The Final Frontier: Garrisoning Outer Space

Earth, as seen from Apollo 11, 1969Much like the vast oceans that cover our planet, outer space is a similarly uninhabitable environment. Without artificial life support machines and impermeable materials, humans would either drown in the water, or suffocate in the hollow. And yet these expanses enchant the imagination and draw us towards their hidden depths. The high seas have variously served commerce, industry, and militaries for millennia. In a previous post, I looked at the relationship between empire and ocean—beginning with Britain’s Royal Navy, and ending by speculating upon the important future that drones and aircraft carriers will play in the U.S. Navy. The argument was that the ocean provides a kind of “terra nullius” for unrestricted force projection, thereby multiplying sovereign power in “denied areas”. In this complementary post, I go from what lies beneath to what lies above.

According to Chalmers Johnson, in his book The Sorrows of Empire, the aerial bombardment of Serbia from March 24 until June 10, 1999 was the first “space-enabled war” (2004, p. 79). For many, it was also one of the first “humanitarian wars”. For NATO this period was officially known as Operation Allied Force, or Operation Noble Anvil in the U.S. It was NATO’s second major campaign, and largely consisted of aerial bombardment. Military satellites and global positioning systems facilitated thousands of sorties by the U.S. Air Force. Indeed, some pilots in B-2 bombers even flew from Missouri to the Balkans and back again, as part of a combined total of more than 38,000 sorties over Serbia. The USS Theodore Roosevelt, stationed in the Adriatic Sea, also helped form a ring of air bases that included Italy and Germany.

As well as making large-scale use of satellites for weapons guidance, many of the bombs used in Serbia were fitted with a guidance kit called the “Joint Direct Attack Munition”, or simply JDAM. These convert so-called “dumb bombs” into “smart bombs” that integrate an inertial guidance system with a GPS receiver, and are then loaded onto the B-2s. The JDAM vastly increased the accuracy of the payload (although this rests upon the fallibilities of human intelligence—and the ability to “discriminate” between “civilians” and “militants”, a fallibility that was widely criticised in the Kosovo war on 1998-1999).

335th Fighter Squadron F-15E's drop JDAM

(F-15Es drop JDAMs in Afghanistan, 2009)

As well as being the first “space war’ and the first “humanitarian war”, Operation Noble Anvil was only the second time that Predator drones had been deployed by the U.S. They were first used in the region in 1995, as part of operation Nomad Vigil. While the Serbs were ultimately subdued by the raw display of American air power, Operation Noble Anvil also revealed a central paradox that still haunts the U.S. military today: as it became ever more stronger, ever more networked, ever more “precise”, it simultaneously became ever more reliant on a space-based infrastructure that was, and still is, wide open to attack—and also vulnerable to damage from orbiting space debris (more on this later). Precarity rose with power. In spite of, or perhaps because of this unwelcome paradox, the determination to militarize outer space began in earnest during the 1990s. Protecting ground assets required space assets, and this “domino effect” created a situation in which endless frontiers were opened up. As Johnson explains in Nemesis:

 “Much as Britain at the end of the nineteenth century had to make colonies of Egypt and South Africa in order, so it said, to protect the sea approaches to its imperial enclave in India, and then had to conquer Sudan and the upper Nile to protect Egypt and much of the sub-Saharan Africa to protect South Africa, the United States now argues that it must totally dominate space to protect its new, casualty-free war-fighting technologies” (2007, p.81).

However, the roots of the emerging space war began in the decade before Operation Noble Anvil and the advent of JDAMs, during the Reagan administration. On March 23, 1983 the U.S. President Ronald Reagan gave a speech widely believed to have kicked off (at least symbolically) the “anti-ballistic missile race”, itself an extension of the Cold War missile race. His “Address to the Nation on National Security” urged the U.S. to redouble its commitment to militarism, and explained the importance of an increased defense budget. He first argued that “The defense policy of the United States is based on a simple premise: The United States does not start fights. We will never be an aggressor. We maintain our strength in order to deter and defend against aggression — to preserve freedom and peace”. His overarching rhetoric of “defense” and “deterrence” was engineered to setup the real purpose of his speech: containing the Soviet Union’s missile threat in the “atomic age”. Reagan stated, “I am directing a comprehensive and intensive effort to define a long-term research and development program to begin to achieve our ultimate goal of eliminating the threat posed by strategic nuclear missiles”. This ambitious project would become the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), housed in the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (SDIO). Reagan wasn’t wrong when he concluded, “we’re launching an effort which holds the promise of changing the course of human history”.

