Space Control—How … and How Much?

May 1, 1959

Science is giving man the physical and technological powers of Superman in a Buck Roger suit. Man is attaining an awesome ability to control, exploit transform, and destroy his earthly environment. The time is fast approaching when he will be able to move mountain, wipe out most diseases, circle the earth in a flash, and build machines to do a large part of his mental as well as his physical labor. He is now rippling the fringe of outer space. Soon he will have created a whole new age — the space age.

There is little to indicate, however, that science will give man either super-wisdom or super-morality with which he can alter radically his values, beliefs, institutions, and political behavior. A revolution greater than any scientific and technological revolution ever known would take place if men and nations were to utilize outer space for purposes different from those for which they have utilized the earth.

In spite of hopes and dreams for peaceful and regulated activities in out space, we can expect that out space will become another arena of competition among sovereign states and between the East and the West, in particular. Outer space competition will affect, and someday it may tip, the East-West balance of power. Likewise, the East-West balance of power must determine the feasibility of foreign policy goals, including goals such as the peaceful use and regulation of outer space.

In the space age, as at the present time, East-West competition will require that United States national security policy rely heavily on military power. While the detailed characteristics of outer space military policy will depend greatly upon future scientific and technological developments, some broad strategic concepts will be needed to give form and direction to that progress. Too often in the past, policy makers and military strategists have abdicated one of their major responsibilities: To attempt the very difficult task of directing and greeting the development of new weapons and new weapon systems with foresight and insight.

One concept, which has been basic to seapower and airpower doctrine, each of which deals with a kind of spatial military power, is that of control. The concept of control may also be very helpful in analyzing outer space military power, which can be regarded as the purest form of spatial military power. The task of this article is to take a first step toward analyzing the concept of the military control of outer space and suggest some ways in which such an analysis may give helpful perspectives on national security policy in the outer space age.

Control of the sea and the air can be defined as the ability to use the sea and the air for national objectives and to prevent an enemy from using the sea and the air to attain his national objectives. What these objectives are and against whom they are to be supported determine how much, what kinds of, and in what ways control is to be sought.

In the abstract, control of the sea ad control of the air, like the concept of perfect competition in economic theory, are analytical tools designed to render meaning to reality rather than to describe reality. The concept of control in seapower and airpower doctrine gives policy makers and strategists a standard against which they can estimate their military objectives and capabilities in relation to those of their enemies. That these objectives and capabilities do not permit perfect control does not mean that the control, which is possible, is not militarily advantageous or even vital.

For centuries, Great Britain came closer than any other nation to exercising perfect control of the sea. In employing wisely the strategic doctrine of control. Great Britain built and maintained a war fleet to ensure the safety of her communications and trade routes, to support her national objectives, and to prevent her enemies from using the sea to their own advantage. Although the British war fleet, operating from a worldwide network of naval bases, could take the measure of the naval forces of England’s enemies, the control of the sea which the British was fleet won by decisive naval battles was not only imperfect but inadequate when decisive naval engagements did take place. Enemy commerce raiders could still use the seas, and enemy merchantmen could still make successful voyages.

Britain found it necessary, therefore, to establish control points, such as Gibraltar, which dominated the narrow exits and entrances separating and uniting the seas. Even these control points did not prevent Britain’s enemies from using the sea advantageously. As a result, “close-in” blockades of enemy harbors and coastlines and blockades of sectors of the sea by naval squadrons were also employed by Great Britain to further seal off her enemies from the sea. Blockades, too, were less than perfect means for controlling the sea. The vastness of the sea, the vagaries of the weather, and the cleverness of enemies weakened and sometimes made ineffective the most carefully worked out blockade plans.

In more recent years, science and technology added new dimensions to sea warfare. England was forced to devote a large portion of her naval efforts to the task of ensuring her own use of the sea. She herself had to fight against strangulation by blockades of new types. She had to fight against the severing of her communications and trade routes by enemy submarines and aircraft.

As we know, however, Great Britain derived great political and military benefits from striving for control of the sea. She found that control of the sea was a viable strategic doctrine because the benefits conferred by less than complete control of the sea were greater than the costs of trying to achieve complete control and because an advantageous control of the sea was, in the main, technologically feasible. In spite of recent scientific and technological developments, control of the sea still seems to be a viable military concept, although it may not remain so beyond the immediate future.

Military control of outer space, on the other hand, may not be a viable strategic concept, for outer space military power will continue and will accentuate problems of control with which airpower doctrine has had to contend. These problems stem from scientific and technological revolutions in weapons and weapons systems.

