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Space-Based Solar Power: A Credible Idea… in a Different Space Environment

To the skeptical observer, the notion that electricity generated in space could power Earth-based civilization likely evokes the same incredulity as a work of far-fetched science fiction. It shouldn’t. The concept is backed by substantial technical merit and sound strategic imperative. With proper financial support and political will, a space-based solar power (SBSP) system could be achieved within the mid-term future – perhaps the 2050s – using technologies and launch capabilities that are maturing today. Its benefits would be tremendous: clean, renewable energy for the world’s entire population; massive, reenergizing growth catalyzed in the space and manufacturing sectors; enormous avenues opened for global partnership, collaboration, and engagement in the space domain.

None of this, however, mean it’s a good idea. In a safe and regulated space environment, SBSP has attractive technical, economic, and strategic appeal. But that isn’t the environment of today, nor is it likely to be that of the future. The consequences of deploying an SBSP system in an increasingly contested and competitive space regime are significant – outweighing the value it could deliver.

There are no technical challenges that necessarily preclude the construction of an SBSP system. Most architectures call for the deployment of satellites of massive size and complexity in geostationary orbit (GEO) around the Earth. Using enormous solar arrays, they would collect energy from the Sun and send it back to stations on Earth through highly focused beams. A single power-collecting satellite might be as wide as 7 kilometers across; the transmitting aperture alone would likely be a kilometer across. Assembly of a single satellite would require something on the order of 400 to 800 launches.

This is doable, though it’d be by far the most significant and costly national project the United States has ever undertaken. The International Space Station took nearly a decade and hundred billion dollars to construct; an SBPS satellite, orders of magnitude larger, would no doubt be orders of magnitude more expensive as well. The system would require the long-term investment of unparalleled amounts of national treasure and resources.

And, it would only take a single kinetic strike by a space-denial weapon to be destroyed, crippling the system and creating unprecedented amounts of debris which would persist in the valuable GEO plane for generations. The DoD’s growing cognizance of vulnerabilities inherent in large space-based platforms is telling, as is its impetus toward the development of disaggregated constellations of small satellites. In an era when space is no longer a “sanctuary,” large and complex space systems have become distinct strategic liabilities.

Russia and China have already demonstrated their capability to strike objects in GEO with pinpoint precision using kinetic weapons. It is not unreasonable to predict that other potential adversaries – Iran, for example – could develop rough capacity to do the same by mid-century. It is dangerously imprudent to assume that space-based strategic systems which provide asymmetric advantages – communications, PNT, and remote sensing satellites – wouldn’t be principal targets in a future conflict. It’s an established part of our competitors’ doctrines. Just as airports, railways, and factories are infrastructure with wartime value, so too would be our SBSP system. For any enemy, countering a capability that provides the United States total energy security, for which the country has invested untold sums and around which the country’s space industry and efforts are organized and rallied, would surely be a top priority.

Such is the unfortunate nature of the new space regime. It’s a reality we nonetheless face. Extraordinarily complex, costly, and capable space systems may be easily destroyed by relatively cheap, unsophisticated, and proliferating weapons. Until some means of active defense for satellites is developed and deployed, we cannot continue to justify the cost of or reliance upon increasingly vulnerable technologies. Nor can we afford to place bets, however well intentioned, that space will forever remain untouched by conflict. It’s no small wonder the DoD is divesting from large space platforms.

The specter of war should never inhibit bold projects or large investments. Yet any undertaking as massive as an SBSP system should be tempered by risks involved and informed by the circumstances and challenges it’d face. Conventional SBSP architectures are not suited for the contested space environment, and the notion of kilometers-wide structures in GEO runs entirely diametric to our evolving doctrines of space resilience and security. Other possibilities, such as small-satellite SBSP constellations, would contend with different yet equally serious challenges: space congestion and growing orbital debris, for example. Considering that, the vast amounts money and energy that’d go into SBSP would be far better served invested in something less vulnerable, more guarded and more guaranteed, if less revolutionary.

