The Folly of U.S. Space Dominance
By Mike Moore
The Independent Institute Copyright © 2008 The Independent Institute
All rights reserved.
Triumphalism in Space
The history of humankind has been largely a tale of organized armed conflict. From the moment a warrior first huffed up a hill so he could lay eyes on the enemy, reconnaissance from the highest point has been basic to the successful conduct of war.
Warriors had to settle for hills and ridges for millennia until French brothers Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Etienne Montgolfier began a series of experiments that led to the first balloon ascension with a human aboard on October 15, 1783. Physicist Jean François Pilatre de Rozier rose some eighty feet in a basket attached to a tethered bag of hot air.
Progress was rapid. The public was enchanted by balloons, whether hot air or hydrogen. Ascensions became such picnic-friendly events in Paris that tickets were sometimes sold to limit crowds. But ballooning was not confined to France. In January 1793, French aeronaut Jean-Pierre Blanchard lifted off in a hydrogen-filled balloon in Philadelphia, the first such flight in the United States. President George Washington had previously given him a "passport" with which to identify himself upon landing. Forty-six minutes later, Blanchard touched down fifteen miles away and presented the passport to a befuddled farmer who could not read.
Ungainly and colorful, balloons were joyful manifestations of the human spirit and imagination. And just as surely, the balloon would be useful in war, another ageless though darker manifestation of the human spirit. In 1783, just two days after de Rozier first went aloft, Andre Giraud de Villette ascended with de Rozier. Villette offered this prediction in a Paris newspaper:
I observed St. Cloud, Isty, Ivry, Charenton, and Choisy with ease, and perhaps Corbeil, which a light mist prevented me from distinguishing clearly; from this moment I was convinced that this apparatus, costing but little, could be made very useful to an Army for discovering the positions of its enemy, his movements, his advances, and his dispositions, and that this information could be conveyed to the troops operating the machine. There, gentlemen, is an undeniable utility that time will perfect for us.
In April 1794, France, besieged by Austrian and Prussian forces, established the world's first military air service, which would be used for observation. In June, a tethered hydrogen-filled balloon, L'Entreprenant, played a role in a battle between French and Austrian forces. Two aeronauts were aloft for about ten hours during an engagement near Fleurus, and they communicated with officers on the ground by lowering bags containing their observations.
The astonished Austrians surrendered. Were balloon observations decisive? The commanding French general, a man who kept his feet on the ground, did not think so. But one of the aeronauts said: "I shan't say that the balloon won the battle of Fleurus. What I can say is that, being trained to use my glasses in spite of the oscillation and swaying due to the wind, I was able to distinguish infantry, cavalry, and artillery, their movement and, in general, their numbers."
And so began the modern military quest to gain the highest ground possible during conflict and to enjoy the "undeniable utility" it confers upon those who can hold it against all comers. For most of the twentieth century, air was the high ground; nations expended tens of thousands of lives and considerable treasure to control it during conflict. In the twenty-first century, orbital space is widely said to be the ultimate high ground. The question today: Will there be another cold war as nations seek to dominate it?
The first Cold War was a joint enterprise. Neither the United States nor the Soviet Union fully controlled their fate. Each reacted to the moves and perceived intentions of the other. The tensions were real and the Cold War may have been inevitable. But that is not the case today regarding space. The space-dominance paradigm is as American as the Stars and Stripes. If a cold war in space develops, perhaps with China, the United States will have incited it. It is as simple as that. Conversely, if the United States refrains from adopting a policy of space dominance, a new cold war, this time in space, is less likely.
REAP THE BENEFITS
Sputnik, launched on October 4, 1957, weighed just 184.3 pounds, but its thin A-flat beeps were politically deafening. Sputnik II followed in November; it weighed half a ton and carried Laika, a soon-to-be-martyred dog. The ability to accelerate payloads like that to seventeen thousand miles per hour, the minimum necessary to achieve a temporarily sustainable low-Earth orbit, implied that the Soviets had powerful rockets that could be used to lob hydrogen bombs at the United States. All sorts of sensible people were spooked.
The director of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory said, "I would not be surprised if the Russians reached the Moon within a week." When asked what we might find there, Edward Teller, the "father" of the H-bomb, answered, "Russians." The New York Times declared that the United States was "in a race for survival." Labor leader Walter Reuther called Sputnik a "bloodless Pearl Harbor." G. Mennen Williams, governor of Michigan, resorted to edgy humor:
Oh Little Sputnik, flying high
With made-in-Moscow beep,
You tell the world it's a Commie sky,
And Uncle Sam's asleep.
