For nearly two weeks in 480 B.C., a massive Persian army numbering as many as 300,000 troops was prevented from invading Greece by a small band of dedicated Greek warriors, heroically led by the Spartan King Leonidas at the Battle of Thermopylae. Despite being numerically superior, the Persian force was hemmed in by unfavorable geography (which the Spartans used decisively to their advantage) and were therefore unable to dislodge the Greek defenders from August 20 until September 10 of that year. That is, until a Persian force managed to make it to higher ground and rain down death upon the Greek defenders.
The capture of the high ground was the coup de grace that the Persians needed to defeat the tiny, but unflappable contingent of Greek defenders at Thermopylae. Since the dawn of history, the military force that came to dominate the strategic high ground usually won the battle. Today, space is the ultimate strategic high ground. As such, he who controls the strategic high ground of space controls the world.
Right now, the United States controls space. But rivals such as China and Russia are attempting to change that reality. They are now closer to achieving this goal than at any other point in history.
The American military is currently the dominant force on the planet. Why? Because the United States dominates the strategic high ground. First, America came to dominate the air. Then, with the advent of space travel, the U.S. military came to dominate space—the ultimate high ground.
Today, the U.S. military is the smallest it has been in decades at a time when it is being challenged by more diverse threats globally than it ever has. This is an untenable situation, especially in the face of growing challenges from increasingly competent forces in Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea. Space is the linchpin to America’s global dominance.
Despite this fact, space is the one strategic area that has largely been ignored by American policymakers—and our enemies know this. With the advent of the Trump Administration, the U.S. military needs to reassert its unequivocal command of the strategic high ground by embracing space dominance as its preferred strategy in that domain.
Space dominance calls for the complete weaponization of space coupled with the willingness to aggressively use space forces to ensure America’s continued supremacy on land and in the sea and air. The strategy not only calls for American forces to be so overwhelmingly powerful in space that they can prevent other powers gaining access, but also insists that U.S. forces be able to exert their will from space as well. It is a hegemonic policy.
Most Americans are totally unaware of just how dependent we are on space for military and civilian operations alike. Satellites make it possible, for instance, for our forces on the Korean Peninsula to operate effectively by linking these far-off forces with their combatant commands thousands of miles away. Satellites made possible the 2011 raid in Pakistan that killed Osama Bin Laden. Satellites also make it possible for you to go to your local ATM and pull out some money.
The signals that we all rely on are relayed through space using satellites. These satellites are all vulnerable to disruption and attack from the ground. What’s more, rival states, such as Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea are all keenly aware that they cannot challenge the American military directly without removing its ability to act as one, cohesive entity. By eliminating America’s satellites in orbit, rivals like China seek to prevent our forces from coordinating an effective defense of, say, Taiwan. Russia would hope to delink NATO’s abilities to muster an effective defense of Ukraine.
Also, given how dependent our society is on civilian satellites, rivals would seek to debilitate non-military satellites, so as to sow confusion and discord at home. States like Russia and China believe that such confusion on America’s home front would give them a freer hand to attack their neighbors. American rivals believe that if they remove the capacity for American civil society to function normally, then America would demur from responding adequately to aggression abroad in order to restore peace and stability at home. To some extent, these adversaries might be correct.
But our national security space policy incorporates more than just satellites.
Rogue states such as North Korea and Iran are believed to possess rudimentary nuclear arsenals and are rapidly working on ways of expanding their capabilities. These states have expressed their hostility to the United States and its allies. What’s more, these states have been pernicious state sponsors of global terror and criminality. Former CIA Director James Woolsey wrote an op-ed earlier this year positing his suspicion with nascent nuclear capabilities coupled with a drive to launch satellites in orbit, the North Koreans might be attempting to place Electro-Magnetic Pulse (EMP) devices in orbit.
Earlier this year, the North Koreans managed to place a satellite in orbit that most observers believe to be unorthodox—in that it’s not behaving as most communications or traditional military satellites would. Yet, it remains in a controlled orbit. An EMP device detonated high enough above the continental United States could wipe out all advanced technology instantly, reducing America to an 18th century-level of development and potentially killing 90 percent of the population within two years.
Meanwhile, the Iranians are poised to acquire nuclear arms. Wedded to an apocalyptic worldview of Shia Islam and espousing hateful rhetoric about their neighbors—Sunni Arabs and Jews alike—what’s stopping the Iranians from launching a devastating attack on allied states (many of whom have significant numbers of Americans living on military bases)? What do we do about these threats?
We’ve tried negotiation. In both cases it only induces these rogues toward greater levels of aggression. Do we invade? Imagine the Iraq War but with our people facing nuclear reprisals. Launch airstrikes? Most believe that striking either country from the air would be ineffective.
The solution is for the United States to weaponize space. We must develop methods to better protect our critical assets in orbit. Building smaller, cheaper, and more easily replaceable satellites is a good start. Placing a true space-based missile defense system in orbit would also mitigate the threat from rogue states. What’s more, fielding non-nuclear offensive weapons in orbit—such as large tungsten rods (or, “Rods From God,” as the military dubs them)—will be essential in deterring future aggression from our strategic rivals.
For several years, America’s space capabilities have been allowed to wither on the vine at the same time that it has increased its reliance on space technology for even the most basic societal functions. The arrival of the Trump Administration is heralding historic reappraisals in U.S. foreign policy. National security space policy deserves to be reassessed as well. Russia has committed itself to fielding space weapons. China is currently developing methods to debilitate U.S. satellites. Both North Korea and Iran are seeking to upend global stability with nuclear arms. Meanwhile, the U.S. continues to ignore space at its own peril.
The world is less safe and America’s military is more vulnerable to strategic defeat than at any other time. There has rarely been a situation in history where a force that didn’t command the strategic high ground won any war. Space is the ultimate strategic high ground. Therefore, the United States must dominate it at all costs. The Trump Administration must embrace the space dominance model if the U.S. is to retain its global hegemony.