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Published: 1 March 2009
Air & Space Power Journal - Spring 2009

Soft Power and Space Weaponization

Trevor Brown

Editorial Abstract: The United States has taken steps to weaponize space despite the objections of world powers such as China and Russia. Other nations interpret US actions as an attempt to develop proprietorial domination of the medium. The author argues that this perception has incurred a geopolitical backlash and has diminished our soft power (the ability to attract others by the legitimacy of policies and the values that underlie them). Drawing parallels with maritime history, he develops a new approach that protects US interests and achieves space supremacy through competitive scientific and commercial pursuits that are less confrontational.

The United States has plans to weaponize space and is already deploying missile-defense platforms.1 Official, published papers outline long-term visions for space weapons, including direct-ascent antisatellite (ASAT) missiles, ground-based lasers that target satellites in low Earth orbit, and hypervelocity rod bundles that strike from space.2 According to federal budget documents, the Pentagon has asked Congress for considerable resources to test weapons in space, marking the biggest step toward creating a space battlefield since the Strategic Defense Initiative during the Cold War.3 Although two co-orbital escort vehicles—the XSS-11 experimental microsatellite and the Autonomous Nanosatellite Guardian for Evaluating Local Space—are intended to monitor the space environment and inspect friendly satellites, they possess the technical ability to disrupt other nations’ military reconnaissance and communications satellites.4 These developments have caused considerable apprehension in Moscow, Beijing, and other capitals across the world, resulting in a security dilemma.

Russia and China believe that they must respond to this strategic challenge by taking measures to dissuade the United States from pursuing space weapons and missile defenses. Their response will likely include developing more advanced ASAT weapons, building more intercontinental ballistic missiles, extending the life of existing ballistic missiles, adopting countermeasures against missile defenses, developing other asymmetric capabilities for the medium of space, and reconsidering commitments on arms control.5

The military options for Russia and China are not very appealing since neither can compete directly with the United States in space on an equal financial, military, or technical footing. Consequently, their first and best choice is the diplomatic route through the United Nations (UN) by presenting resolutions and treaties in hopes of countering US space-weaponization efforts with international law. Although such attempts have thus far failed to halt US plans, they have managed to build an international consensus against the United States. Indeed, on 5 December 2007, a vote on a UN resolution calling for measures to stop an arms race in space passed by a count of 178 to one against the United States, with Israel abstaining.6

The problem for the United States is that other nations believe it seeks to monopolize space in order to further its hegemonic dominance.7 In recent years, a growing number of nations have vocally objected to this perceived agenda. Poor US diplomacy on the issue of space weaponization contributes to increased geopolitical backlashes of the sort leading to the recent decline in US soft power—the ability to attract others by the legitimacy of policies and the values that underlie them—which, in turn, has restrained overall US national power despite any gains in hard power (i.e., the ability to coerce).8

The United States should not take its soft power lightly since decreases in that attribute over the past decade have led to increases in global influence for strategic competitors, particularly Russia and China. The ramifications have included a gradual political, economic, and social realignment, otherwise known as “multipolarism” and translated as waning US power and influence. “Soft power, therefore, is not just a matter of ephemeral popularity; it is a means of obtaining outcomes the United States wants. . . . When the United States becomes so unpopular that being pro-American is a kiss of death in other countries’ domestic politics, foreign political leaders are unlikely to make helpful concessions. . . . And when U.S. policies lose their legitimacy in the eyes of others, distrust grows, reducing U.S. leverage in international affairs.”9 Due to US losses of soft power, the international community now views with suspicion any legitimate concerns that the United States may have about protecting critical assets in space, making it far more difficult politically for the Air Force to make plans to offer such protection.

The Necessity of Defenses

Without a doubt, we must guard at all costs the celestial lines of communications that link society and the military. Consider the consequences if satellites that we use every day for military operations, financial transactions, communications, weather forecasting, and air navigation failed without warning. Devastating strikes on critical nodes in space not only could place the lives of millions at serious risk, but also could result in incalculable economic losses to the nation.

Throughout the Cold War, the United States struggled to obtain a position of military superiority over the Soviet Union in order to protect American values and interests. A legacy of that struggle is the United States’ current space capability. Should the United States permit security for its values and interests to lapse by discontinuing attempts to retain the military superiority that it has achieved? Are we to believe that US security could somehow increase by forgoing military supremacy?

