificial magnetosphere, shielding Mars from solar winds and radiation. This shield would allow the volcanic activity on Mars to continually build up the atmosphere until a point of self-sustainment.17 If a state or non-state actor saturates or even blockades critical Lagrange chokepoints, the ramifications could range from economic depression and collapse of critical space infrastructure to the loss of interplanetary colonies that may eventually inhabit the cosmos.18

Closer to home, satellites from both NASA and the European Space Agency have already made home in earth-system Lagrange points. Lagrange points, specifically L1, L2, and L3, can also host an ecosystem of satellites through halo orbits.19 Although halo orbits are dynamically unstable and require more fuel than the stable Lagrange points at L4 and L5, satellites in halo orbits at L2 can serve as communication relays from the dark side of the moon, Mars, and other celestial bodies. In May of 2018, China placed the first-ever lunar relay satellite, Queqiao, into a halo orbit at the Earth-Moon L2. The following year, China landed their Chang’e 4 rover on the far side of the moon using Queqiao as a communication relay.20 In addition to China, NASA and the European Space Agency have already placed satellites in Lagrange point L2 while countries such as Russia, India, and Japan have their own Lagrangian aspirations.21 Because Lagrange points and associated halo orbits can only host a limited number of spacecraft, the contest for this limited real estate by spacefaring nations can have terrestrial consequences.22,23 These important areas in space are not treatise to international norms and measures yet will be essential for lunar and interplanetary space lines of communication.24

Fig. 2. The Five Lagrange points, L1 through L5. M1 represents the larger celestial body and M2 represents any celestial body whose orbit is anchored to it. If M1 represents the sun, M2 represents the planets. If M1 represents the planets, M2 represents its moons. Source: http://hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu/hbase/Mechanics/lagpt.html

Access to Resources

The Trade Federation blockaded Naboo in an attempt to leverage the rare economic resources found in the planet. Similar to here on Earth, access to resources is necessary to lift countries and their populations’ standard of living. It is unlikely that much of the world will sacrifice their consumerism to live in harmony with each other and Mother Nature, leaving the limited resources on Earth to support an ever-growing consumer economy. Governments in the future are likely to look to space to solve their growth problems, much as European colonization looked to supplement sapped domestic resources in the 17th and 18th centuries. Beyond Lagrange chokepoints serving as potential flashpoints for real-estate between countries launching satellites, Martian trojan asteroids make home in the gravity-stable environment at Lagrange points L4 and L5 in the Mars-Sun system.25 The imperative of space lines of communication is not necessarily scientific exploration or protection of desirable orbits, but the ability to leverage the vast resources that abound in space. One asteroid floating between Mars and Jupiter is assessed to contain over 10 quintillion dollars of precious metals, more than 10,000 times larger than the 2019 global economy, far more wealth than Han Solo could have ever imagined.26,27

Interplanetary Transport Network and Space lines of Communication

Alfred Thayer Mahan’s unmistakable first lines in the Influence of History Upon Sea Power state:

“The first and most obvious light in which the sea presents itself from the political and social point of view is that of a great highway; or better, perhaps, of a wide common, over which men may pass in all directions, but on which some well-worn paths show that controlling reasons have led them to choose certain lines of travel rather than others. These lines of travel are called trade routes; and the reasons which have determined them are to be sought in the history of the world.”28

While the great highway, wide common, and well-worn paths refer to the sea, his quote can be analogous to Star Wars as well. The hyperspace routes in Star Wars, or trade routes, link the major worlds in the galaxy like an intergalactic superhighway. The routes are safe and account for traveling without colliding into celestial bodies including their gravitational pull. Han Solo couldn’t just punch it when blockade running from Imperial Cruisers. As the Imperial Cruisers closed on him, he quipped to a young Luke Skywalker that, “Traveling through hyperspace ain’t like dusting crops, boy! Without precise calculations we could fly right through a star or bounce too close to a supernova and that’d end your trip real quick, wouldn’t it?”29

Fig. 3. Punch it! Still from “Star Wars: Episode V”. Copyright Lucasfilm Limited. Used under the terms of Fair Use per 17 U.S. Code § 107.

Although hyperspace only remains a reality in the Star Wars Universe, a great highway through our solar system already exists. Lagrange points serve as interplanetary straits, connecting celestial bodies in our solar system through the Interplanetary Transport Network (ITN).30 The halo orbits around Lagrange points can be used to alter spacecraft and satellite trajectories to arrive at any point in the solar system with minimal energy, although reaching Mars could take a millennium using the ITN – far longer than the record breaking 12 parsec Kessel Run flown by Han Solo in the Millennium Falcon.31,32 However, the slowness of ITN trajectories can be modified with external speed injections. In 2003, Cal-Teach professors introduced a Multi-Moon Orbiter concept.33 The concept proposed that a spacecraft could use Lagrange points to modify its trajectory to survey the moons of Jupiter with a final touch down on Europa where NASA speculates both water and life could exist.34 Lagrange points will serve as the keys to unlock the universe that could transform mankind into a multi-planetary species.

