First, they laughed at Space Force. The idea that the U.S. military should establish an entire branch devoted to warfighting in Low Earth Orbit was the subject of endless mockery from late-night comics and even endured the veiled contempt that the satirists who wrote Netflix’s “Space Force” heaped on it.
Then, they tried to fight Space Force. Former Sen. Bill Nelson, who currently serves as the Biden administration’s NASA administrator, insisted that it would be strategically inept to “rip the Air Force apart” by handing its exo-atmospheric portfolio to a new branch. Progressives leaned on the incoming Biden administration to kill Space Force, along with the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent, apparently operating on the assumption that all the Trump administration’s preferred reforms must be equal parts corrupt and useless.
Finally, Space Force triumphed. The Biden administration rebuffed progressive overtures and threw its “full support” behind this initiative—and for good reason, as this week’s NATO summit is set to emphasize. In 2019, NATO declared the outer atmosphere the alliance’s “fifth domain” of operations and is prepared this week to extend the treaty’s mutual-defense provisions in Article 5 to allied assets stationed in space. What this will mean in practice is the subject of speculation. What should be beyond dispute, though, is the strategic necessity of treating space as an area of operations and a theater of war.
The first objection to this paradigmatic approach to strategic operations in space is a lie: That is, the idea that the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 forbids stationing offensive weapons or conducting military activities in space. The treaty only applied to weapons of mass destruction, not conventional weapons—and there are many conventional weapons in orbit. Many of those weapons are currently classified as “dual-use,” which is to say that orbital platforms with a commercial or defensive application can be transformed into a kill vehicle at a moment’s notice.
America’s near-peer competitors in Moscow and Beijing have been testing anti-satellite capabilities for more than a decade now, and that should keep American war planners up at night. Russia and China have already engaged in provocative behaviors in space. Deterring their aggression is in the West’s immediate interest. U.S. communications, navigation, and reconnaissance platforms in space present relatively easy targets. Their neutralization would provide America’s adversaries with the prospect of a relatively cheap and efficient way of approximating military parity. That is perhaps why those adversaries are so keen on locking the U.S. into treaty obligations that preserve their capacity to field space-based weapons under the guise that they are civilian or commercial in nature while handcuffing the U.S. The Biden administration is wise to avoid falling into that trap.
The development of reusable anti-satellite vehicles as a means of deterring America’s adversaries cannot come soon enough because the next frontier, as it were, in the development of space is already upon us. In partnership with the various private interests that are already engaged in the commercialization of space, the U.S. military is planning to develop a fleet of reusable rockets that will deliver cargo anywhere on earth in under an hour. In the near future, the earth will be ringed by satellite constellations consisting of hundreds of small vehicles with both public and private applications. Not long after that, commercial research and development facilities, civilian orbital travel, and even the hospitality and accommodations industries will forge a path outside the atmosphere. Protecting these industries from adversarial nations will prove just as critical to Western interests as it is in the case of their ground-based alternatives.
The proof of Space Force’s concept having been established, Congress saw fit to provide this new branch with its first distinct budget late last year as it takes on responsibility for satellite communications from the U.S. Navy and Air Force. America’s allies, including France and Great Britain, are also establishing their own Space Commands, providing them with the funding and staff necessary to complete their urgent missions. But NATO will play a determining role in standardizing the functions of space-based assets across the alliance. Establishing interoperability, avoiding redundancies and duplicative platforms, establishing objectives, and regularizing how the alliance’s member states operate in space will prove critical to strategic planners not in the distant future but in this decade.
Maintaining America’s prohibitive edge in space will be key to its success in the coming decades, as two presidents from both parties have now acknowledged. Those who understand the promise and peril of space for commercial and military purposes are enjoying the last laugh.