Reagan SDI Speech

(Photograph of President Reagan Addressing the Nation on National Security (SDI Speech), March 23, 1983)

SDI was built on the idea of a planetary-wide defense shield that could intercept incoming Soviet ICBMs. The project would be derided in the media as a “Star Wars” fantasy that was fundamentally unfeasible. But this misses two important points. The first is that SDI paved the way for billions of dollars worth of defense spending. A cash cow is a cash cow for the military-industrial complex—feasibility is largely irrelevant. Second, it was the first step in militarizing space and controlling the planet, which some argue was always the real purpose of SDIO and its subsequent incarnations.

In 1993 the SDIO was renamed as the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BDMO). This paralleled a shift in strategic thinking under the Clinton administration. No longer was defense planetary-wide; it would instead be targeted against “rogue states” and “regional threats”. The collapse of the Cold War should have spelled the death knell for the project. But by now there was too much money to lose, and an entrenched neoconservative mindset, fostered during the Reagan years, had long taken its foot off the brakes. It was during Clinton’s watch that the Republican-controlled Congress would accelerate anti-ballistic spending. Strategists “became impatient with the influence of internationalists and realists—the people who had dominated U.S. foreign policy making since World War II. They were also convinced that the collapse of the Soviet Union had been significantly due to U.S. technological prowess and that pouring more money into advanced technology was a sure way to achieve perpetual domination of the world” (Johnson, 2007, p. 211).

Frank Gaffney Jr was a member of this circle of neoconservative strategists. As well as founding the right-wing think tank “Center for Security Policy” (CSP)—which was funded by major missile contractors including Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC)—he was the creator of the Congressional missile defense lobby. Gaffney was therefore a big player in the weaponization of the atmosphere during the 1990s. As Johnson explains, even after the Republicans became the major party in 1994, they were unable to rouse lawmakers to the cause of missile defense, many of whom balked at the enormous costs. And so, “Republican representative Curt Weldon, an advisory board member of CSP, decided that the best and most time-honored way to rouse the American people and their representatives to action would be to scare them to death” (2007, p.212).

Screen Shot 2013-08-15 at 14.03.24Weldon was able to obtain a passage of resolution to create a committee whose job would be to assess the missile threat to the U.S. It would be chaired by Donald Rumsfeld. The committee released its report in 1998, and controversially disputed the CIA’s own intelligence that a “rogue nation” would need ten years to built a ballistic missile, and that only a handful of nuclear-capable of nations were currently capable of deploying them. Also known by some as the “Rumsfeld Commission”, it was called “The Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States”. There were four conclusions in the executive summary: the foremost was that there are “concerted efforts” from a number of hostile nations, or potentially hostile nations, to acquire ballistic missiles with biological or nuclear payloads, including North Korea, Iran, Iraq, Russia, and China. These countries pose a “major threat” to the U.S., and could acquire the capability to do so within five years. The committee then criticized the Intelligence Community for underestimating the threat, and for an erosion of its capabilities to produce timely and accurate estimates. This is exacerbated by a reduction in “warning times” the U.S. can expect. President Clinton decided not to deploy the ABM (anti-ballistic missile) system, despite the enormous pressure from the military-industrial complex. He had plenty of reasons to be reticent too, given the persistent history of failure in the U.S.’ missile defense systems.

There are three ways to bring down an Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile, or ICBM: (1) Its boot phase, when the warhead and rocket are still joined and lifting through the atmosphere to outer space; (2) The midcourse, the longest phase; (3) The terminal phase, as the missile descends. The Clinton-era Ground-based Midcourse Defense system or GMD, remains the most advanced part of the multi-tiered system, and also receives by far the most funding. And yet it is plagued by difficulties and equipment failures. The interceptor missile, known technically as an “exoatmospheric kill vehicle” (EKV) is easily fooled, and can be outmanoeuvred by decoys. This is why the boot-phase has become increasingly important domain for interceptors – such as space-based boost-phase antimissile lasers flown by modified Boeing 747-400Fs. The main focus for a boost-phase weapon is an airborne laser (ABL). One of the major problems with this, and there are many, is the sheer weight of it. The expensive project was eventually shelved in 2011. Finally, the Patriot PAC-3 is the main missile used for terminal-phase interception. Nearly all of these systems remain largely unproven. But that matters little. “From Reagan’s 1983 ‘Star Wars’ speech to 2006, depending on which expert you listen to, the United States has spent between $92.5 billion and $130 billion on the basic problem of shooting down an ICBM in flight—and that’s without even once having succeeded in doing so” (Johnson, 2007, p. 230).