Fig. 4. Artist’s depiction of the ITN that connects our solar system. Abrupt changes in trajectory are due to Lagrange points. Image credit: NASA/JPL

The Line between Prescient and Far-fetched

While critics may point to the astronomical costs and technological gaps that make interplanetary travel an impossibility, the critique is confined to now. In 1945, some mainstream scientists felt that satellites and intercontinental ballistic missiles were fool hardy errands that would be too technologically complex and cost prohibitive to develop.35 Less than twelve years later, Sputnik orbited the planet and within fifteen years, intercontinental missiles rested in silos. The once lone small metal ball named Sputnik launched by the Russians in 1957 has given way to a world that depends on complex networks of satellites. While GPS has become a household name in a few short decades, Russia’s GLONASS, China’s Beidou, and Europe’s Galileo systems offer competing location services with global navigation satellite systems (GNSS) receivers. The recent out-of-control Chinese rocket shows that China’s Communist Party is serious about becoming a space-based power and willing to pursue this capability at all costs without due regard for safety.36 Even more recently, the Chinese landed their Zhurong rover on Mars where President Xi Jinping proudly praised all involved by saying, “You were brave enough for the challenge, pursued excellence and placed our country in the advanced ranks of planetary exploration.”37 On July 11th, 2021, Richard Branson along with five other crewmates flew to space aboard the VSS Unity proving the viability of space tourism.38,39 The following week, Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin followed suit in achieving spaceflight in the New Shephard.40

The rapid pace of artificial intelligence (AI) advancement and Space X’s Falcon 9 rockets, Starhopper, and now Starship all show that a manned mission to Mars is a matter of when, not if, and might occur as soon as 2024. SpaceX has plans to colonize Mars with one million people by 2050.41,42

To sustain and develop a Martian colony and more, established and secure space lines of communication will be of critical importance. Interplanetary pursuits are being pursued at a break-neck pace by both allies and adversaries, including China, Russia, India, United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, and European Union.43 As each country pursues its own interests among the solar system, the United States must develop a grand strategy in the solar system to protect US interests against both state and non-state actors. The reflection of this reality came to fruition on June 7th, 2021, when Congressman Ted Lieu introduced the Space Infrastructure Act which will “issue guidance with respect to designating space systems, services, and technology as critical infrastructure.”44

Fig. 5. The success of Martian colonies will require an intelligent space strategy. Artist’s illustration of SpaceX Starships on Mars. Image credit: SpaceX.


The blockade of Naboo never happened, but it does have historical precedents and very real implications for space exploration and exploitation. As countries vie to expand their resources, they not only gaze across the vast oceans but upwards towards the final frontier. The increased focus on Mars and beyond demands a robust US interplanetary strategy to protect the United States’ interests in the cosmos. While the United States is rightly focused on earth-based priorities, Milan Vego’s canonical book Maritime Strategy and Sea Control: Theory and Practice, can provide guidance for interplanetary strategy in ensuring a “a free and open [solar system] in which all nations, large and small, are secure in their sovereignty and able to pursue economic growth consistent with accepted international rules, norms, and principles of fair competition.”45 If the United States neglects interplanetary strategy, the United States will be left behind as other countries not only develop but execute their interplanetary strategies.46 If Admiral Fisher was alive today, he would ask, “Do you know that there are five keys to the solar system?” We need to ask ourselves, who will control these keys?

Lieutenant Commander Dylan “Joose” Phillips-Levine is a naval aviator and serves with TACRON-12.  His Twitter handle is @JooseBoludo.

Lieutenant Commander Trevor Phillips-Levine is a naval aviator and serves as a department head in Strike Fighter Squadron Two. His Twitter handle is @TPLevine85.


1. George Lucas, 1999, ¨Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace”, Lucasfilm Limited.

2. “Databank Naboo,” Star Wars, https://www.starwars.com/databank/naboo.

3. Tim Veekhoven, “The Trade Federation And Neimoidians: A History,” Star Wars (14 October 2014), https://www.starwars.com/news/the-trade-federation-and-neimoidians-a-history.

4. Erin Blakemore, “How the East India Company became the world’s most powerful business,” National Geographic, (6 September 2019) https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/article/british-east-india-trading-company-most-powerful-business.

5. Dr. Milan Vego, “Naval Classical Thinkers And Operational Art” Naval War College (2009) 3 Naval War College https://web.archive.org/web/20170131144505/https:/www.usnwc.edu/getattachment/85c80b3a-5665-42cd-9b1e-72c40d6d3153/NWC-1005-NAVAL-CLASSICAL-THINKERS-AND-OPERATIONAL-.aspx.

6. Dr. Milan Vego, Maritime Strategy and Sea Control: Theory and Practice, Routledge; 1st edition, (14 April 2016), 189 https://www.amazon.com/Maritime-Strategy-Sea-Control-Practice-ebook/dp/B019H40ST2

7. Ibid, 24

8. Ibid 188

9. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, “John Arbuthnot Fisher, 1st Baron Fisher,” Encyclopaedia Britannica https://www.britannica.com/biography/John-Arbuthnot-Fisher-1st-Baron-Fisher.