Stuart Symington, a Missouri senator and Democratic presidential hopeful, said in a Veterans Day address on November 11, 1957 in Jefferson City, Missouri, "The race for the conquest of space is today's major engagement in the technological war. We must win it because the nation that dominates the air spaces [sic] will be in a position to dominate the world."
Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson, whose chance of becoming president was considerably greater than Symington's, was chairman of the Senate Preparedness Committee. In that capacity, he organized hearings designed mostly to demonstrate that an incompetent administration had let the nation fall abysmally behind the Soviet Union in space. The hearings began in late November 1957 and continued into January 1958. Seventy-eight witnesses testified, producing 2,313 pages of testimony. On January 7, 1958, Johnson told Democratic senators in well-publicized remarks: "Control of space means control of the world, far more certainly, far more totally than any control that has ever or could ever be achieved by weapons, or troops of occupation. ... Whoever gains that ultimate position gains control, total control, over the Earth, for purposes of tyranny or for the service of freedom."
Democratic presidential hopefuls had de facto allies in the active-duty military. Air Force Chief of Staff Thomas Dresser White launched a very public campaign urging the Eisenhower administration to seize control of space. An intellectual who studied Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Greek, Russian, and Chinese as well as military history and strategy as he rose through the ranks, White was the archetypal space warrior. On November 29, 1957, the general launched his crusade at the National Press Club in Washington, a forum that ensured maximum headline attention.
"The compelling reason for the preeminence of airpower is clear and unchallenged, because those who have the capability to control the air are in a position to exert control over the land and seas beneath." But now, White said, the Soviet Union had one-upped the United States. For the first time since 1814, the U.S. homeland was in mortal danger; no longer would the Atlantic and Pacific moats protect it. America's answer to the Soviet challenge would require the military use of space. "I feel in the future whoever has the capability to control space will likewise possess the capability to exert control of the surface of the Earth."
The following February, White elaborated his space vision in a speech at the national conference of the Air Force Association, a nongovernmental organization that sings the praises of the Air Force.
The United States must win and maintain the capability to control space in order to assure the progress and preeminence of the free nations. ... You will note that I stated the United States must win and maintain the capability to control space. I did not say that we should control space. There is an important distinction here. We want all nations to join with us in such measures as are necessary to ensure that outer space shall never be used for any but peaceful purposes.
But until effective measures to this end are assured, our possession of such a capability will guarantee the free nations liberty — it does not connote denial of the benefits of space to others. In the past when control of the seas was exercised by peaceful nations, people everywhere profited. Likewise, as long as the United States maintains the capability to control space, the entire world will reap the benefits that accrue.
Control of space, White said in his windup, "should be the goal of all Americans." One did not need to be a rocket scientist (presumably most rocket scientists throughout the world quickly became aware of White's words) to parse the general's argument: The United States should become the Wyatt Earp of space.
President Eisenhower was more complicated, thoughtful, and analytical than the syntax-challenged, golf-playing, nap-taking, do-nothing president Democrats often portrayed him as being. Although he and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles are remembered today for having employed the rhetoric of "massive retaliation," that phrase was, in the weirdly counterintuitive logic of the Cold War, part of their strategy for preserving the peace. The rhetoric was designed to dissuade the Kremlin from taking reckless actions that might lead to war.
Nuclear war, Eisenhower believed, would be so terrible that neither side would let it happen. But after Sputnik, many of Eisenhower's top military officers — with General White in the lead — as well as some of the nation's most prominent politicians and opinion shapers urged him to move the nuclear arms race into space. Eisenhower believed that would be unwise. In the face of take-control-of-space-now demands, the president reaffirmed his policy of "space for peaceful purposes," which he had tentatively established two years earlier.
Eisenhower's peaceful-purposes policy eventually became the basis of one of the most honored international agreements in history, the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies. The document is commonly (and thankfully) known as the "Outer Space Treaty."