On the Nature of Science and Technology Power

Its Attributes, Role, and Importance


Science and technology – the pursuit of new knowledge and the development of new systems, hardware, and methods of operation – are essential to the growth, security, and prosperity of a nation. As Vannevar Bush, while outlining the necessity for a robust science and technology system in the United States, observed in his seminal “Science: The Endless Frontier,”

“[S]cientific progress is, and must be, of vital interest to government. Without scientific progress the national health would deteriorate; without scientific progress, we could not hope for improvement in our standard of living or for an increased number of jobs for our citizens; and without scientific progress we could not have maintained our liberties against tyranny.”[i]

Indeed, the United States’ leadership in science and technology has been a historical cornerstone of its capacity for “hard power” force application and projection and economic and societal “soft power.” It buttresses the country’s economic might, enables the modern standards of living of our citizenry, and expands our global cultural and normative reach.[ii] Equally so, the power of science and technology has been decisive in the context of national security. As President Truman noted in 1945, while urging Congress to create a Department of National Defense, “no aspect of military preparedness is more important than scientific research.”[iii] Through discoveries, technological innovation, and the capacity to develop ideas into deployable weapons, systems, and concepts, the United States has arrived at its modern-day military advantage and superiority.[iv]

To that end, science and technology may be considered key elements of the United States’ comprehensive national power – fundamentals of the country’s strength vis-à-vis competitors. Yet science and technology alone cannot ensure any country’s continued security, prosperity, or hegemony; far from operating in a vacuum, science and technology are constantly evolving to address changing domestic and international circumstances and threats. To reap advantage from science and technology, especially in their national security application, a country must continually innovate to tackle contemporary developments and anticipate future ones. This poses a considerable challenge, the solution to which extends beyond advanced engineering and research.

To explore these notions, this essay, particularly interested in the application of science and technology toward national security ends, examines the United States’ recent employment of security-related technologies. From this, it explores the attributes of science and technology power and the similarities and differences between science and technology power and other forms of national power such as the economic and diplomatic. Looking at the relative importance of science and technology in the United States today and likely significance in the coming future, it lays out a series of policy recommendations that may guide policymakers as they make decisions that impact the direction of the country’s scientific and technological course.

Employment of – and Challenges Facing – National Security-Related Technology

Recognizing the vital role that technology played in winning World War Two, along with the emerging threat of Soviet technological competitiveness, the United States established in the war’s wake an extensive infrastructure to support national security science and technology efforts. This provided foundation and catalyst for the development of military capabilities and tools needed to meet the challenges of the Cold War and the modern day: the nuclear triad, intelligence-gathering and cyber infrastructure, space-based radar and communications systems, advanced precision-guided munitions, and integrated command and control, along with myriad other assets.[v]

These technologies have seen extensive use in contemporary military conflicts. The wars in the Balkans and the Gulf saw the ever-increasing use of position, navigation, and timing assets such as GPS to provide precise and reliable information to the warfighter and direct precision-guided weaponry.[vi] Targeted airstrikes and weapons such as the long-range cruise missile have allowed for far more rapid, responsive, and accurate strikes than those of the past while substantially reducing collateral damage. Combat drones and unmanned aerial vehicles, innovations emblematic of the “War on Terror,” enable the warfighter to engage adversaries and conduct reconnaissance while safely remaining away from the front lines of the battlefield. Stealth aircraft, using a range of advanced technologies that reduce reflections and emissions, have helped pilots conduct sorties while evading detection.[vii]

Technology abets the United States’ security beyond warfighting. Advanced cyber capabilities – encryption, for example – seek to defend the networks which control the country’s power, transit, and water infrastructure from malicious hacks and crippling denial of service.[viii] Technologies capable of detecting harmful biological and chemical agents guard the country against potentially devastating attack by non-state actors.[ix] Increasingly sophisticated monitoring and surveillance technology enables the government to globally track and work to counter criminal activity, terrorist organizations, and other developments which threaten the country’s safety.[x]