10. Dr. Milan Vego, Maritime Strategy and Sea Control: Theory and Practice, Routledge; 1st edition, (14 April 2016), 188 https://www.amazon.com/Maritime-Strategy-Sea-Control-Practice-ebook/dp/B019H40ST2

11. Kshitij Bhargava, “Single ship stuck causing Suez Canal ‘traffic jam’ may cost $9.6 billion per day,” Financial Express (26 March 2021) https://www.financialexpress.com/economy/single-ship-stuck-causing-suez-canal-traffic-jam-may-cost-9-6-billion-per-day/2220575/.

12. Daniel Stone, “The Suez Canal blockage detoured ships through an area notorious for shipwrecks,” National Geographic (29 March 2021) https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/article/suez-blockage-detoured-ships-through-cape-good-hope-notorious-shipwrecks.

13. Peter S. Goodman and Stanley Reed, “With Suez Canal Blocked, Shippers Begin End Run Around a Trade Artery,” New York Times (26 March 2021, Update 29 March 2021) https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/26/business/suez-canal-blocked-ship.html.

14. Lead Authors: Clementine G. Starling, Mark J. Massa, Lt Col Christopher P. Mulder, and Julia T. Siegel With a Foreword by Co-Chairs General James E. Cartwright, USMC (ret.) and Secretary Deborah Lee James in collaboration with: Raphael Piliero, Brett M. Williamson, Dor W. Brown IV, Ross Lott, Christopher J. MacArthur, Alexander Powell Hays, Christian Trotti, Olivia Popp, “The Future of Security in Space: A Thirty-Year US Strategy” Atlantic Council (April 2021) 35 https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/TheFutureofSecurityinSpace.pdf.

15. NASA/WMAP Science Team, “What is a Lagrange Point?,” NASA (27 March 2018) https://solarsystem.nasa.gov/resources/754/what-is-a-lagrange-point/.

16. Shane D. Ross, “The Interplanetary Transport Network,” American Scientist, Volume 94 (April 2006) 234 http://www.dept.aoe.vt.edu/~sdross/papers/AmericanScientist2006.pdf.

17.Matt Williams, “NASA proposes a magnetic shield to protect Mars’ atmosphere,” Universe Today (3 March 2017) https://phys.org/news/2017-03-nasa-magnetic-shield-mars-atmosphere.html.

18. Lead Authors: Clementine G. Starling, Mark J. Massa, Lt Col Christopher P. Mulder, and Julia T. Siegel with a Foreword by Co-Chairs General James E. Cartwright, USMC (ret.) and Secretary Deborah Lee James in collaboration with: Raphael Piliero, Brett M. Williamson, Dor W. Brown IV, Ross Lott, Christopher J. MacArthur, Alexander Powell Hays, Christian Trotti, Olivia Popp, “The Future of Security in Space: A Thirty-Year US Strategy” Atlantic Council (April 2021) 35 https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/TheFutureofSecurityinSpace.pdf.

19. Ibid 70.

20. Luyuan Xu, “How China’s lunar relay satellite arrived in its final orbit,” Planetary (15 June 2018) https://www.planetary.org/articles/20180615-queqiao-orbit-explainer

21. Lead Authors: Clementine G. Starling, Mark J. Massa, Lt Col Christopher P. Mulder, and Julia T. Siegel with a Foreword by Co-Chairs General James E. Cartwright, USMC (ret.) and Secretary Deborah Lee James in collaboration with: Raphael Piliero, Brett M. Williamson, Dor W. Brown IV, Ross Lott, Christopher J. MacArthur, Alexander Powell Hays, Christian Trotti, Olivia Popp, “The Future of Security in Space: A Thirty-Year US Strategy” Atlantic Council (April 2021) 35 https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/TheFutureofSecurityinSpace.pdf.

22. Ibid 70.

23. Ibid 10.

24. Ibid 72.

25. Jesse Emspak, Are Mars’ Trojan Asteroids Pieces of the Red Planet?,” Space (July 24, 2017) https://www.space.com/37565-mars-trojan-asteroids-pieces-of-the-planet.html.

26. Adam Smith, “Asteroid Worth $10 Quintillion Could Be Only One of Its Kind,” Independent (29 October 2020) https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/asteroid-10-quintillion-psyche-19-iron-nickel-b1419635.html.

27. “Star Wars IV: A New Hope Quotes,” Movie Quote Database, https://www.moviequotedb.com/movies/star-wars-episode-iv-a-new-hope/quote_29904.html.

28. Alfred Thayer Mahan, “The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783,” Dover Publications; Revised ed. edition (November 1, 1987) https://www.amazon.com/Influence-History-1660-1783-Military-Weapons/dp/0486255093.

29. “Star Wars IV: A New Hope Quotes,” Movie Quote Database, https://www.moviequotedb.com/movies/star-wars-episode-iv-a-new-hope/quote_29894.html.

