Changes in the United States Military Space Policy and It’s Power Structure

On the evening of October 4th, 1957 geopolitics forever changed when the Soviet Union became the world’s first space-faring nation after the successful launch of its artificial satellite Sputnik I. The news of the Soviet launch was the basis for a fundamental change in U.S. military space policy as space was now seen as a pathway to increased power and prestige instead of the outdated school of thought of space as a backwater. However, as Deborah Stone puts it in Policy Paradox, “the longer the time span between the reward or penalty and the requisite behavior change, the more likely the target’s situation will change and, along with it, the value of the incentive to the target.” Thus, even though the military space policy of the United States has been dominated by the United States Air Force since the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik I, policy within this area has changed dramatically from the cold war era of reconnaissance to the highly globalized and less transparent security threats of the twenty-first century. Despite the Air Force’s spearheading role in policy formation, it is important to consider that policy is also influenced by other agencies within the Department of Defense (DoD), various other governmental agencies, and also a wide variety of intelligence communities.

Air Force Space Command emblem

It is also important to consider how policy is affected due to the tightly woven interests of both the civil and military space programs. Primarily, space objects employ dual-use technologies that are used by both the civil and military sectors. As one space policy analyst notes, “The history of American civil and military cooperation in space is one of competing interests, priorities, and justifications at the upper policy levels combined with a remarkable degree of cooperation and coordination at virtually all operational levels.”The main actor since the beginning of the space age when it comes to the actual development of space technology is the government, who pays for the majority of expenses and even develops their own technologies in in-house government laboratories with U.S.-owned and -based high technology firms. Another aspect that both the civil and military sectors of space share is that both serve the ultimate purpose of projecting national strength to the global audience. As the military represents the force component, the civil space program serves more as a form of prestige.

Spitnik 1 Image Credit:History

The launch of Sputnik sent a wave of shock not only through the United States and its government but also to the international community whose absence of protestation more or less laid out the foundation of international law regarding the right of satellite overflight of national territories. In an effort to respond to these changing circumstances, the United States Air Force took up the responsibility of dictating and ultimately determining U.S. military operations in outer space. However, the Air Force was not the first actor within the field of space militarization. Even before the United States sent the first rocket to space, the Department of Defense had attempted to contrive a plan to place a space station with 50 active military personnel abroad in order to undertake reconnaissance missions and earth observation. The brainchild behind this idea, Wernher von Braun even said the station could be used as a base where the U.S. could launch nuclear warheads at the Soviet Union. Yet, it was also around this time in 1957 that the Air Force first entered the policy scene. The policy of the Air Force at this time reflected their own desires to expand operations as they saw the role for space astronauts to be crucial to national security. Because of its influential place in the executive branch, it was fairly easy for the Air Force to propose the development of a piloted spacecraft under the “Man-in Space-Soonest” (MISS) program.

This change in power structure was only solidified further when General Thomas D. White announced the first Air Force space doctrine in the same year which included the suggestion that there is hardly any difference between air and space; and that the Air Force should be tasked with the responsibility of controlling all domestic forces within that medium. This subsequent change in thinking only furthered the already gaining concept that the exploitation and control of space could make a vital contribution to the national security of the nation. However, the claims laid out by the Air Force were in direct contrast with the space policy of President Dwight D. Eisenhower who viewed space as a haven where reconnaissance could take place without the threat of hostile intervention. The establishment of a unique panel by President Eisenhower in 1958, and the subsequent creation of the Purcell report, transparently laid out what the President saw as the appropriate policy on the militarization of space. The report gave support to the use of militarization regarding specific utilities such as reconnaissance, weather forecasting, and communication but also rejected any use or creation of space weapons. However, it was also in this year that the United States Air Force developed the unsuccessful Project A119, a plan with the aim of detonating an atomic bomb on the surface of the moon to project U.S. superiority as well as serve to investigate different ecological features.

The complete domination of U.S. military space policy by the Air Force is exemplified by the fact that it funds anywhere from 80–90% of the American military efforts in outer space and even supplies 35,000 labor personnel for military space activities. There are some small military actors in this field, however, most notably the Army’s Space and Missile Defense Command. Yet, with a scarce lack of resources compared to other larger agencies, most of these actors are limited to much smaller operations and have a minimal effect on policy. The result of the Air Force’s control of power in this policy area is the increasing expansion of military space research and technology development within their department. Currently, the Air Force along with the Missile Defense Agency is heading a program to investigate the potential of space-based laser concepts, with already millions of dollars in funding.

U.S. policy in this area also has been based on the President and the agenda that he wanted to set during his term in office. Space policy has not changed dramatically since its inception but has more or less adapted to the changing political, economic, and technological conditions of the world. An example of this was when President Kennedy and his administration announced their focus on closing the “missile gap” with the Soviet Union, mostly due to rising cold war tensions in the 1960s and the Soviet announcement of the development of orbiting nuclear weapons. This strategy resulted in the then serving Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara’s call for the Army to modify the Nike Zeus Anti-Ballistic Missile for future use as an anti-satellite weapon. Sequentially, as the pressure to match the Soviets development of orbital weapons increased, so did President Kennedy’s insistence on the further development of anti-satellite weapons. This supports the research of John W. Kingdon, who proposes in his book Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies, that “the president can single-handedly set the agendas, not only of people in the executive branch, but also people in Congress and outside government.” President Reagan is another example of a president who attempted to dominate and even determine the policy agenda of space militarization. In 1983, he his administration proposed the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), laying out plans for the combination of ground-based units and orbital deployment platforms, with the ultimate objective of protecting the United States from attack by nuclear missiles from either state or non-state actors.

