Can the United States Afford to Surrender in the Next Conflict to Another Nation's Dominance in Space?

By Hansen, Richard Earl | Air & Space Power Journal, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

Can the United States Afford to Surrender in the Next Conflict to Another Nation's Dominance in Space?


Hansen, Richard Earl, Air & Space Power Journal


Themistocles, an Athenian politician and naval strategist of early Greece, was an astute observer who wrote that "he who commands the sea has command of everything."1 Themistocles was the creator of Athenian sea power and the chief savior of Greece from being conquered by the Persians. The navy he designed defeated the Persian fleet in the Battle of Salamis in 480 B.c., thus saving Athens from subjugation.2 In those ancient times, it must be noted, the fastest means of travel was on the seas, since ships outdistanced all other methods of travel. Over the centuries, we have seen an upward progression in the speed of travel from ships on the sea, to railroads and highways on the surface, up through airplanes in the atmosphere and, in this fin de siecle, to the flashing speed of rockets in space. Consequently, while giving due respect to Themistocles, it must be concluded that we have presently reached that era in which whoever commands in space has command of everything.

The United States and our Air Force would do well to accept that statement as a basic doctrinal verity in any conflict. Note that the Gulf War played out to be an excellent, though partial, proving ground for that axiom. Our dominance over Iraq in passive space tools provided the United States and its allies with a commanding position over Iraqi terrestrial forces. After a period of decisive air strikes and only one hundred hours of ground warfare, the stated goals of the United Nations were achieved. Due in great part to these superior United States advantages in space, victory in the conflict was celebrated.

The world has reached the situation in which many nations and businesses have extensive commercial capabilities in space for television and communications. One example is the Motorola Corporation's 5O-odd satellite-studded array of its iridium personal communications system. Other satellite-rich commercial systems are quickly filling near-earth space seemingly out-pacing governmental deployments. Aggressive acts by unprincipled nations or terrorists threatening such orbital assets must be dealt with as a possibility. Our US corporations will then reasonably expect Air Force aerospace forces to provide security for their peaceful space ventures. Such normal expectations would parallel our naval fighting ships providing protection for our merchantmen and fishing fleets, or as our cavalry in the early West escorted and defended the prairie schooners venturing into our unpopulated frontiers.

In order to establish national policy and Air Force strategic doctrine, the United States would do well to make these declarations:

As to United States National policy: It shall be the policy of the United States that freedom of passage on the high seas of space is considered an inalienable right of all nations

As to United States Air Force doctrine: Air Force forces shall be prepared to achieve early dominance in any space conflict so as to guarantee freedom of passage for United States commercial ventures as well as all United States governmental and military assets in space.

We must initiate the struggle for the creation and operation by our Air Force of those aerospace forces capable in wartime of achieving a commanding presence on the high seas of space. When realized, that dominance would provide protection from electronic tampering, predators, pirates, and hostile nations for our valuable US space-traveling assets. And it is difficult to believe that any middle or compromise solution to protect our vital space assets could approach success against direct hostile interference.

Could it possibly occur that the United States, presently one of the world's most powerful nations on the sea, on the land, in the air, and currently masterful in space, would ever fail to strive for wartime dominance in space? Were we not to create and exercise US Air Force commanding forces in space, would we not, in effect, be abandoning our commercial and military space assets to potential, or even certain, loss. …

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