30. Shane D. Ross, “The Interplanetary Transport Network,” American Scientist, Volume 94 (April 2006) 230 http://www.dept.aoe.vt.edu/~sdross/papers/AmericanScientist2006.pdf.

31. Ibid 236.

32. Kyle Hill, “How the Star Wars Kessel Run Turns Han Solo into a Time-Traveler,” Wired (12 February 2013) https://www.wired.com/2013/02/kessel-run-12-parsecs/.

33. Ross, S. D. and Koon, W. S. and Lo, M. W. and Marsden, J. E. “Design of a Multi-Moon Orbiter,” Spaceflight Mechanics 2003. Advances in the Astronautical Sciences. No. 114. American Astronautical Society, 1. https://resolver.caltech.edu/CaltechAUTHORS:20101007-131136558

34.“ Ingredients for Life?,” NASA https://europa.nasa.gov/why-europa/ingredients-for-life/

35. John. A. Olsen, “A History of Air Warfare,” Potomac Books Incorporated (2010), audiobook. Part 5 Chapter 16, time: 16:42.

36. Alison Rourke, “‘Out-of-control’ Chinese rocket falling to Earth could partially survive re-entry,” The Guardian (4 May 2021) https://www.theguardian.com/science/2021/may/04/out-of-control-chinese-rocket-tumbling-to-earth.

37. Jonathan Amos, “China lands its Zhurong rover on Mars,” BBC (15 May 2021) https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-57122914.

38. Chelsea Gohd, “Virgin Galactic launches Richard Branson to space in 1st fully crewed flight of VSS Unity,” 12 July 2021) SPACE.COM https://www.space.com/virgin-galactic-unity-22-branson-flight-success

39. Mike Wall, “ Virgin Galactic Unveils New SpaceShipTwo Unity for Space Tourists,” Scientific American (23 February 2016) SPACE.COM https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/virgin-galactic-unveils-new-spaceshiptwo-unity-for-space-tourists/.

40. Paul Rincon, “Jeff Bezos launches to space aboard New Shepard rocket ship,” BBC (20 July 2021), BBC https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-57849364

41. Hanneke Weitering, “Elon Musk says SpaceX’s 1st Starship trip to Mars could fly in 4 years,” Space (16 October 2020) https://www.space.com/spacex-starship-first-mars-trip-2024.

42. Morgan McFall-Johnsen and Dave Mosher “Elon Musk says he plans to send 1 million people to Mars by 2050 by launching 3 Starship rockets every day and creating ‘a lot of jobs’ on the red planet,” Business Insider (17 January 2020) https://www.businessinsider.com/elon-musk-plans-1-million-people-to-mars-by-2050-2020-1.

43. “Once a two-country race, Mars missions now on radar of multiple nations,” Times of India (18 February 2021) https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/home/science/once-a-two-country-race-mars-missions-now-on-radar-of-multiple-nations/articleshow/81096583.cms.

44. Mr. Lieu, “Space Infrastructure Act,” House of Representatives (17 May 2021) https://lieu.house.gov/sites/lieu.house.gov/files/LIEU_172_xml.pdf.

45. The Deparment Of Defense, “Indo-Pacific Strategy Report” Department of Defense (1 June 2019) https://media.defense.gov/2019/Jul/01/2002152311/-1/-1/1/DEPARTMENT-OF-DEFENSE-INDO-PACIFIC-STRATEGY-REPORT-2019.PDF.

46. Brien Flewelling, “Securing cislunar space: A vision for U.S. leadership,” Space News (9 November 2020) https://spacenews.com/op-ed-securing-cislunar-space-a-vision-for-u-s-leadership/.

Feature Image: Still from “Star Wars: Episode I” depicting the blockade of Naboo. Copyright Lucasfilm Limited. Used under the terms of Fair Use per 17 U.S. Code § 107.

The Space Force Needs Policy and Strategy, Part 3

By Tuan N. Pham

Part one of this three-part series revisited past recommendations for a new space policy and strategy in terms of ends, ways, and means. It made the case for America to guarantee the freedom of space, embrace space preeminence, and adopt a broader and more complete approach toward space deterrence.

Part two took a step back for strategic context and re-examined a conceptual framework characterizing the dynamics that contribute to instability and stability in the space domain. All in all, instability arises when there is a real or perceived lack of order and security, while stability arises when there is a real or perceived sense of order and security.

Part three concludes the series and completes the circle with a relook on how America (through the Space Force) can mitigate instability and strengthen stability in space, while prolonging U.S. space preeminence into the 21st century.

Challenges for the Space Force

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 services that others cannot. Thus, there is a strong need going forward for a comparable guarantor of the freedom of space to ensure the free flow of space commerce. If so, 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. The puzzle for American policymakers is whether it may be more cost-effective to invest now and maintain space preeminence or pay more later to make up for diminished space capabilities and capacities while accepting greater strategic risk in the interim and possibly ceding space preeminence to strategic competitors like China (and Russia) in the long term. If the former, then the answer to the puzzle is the Space Force, whose preeminent presence – enabled by a vast network of allies and partners – guarantees the freedom of space and ensures the free flow of space commerce for all.

