Restraint, Not Superiority, in Space


In 1977, U.S. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski argued that the existence of Soviet anti-satellite weapons was “no adequate reason” for the United States to develop its own space weapons. Does his logic apply today?

The establishment of the U.S. Space Force has placed a spotlight on both the necessity and vulnerability of space systems. Yet, the lack of an effective strategy that promotes stability in space is only undermining U.S. national security. Gen. Jay Raymond, the chief of space operations, has identified anti-satellite tests by China and Russia as having weaponized space and transformed it into a contested domain. These accusations against China and Russia only deflect attention away from U.S. space activities over the past 60 years that have also contributed to instability in space. Washington has not, moreover, made any serious proposals for securing space arms control measures or greater transparency.

There is a conflict at present between the military’s desire for space superiority and the need for strategic restraint, and the latter is in the national interest. The Joe Biden administration should develop a strategy that more clearly emphasizes diplomacy to promote space security. To this end, Washington ought to take concrete steps toward securing a moratorium on debris-producing anti-satellite testing and advocating transparency for proximity operations in orbit. The United States should signal to Russia and China that it truly seeks solutions to space security problems, rather than only portraying Moscow and Beijing as destabilizing space actors. At the same time, the Department of Defense and the intelligence community need to invest more in capabilities that will increase the resiliency of national security space systems.



An examination of Cold War American and Soviet space activities reveals that restraint, even when faced with increasingly sophisticated space threats, promoted security and stability. Deviation from this policy in the 1980s became a source of substantial tension between the superpowers in the final decade of the Cold War. The lessons of this period, therefore, are important for considering how the United States should approach space security as the number of actors and threats continues to expand.

U.S. Space Strategy from the Cold War to the Present

U.S. government claims that only recently has space become contested, and that Beijing and Moscow are the main drivers behind space insecurity, overlook the realities of the Cold War and its legacy. Policy analysts oftentimes argue that the United States was pursuing a policy of space as a sanctuary through the early 1970s. The word “sanctuary” was not, however, officially used until the mid-1970s, and this term can obscure the nuances of U.S. views on space security. According to noted space historian Walter McDougall, American space policy emphasized its peaceful “rather than explicitly non-military’ purposes.”

An overriding concern of the Dwight Eisenhower administration was establishing the principle of freedom of space (i.e., having ability to overfly foreign territory from space without it being considered a violation of sovereignty). Promoting this concept was especially critical because the U.S. government needed reconnaissance satellites to peer behind the Iron Curtain to gather intelligence on the Soviet Union. With the first successful launch of a U.S. photographic reconnaissance satellite in August 1960, the majority of what U.S. intelligence knew about Soviet and Chinese ground military forces was “attributable to satellite intelligence.” Consequently, peace in space was essential for the viability of space reconnaissance.

Despite the emphasis on peaceful intent, the U.S. military did conduct the world’s first anti-satellite test in 1959, in addition to high-altitude nuclear detonations that reached into space. Space historian Asif Siddiqi has shown that early U.S. anti-satellite activities served as the “first major catalyst for the Soviet anti-satellite program.” The John F. Kennedy administration furthermore approved a very limited nuclear anti-satellite capability called Program 437 that was designed to defend against a Soviet nuclear orbital bombardment system. At this point, American anti-satellite weapons were believed to be a necessary hedge against the perceived Soviet orbital nuclear threat, and U.S. officials de-emphasized anti-satellites in U.S. public diplomacy on space. By the early 1970s, Program 437 was placed in a limited operating status. More expansive U.S. military anti-satellite proposals, like Project Spike (a non-nuclear air-launched anti-satellite concept), were also denied. Space security expert Clay Moltz has argued that “military-space restraint became institutionalized during the 1962-1975 period.”

It became clear in the early 1970s that the Soviet Union’s anti-satellite weapon was increasingly sophisticated. The consensus among U.S. officials was that a new U.S. anti-satellite would not, however, have a deterrent effect or enhance the survivability of American satellites. Strategic restraint was still the overriding objective. This situation changed in the Gerald Ford administration. With détente crumbing and tensions on the rise between Washington and Moscow, Ford endorsed the idea that “treating space as a sanctuary, [was] neither enforceable nor verifiable.” As a result of this, he approved a new anti-satellite program, not to respond to the Soviet Union’s anti-satellite, but rather to be able to destroy Soviet satellites used to support tactical military operations.