Some people speak as if they believe that a country can choose whether to pursue national security through arms or through arms control.10 But Russia’s interest in banning space weapons is motivated by a desire to stunt the growth of US military space programs in order to buy time for covertly advancing its own space-weapons program and achieving technological parity.11 Russia bases its opposition to space weaponization not on a scrupulous set of principles but on strategic objectives. Two scholars contend that “to understand whether Russia could indeed change its position on the weaponization of space, we need to go beyond official statements and discussion among Russian military experts. The course of the military space program in Russia will be determined primarily by the availability of the resources required to support the program and by the ability of the industry and the military to manage development projects for the military use of space.”12

Despite China’s repeated calls for a ban on all space weapons, historical evidence suggests that little separates Chinese and Russian motivations for such bans. “Because a broad interpretation of space weapons would rule out almost all U.S. missile defense systems, Chinese officials who want to limit U.S. missile defense deployments would advocate a ban that used this interpretation.”13 Interestingly, after the Clinton administration scrapped the Strategic Defense Initiative in 1993, China redoubled its efforts in military space and gained ground on the United States.14 By 1999 “China’s test of a spacecraft intended for manned flight demonstrated a low-thrust rocket propulsion system that could be used to make warheads maneuver to defeat a BMD [ballistic missile defense] system.”15

Perhaps there remains a belief in the US strategic community that “the deployment of U.S. space weapons is likely to make space assets—including commercial communications and broadcast satellites—even more vulnerable, since no other country is pursuing, let alone deploying, space attack weapons.”16 Such notions were shattered when China conducted its first successful ASAT test in January 2007, suggesting that it had spent many years developing ASAT capabilities. The United States—as well as the rest of the world, for that matter—should not allow itself to be duped. The record shows that although officials in the Chinese Communist Party rail against military space as a threat to peace and stability, the People’s Liberation Army busies itself with the acquisition of space weapons.

The notion that the United States can keep space from becoming a “shooting gallery” by agreeing to a comprehensive ban on space weapons is naïve.17 The hard truth is that as long as US economic and military power depends on massive, complex, and expensive sets of vulnerable space assets, the incentive for any potential foe to develop ways of attacking them remains too great to be overcome by any international agreement.18 If, however, such an agreement can constrain the United States from developing and deploying effective countermeasures, foes would have every reason to pressure Washington into limiting its own actions.19 As space technology spreads, the incentives for small and medium states to seek space-warfare capabilities increase, and the destruction of a major US satellite would represent both a substantive and symbolic victory over the United States.20 There is, therefore, no question of whether to proceed with space weapons—only a question of how to do so with the requisite political skill in order to retain soft power while expanding hard power.

Rhetoric and Posturing

Official rhetoric clearly has a significant role to play in the skillful execution of US space policy—take for example the US National Space Policy paper of 2006. Other nations believed that the document contained uncompromising language and that the United States had taken a “proprietorial attitude” toward space.21 Whether or not the document’s actual language is proprietorial may be open to dispute, but it nevertheless appeared that way to an international audience. In the political arena, perceptions are often more important than reality, and it is likely that the manner in which the Bush administration conducted foreign policy at the time led other nations to believe that the United States sought to impose an onerous domination of space on the rest of the world.

Analysts have argued that the rest of the world accepts US space supremacy, but the Bush administration was claiming space dominance—a condition that other countries will not accept.22 Evidently the world can tolerate the notion that the United States will possess space supremacy, which implies the ability to dominate, yet finds insufferable the idea that America could actually exercise this dominance. Perhaps the world believes that “dominance” connotes an oppressive, unilateral, or dictatorial position, while “supremacy” suggests merely a position of leadership.

What, then, do nations believe that future US space dominance would mean? Retired Chinese military officer Bao Shixiu, a research fellow at the Academy of Military Sciences in Beijing, has stated that “the monopolization of space by a single country . . . cannot be accepted.”23 Maybe the rest of the world is inclined to share this conception of a “monopoly” due to analysts’ concern “that the U.S. government might pursue a strategy that would aim to maintain a veto over other countries’ ability to access space.”24

The fact is that space is now a great “commons” for space powers, much as the sea was for sea powers centuries ago, not because of any international law or treaty but because of the nature of the space medium. Similar to maritime communications long ago, space assets must conduct all of the surveillance and reconnaissance, attack warning and assessment, communications, signals interception, navigation, munitions guidance, meteorology, and so forth, in a neutral or “common” zone. According to Sir Julian S. Corbett, “You cannot conquer sea because it is not susceptible of ownership, at least outside territorial waters. You cannot, as lawyers say, ‘reduce it into possession,’ because you cannot exclude neutrals from it as you can from territory you conquer. In the second place, you cannot subsist your armed force upon it as you can upon enemy’s territory.”25