Rumsfeld’s influential report got the ball rolling. As already stated, many suspect the real reason for ABM weapons is not to intercept ICBMs, but target other nations’ satellites. “These dual-use weapons are less likely to be employed for missile defense that as a stealthy way to introduce weapons in outer space with the intent on dominating the globe” (Johnson, 2007, p. 232). This thesis on the domination of space is another reason for explaining the official silence that hovers over Congress, despite mountains of waste and failure.

Screen Shot 2013-08-15 at 14.04.48After Clinton left office, Rumsfeld and other neoconservatives were given an even freer reign. In Bush the Second, they found a president that was far more than open to the idea of a large-scale BMD (ballistic missile defense). Rumsfeld, months before taking office, chaired a January 2001 commission that warned of possible warfare in space, a document called “The Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organization”. This commission was created as part of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2000, and was, not unsurprisingly, engineered by the congressional missile defense lobby. While the report recognized that it was in the U.S. national interest to promote the peaceful use of space, it nonetheless recommended the development and deployment of space defense systems, and “revolutionary methods of collecting intelligence from space to provide the President the information necessary for him to direct the nation’s affairs, manage crises and resolve conflicts in a complex and changing international environment (The Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organization, 2001, p. 7). Given that the U.S. government and military rely heavily on space technologies, the Commission warned of a possible “Space Pearl Harbor” (an incendiary phrase repeated on pages 8, 13, 14, 15), should this infrastructure be targeted and immobilized.

 “An attack on elements of U.S. space systems during a crisis or conflict should not be considered an improbable act. If the U.S. is to avoid a “Space Pearl Harbor” it needs to take seriously the possibility of an attack on U.S. space systems. The nation’s leaders must assure that the vulnerability of the United States is reduced and that the consequences” (p.8-9)

In short, the document institutionalized “space war” as a genuine strategic reality—no longer science fiction but military fact. Rumsfeld was the architect, chairing both commissions: his 1998 report on missile defense and the 2001 document on protecting space assets became powerful scripts in their own right, raised to the status of doctrine. “The country was thus finally committed to building and deploying a system to destroy nuclear weapons delivered by missiles and ultimately to place weapons in outer space” (Johnson, 2004, p. 214). Rumsfeld, as well as increasing the Clinton administration’s missile defense spending, moved nearly all missile defense projects into the classified budget – and so ended reporting to Congress. This was a contractor’s dream come true. In 2001, George Bush even reneged on the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia, writing that: “I have concluded the ABM treaty hinders our government’s ability to develop ways to protect our people from future terrorist or rogue-state missile attacks”.

Screen Shot 2013-08-15 at 14.06.02No other country has antisatellite weapons in space—yet it is discussed as “inevitable” and a settled part of military doctrine. Nearly all this “space war talk” is ideological posturing. Indeed, the U.S. Air Force has long been pushing hard for a covert presidential directive to weaponize space. It may yet have one. The desire to conquer the “last frontier” has been on the agenda for some time. In 1982, the Air Force Space Command was formed, headquartered at Peterson Air Force Base, in Colorado. The command’s mission is to “Provide resilient and cost-effective Space and Cyberspace capabilities for the Joint Force and the Nation”. Space Command is a sub-branch of the U.S. Strategic Command umbrella, which employs tens of thousands of personnel, and was established in 1992 after the Strategic Air Command:

USSTRATCOM combines the synergy of the U.S. legacy nuclear command and control mission with responsibility for space operations; global strike; Defense Department information operations; global missile defense; and global command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR), and combating weapons of mass destruction. (USTRATCOM, 2011)

The main operational hub for space-based intelligence and coordination is the Joint Functional Component Command for Space (JFCC Space), headquartered at Vandenberg Air Force Base, and established in 2006. It “is responsible for executing continuous, integrated space operations to deliver theater and global effects in support of national and combatant commander objectives”. JFCC – Space is staffed by personnel from the Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC)[1], a subordinate unit of the 14th Air Force, also at Vandenberg. The second component of the U.S. Space Command is the Joint Functional Component Command for Global Strike and Integration (JFCC GSI). This provides the “operational” and “kinetic” aspect of space activities, including the delivery of nuclear weapons. The Global Strike Program, which is under the direct control of the Air Force Global Strike Command, aims to deliver precision weaponry anywhere on the earth within an hour.