The Jimmy Carter administration was convinced that arms control overrode the military arguments in favor of a new anti-satellite. Furthermore, Carter himself believed that restraint was necessary but only possible if the Soviet government agreed to constrain its own anti-satellite program. The president wanted to secure a comprehensive ban on anti-satellites and he used the U.S. anti-satellite effort to place greater pressure on the Kremlin. There were nevertheless significant concerns about being able to verify an anti-satellite ban, but Carter maintained that important steps, like a “hostile acts” agreement and anti-satellite testing moratorium, could reduce tensions. These talks fell apart, however, after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.

President Ronald Reagan believed that strategic restraint in space hampered U.S. national security interests. He endorsed using anti-satellites for space control, (i.e., having the ability to deny adversaries the use of space). Reagan also created U.S. Space Command, which was eliminated in 2002 and then revived in 2019. He even considered a separate military service for space. Most significantly, his Strategic Defense Initiative — a program for a missile defense system with land, sea, air, and space components — called for the permanent deployment of weapons in space. Because a ban on anti-satellites would have limited the development of the Strategic Defense Initiative, the Reagan White House eschewed space weapons arms control with the Soviet Union. In 1985, the United States destroyed, moreover, an American satellite in space using its miniature homing vehicle anti-satellite system.

Much like President Donald Trump’s space ideas, Reagan’s were met with skepticism by many senior officials in the national security establishment. Even though Reagan’s military space agenda did not come to fruition, it signaled that U.S. strategic restraint in space was not necessarily a permanent state of affairs. As a consequence, Russia began developing systems like its Avangard hypersonic missile in response to the Strategic Defense Initiative.

By the end of the Cold War, there was a growing group of space zealots who advocated the expanded use of spacepower to achieve military goals. These space advocates wanted to use space systems for power projection, deterrence, and offensive action, rather than just military support. The collapse of the Soviet Union, however, largely re-instated a U.S. emphasis on restraint in space. The United States did continue research into anti-satellites and missile defense, but both were significantly scaled down. Additionally, by 1990, the United States began to officially recognize that debris-producing anti-satellite tests were highly problematic.

The post-Cold War lull in space security concerns did not last long. After the 2007 Chinese anti-satellite test that produced significant debris, the United States shot down one of its own satellites using a Standard Missile-3. Even though this was not a dedicated anti-satellite capability, Washington demonstrated once again that it had the means to execute offensive action against satellites. The Chinese test in particular contributed to the establishment of President Barack Obama’s policy that identified space as increasingly congested, contested, and competitive. Since that time, U.S. concerns about space have only grown. Despite the increased anxiety about space security since 2007 in particular, the United States has still, on the whole, exercised restraint in its pursuit of anti-satellite weapons capabilities and has primarily focused on non-kinetic electronic warfare systems.

The creation of the U.S. Space Force, while officially a response to adversary behavior in orbit, has not adequately furthered U.S. and allied interests in space. On the positive side, the new service has placed greater attention on the importance of space systems and the requirement to address their vulnerabilities, in addition to the need to streamline U.S. defense space acquisition. It has also, however, created a lobby for the pursuit of military space superiority, which is poorly defined, not easily measurable, and destabilizing.

Toward a New U.S. Strategy for Space Security

At present, security challenges in space are only becoming more complex, but U.S. space strategy is not postured to promote security and stability. The Biden administration should restrain U.S. military goals that emphasize offensive action and superiority. The space lessons of the Cold War suggest that a continued emphasis on space superiority will only lead to a more intense military-space competition with Moscow and Beijing. The U.S. objective should be the promotion of strategic stability primarily through diplomatic engagement. The Department of Defense should focus on measures to increase the resiliency of U.S. space systems and thereby reduce vulnerabilities. As Heather Venable has argued, the Space Force in particular should focus on traditional missions (i.e., space support functions) rather than “futuristic views of spacepower employment.”

