Strategic Concerns for U.S. Space Policy in the 21st Century

This article is part of the PPSA Online Magazine
by John Johnson
Volume 8 Number 2 - Fall 1995

"...information cannot be obtained by offering prayers to gods and
spirits; nor by inductive thinking; nor by deductive calculation. It can
be obtained only from men who have a thorough knowledge of the
enemy's conditions." - Cheng Lin, The Art of War

This sage advice written by Suen Wuu for King Herlu around 510 B.C. holds true today, although he could barely have imagined the tools that his decendents, some twenty five centuries removed, would employ in gaining information. Where espionage was once solely carried out in the first person, it is now assisted and frequently replaced by advanced technologies. Survailance satellites can now discern a deck of cards from Earth orbit. The nations of the world are rapidly advancing, both socially and technologically. In such a world, the vital strategic potential of space must be recognized. Not only do the heavens provide a lofty perch from which we can monitor our neighbors, it must also be used for communication satellites and the military and commercial purposes that are essential to U.S. security interests.

On October 4, 1957 the Space Race began. It was on this date that the Soviet Union launched the 184 pound Sputnik satellite into space. In the nearly 40 years following the first successful space launch, both the United States and the Soviet Union, and more recently Europe, have been the primary users of space. Now all developed countries are rushing to put payloads into orbit. While the manned space programs have been the most visible and exciting aspects of this competition, the United States has become increasingly dependent on space based systems for command, control and communications. Space based systems provide reconnaissance, electronic intelligence, early warning of missile launches and treaty verification information that has become invaluable. Without a reliable network of satellites, the U.S. forces would be essentially deaf, dumb and blind on a global scale.

The recent summit between President Clinton and Boris Yeltsin affirmed a commitment to the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. The position that the President has taken can significantly limit the ability of the United States to defend itself from missile attack because it precludes the deployment of any theater missile defense system which may also pose a realistic threat to the strategic nuclear force of the other side. The high ground of space is the best and most logical position from which to monitor and respond to threats to the strategic interests of the United States. It is now more likely that the major powers will be threatened by terrorists than by other superpowers. It is important to adapt and develop space based systems that will augment our ability to defend against such new threats and the establishment of missile and other defensive systems in space should not be limited.

Many sensitive nations, including the Russian republics, now have access to nuclear technology and in some cases nuclear weapons. It is vital to the interests of our country that an active program be in place to monitor technology transfer and the actual location and amount of special nuclear material. Various new technologies exist to track nuclear material and associated parts, including satellite surveillance systems and the C3 systems necessary to coordinate such an effort.

From an economic point of view, it is vital to get the commercial sector involved in space launches. The U.S. space program and the ability to deliver payloads to space is important to the U.S. Government as well as universities and industry. Non-military satellites serve an important role in providing vital communication links, tracking weather systems and scientific studies of our planet. Programs like the manned space station and the space plane will help to ensure a rich research environment in space, which will have a direct impact on the technological and economic position of the United States. As access to space becomes more available, meaning less expensive and more prolific launch schedules, the commercial sector will exploit this opportunity and the positive effects on our economy will be far reaching. To do this, the Government should give an incentive to private launch organizations. The emphasis should be shifted from such strong reliance on the space shuttle, and the United States should re-establish a vigorous launch capability that includes unmanned and expendable launch vehicles. This is necessary in order to drive down costs and ensure that strategically important payloads make it into orbit on a realistic timetable. Systems such as the Saturn V rocket, which launched men into space and to the moon, can be an important part of this program.

The United States should do everything it can to maintain and strengthen it's technological leadership in space development and exploration. Budgetary constraints demand that programs be streamlined and certain missions must be postponed. However, the immediate needs of space based defensive systems and intelligence gathering systems should not be neglected. U.S. space policy as we enter the next century is vital in determining where we will stand in regards to science, commerce and defense at the end of the next century.

Last Updated 11/12/95.© 1996 PPSA