Space forces allow the United States to act with unprecedented speed and thoroughness around the world in much the same way that England’s sea power “allowed her forces to act on distant points, widely apart as Cuba, Portugal, India, and the Philippines, without a fear of serious break in their communications.”26 However, assets and information in space, as on the sea, must pass along lines of communications not only shared by other participants but also open to dispute. It follows that since space has inherent value as a means of obtaining and communicating information, a critical objective in space must always concern the securing of celestial lines of communications. Corbett notes that

command of the sea, therefore, means nothing but the control of maritime communications, whether for commercial or military purposes. The object of naval warfare is the control of communications, and not, as in land warfare, the conquest of territory. The difference is fundamental. True, it is rightly said that strategy ashore is mainly a question of communications, but they are communications in another sense. The phrase refers to the communications of the army alone, and not to the wider communications which are part of the life of the nation.27

A recent analysis contends that “key to understanding Corbett’s thinking is that command of the sea actually exists only in a state of war. For if one claims command of the sea during times of peace, it is done rhetorically and only means one state has adequate naval positions and a sizable fleet to secure command once hostilities are commenced.”28

Corbett goes further: “To aim at a standard of naval strength or a strategical distribution which would make our trade absolutely invulnerable is to march to economic ruin. It is to cripple our power of sustaining war to a successful issue, and to seek a position of maritime despotism which, even if it were attainable, would set every man’s hand against us. All these evils would be upon us, and our goal would still be in the far distance.”29

For this reason, the United States should seek a position of space supremacy whereby it can exercise control and effectively dominate the medium in the event of war. At the same time, it should maintain a stance in peace that is politically acceptable to all other participants by refraining from overextended and unnecessary exercises in domination. The United States should especially avoid creating the perception that it has grandiose desires for imposing a domination that smacks of orbital tyranny.

Evidently, rhetoric emanating from the United States regarding space has made members of the international community suspicious that America could bar them from the medium on nothing more than a whim. Such apprehensions unnecessarily contribute to further reductions in soft power. The United States should take care to ensure that other nations receive the impression that it has no intention of hindering their peaceful use of space. If those countries find current US space supremacy tolerable, then perhaps in time they could endure the United States’ possession of weapons if this were a significant aspect of US primacy in space and maintenance of the status quo. But if US rhetoric and posturing leave other nations with the belief that the United States has stratagems for orbital despotism, then the international system will hesitate to look to it for leadership. Furthermore, even if most nations cannot compete in space, they will nevertheless do whatever they can to oppose the United States.

“Merchant Shipping”

The United States would do well to keep a low profile for its military space program and burnish its technological image by showcasing its commercial and scientific space programs. Doing so would enable it to accumulate rather than hemorrhage soft power. Such a rationale is not lost on the Chinese, who certainly have had their successes in recent years in building soft power and using it to extend their influence around the globe. According to National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) administrator Michael Griffin, the Chinese have a carefully thought-out human-spaceflight program that will take them up to parity with the United States and Russia. They’re investing to make China a strategic world power second to none in order to reap the deals and advantages that flow to world leaders.30

Analysts believe that the United States’ determination to maintain dominance in military space has caused it to lose ground in commercial space and space exploration. They maintain that the United States is giving up its civilian space leadership—an action that will have huge strategic implications.31 Although the US public may be indifferent to space commerce or scientific activities, technological feats in space remain something of a marvel to the broader world. In 1969 the world was captivated by man’s first walk on the moon. The Apollo program paid huge dividends in soft power at a time when the United States found itself dueling with the Soviets to attract other nations into its ideological camp. Unless the United States has a strong presence on the moon at the time of China’s manned lunar landing, scheduled for 2017, much of the world will have the impression that China has approached the United States in terms of technological sophistication and comprehensive national power.32 If recent trends hold, this is likely to come at a time when the new and emerging ideological confrontation between Beijing and Washington will have intensified considerably.33