In order to obtain some influence within this specific policy process, Presidents have used key institutional resources as a means of projecting their agendas. One of these resources is the organizational aspect of the executive branch and because of it being a more unitary decision-making entity compared to other branches, presidents have consistently used their command of the executive branch to advance the United States military interests in space. President Eisenhower for example established the Advanced Research Project Agency (ARPA) in 1957 in order to concentrate all military space funding into a single agency and eliminate unnecessary competition. Furthermore, President Johnson in an effort to avoid losing control of the cosmos to the Soviet’s proposed the 1967 Outer Space Treaty (OST), which outlawed nuclear weapons in outer space as well as banning sovereign claims of celestial bodies. The second tool that Presidents use is their command of public attention to put pressure on other actors to adapt their agendas. At a speech at Rice University in 1962, President Kennedy famously told an eager crowd during the cold war, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

One of the most monumental power changes in this policy field was when President Clinton put the Office of Science and Technology Council as the lead actor in space policy. This served as a brief transition of power within executive branch departments but was soon faded out due to bias over research and developments. But the president that President Clinton paved the way for the now current policy influence that the National Security Council Possesses. In 2001, the NSC became one of the leading actors in space policy setting when President Bush commissioned the NSC to work alongside the Office of Science and Technology Council to help draft future space policy.

The continuity of space policy is quite marked, but recent policy decisions and decision-making structures have increasingly recognized and adapted to the new potentials and challenges of space. In an ever increasing competitive and high-stakes environment of outer space policy, the agenda setting of modern day space militarization is set by the Joint Functional Component Command for Space (JFCC SPACE). Headquartered at Vandenberg Air Force Base in Lompoc, California, the JFCC SPACE serves to act as the primary point of communication for military space operational matters to plan, task, direct and execute space operations. The continuing domination of policy by the United States Air Force is also further strengthened due to Commander of JFCC SPACE also being in charge of the Fourteenth Air Force (Air Force Space Command).

(U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Angelina Drake)

However, control and influence in military space policy are not solely dominated by governmental actors. As Kingdon advances, the collection of academics, researchers, and consultants are the second most important non-governmental actor behind interest groups.These groups are fairly new onto the agenda scene of space militarization and are only mainly used by politicians as a means to solve problems, and are not reliable for the prominence of certain issues on the agenda. The academics rise to prominence was the result of their ability to be ready and constantly prepared with proposals on how to adapt to the ever-changing, globalized international community. Thus, in order to gain full insight into various sectors of this policy area, politicians turn to these academics for a variety of recommendations. In 2010 for example, the Eisenhower Center for Space and Defense Studies at the U.S. Air Force Academy devised a plan of space deterrence that was formally adopted by the Department of Defense in 2011. Named the “delicate balance of risk” or the four elements concept, the goal of this concept is to “dissuade and deter the development, testing, and employment of counter-space systems and prevent and deter aggression against space systems and supporting infrastructure that supports U.S. national security. It is from this that the interplay between non-governmental and governmental actors occurs, and where ideas and concepts flow and permeate between various institutions.

When analyzing the military space policy of the United States, it is vital to consider how due to the eclectic group of actors that are involved in the process, there are a large variety of different agendas that are simultaneously being promoted. Thus, the policy options stage can be affected by a wide range of factors such as funding constraints, difficulties in multi-agency communication, and various other limitations. Another consideration is regarding this specific policy process is that there has yet to a formal, international conclusion on the definition of a stable space environment. The very ambiguous languages of various international space laws and treaties also serve to undermine appropriate behavior in space, as the lack of definition is a catalyst for miscommunication and possibly hostile encounters. Another aspect of concern regarding the United States activities in space is that many emerging space powers are wary of the U.S. military space programs and how the nation continuously votes against the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS) resolutions in the United Nations General Assembly which seek to enforce legally binding measures to ban weapons and various conflicts that could occur in the cosmos.

Lastly, the current deterrence approach adopted by the United States and other spacefaring nations rely mainly on the Westphalian definition of sovereignty, describing a very clear and distinct relationship between sovereignty, territory, and the state. However, the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which was heavily centered around the Declaration of Legal Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, forbade any claim of sovereignty within outer space. This, in turn, poses a contradiction between the domestic space policies of the United States and the international space agreements dictated at various diplomatic forums such as The Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS), the United Nations First Committee, and the Conference on Disarmament.

The Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) ©Birkeland Centre for Space Science

The policies and actors involved in the formation of the United States outer space military policy all originate or are influenced by the enduring U.S. belief that a prosperous military space program would create the conditions in which space becomes a free, open, and safe space for all accountable space actors-requirements necessary for U.S. peace and economic prosperity. The economies and populations of all sovereign nations can garner significant benefits from functional national or shared space assets, and the use of military space operations can also enable the creation of these systems as well as offer them protection in a potentially insecure space domain of the future. The future of our national security in space resides in how well the United States Air Force, Department of Defense, the President, along with various other actors, can adapt creatively in order to overstep traditional and developing threats. With numerous military space development programs currently being researched and developed, the United States may not be able to totally prevent the weaponization of space indefinitely, but by setting a precedent for other spacefaring nations, it can slowly moderate the process while still serving its core military and strategic interests.

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