Crucially, though, the United States’ contemporary application of national security systems has also demonstrated the inherent challenges of innovation and the limitations of technology. Despite advanced military hardware, principally designed to fight large-scale conventional wars against Cold War-era foes, the United States military had to “catch up” and react to unconventional tactics, such as roadside bombs and sniper attacks, employed against it in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Though decidedly outnumbered and outgunned, enemy combatants effectively countered the United States’ asymmetric technological advantage through guerilla warfare, propaganda, and exploiting collateral damage that advanced weapons systems created – doctrines which the United States’ technology did not anticipate and was unprepared or unsuited to counter.[xi] Likewise, despite the sophistication of the United States’ homeland security technologies, the government has struggled to prevent incidents of domestic terrorism such as mass shootings, often characterized by the use of simple, off-the-shelf equipment.[xii]

Meanwhile, in reaction to the United States’ present-day technological superiority, competitive foreign powers such as Russia and China are heavily investing in hardware and capabilities in the cyber and military realms specifically designed to counter the United States’ technological strengths and exploit its demonstrated vulnerabilities. The technological capabilities underlying the United States’ comparative military advantage are now proliferating to an increasing number of state and non-state actors, including potential adversaries, leveling the military “playing field.”[xiii]

The Attributes of National Security Science and Technology Power

From this, several key attributes and characteristics of science and technology as a form of national power can be identified. Foremost is the capacity for technology and science to be a significant, occasionally decisive, enhancer of a country’s military strength against enemies. Countries which develop innovative military technologies which effectively counter an adversary’s offenses or defensives, or against which an adversary has no means to protect itself, find themselves disproportionately advantaged on the battlefield. Indeed, technologies which upend dominant “status quo” warfighting paradigms – such as, historically, the introduction of the chariot, the tank, or nuclear weapons – are poised to significantly disrupt and reorder the geopolitical and military balance of power.[xiv]

To that end, science and technology power, particularly in the national security sphere, is developed and sustained through the adaption to, and more so through the anticipation of, revolutionary changes in military affairs, doctrine, and hardware. As Lieutenant Colonel Scott Stephenson noted in the influential “The Revolution in Military Affairs,” “those slow to adapt to military revolutions… are likely to suffer painful results. When the pace of change accelerates, the militaries that anticipate and adapt are likely to gain a massive advantage over potential enemies who are less agile.”[xv] That agility is, in large part, borne from innovations in science and the development of new technologies which lead to unanticipated, and therefore difficult to counter, doctrines.

A defining characteristic of science and technology power, then, is the continual quest for states to match, counter, and out-compete the technology of their adversaries. This continuing interplay between technology and national power, characterized by the sustained technological evolution and described often as an “offset,” has been a key focus for national security-related research and development throughout the Cold War and into the present. The United States’ deployment of nuclear weapons, for example, offset the numerical advantage held by the Soviet Union’s land forces in the early Cold War. Soviet parity in nuclear weapons catalyzed the development of guided weapon and integrated command and control as a counter, focusing on accuracy of targeted weapons systems independent of range.[xvi] The United States’ capacity to offset Soviet technology through innovative developments – and the Soviet bankruptcy borne from military expenditure that came as a corollary – was an important factor in maintaining a generally peaceful stable of power along with the country’s ultimate triumph in the Cold War. In the present-day, China and Russia’s focus on countering the systems and technologies which currently provide the United States’ military asymmetry is emblematic of this “offset” approach to science and technology power.