The most recent space race reflects the changing dynamics of global power. “Technonationalism” remains the impetus for many nations’ space programs, particularly in Asia: “In contrast to the Cold War space race between the United States and the former Soviet Union, the global competition today is being driven by national pride, newly earned wealth, a growing cadre of highly educated men and women, and the confidence that achievements in space will bring substantial soft power as well as military benefits. The planet-wide eagerness to join the space-faring club is palpable.”34 India and Japan are also aggressively developing their own space programs.35

But the United States does not necessarily have to choose between civilian and military space programs since much of the technology developed for space is dual use. The space industry provides a tremendous opportunity for militaries that desire more affordable access and space assets that can significantly augment terrestrial forces. As Alfred Thayer Mahan pointed out, “Building up a great merchant shipping lays the broad base for the military shipping.”36 The US military can maximize its resources, not only financially but also politically, by packaging as much military space activity as possible into commercial space activity.

One example involves satellite communications. The arrangement the Pentagon has with Iridium Satellite LLC gives the military unlimited access to its network and allows users to place both secure and nonsecure calls or send and receive text messages almost anywhere in the world.37 Another example involves space imagery. Even though the government must maintain sophisticated imaging capabilities for special situations, it could easily meet the vast majority of its routine requirements at lower cost by obtaining commercially available imagery.38

The Air Force could also use space transportation, another emerging industry, to maximize its resources. Private ventures now under way are reducing the costs of space access considerably. It is possible that one enterprise could become an alternative to Russian Soyuz spacecraft for NASA’s missions to the International Space Station.39 Such enterprises could prove attractive, cost-effective options for delivering the Air Force’s less-sensitive payloads to Earth orbit. Space tourism, a growing industry, could enable the Air Force to procure affordable capabilities to routinely operate 60 to 90 miles above Earth.40 Advances that entrepreneurs are making in suborbital space flight could eventually evolve to a point where the Air Force would find it far easier, politically as well as financially, to acquire platforms capable of delivering munitions from space.


A glance at the global strategic situation reveals many nations rushing to develop space capabilities. Ostensibly civilian, the capabilities in development around the world are largely dual use and will have profound effects on the balance of power. The United States, therefore, would be foolish to slow the pace of its own space development. The issue at hand is not whether to proceed with space weapons but how to proceed with these capabilities and effectively manage the security dilemmas that will inevitably arise.

By assuming a posture which suggests that its intentions in space are competitive scientific and commercial pursuits—and which does not suggest the desire to barricade the medium in times of peace for the purpose of geopolitical leverage—the United States can proceed without causing undue angst in the international community. Once we have laid the foundation for commercial activities (i.e., “merchant shipping”), military capabilities—or “military shipping”—will follow in due course and with far less controversy. If US policy makers can showcase scientific and commercial space endeavors while avoiding the perception of orbital despotism, they can steadily build dominant military space capabilities and retain soft power.

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1. Leonard David, “Weapons in Space: Dawn of a New Era,” Space.com, 17 June 2005, http://www.space.com/news/ 050617_space_warfare.html (accessed 20 August 2008).

2. Bryan Bender, “Pentagon Eyeing Weapons in Space: Budget Seeks Millions to Test New Technologies,” Boston Globe, 14 March 2006, http://www.boston.com/news/nation/articles/2006/03/14/pentagon_eyeing _weapons_in_space (accessed 12 October 2008).

3. Ibid.

4. David Shiga, “ANGELS to Watch over US Air Force Satellites,” NewScientist, 4 August 2006, http://space.new scientist.com/article/dn9674 (accessed 12 October 2008); and Tim Weiner, “Air Force Seeks Bush’s Approval for Space Weapons Programs,” New York Times, 18 May 2005, http://www.nytimes.com/2005/05/18/business/18space.html?hp (accessed 12 October 2008).

5. Pavel Podvig and Hui Zhang, Russian and Chinese Responses to U.S. Military Plans in Space (Cambridge, MA: American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2008), v–vi, http://www.amacad.org/publications/militarySpace.pdf.

6. UN General Assembly, “Resolution Adopted by the General Assembly: 62/20. Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space,” 62nd sess., 10 January 2008, http://disarma ment.un.org/vote.nsf (accessed 20 August 2008).

7. Kevin Whitelaw, “China Aims High,” U.S. News and World Report, 4 December 2007, 2, http://www.usnews .com/articles/news/2007/12/04/china-aims-high.html ?PageNr=1 (accessed 20 August 2008).