Domain Dilemma. America fundamentally has two space deterrent and response options – threaten to respond (or actively respond) in the same domain, or threaten cross-domain retaliation to underwrite the deterrence of attacks on U.S. space capabilities (or respond across domains as retaliation). The scope, nature, and degree of these two courses 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. The Space Force lessens the dilemma by providing a flexible and capable deterrent and response force to keep the common peace.   

Reliance/Resilience Riddle. Enhancing and securing space-enabled services is essential to U.S. national security, a daunting task considering that space has become more and more “congested, contested, and competitive,” less and less permissive for the United States, and increasingly disproportionate in reliance on space capabilities and vulnerable to growing attack vectors. The riddle for America is how best to manage the dichotomy between reliance and vulnerability through resilience. The Space Force tackles the riddle by better and more informed management of and advocacy for mission-focused space requirements to enhance and protect U.S. critical capabilities in space.      

Offensive Counter-Space (OCS) Conundrum. Space warfare is intrinsically offense-inclined due to the vulnerability, predictability, and fragility of space assets. Ever-increasing OCS capabilities are able to threaten and 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. The United States must consider what type, how much, and to what extent should OCS capabilities 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. OCS capabilities continue to grow in number and sophistication driven by the “offense-offense” and “defense-offense” competition spirals. 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 drive further OCS developments to remain viable as deterrent and offensive tools. The Space Force addresses the conundrum by providing a strategic framework to better direct and synchronize OCS and DCS operations (balanced management).  

Opportunities for the Space Force

Sustain and Enhance Space Preeminence. 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. To do otherwise invites strategic misalignment and  miscommunications and encourages strategic competitors to further advance their counter-balancing efforts. Put simply, if the United States does not preserve its current strategic advantages in space through a Space Force, a rising power like China may gradually eclipse America as the preeminent power in space which will have cascading strategic ramifications on Earth. Recall that China already has a Space Force – the People’s Liberation Army Strategic Support Force.

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 for timely execution by the Space Force. 

Strengthen Space Governance. Since the elimination of OCS capabilities is unlikely, attention and efforts 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. Space powers should review the existing international agreements (treaties) and legal principles, and determine what additional conventions or provisions are needed to set the acceptable limits of OCS capabilities. This can include efforts to establish confidence building measures to include verification, and limit the possession of OCS capabilities to select space powers and out of the hands of space “pariah” states (North Korea and Iran) and undesirable non-state actors (terrorist, criminal, and business groups). The Space Force, dedicated and committed to monitoring and checking emerging threats in the space domain, will better inform U.S. policymakers and diplomats as they navigate the legal and diplomatic minefields to establish new international agreements to further universal space stability and safeguard U.S. national interests.

Continue to Invest in OCS Capabilities. The heart of the matter remains what type of OCS capabilities (reversible, irreversible, or both) and how much may be needed by the Space Force. 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 the Space Force can deter or retaliate if deterrence fails without “some” OCS capabilities, especially considering that strategic competitors like China (and Russia) are actively developing their own OCS capabilities to challenge U.S. space preeminence and by extension U.S. terrestrial preeminence. 

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 the benefits of OCS operations. Hence, three suggested resilience lines of operations for the Space Force can include building up space protection capabilities to decrease the vulnerability and fragility of high-value space assets by presenting more targets, hiding targets and maneuvering targets, and ensuring mission continuity in a disrupted space environment.  

Continue to Expand Partnerships. The extant strategic guidance calls for building enduring partnerships with other space-faring nations, civil space organizations, and commercial space entities to share benefits, costs, and risks. Strategic guidance also encourages efforts to strengthen existing alliances through increased cooperation across the various space sectors, spreading space services reliance to others, and providing greater space deterrence and stability through collective defense. That being said, partnerships also carry with them opposing risks and concerns. Risks include the unpredictability of horizontal escalation and greater potential damages and unintended consequences. Concerns center around autonomy, operational security, legality, and the interoperability of disparate space systems. All things considered though, the benefits outweigh the costs, risks and concerns are manageable in varying degree, and partnerships can ultimately be a stabilizing influence if done right. The Space Force, where the rubber meets the road, can help get it right. The Space Force will ultimately be where the preponderance of the complex working relations between allies and partners will be managed on a day-to-day basis. Future U.S. space leaders (military and civilian) and foreign counterparts will now have intersecting careers paths (touchpoints) to meet and cultivate enduring friendships that will translate into deeper international collaboration.


All major space-faring nations increasingly rely on space capabilities, but none more so than the United States. America presently has a lot more to lose, and therefore must take all necessary measures to protect its critical strengths in space and preserve its economic prosperity on Earth. Hence, to direct and guide the new Space Force, U.S. policymakers must develop a new space policy and strategy to sustain and enhance U.S. space preeminence in accordance with the new muscular National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy. Otherwise, America risks losing in space and consequently losing on Earth.

Tuan Pham has extensive professional experience in the Indo-Pacific, and is widely published in national security affairs and international relations. The views expressed are his own.