Before leaving office, the Eisenhower administration began working with the Soviet Union and the United Nations on military space issues, negotiations that were carried forward by the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. The Outer Space Treaty "entered into force," as diplomats put it, on October 10, 1967, just a few days past the tenth anniversary of the first Sputnik. Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin of the Soviet Union said the treaty ensured the "peaceful activities of states in outer space for the benefit of all mankind." In contrast, President Johnson was decidedly Kennedyesque: "Whatever our disagreements here on Earth, however long it may take to resolve our conflicts whose roots are buried centuries-deep in history, let us try to agree on this. Let us determine that the great space armadas of the future will go forth on voyages of peace — and go forth in a spirit not of national rivalry but of peaceful cooperation and understanding."
The treaty is stuffed with grand language about the "common interest of all mankind," the "use of outer space for peaceful purposes," the virtues of "international cooperation," and the need to develop "mutual understanding" to strengthen "friendly relations between States and peoples." Unlike similar feel-good language that often makes its way into arms control documents like verses in a Hallmark card, the words in the Outer Space Treaty may have been sincere. Moving the Cold War into space was a profoundly scary business in the mid-1960s.
"Most of the participants [in drafting the treaty] had only hazy ideas of what would come to pass in the space field, and how it would affect their own destinies," wrote two space law experts in 1998. "Even the United States and the Soviet Union seemed far more willing than usual to be persuaded by one another on most issues. Paradoxically, this comparative lack of specifically self-serving goals may be one reason why the Outer Space Treaty is viewed with such respect — approaching reverence at times — by so many. ... The treaty can be said to represent a more general view of the interests of humanity instead of being merely a compromise among interested parties, shaped primarily by the balance of power."
The core of the treaty is the notion that outer space, including the Moon and other "celestial bodies," is the "province of all mankind" and that space should be used exclusively for peaceful purposes. The words "peace" and "peaceful" appear seven times in the treaty; the phrase "peaceful purposes" pops up four times.
According to the treaty, the Moon and other celestial bodies could not be appropriated by any state. A nation might plant its flag on the Moon, as the United States did in July 1969, but it could not claim ownership. No military installations of any kind would be permitted there; no testing of weapons; no military maneuvers. Military personnel would be welcome as explorers, but only if they were engaged in nonmilitary scientific research or other "peaceful purposes."
Orbital space — the region between the Earth and the orbit of the Moon — was a different matter. Only nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction were barred from orbital space. The United States and the Soviet Union already had a variety of military-oriented hardware circling the Earth — mainly spy, communication, and missile-launch-warning satellites — and the Cold War adversaries were not about to deal those assets away.
Spy satellites were too useful to both sides to be banned — and they were not in themselves weapons. Given the fact that the retaliatory nuclear forces of the United States and the Soviet Union were on a hair trigger, satellite imagery, even if blurry or full of static, served the interests of peace. In matters nuclear, ambiguity breeds mistrust, fear, miscalculation, and possibly accidental or preemptive war. Spy satellites helped clear away the fog, giving each side bits and pieces of the puzzle regarding the other side's military capabilities, if not the other side's political intentions. Small comfort, to be sure, but it was some comfort.
The U.S. and Soviet teams who worked on the treaty simply accepted the limited militarization of space, mainly for intelligence gathering and communications. That was a given. Spy, communications, and warning satellites were OK but orbital weapons — "shooters" in today's argot — were not. The treaty's negotiators focused solely on nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction during their deliberations. Space weapons so accurate that they could take out buildings or bunkers or airplanes in flight were the stuff of science fiction, not of humankind's real-life future. In the mid-1960s, when the major work on the treaty was done, there was no reason to worry about non-nuclear weapons in space. What would be the point? No conventional weapon fired from space would have enough accuracy or explosive power to be militarily significant.
A space-based conventional weapon — if developed and deployed — might be aimed at a bunker, but it was as likely to blow apart a barn thirty, if not three hundred, miles from the target. Further, conventional weapons in space would not be cost effective, even if they could be made reasonably accurate. Lifting anything into orbit was (and remains) hugely expensive. Only weapons with mass effects would be worth the cost, and now they were barred.
Although the drafters of the Outer Space Treaty believed they were peering far into the future, they could not foresee the incredible shrinking world of microprocessors, a computing-power race that the United States has always led by many laps. As U.S. processors got smaller, they also became more powerful. In turn, that made the miniaturization of space hardware possible. Powerful but minuscule processors opened the door for today's array of made-in-America precision weapons, many of which are dependent on an ever more sophisticated array of U.S. space satellites, especially surveillance and geo-positioning satellites. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Twilight War by Mike Moore. Copyright © 2008 The Independent Institute. Excerpted by permission of The Independent Institute.
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