8. Joseph S. Nye Jr., “The Decline of America’s Soft Power,” Foreign Affairs 83, no. 3 (May/June 2004): 1.

9. Ibid.

10. Colin Gray, American Military Space Policy: Information Systems, Weapon Systems, and Arms Control (Cambridge, MA: Abt Books, 1982), 77.

11. Ibid., 53.

12. Podvig and Hui Zhang, Russian and Chinese Responses, 5.

13. Ibid., 73.

14. Baker Spring, “Clinton’s Failed Missile Defense Policy: A Legacy of Missed Opportunities,” Heritage Foundation, 21 September 2000, http://www.heritage.org/Research/MissileDefense/BG1396.cfm (accessed 20 August 2008).

15. Podvig and Hui Zhang, Russian and Chinese Responses, 56.

16. Sean Kay and Theresa Hitchens, “Bush Policy Would Start New Arms Race in Space,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, 25 May 2005, in Center for Defense Information, http://www.cdi.org/program/document.cfm?DocumentID= 3022&from_page=../index.cfm (accessed 20 August 2008).

17. Michael Krepon, “Russia and China Propose a Treaty Banning Space Weapons, While the Pentagon Plans an ASAT Test,” Stimson Center, 14 February 2008, http://www.stimson.org/pub.cfm?ID=568 (accessed 13 October 2008).

18. Taylor Dinerman, “Space Weapons Agreements, Treaties, and Politics,” Space Review, 10 March 2008, http://www.thespacereview.com/article/1078/1 (accessed 20 August 2008).

19. Ibid.

20. Taylor Dinerman, “Messy Battlefields,” Space Review, 24 March 2008, http://www.thespacereview.com/article/ 1089/1 (accessed 20 August 2008).

21. Matthew Davis, “Dominating the Final Frontier,” BBC, 19 October 2006, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/6068304.stm (accessed 12 October 2008).

22. Whitelaw, “China Aims High,” 2.

23. Quoted in ibid.

24. Ibid.

25. Julian S. Corbett, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy (London: Longmans, Green, 1911), 89.

26. Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660–1783 (Boston: Little, Brown, 1890), 317.

27. Corbett, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy, 90.

28. John J. Klein, Space Warfare: Strategy, Principles, and Policy (London: Routledge, 2006), 24.

29. Corbett, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy, 284.

30. Marc Kaufman, “U.S. Finds It’s Getting Crowded Out There: Dominance in Space Slips As Other Nations Step Up Efforts,” Washington Post, 9 July 2008, http://www .washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/07/ 08/AR2008070803185_pf.html (accessed 20 August 2008).

31. Ibid.

32. David Barboza, “China Launches Space Walk Mission,” International Herald Tribune, 26 September 2008, http://www.iht.com/articles/2008/09/26/asia/26space .php (accessed 14 October 2008).

33. James Mann, “A Shining Model of Wealth without Liberty,” Washington Post, 20 May 2007, http://www.wash ingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/05/18/AR2007051801640.html (accessed 14 October 2008).

34. Peter Ford, “What’s behind Asia’s Moon Race?” Christian Science Monitor, 25 October 2007, http://www .csmonitor.com/2007/1025/p06s01-woap.html (accessed 20 August 2008); and Kaufman, “U.S. Finds.”

35. Barboza, “China Launches Space Walk Mission.”

36. Mahan, Influence of Sea Power, 106.

37. Simon Romero, “TECHNOLOGY: Military Now Often Enlists Commercial Technology,” New York Times, 10 March 2003, http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage .html?res=9406E4D81F3FF933A25750C0A9659C8B63& sec=&spon=&pagewanted=all (accessed 14 October 2003).

38. Thomas Snitch, “A BASICally Bad Decision,” Space Review, 29 September 2008, http://www.thespacereview .com/article/1221/1 (accessed 14 October 2008).

39. Loretta Hidalgo Whitesides, “Next for SpaceX: Falcon 9, NASA, Humans and the Moon?” Wired, 29 September 2008, http://blog.wired.com/wiredscience/2008/ 09/whats-next-at-s.html (accessed 14 October 2008).

40. Brian Berger and Lon Rains, “Northrop to Buy SpaceShipOne Builder: Scaled Composites Already Crafting ‘SpaceShipTwo’ for Tourists,” MSNBC, 20 July 2007, http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/19877344 (accessed 9 March 2008).


Trevor Brown

Trevor Brown (BA, Indiana University; MSc, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University [Singapore]) is a new author interested in political, economic, and military strategy for the medium of space.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University

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