Featured Image: View of a rocket launch from the rocket garden of Cape Canaveral museum. (USAF Museum)

The Space Force Needs Policy and Strategy, Part 2

Read Part One here

By Tuan N. Pham

Part one of this three-part series revisited past recommendations for a new space policy and strategy in terms of ends, ways, and means. It made the case for America to guarantee the freedom of space, embrace space preeminence, and adopt a broader and more complete approach toward space deterrence.

Part two will now take a step back for strategic context and re-examine a conceptual framework characterizing the dynamics that contribute to instability and stability in the space domain. The dialogue will set the conditions for further discussion in part three on how America (through the Space Force) can promote stability, while prolonging U.S. space preeminence into the 21st century.

Dynamics of Space Instability 

Instability arises when there is a real or perceived lack of order and security, and unbridled strategic competition for space preeminence. 

Competing Space Powers. For now, America is the preeminent space power that enjoys unprecedented and unrivaled national security advantages (and dependencies) derived from its space capabilities. Other space powers and strategic competitors like China (and Russia) have long taken notice and actively continue the development of significant capabilities to erode the U.S. strategic advantages in space and to protect their own growing reliance on space capabilities. They regard the freedom to use space-based systems and deny the adversary access to space-based systems as fundamental to enabling modern warfare. For Beijing especially, space preeminence is necessary if they are to achieve and maintain aspirational global preeminence (the Chinese Dream).   

Space-Terrestrial Preeminence Linkage. Strategic competitors are also acutely aware of U.S. terrestrial preeminence enabled by U.S. 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 dominant American warfighting capabilities and exposed dependencies 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 and strategic competitors. 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.

Offense-Inclined Nature of Space Warfare. 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. Hence, offensive counter-space (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 enabling space capabilities.   

Destabilizing Partnerships. Exclusive enterprises can be perceived by excluded parties as indirect efforts to isolate and undermine them. Case in point is how Beijing perceives the new National Security and Defense Strategies, Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy, Trans-Pacific Partnership, Shangri-la Dialogue, ongoing Sino-U.S. trade war, and other U.S. efforts to strengthen and expand the principled network of economic and security relationships. To a certain extent, this offers China validation for strategic narratives regarding its regional assertive actions and its sense of aggrieved historical victimhood. 

Dynamics of Space Stability 

Stability arises when there is a real or perceived sense of order and security and 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.” 

Stabilizing Partnerships. The ubiquitous benefits of space affect the everyday lives of people around the world. Multinational 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 risks and promote mutual trust and cooperation amongst the parties involved. If all share the same risks, 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, a common interest in stability, and a desire for free access to space for all.

Space debris accumulated over seven decades of space activities impacts current and threatens future space operations and activities. The U.S. military 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. Many space strategists view deterrence through the doctrinal lens of imposing costs, denying benefits, and encouraging restraint to deter or make a potential adversary believe that starting a war or escalating a conflict would be worse than not doing so. 

Impose costs. OCS capabilities are necessary at some level to enable deterrence and retaliation if deterrence fails, unless space assets can be given far greater resilience than the little they have today. OCS capabilities like nuclear, 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 could try to prevent others from getting them.

Deny benefits. A resilient space architecture may be able (in varying degree) to blunt the effectiveness of OCS capabilities and offset the offense-inclined nature of space warfare by lessening the vulnerability space assets. This would help reduce the temptation for a first strike, and assure a second-strike capability, thereby creating more dynamics for deterrence. 

Encourage 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 and Managing the Peace. An existing 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 landscape in space. More is to be desired, particularly in the areas of space debris, space traffic regulation, resource exploitation, OCS capabilities, arms control, and arms reduction. 


This concludes a short discourse on a conceptual framework characterizing the dynamics that contribute to instability and stability in the space domain. The dialogue sets the conditions for further discussion in part three on how America (through the Space Force) can weaken the former and strengthen the latter, while prolonging U.S. space preeminence into the 21st century.

Tuan Pham has extensive professional experience in the Indo-Pacific, and is widely published in national security affairs and international relations. The views expressed therein are his own.

Featured Image: A soldier adjusts a satellite dish. (United Kingdom Ministry of Defence/Wikimedia Commons)

The Space Force Needs Policy and Strategy, Part 1

By Tuan N. Pham

Last year on June 18, President Donald Trump directed the Department of Defense (DoD) to establish the “Space Force.” The Space Force would be a distinct but equal military service to the Air Force, which has presided over U.S. military space operations since the establishment of an Air Force major command (Space Command) in 1982, subsequent elevation to a unified combatant command (U.S. Space Command) in 1985, and then finally relegation back into the U.S. Air Force as the Air Force Space Command years later. On August 9, the president further instructed DoD to immediately begin the process to establish a Space Force as the sixth branch of the armed forces. On October 23, the National Space Council served up six recommendations to the president to further advance the establishment and sustainment of the proposed sixth military branch. The recommendations call for a unified space command to be known as U.S. Space Command; a legislative proposal for a Space Force; a funding plan in the FY2020 budget; an interagency authorities review; a joint Space Development Agency for technology procurement; and strengthened relationships between military space and the intelligence community. On December 18, the president ordered the Pentagon to re-establish the U.S. Space Command as a unified combatant command for space operations. Two days later, the president announced the Space Force will reside within the Department of the Air Force.