In the immediate term, the United States should change the way it talks about space security. Senior leaders ought to stop making ahistorical statements like “over the past five years, space has become contested.” These factually incorrect declarations, which are repeated time and time again, make Space Force leadership look out of touch with reality. Additionally, accusing Beijing and Moscow of having “weaponized space” ignores how U.S. actions have contributed to space insecurity. Strategic messaging needs to emphasize U.S. intent to promote security and stability in space rather than military space superiority, which would be especially difficult to achieve given the threat environment and might be impossible to measure. Most importantly, there needs to be greater attention on establishing norms of behavior that promote security in the space domain through diplomatic engagement. Consequently, the State Department ought to play a much more prominent role in promoting U.S. national security space interests, both in terms of messaging and foreign engagement to secure a more stable situation in space.

In 2020, the Pentagon released its Defense Space Strategy. This document identifies space as a “distinct warfighting domain” along with the need to maintain “superiority” in space. It falls short in several key areas. It does not, for instance, effectively explain how the United States is going to deter adversary activity in space or how it is going to be capable of “winning wars that extend into outer space.” In 2019, when he was still chief of staff of the Air Force, Gen. David Goldfein talked about the need to be able to “hit back [in space].” Similar references to offensive action have been made by other officials without any specific details regarding capabilities.

It is very well possible that senior military leaders believe that these statements about potential offensive action enhance space deterrence. This idea is not, however, compelling, at least in part due to the asymmetry in dependence on space between the United States and its adversaries. In 1972, Amrom Katz, a RAND Corporation analyst who was an expert on strategic reconnaissance, argued that a U.S. anti-satellite would not have a deterrent effect, which was a view shared by Brent Scowcroft, Ford’s national security advisor. Scowcroft believed that, since the United States was still considerably more dependent than the Soviet government on space, an anti-satellite weapon would not have deterrent value. Thinking only in terms of space deterrence is too limited anyway. British space security expert Bleddyn Bowen warns against the danger of “adhering too narrowly to the concept of ‘space deterrence’ [which] can mislead analysis to isolate space from Earth.” Any space deterrent proposals, therefore, should be placed within a larger deterrence framework.

Many U.S. diplomats agreed during the Cold War that even rhetoric about offensive strikes in space could be destabilizing. Similarly, a 2010 RAND study stated that

a national space policy more conducive to deterring attacks on U.S. space systems would avoid provocative rhetoric about denying others the use of space and would, instead, explicitly condemn any use of force to, from, or in that domain, except in retribution for attacks on one’s own space systems.

Consequently, bellicose language about military action in space should be excised from official U.S. government pronouncements on space policy.

The Defense Space Strategy does identify the need to promote “favorable standards and norms of behavior in space.” This statement, however, raises the following question: favorable standards according to whom? In February, Maj. Gen. DeAnna Burt, the commander of U.S. Space Command’s combined force space component, announced that the United States is going to take a more direct role in establishing norms of behavior in space. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has also said that the United States will focus “on developing standards and norms of responsible behavior in outer space.” The ability of the Department and Defense, the State Department, and the intelligence community to arrive at a consensus on the details of norms development will, however, be a substantial challenge. Despite the policy obstacles, it is in the U.S. interest to take a leading role in working with international partners to define norms of behavior in two especially important areas: rendezvous and proximity operations, and debris generation. Defining limits and constraints for both can significantly promote greater stability among spacefaring nations.

Rendezvous and proximity operations involve one satellite getting close to another for a wide variety of benign or potentially hostile reasons. For example, satellites are being developed to service and repair malfunctioning space systems. Additionally, the same techniques for benign proximity operations can be used to carry out observation of other countries’ satellites or to attack them. According to space security expert Brian Weeden, “any time you have militaries operating near each other without a lot of transparency or clarity [there is] the opportunity for misperceptions that could lead to something very bad.”

The U.S. government should determine, internally, what it should or should not allow with regard to proximity operations (i.e., how close is too close). Subsequently, the State Department should determine if the identified limits would be acceptable to other spacefaring nations, especially China and Russia. There is going to be resistance to defining constraints, out of fear that it could box in future U.S. military freedom of action, but the threat of not doing so is even greater because a mishap involving two military spacecraft of different nationalities could lead to a crisis. Even if Beijing and Moscow resist defining limits, then the United States can use its own proposed boundaries to place diplomatic pressure on both countries to cooperate in developing an acceptable framework.