Like the high seas, outer space is not divided between sovereigns. It belongs, ostensibly at least, to everybody. This “terra nullius” presents an opportunity for the U.S. military, since “There would be no foreign governments to negotiate with, pay off, or placate; no issues of crime and justice to sort out. Best of all, the weaponizing of space enables us to project power anywhere in the world from secure bases of operation. It is, by definition, the global high ground” (Johnson, 2007, p. 210). To an extent then, launching weapons from outer space is functionally equivalent to launching them from aircraft carriers (despite respective legislation restricting either event).

Screen Shot 2013-08-15 at 14.07.25Futuristic craft as part of Global Strike include the X-41 Common Aero Vehicle, a still classified aerial vehicle that is capable of runway takeoffs to space, as well as multiplere-entries. This is part of the FALCON program (Force Application and Launch from Continental United States), sponsored by both DARPA and NASA and announced in 2003. The project has two aims: to develop a reusable hypersonic launch vehicle, and secondly, to develop its payload, a hypersonic weapon. But the legality of such weapons is questionable to say the least. While the U.S. military has yet to announce anti-satellite weapons, they are surely capable of deploying them.

The militarization of space is partially prohibited. The Outer Space Treaty, formally the “Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies”, was ratified in 1967 by the U.S. and over a hundred other countries. It forms the central pillar of international space law. Article IV safeguards that: “States Parties to the Treaty undertake not to place in orbit around the earth any objects carrying nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction, install such weapons on celestial bodies, or station such weapons in outer space in any other manner.” Above all, the treaty is written to ensure cooperation, consultation, and peaceful exploration.

Screen Shot 2013-08-15 at 14.09.00

But there is another, perhaps more pressing reason why space war should be avoided: it would vastly increasing the amount of space debris, which could in turn threaten the entire commercial and military satellite infrastructure. Space, particularly in low Earth orbits (LEO) is riddled with thousands of pieces of junk, despite the relative infancy of the space age. The Air force’s Space Surveillance Network (also part of STATCOM) is currently tracking thousands of human objects in space, of which only a few are active satellites. The rest is junk. The Network acknowledges there are over a hundred thousand pieces of smaller debris – about the science of a marble – and millions of still smaller fragments. This junk includes dead or dying satellites, pieces of spent rocket boosters, metal shards, tools, nuts, bolts, and even frozen sewage. Moreover, pieces of junk colliding with each other could sett off a chain reaction– the so-called “Kessler Effect”. This would make certain orbits completely off-limits.

Such is the fragility of satellites in the low earth orbit. The blowback of the U.S. taking out a “hostile” satellite would be huge. That’s not to deny, of course, that other states wouldn’t have the capability to exploit this vulnerability. As Johnson writes, “Without any rules on space debris, a poor state with few technical capabilities could decide to blind the United States by the active deployment of space garbage” (2007, p. 241). Moreover, a nuclear bomb’s electromagnetic pulse in space would practically rewire life on earth in an instant. Another “rogue state” could simply launch some gravel up there – instantly “levelling the playing field”. This is why both the Council on Foreign Relations Study Group on Space Weapons, and the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency (MDA), who contemplated “kinetic kill vehicles”, both warned against the damage space debris would likely create.

Screen Shot 2013-08-15 at 14.10.40

It’s not that the Rumsfeldian “Space Pearl Harbor” isn’t theoretically possible; and its not that the military’s reliance on GPS isn’t a weak spot; it’s just that satellite warfare is extremely unlikely. The bigger risk is for the U.S. to trigger a “space arms race”, although it’s already too late for this. “Instead of obtaining multilateral agreements that would ban such actions, the United States continues to waste its money building space-based antisatellite weapons” (Johnson, 2007, p. 241). This arms race is exacerbated by the number of secret military satellites that are in outer space—many more than the “official count” of around 1,000 active satellites, 459 of which belong to the U.S.

