By Bradley Galka
On 18 June 2018, President Donald J. Trump announced his intention to create a new branch of the United States armed forces. This new branch, the US Space Force, would be charged with controlling the nation’s military activities in space. The fact that the US would be involved in military activities in space in the first place should not be taken for granted. The US’ first military space policy was based on the principle that space ought to remain a ‘sanctuary’ from the sort of martial competition that was taking place on earth’s surface. Despite these peaceful beginnings, nearly every successive president has established a military space policy more aggressive than the last. The proposed establishment of the Space Force as a new branch of the US military represents the apex of this decades-long trend toward increased militarisation of space.
The US government’s first space policy was established during the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower. Eisenhower and the military saw the nation’s developing satellite program as a valuable tool in monitoring Soviet military concentrations and looked forward to developing the critical capacity of detecting hostile missile launches from space. The president’s views differed with military leaders in significant ways. While the military advocated the development of anti-satellite (ASAT) missile technology and other generally hostile technologies for use in space, Eisenhower was more interested in the scientific possibilities of the space program. Eisenhower established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) on 29 July 1958, as a separate entity from the Department of Defense – one with a purely peaceful civilian mandate. Though he did green-light some early research into ASAT technology, the US never developed a functional ASAT capability during Eisenhower’s presidency.
John F. Kennedy took the first steps toward a more militarised space policy by approving the full-scale development of the anti-satellite and anti-ballistic missile technologies first considered during Eisenhower’s tenure. Kennedy was concerned with the nuclear ‘missile gap’ that was said to be developing between the US and the Soviet Union and was alarmed by reports that the Soviets were seeking a capacity to place nuclear weapons in earth’s orbit. Ultimately, however, Kennedy chose not to increase tensions between the superpowers through military competition with the Soviets in space, but rather to seek a diplomatic agreement limiting or banning such hostile actions. Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, brought about the successful culmination of these efforts with the signing of the United Nations’ Outer Space Treaty by the US and the Soviet Union in 1967. The terms of this treaty forbade the testing or positioning of nuclear weapons and other types of weapons of mass destruction in space, prohibited the construction of military installations or fortifications on the moon, and banned any military manoeuvres in earth’s orbit. The terms of the treaty stipulated that space would only be used for peaceful, scientific purposes.
Richard Nixon’s presidency was not marked by significant changes in the US’ military space policy. Gerald Ford, however, set the US on a drastically new, and far more aggressive, course. During Ford’s presidency, a series of internal government review boards reported to the president that the US’ existing space policies were woefully insufficient to protect the nation’s important space assets from the threat of Soviet attack. Experts warned that deterrence was not enough. The US, they said, would need to develop not only substantial defences in space but would need to obtain potent offensive firepower as well. Ford acted on this advice by drafting a new military space policy. This policy declared that ‘the Soviets should not be allowed an exclusive sanctuary in space for critical military supporting satellites.’ The employment of non-nuclear anti-satellite technology, Ford declared, would enable the US to ‘selectively nullify certain militarily important Soviet space systems, should that become necessary.’ By the end of his presidency, Ford had put in place the US’ first outwardly aggressive military space policy, mandating that the nation obtain both offensive and defensive capabilities in space.
Jimmy Carter followed in Ford’s footsteps by officially rescinding the US’ self-imposed prohibition on testing anti-satellite weaponry in space. In 1978 Carter promulgated a new space policy which affirmed the right of the US to ‘pursue activities in space in support of its right of self-defense.’ Regarding anti-satellite capability, Carter declared that the US would continue to seek a ‘verifiable ban’ on such technology but would continue its research and development ‘as a hedge against Soviet breakout.’ In other words, the Carter administration sought to obtain a ban on ASAT technology but was unwilling to let the US fall behind if the Soviets refused to cooperate or broke the terms of any prospective treaty.
When Ronald Reagan assumed the presidency in 1981 the US upped-the-ante yet again. One of the most notable products of Reagan’s whole presidency was his famous Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), known popularly as the ‘Star Wars’ program. The nature of SDI changed significantly over time but was a program designed to give the US the capacity to intercept and destroy a massive Soviet missile barrage en-route to the US or its allies using space-based weapons platforms. Though regarded by most now and many in his own time as wildly unrealistic given the technology of the day, Reagan’s intention of stationing military weapons in space capable of defeating Soviet attacks on earth was far beyond anything the US had been willing to attempt before. This technological program was coupled with Reagan’s stated unwillingness to continue negotiating with the Soviet Union over any form of disarmament which he believed would interfere with American prerogatives or American interests.
Following the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 the ambitious nature of Reagan’s SDI program was scaled back under George H.W. Bush from a massive global missile shield to a smaller, regional defensive program capable of interdicting missiles in smaller numbers but with higher accuracy, reflecting the new realities of a post-Cold War world. Both H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton maintained the US’ stated willingness to both attack and defend military assets in outer space, but the post-Cold War world saw a marked decrease in the perceived importance of military space readiness. Bill Clinton was notable for his administration’s desire to open up the US’ space technology for the benefit of civil and commercial interests around the world. GPS, the global positioning system which serves as the basis of modern satellite-directed navigation, was initially a military asset unavailable to the public until Clinton opened access to the program in the 1990s.
The advent of the Global War on Terror and the protracted conflicts in the Middle East has reinvigorated the government’s concern with space policy in recent years. George W. Bush took steps to limit the free access to GPS established by Bill Clinton claiming the nation’s enemies – whether conventional military, insurgent groups or terrorist organisations – could use GPS as a useful tool against US interests. Perhaps the most notable use of military satellite technology, however, has been the drone program. Satellite-enabled drone reconnaissance and bombing missions have been central to US military operations around the world since the 1990s and have only grown in importance. George W. Bush and Barack Obama each found space assets to be indispensable in the conduct of their military missions abroad and have each affirmed the importance of space in their iterations of national space policy.
In his 2006 exposition of US space policy, George W. Bush declared:
In this new century, those who effectively utilize space will enjoy added prosperity and security and will hold a substantial advantage over those who do not. Freedom of action in space is as important to the United States as air power and sea power. In order to increase knowledge, discovery, economic prosperity, and to enhance the national security, the United States must have robust, effective, and efficient space capabilities.
By declaring that space is just as crucial to the modern military as air power and sea power Bush seems to have prefigured the seminal development in US space policy that incumbent President Trump announced in 2018: the planned establishment of the US Space Force.
In the six decades between Eisenhower’s first military space policy and the space policy of Trump, the US has gone from a purely peaceful conception of space to a grudging acceptance of defensive militarisation to a modern policy in which an aggressive militarisation of space is regarded as essential to national defence. The elevation of space activities from auxiliary status to an independent branch of the armed forces not only solidifies the importance of space in the modern US military but represents the next logical step in a pattern of increasingly aggressive military space policy established since the earliest days of the US space program.
Bradley Galka obtained his Master of Arts degree in history from Kansas State University in 2017. He is currently pursuing a PhD at Kansas State. His research focuses on the relationship between politics and the military in the United States, particularly regarding fascism and the U.S. military during the inter-war period.
Header Image: The launch of the STS-74 mission aboard the space shuttle Atlantis from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. (Source: NASA)
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 George W. Bush, ‘US National Space Policy,’ 31 August 2006.