Paradoxically, however, national security-related technology in the present day has become as great an equalizer as it has historically been a separator of actors’ strengths. Technological superiority in the present may provide the United States’ unrivaled military strength, especially against foes (historically, state actors with large conventional forces) for which its national security technologies anticipated countering. Yet as the example of the Iraq and Afghani insurgencies amply demonstrated, technological superiority coupled with innovation focused on addressing hypothetical future battlefields may not be adequate to oppose or defeat all actors or all forms of warfare, regardless of the level of their sophistication.

Indeed, advanced technologies may be entirely vulnerable to actors utilizing doctrines with simple technologies that nonetheless exploit their weaknesses, as was the case with sophisticated – and expensive – American vehicles being destroyed by crude, homemade IEDs. Technology itself also creates weaknesses; the United States’ progressing economic and social reliance upon interconnected networks, for example, makes the country more vulnerable to potentially crippling attack. Despite advanced American cybersecurity technologies and techniques, non-state actors have still proven themselves capable of infiltrating, attacking, and even denying use of American cyber capabilities; considering recent trends, this vulnerable seems likely to continue, if not worsen.[xvii]

It may be that an attribute of science and technology power, borne more from the focus and perceptions of the technologists, theorists, and military leadership that employ it than from science and technology itself, is that it obscures other factors which equally dictate important developments in military, international, and geopolitical affairs. Political upheaval, social change, and economic development can change warfare dramatically, for example – and have nothing to do with “offset” strategies or war-room predictions of possible enemies’ future high-tech military hardware. As a product of the military-industrial complex that emerged in the Cold War United States to sustain continued technological development, Americans tend to be acutely – perhaps overly – sensitive to technological innovation among competitors and potential rivals. Fears during the Cold War and contemporary discussions of the “Third Offset” paint pictures of emerging, potential, and fanciful enemy weapon systems – which military planning and technology development was and is oriented toward countering.[xviii] This fixation on solutions entailing engineering and technological complexity blinds the national security technology apparatus to external trends that could definitively impact the future course of war – such as the collapse of the Soviet Union leaving the United States with a high-tech military and warfighting doctrine unsuited for the military pressures and asymmetric nature of counterinsurgency; the rise of radical terrorism with ideological underpinnings that condone unconventional guerilla tactics such as suicide bombings, which had great effect against high-tech targets; or the continuing crisis where lone-wolf gunmen using off-the-shelf rifles can commit massacres despite the government’s highly complex and pervasive surveillance and monitoring technology.

Similarities and Differences to Other Forms of National Power

With these attributes in mind, a comparison can be drawn between science and technology power and other forms of power which constitute a country’s comprehensive strength, such as the economic and diplomatic. Regarding the economic, science and technology power is similar in that the development of science and technology is driven by the same forces as economic growth. Like new economic products, services, and methods of operation, science and technology power relies upon the ingenuity of human actors predicting and anticipating future trends, possibilities, and human behavior. Innovation, iteration, and competitiveness are fundamental catalysts for the continued evolution and growth of both. The rapid proliferation and subsequent use of innovative technologies across the world quickly equalizes both the national security advantage and the economic advantage they provided their inventor.

Economic power, like national security technology, is a key element of a country’s warfighting capability – industrial might, strength in quality production, and capable infrastructure are crucial facets of a country’s ability to mobilize and project force. A fundamental difference between economic power and science and technology power, however, is competition. While economies naturally compete, there is incentive for states to specialize in the economic product or service most suited for it – their comparative advantage. Competing economies are not actively incentivized to counter the economic specialization of their rivals. With science and technology power for national security use, however, states decidedly hope to actively and explicitly counter the relative advantage of their adversaries.