There are now multiple “space weapons”. The most obvious is a land or sea-based missile destroying a satellite. Other prototypes have include “THIEL”—Tactical High Energy Laser, EMP weapons, as well as the already mentioned Airborne Laser; micro or “nano” satellites that disrupt, intercept, or tap into other satellites (including “EMP bombs”; and the already advanced Common Aero Vehicle that can re-enter the atmosphere.

The United States Space Command produced a “Vision for 2020” in 1997. It calls space the “fourth medium of warfare”, along with land, sea, and air, and cautions that space will become its own domain for warfare – not simply a medium that supports existing ground or sea operations. Together, the synergy between land, sea, air, and space will produce what the military calls “Full Spectrum Domination”. Which is just as well, because the document forecasts changes on the horizon. Particularly, “The globalization of the world economy will also continue, with a widening between “haves” and “have-nots.” US Space Command therefore holds two principle visions: dominating the space medium, and integrating space power.

For historian Alfred McCoy, this domination emerges from previous “information warfare” conducted by the U.S., including counter-insurgencies in Vietnam and the Philippines. The Philippine Insurrection, the Vietnam War, the Occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the drone attacks in Pakistan, have all mobilized new information regimes, uniting the atmosphere with biometrics and robotics. At the start of 2012, the Pentagon announced a cut in troop numbers to pave the way for more robotic, space, and cyber-based capabilities. The ‘vertical’ has become an increasingly important axis of geopolitical power, and presents an armada of potential issues for sovereignty and international law. That is not to say the horizontal is dead in the water–indeed, the verticality of future American power projection is sought to realize an unprecedented horizontal surveillance capability.

By 2020, the Pentagon hopes to patrol the globe ceaselessly and seamlessly with “a triple canopy space shield reaching from stratosphere to exosphere, driven by drone armed with agile missiles, linked by a resilient modular satellite system, monitored through a telescopic panopticon, and operated by robotic controls”.

Screen Shot 2013-08-15 at 14.11.37

The key contingency to realizing this triple canopy, however, is whether or not the military is able to integrate together all of its expanding combat domains – space, cyberspace, sky, sea, and land. DARPA is already building a wide-angle Space Surveillance Telescope (SST), which could be sited at bases ringing the globe for a quantum leap in “space surveillance.” Yet the potential to be overwhelmed by data is very real. By 2010, the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency had 16,000 employees and a $5 billion budget. Head-quartered at Fort Belvoir, Virgina, its 8,500 staff manage the data that comes from “Predators, Reapers, U-2 spy planes, Global Hawks, X-37B space drones, Google Earth, Space Surveillance Telescopes, and orbiting satellites”. The gaps and blind-spots that will inevitably be part of this ocean of data are hard to ignore.

McCoy finishes by speculating as to how much of this future will come to pass. Will real-life events – friction – put a stop to the U.S. military’s grand plan, or will its technological mastery perpetuate its fractured global hegemony? Perhaps the more important question is will the U.S. be alone in fabricating the rules of an “old new” geopolitical game – or will a range of other nation states alter the course of history to surprising, and perhaps no less deadly, ends?

For now, what is certain is that the U.S. military “crossed the Rubicon” decades ago, and the “final frontier” is now fundamental to the Full Spectrum Dominance of Planet Earth.

In the words of Julius Caesar, the proconsul who crossed the river Rubicon in 49BC, triggering Rome’s civil war, and eventual transformation from Republic to Empire, ālea iacta est “the die has been cast”.


[1] Previously known as the 614th Space Intelligence Squadron, and before that, the 614th Air and Space Operations Center.

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3 Responses to The Final Frontier: Garrisoning Outer Space

  1. Reblogged this on Militainment and the National Security State and commented:
    A good wrap-up by Ian Shaw via Understanding Empire on US global dominance as it relates to outer space and its sheer importance in the conduct of warfare. In addition, you may also read this long-standing realist/ geopolitical claim – that certainly ought to be challenged – that speaks of coming clash with China in space via China Daily Mail.

  2. Terri McMillan says:

    This is all so very interesting. I am undertaking some research in the use of drones in a maritime security context. Not been very successful in finding credible material. Can anyone help??

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