In World War II the arena in which airpower played its part was infinitely smaller than the arena in which outer space military power will be exercised. Yet when the Allied air forces had general control of the air, their enemies, by obtaining temporary use of limited airspaces, could still carry out successful operations. With the advent of weapons of mass destruction, a temporary use of limited airspaces by relatively few planes is sufficient for the mounting of not only successful but devastating attacks. Ever faster and more mobile delivery systems will make it increasingly difficult to prevent an enemy from launching major and repeated offensives. In the space age just a few missiles and rocket ships, launched from dispersed bases on the earth and in outer space and equipped with thermonuclear weapons, could easily constitute major and perhaps decisive military offensives.

Unless or until man lives in outer space a life independent of the earth, the use of outer space will have meaning only in relation to life on earth. For this reason, military control of outer space will be significant only to the extent that it affects the military policies and capabilities of the nations on the earth. The Soviet Union might develop the ability to use exclusively large sectors of outer space. But if she could not use this control to prevent the Western powers from destroying her earth-bound power centers, the East-West balance of military power would not be basically affected.

What, then, are the chances that use of outer space would significantly affect military relationships on earth One possibility is that preempting out space “property” such as the moon and putting into outer space man-made bases and platforms may lead to the creation of outer space control points similar to those earthly ones owned by Great Britain and used by the British Navy to control the sea.

It can be argued that, if the United States achieved control over the moon and built a military base on it, a very effective deterrent to Communist aggression would result. While a major Communist attack might wipe out most or all of the West’s earth-bound retaliatory power within hours, Soviet missiles and spaceships would require about four and three-quarter days to travel from the earth to the moon. This time lag would give a moon base ample opportunity to mount a retaliatory attack against Communist power centers on earth. A moon base might, therefore, cancel out the advantages to be gained by initiating total war.

The Value of a moon base as an outer space control point would depend partly on whether the threat of earth-bound retaliation or the threat of an earth-launched attack on the moon would deter a military power which dominates the moon from undertaking major aggression from either the earth or the moon. The answer to this question cannot be known at present, but simply by raising the issue it can be seen that there can be no sharp dividing line between earth-bound and outer space military power and control.

Another reason for doubting whether a moon base would be able to exercise any appreciable control over the actions of an enemy is that outer space “overseas” bases, unlike naval bases and air bases, probably will e established with relative ease and with relatively few restrictions as to their number. A moon base might readily be neutralized or put out of commission by a manmade space station or platform so located as to dominated the moon. It would appear, for the same reasons, that any space control point imaginable either artificial or natural, could be neutralized or destroyed by either space-launched or earth-launched weapons.

As far as we can now foresee, the concept of control in outer space military doctrine is not invalid because outer space military powers cannot use or even dominate sectors of outer space. The invalidity of the concept arises from the fact that military adversaries cannot be prevented from using outer space effectively and that they can, with relative ease, neutralize, by-pass, or destroy outer-space control points established against them.

The probability that there can be no militarily decisive control of outer space and no viable concept of control in outer space military doctrine is significant in many ways for national security policy in the space age.

The inapplicability of such a concept in the space age indicates that, at a time when policy makers and military strategists desperately need a doctrinal framework on which to hang and give a degree of order and meaning to new and perplexing scientific and technological developments, they will find it difficult to obtain guidance from existing strategic doctrines. As a result policy makers and military strategists will have to soar into outer space instinctively — “by the seat of their pants,” so to speak. This does not mean that they will always have to rely on posterior guidance systems or that they will have to soar aimlessly.

A hazy but basic guideline for outer space military policy is that outer space weapons and military instruments will undoubtedly be militarily advantageous and play an important if not major role in the East-West military struggle. The improbability that outer space military power, in itself, will determine the East-West balance of military power does not lead one to the conclusion that the United States need not pursue an active and imaginative outer space military program. Reconnaissance and communications satellites, space stations, and space bases for missies and rocket ships may join with both earth-based outer space weapons and earth-bound weapons in such ways that the power of defensive as well as offensive weapons systems will be greatly augmented. A “mix” of outer space and earth-bound weapons systems may be incomparably superior to earth-bound weapon systems.

What the proper “mix” of outer space and earth-bound weapons should be at any given time in the space age will be hard to determine. We can be fairly certain that no single weapon or weapon system would give a clear military advantage over an enemy, although each weapon and weapon system would have definite and constantly fluctuating military advantages. This situation, plus both the lack of a workable concept of control in space age military doctrine and ever changing weapon technology, will make for an uncertain and unstable balance of military power between the East and the West. Such instability could easily lead to miscalculation of military capabilities, and it might be conducive to reckless foreign and military policies.

At the present time, the so-called “balance of terror” helps to work against recklessness in foreign and military policy. But a balance of terror, to be meaningful, requires a concrete approximation of the risks, which aggression and war would entail. It is exactly this approximation, which the volatile nature of space age weapons and weapon systems may prevent. A general feeling of terror in the space age would not deter war as effectively as fears of identifiable and measurable war dangers.

