Challenges to Space Security
and Their Resolution
The years from the end of Gerald Ford’s administration to the Soviet breakup in December 1991 witnessed various attempts to challenge the existing framework of military space restraint. Renewed Soviet anti-satellite (ASAT) testing, the rise of U.S. space security concerns, and the emergence of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) could easily have led to serious problems for safe access to space and the right of free passage. Support for cooperative forms of space security and continued restraint in terms of deployed weapons, however, remained engrained in enough critical nodes of power within both the U.S. and Soviet governments to maintain existing agreements and norms. The administration of Ronald Reagan represented a unique challenge in that the president pledged both to deploy a vast network of space defenses and to save the world from nuclear weapons,1 even as his advisors split on whether the SDI program should be a bargaining chip or a means of achieving some form of military-led space control. Because of the president’s radical agenda for weaponizing space and his unfamiliarity with existing norms, the period from 1983 to 1986 saw the unlearning of past lessons. Plans for SDI envisaged the deployment of thousands of orbital weapons. But this bold project made no mention of the likely harmful implications of this massive military test and deployment program on the space environment. It seemed that a new form of space nationalism—abandoning the lessons of the past—had taken hold because of overriding U.S. security fears.
But events turned out differently from all apparent trends of the early 1980s. One small bellwether event came from outside the SDI program in 1985, when the air force decided to test a kinetic-kill ASAT weapon. Over the objections of
1 On this point, see Paul Lettow, Ronald Reagan and His Quest to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (New York: Random House, 2005).