Even more pressing than proximity operations is the problem of debris generation. The 2007 Chinese and the 2019 Indian anti-satellite tests demonstrated that testing kinetic weapons against objects in space can create significant hazards. It is imperative therefore that the United States leads the way in banning kinetic weapons tests against space objects. The United States should, however, differentiate more clearly between debris and non-debris producing tests. Comments by the U.S. government on Russia’s most recent anti-satellite tests highlight them as destabilizing, but it should be noted that Moscow has not executed a debris-producing anti-satellite test since the Cold War. Not making this distinction only adds to current tensions in Washington’s relationship with Moscow. The primary focus needs to be on preventing tests that produce debris. Placing restrictions on non-debris generating tests would be especially difficult because there are too many dual-use systems that are regularly tested (e.g., ground-based and sea-deployed missile defense).

A common argument against arms control on kinetic anti-satellites is that it won’t be possible to verify. This is due to the fact that it is relatively easy to hide offensive weapons on satellites and because so many space systems are dual-use. A moratorium on anti-satellite testing can, however, be verified. Debris cannot be hidden — any test against an object in space resulting in debris would be immediately detectable. In light of this, the Biden administration should make a moratorium on testing that generates debris in space a high-priority arms control objective.

Diplomatic engagement is not the only solution to promoting greater security in space. Resiliency of space systems and their supporting architecture needs to be a high priority for the Department of Defense and the intelligence community. This is both a technological and a diplomatic task. Amrom Katz said over 30 years ago that the United States was investing in satellites that were highly sophisticated, but very few in number, and that had become a “juicy target” in space. The U.S. government needs to continue to invest in more space systems that are hardened for dealing with both physical and non-kinetic threats. Anti-satellite countermeasures could involve protecting optical sensors from directed energy weapons, employing decoys, and increasing satellite maneuverability (among others). The United States can also invest in proliferated low earth orbit constellations. This involves putting up more satellites, which creates more targets and, therefore, increases survivability. Additionally, more fully integrating allies into the U.S. space architecture would be an important step toward ensuring the resiliency of national security space systems that any American-led coalition will need.

Finally, the United States needs to more thoroughly explore rapid reconstitution capabilities (i.e., having the ability to launch new systems quickly). This would also involve looking at alternative launch facilities. The United States primarily relies on Vandenberg in California and Cape Canaveral in Florida for launches, but, in the 1980s, for example, the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization examined using submarines to launch satellites under the name Project Janus. Examining new ways to be able to ensure access to space if Vandenberg or Cape Canaveral become unusable due to a natural or man-made catastrophe is essential. As more allies develop spaceports, they too can provide support for launch resiliency.

Looking Ahead

The Space Force will likely remain intact with the Biden administration. Certainly, space security challenges are only going to become more acute as countries expand their civil and military activities in orbit. Consequently, the Biden team should make substantial modifications to the U.S. approach to space security. Its overarching space framework should emphasize diplomacy to achieve a more stable situation. Rather than just highlighting what the U.S. government sees as destabilizing Russian and Chinese space actions, the United States needs to take the initiative in developing norms of behavior that can lead to a more secure space environment for all nations. This different approach to space will require a less militarized agenda that gives a much more prominent role to the State Department in developing and implementing U.S. national security space strategy. It will also require a return to emphasizing space support rather than offensive action.

While space systems have been enabling combat effects for several decades, there has never been a war that has extended into outer space. It would be derelict on the part of the Pentagon not to prepare for space warfare, but it should not be treated as an inevitability. The U.S. government should, therefore, continue to pursue a more resilient space architecture, while emphasizing diplomatic solutions to space security problems. Additionally, the way in which U.S. space priorities are communicated is especially important. Words matter and can have strategic consequences. Messaging can promote deterrence, order, and stability, or it can lead to chaos and crises. The pursuit of stability through diplomacy, rather than military superiority, should be at the heart of U.S. national security space strategy to better ensure that space continues to be a conflict-free environment.



Aaron Bateman is a Ph.D. student in the history of science and technology at Johns Hopkins University. Previously, he served as a U.S. Air Force intelligence officer. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent any institutions with which he is affiliated. Twitter: @aaronbateman22

Image: U.S. Air Force