Since the President’s directives, subsequent think tank and media commentaries have focused largely on the necessity for a Space Force. This includes the imperative to counter Chinese (and Russian) growing space ambitions and capabilities, and managing the multitude of bureaucratic, budgetary, doctrinal, command relationship, and legal implications and challenges to establish the sixth military service.

One of the more thoughtful and insightful analysis on the imperative to counter growing Chinese space ambitions and capabilities – in terms of great powers competition – was written by Namrata Goswami in The Diplomat. In the article titled “Waking Up to China’s Space Dream,” he posited that the “political vision for space, championed by the Chinese leadership, is to build internal capacity that can support a space presence and establish dominance and industrialization that would in turn enhance the national rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” Underscoring Goswami’s point, China’s Chang’e-4 lunar probe made the world’s first landing on the far side of the moon on January 3, and Beijing announced shortly thereafter more lunar missions later in the year to lay the groundwork for a moon base and an ambitious plan to explore Mars by 2020. 

Interestingly, Chinese media and punditry have also offered their opinions on the proposed U.S. Space Force, most notably the People Liberation Army’s (PLA) Daily and Global Times (subsidiary of the PLA Daily). The former proffered a Chinese assessment of U.S. challenges and opportunities. The Chinese authors surprisingly understood the complexity and nuances of U.S. space policies and operations and the underlying politics and bureaucracy involved. The latter asserted that “outer space has been a place of peace…the United Nations resolutely opposes the militarization of outer space and all countries have remained constrained in terms of their research of military space systems…by establishing a Space Force the United States has started an outer space arms race.” The provocative (and perhaps contradictory) statement was made despite the 2015 establishment of the PLA Strategic Support Force (PLASSF), and recent plans by the PLA Air Force to expand its presence in space. The PLASSF, China’s own Space Force, consolidated, integrated, and synchronized all of its space, cyber, and electronic warfare capabilities under one umbrella organization.

More strategic guidance is needed to guide and manage the operations of the new U.S. Space Force. Hence, this is part one of a three-part series that revisits past recommendations for a new U.S. space policy and strategy in terms of ends, ways, and means – freedom of space, space preeminence, and full-spectrum space deterrence, respectively. Part two will take a step back for strategic context and re-examine a conceptual framework characterizing the dynamics that contribute to instability and stability in the space domain. Part three will then discuss suggestions on how America (through the Space Force) can promote stability while prolonging U.S. space preeminence into the 21st century…additional considerations for U.S. policymakers as they develop a new strategic guidance for the Space Force. Altogether, these erstwhile proposals have become more relevant and acceptable with the passage of the new muscular National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy, and can help provide a strategic framework for space operations, as well as advocacy for space requirements and capabilities.

Freedom of Space (Ends)

One of the principal goals of current U.S. strategic guidance for space – 2010 National Space Policy, 2011 National Security Space Strategy, and 2012 DoD Space Policy– is maintaining the stability, sustainability, and free access to and use of space for all. They specifically call for the conduct of space operations without interference and in ways that promote transparency and enable the sharing of benefits provided by the peaceful use of space. These lofty and benevolent U.S. goals are consistent with those of the United Nations that supports the conduct of space activities for peaceful purposes and the benefit of all mankind.

There are historical precedents for guiding the consideration of universal space security and stability, the naval precedent perhaps foremost. For more than 500 years, great nations (maritime powers) maintained powerful and globally deployed navies to guarantee the freedom of the seas for all (net providers of maritime security), a pre-condition for international trade, economic development, and global prosperity underwritten by naval power ensuring the free flow of maritime commerce. Hence, there is a strong need going forward for a comparable guarantor of the freedom of space (net provider of space security) to ensure the free flow of space commerce, a leadership role that calls out to America, with allied support to fill. 

Space Preeminence (Ways)

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. The extant strategic guidance implicitly acknowledged the necessity of space preeminence to enable the stated goals, but stopped short of explicitly affirming them outright. The next space policy and strategy should openly and fully commit America to maintaining 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).” If not, the United States may unwisely cede this critical domain to China (and Russia).

In its latest white paper on space published in December 2016, Beijing reaffirmed its strategic intent to use its rapidly growing space program (largely military space) to transform itself into a military, economic, and technological power in accordance with its strategic plan for national rejuvenation (the Chinese Dream). Ye Peijian, the head of China’s lunar exploration program, remarked that the high grounds of space will bear directly on Chinese strategic interests in the coming decades. He made references to the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands and Philippine-claimed Scarborough Shoal, and suggested that China sees space in terms of astro-strategic terrain rather than simply the focus of scientific exploration: 

“The universe is an ocean, the moon is the Diaoyu Islands (Senkaku), Mars is Huangyan Island (Scarborough). If we don’t go there now even though we’re capable of doing so, then we will be blamed by our descendants. If others go there, then they will take over, and you won’t be able to go even if you want to. This is reason enough.”

