The Right Way to Achieve Security in Space

The U.S. Needs to Champion International Cooperation

The bright sun greets the International Space Station in this photo taken from the Russian section of the orbital outpost by one of the STS-129 crew members, November 2009 NASA Handout via REUTERS

Last month, the Pentagon outlined plans for Space Force, U.S. President Donald Trump’s proposed sixth branch of the U.S. armed services, charged with protecting American interests in outer space. Vice President Mike Pence, who chairs the National Space Council, heralded the report, describing space as a critical war-fighting domain. The United States increasingly relies on space capabilities that face emerging threats, Pence noted, and he repeated what Trump had declared in June: “It is not enough to merely have an American presence in space; we must have American dominance in space.”

For months, pundits have debated whether maintaining such dominance requires a Space Force. What these discussions often miss, however, is that space security depends at least as much on international cooperation as it does on national dominance.


Space has, in fact, become more crowded, as the Trump administration says. And potential U.S. adversaries are expanding their warfighting capabilities there. As of April, the Union of Concerned Scientists recorded 1,886 active satellites in its online database, an increase of more than a third since 2015. According to one recent report, a thousand small satellites were launched between 2012 and 2017 alone, 104 of them by a single Indian rocket. Many countries have responded to this proliferation of space assets by developing antisatellite weapons. Potential American adversaries have demonstrated their willingness to use such weapons: China used a missile to destroy one of its own satellites in 2007, and Russia pinged a Japanese satellite with a laser in a 2009, in a non-damaging test of its capabilities.  

But because outer space is not just an arena of interstate conflict, a viable American space strategy cannot fixate simply on achieving national dominance. Space is also a global commons, a domain on which all states rely (to varying degrees), and in which they encounter shared threats that require collective security.

Among these shared problems is the proliferation of space debris. Spacecraft travel at tremendous speeds—some 17,000 miles an hour in low earth orbit—such that striking even

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