The dangers inherent in the instability of the balance of East-West military power in the space age will be joined by another danger, which also springs from lack of an appropriate concept of control in outer space military doctrine. This danger is that fighting in outer space would automatically involve earth-bound military power, and that fighting on earth would automatically involve outer space military power. Because neither outer space nor earth-bound military power gives promise of being decisive in itself, the two, being “mixed” for maximum military security, could not easily be “unmixed” in case of war.

For this reason, it does not seem that in envisaging and planning for space age military security we should place emphasis or importance on the likelihood of being able to wage total war in outer space alone. A total war between the East and the West which could be waged entirely in outer space without involving directly life on earth certainly would be more desirable than a total war, which ravaged both outer space and the earth. Outer space fighting, however, could not settle decisively an East-West war unless the victor won military control of the earth. This will be precluded, apparently, by the nature of space age weapons and weapon systems.

Skirmishes in outer space alone may, on the other hand, be possible. It is not unreasonable to assume that outer space military competition may result in outer space fighting. A situation, which comes immediately to mind, is the shooting down of an adversary’s reconnaissance or “seeing-eye” satellite. Depending on the level of political tension and the heat of outer space military rivalry, such an act might result in retaliation in kind or on a broader front. We have some grounds for hoping that outer space skirmishes will not expand into total war, because military control of outer space will not exert a decisive military influence on the international power struggle. But outer space fighting that involves or jeopardizes the strength of the “mixes” of outer space and earth-bound weapons could easily develop into total war. The same can be said of “brushfire” wars or skirmished that start on the earth.

With the instability of the space age balance of military power, the volatile nature of weapons and weapon systems is constantly being altered and refined by science and technology; and with the great variety of weapons which will operate through, in, or from outer space, policy makers and military strategist will be hard put to place the proper emphasis on the military instruments which will best support national objectives. Nonetheless, at least two guiding principles for the allocation of space age national defense efforts appear to have merit.

The first is that space age defense policy should not attempt to use and at the same time to deny to an adversary large sectors of outer space. Control of outer space, in itself, is not likely to be of primarily military significance, and attempting to colonize outer space will dissipate efforts that could be better invested in decisive military power. Control of sectors of outer space may be considered important for psychological, ideological, or scientific reasons. The over-all political considerations of outer space national security policy may dictate a policy of control, whereas narrower considerations of military strength may dictate otherwise. The very great anticipated costs of space age security policy demand that careful attention be paid to national means and national ends.

The second guiding principle is that a large portion of national security efforts should be devoted to military defense of strategic areas on earth and to civil defense. The power, speed, sophistication, and mobility of outer space weapons and weapons systems will increase hundreds if not thousands of times the capabilities of military offense. A fleet of rocket ships, for example, attacking from hidden earth bases or from dispersed and far-flung space bases could wreak havoc on earthly power centers. For this reason, a requirement for rugged civil and passive defenses seems to be indicated. Defense of earthly power centers, by relying on offensive power, would face the immense task of destroying hidden, dispersed, mobile, and numerous enemy bases and power centers. Defense by offensive power would run the grave risk of awarding an enemy the first and perhaps only blow.

Defenses against missiles and all types of space vehicles will be costly. Such defenses constructed in outer space would probably be ineffective because of the improbability of attaining a militarily meaningful control of outer space. The remaining and apparently the only successful defense of earthly power centers would be a “close-in” defense. To be effective, even a close-in defense would undoubtedly have to stretch into wide sectors of outer space. But insofar as possible, it should be a closely-knit defense grid. Any other type of defense not only promises to be ineffective, but also would result in dissipation of security efforts. All this does no mean that major efforts should not be put into military offense. It does mean that in the space age we cannot afford to neglect, as we have been wont to do in the past and the present, what are now called air, civil, and passive defenses.

What has been said here must be regarded as purely suggestive. We must be imaginative enough to begin planning for national security policy in the space age, and we must be flexible enough to alter those plans when necessary.

We cannot know with certainty that a thoroughgoing military control of outer space, and therefore a viable concept of control in outer space military doctrine, will not be possible. The important thing is not to make “right” of “wrong” speculations about space age military power and doctrine. The important thing is to start thinking about these matters.

One who does this, no matter what particular set of hypotheses he derives, must conclude inescapably that political, military, and scientific instability in the space age will be very great. Living with and developing wise national security policies within the framework of this instability promises to be an immensely difficult task. The task will be made possible only if we have the courage to recognize it for what it is — a dirty but necessary business.

Mr. Stillson is an analyst in national defense in the Foreign Affairs Division of the Legislative Reference Service of the Library of Congress and was previously a research assistant at the Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University. This article was originally published in the Journal of International Affairs, edited by graduate students at Columbia’s School of International Affairs, and is reprinted with permission of that publication and the author.