Full-Spectrum Space Deterrence (Means)

Many space strategists view space deterrence through the doctrinal lens of denying benefit, imposing cost, and encouraging restraint. On the whole, the current strategic guidance appears to rely heavily on denying benefit (resilience; mission assurance; shared reliance; and capability and capacity to operate in and through a degraded, disrupted, or denied space environment) to deter and defeat aggression by blunting the adversary’s offensive counter-space (OCS) capabilities. The other viable deterrent tools (threat of preemption, active defense, and redline) appear neither considered nor accepted. This limiting take on space deterrence is largely rooted in the hopeful belief of assured resilience, and therefore may have put too much confidence on denying benefit at the expense of imposing cost and encouraging restraint. U.S. policymakers may want to consider adopting a broader, more complete, and more balanced approach toward space deterrence if it hopes to “fully” deter or make a potential adversary think that starting a war or escalating a conflict would be worse than not doing so – particularly if that potential adversary is less reliant on space capabilities than America.

Tactical Preemption and Active Defense

The language and tone of the standing strategic guidance are largely ambiguous in terms of deterrence. The vague and imprecise language can be inadvertently misinterpreted by a potential adversary as perceived U.S. willingness to absorb a possibly disabling first strike, and could encourage a highly destabilizing preemptive attack since America has far more to lose in terms of warfighting capabilities than the attacker due to the offense-inclined nature of space conflict itself. Holding space assets at risk seems far easier and cheaper than defending them considering the wide range of threat vectors, large target sets, and predictable satellite orbital profiles. Moreover, absorbing such a first strike with all of its potential destructiveness, and then striking back against an adversary fully anticipating a retaliatory strike, can be militarily unsound and risky.

In space, offense dominance scales up – “a power that strikes aggressively should be, in theory, able to get the upper hand, or at least get the greatest possible use of whatever OCS it has invested in.” Thus, employment of tactical preemption and tactical active defense may be appropriate. “Tactical preemption” is the use of military power to deny an adversary specific terrain or gains by attacking potential imminent threats before they can be employed. “Tactical active defense” is the interception and disruption of an imminent attack before it can affect its intended target. Including related language into the next strategic guidance can keep all deterrent options on the table, and coupled with resilience and declaratory statements (redlines), may give greater pause to any potential adversary contemplating a highly destabilizing first strike.


Declaratory statement of redlines – actions beyond which would trigger a significant U.S. response – is one important means to shape and influence a potential adversary’s risk perception and calculus, lower the likelihood of misinterpretation, promote transparency, and encourage restraint. Declarative redlines make it explicit that certain actions carry unacceptable risks and consequences, and clearly lay out the conditions and willingness to inflict unacceptable retaliatory damage or destruction. In contrast, “ambiguity in deterrent threats, often held up as strategically artful, may actually encourage a potential adversary’s miscalculation and lead to greater risk taking.” To be effective, redlines need to be credible. Potential adversaries will not take redlines seriously if Washington does not back-up them up with concrete and consistent actions.

Current U.S. declaratory space statements are deliberately vague to provide national leaders a wide range of policy options. The unintended consequences of such political flexibility might be a potential adversary not knowing what to expect, being surprised by the response, and misinterpreting the intent of the response. Therefore, declaratory statements may be warranted for military space capabilities relating to missile warning and C2 of nuclear forces and positioning, navigation, and timing systems relating to key force-projection capabilities. Attacks (kinetic and non-kinetic) on these critical military space systems should be declared unacceptable and that they will be met with “dire” consequences – keeping the consequences deliberately vague in this case. U.S. retaliation should be at the time, place, manner, and degree of own choosing. Potential adversaries do not need to know what, how, when, and where America would retaliate; just that America would in some fashion.

Offensive Counterspace Capabilities

That being said, redlines only work if they are backed up by proven capabilities to carry out the deterrent threats. The continued development, deployment, and employment of OCS capabilities is necessary to enable space warfighting capability and full-spectrum space deterrence unless military space assets can be given far greater resilience than what little they have today. A credible second strike capability requires credible OCS capabilities, preferably ones that are the least destabilizing. There is also danger for America in falling behind strategic competitors like China (and Russia) in OCS capabilities. Both nations are unilaterally and aggressively pursuing robust OCS capabilities of their own. 

The heart of the matter remains what type of OCS capabilities, how much, and to what extent should they be publicly disclosed. Regarding the former, 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 without “some” OCS capabilities. As for the latter, it may be best for now to keep OCS capabilities deliberately vague. Potential adversaries do not need to know what type or how much America has, just that America has the capability to act if it so chooses.   

Tuan Pham has extensive professional experience in the Indo-Pacific, and is widely published in national security affairs and international relations. The views expressed therein are his own.

Featured Image: A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket blasts off from Space Launch Complex-41 carrying the second U.S. Air Force Space-Based Infrared System GEO-2 satellite March 19, 2013, at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. (United Launch Alliance photo by Pat Corkery)