Like diplomatic power, science and technology has a “soft power” element; other states and their societies may be influenced or compelled to action by the might, prestige, or cultural and technological hegemony of a country in possession of highly advanced and capable technologies.[xix] Diplomatic power occasionally experiences the same issue of science and technology policy in being blinded to unpredicted or external trends in the social, cultural, and economic spheres. The power of diplomacy, for example, did not anticipate and struggled to deal with the cultural, social, and political circumstances that led to a breakdown of order in post-invasion Iraq; just as national security technology was unprepared for the guerilla warfare of the Iraqi insurgency. Diplomatic power and science and technology power differ, though, in the fields of innovation and evolution. Whereas the military regime is constantly evolving and occasionally being upended by revolutions in security technology and associated doctrine, the Westphalian diplomatic order has remained largely similar through centuries – even as it has grown gradually more complex and interconnected. States do not tend seek to outcompete each other in the diplomatic sphere through revolutionary new approaches to diplomacy; negotiations, sanctions, deals, bi- and multilateral agreements, and the like have remained consistent “doctrines” employed by states in their dealings with international friends and foes.

Science and Technology Power’s Present and Future Importance


To return to Vannevar Bush’s assertion over half a century ago, science and technology is crucially important for a states’ economic growth and prosperity, the wellbeing of its citizens, and national security. This remains absolutely the case today. Despite the challenges facing innovation in the face of unanticipated adversaries and the proliferation of advanced, equalizing technologies among adversarial states and non-state actors, science and technology provides the United States’ unrivaled levels of security and military hegemony.

With the appearance of significant global challenges – refugee crises, environmental degradation, the possible emergence of a bi- or multi-polar world characterized by states with rough or equal technological parity, to name a few – the future importance of science and technology power cutting across all aspects of national security will undoubtedly redouble. Science and technology and its application as an element of the United States’ national power will need to be directed to address these challenges. While the exact characteristics that will define domestic and foreign national security technologies of the future – not to mention the economic and social – remain uncertain, the United States cannot afford to permit its current technological advantage to slip. Indeed, as revision states such as China continue to develop their technologies to directly counter the United States’ capabilities, it will likely become an imperative for the country to more actively engage in and support the development of innovative new security technologies and doctrines – lest, as history would suggest, the international order again be upended.

Suggestions for Policymakers

To that end, taking into consideration the historical and contemporary application of science and technology policy and acknowledging its various attributes, policymakers may be guided by a number policy suggestions. Among them:

  • To preserve its national security, the United States must continue to – and indeed should more proactively and resolutely – develop technologies that seek to “offset” the growing technological parity at which advanced state adversaries such as China are arriving.
  • Effective innovation in military technology is difficult to achieve without a distinct adversary or system to counter;[xx] the United States should focus its technological developments less on hypothetical possibilities and more on realistic, short- to mid-term technological challenges it faces.
  • To achieve that, policymakers should consider methods to speed up acquisition processes and systems delivery; technologies with years to decades-long development times are generally antiquated or, in the case of the U.S. military in post-invasion Iraq, unsuited for the threats and challenges of the time they are deployed.
  • Despite the importance of science and technology power for the United States’ military strength and national security, it alone does not dictate the nature of warfare. The development and application of security technology should be coupled with a more nuanced understanding of the external forces – social, cultural, political – that may shape the character of the war in which technology power is employed.

Works Cited

[i] Vannevar Bush. “Science: The Endless Frontier”. National Science Foundation. July 1945. Retrieved from: https://www.nsf.gov/od/lpa/nsf50/vbush1945.htm

[ii] Gerald Epstein. “Science and Technology: Making Smart Power Smarter”. CSIS Commission on Smart Power. July 12, 2007. Retrieved from: https://csis-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/legacy_files/files/media/csis/pubs/071207_smart_power_epstein_science_technology.pdf

[iii] President Harry S. Truman. “Special Message to the Congress Recommending the Establishment of a Department of National Defense”. December 19, 1945. Retrieved   from: http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=12259

[iv] National Science and Technology Council. “A 21st Century Science, Technology, and   Innovation Strategy for America’s National Security”. May 2016. Retrieved from: http://www.defenseinnovationmarketplace.mil/resources/National_Security_ST_Strategy_2016_FINAL.PDF

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Joint Staff. “Joint Publication 3-14: Space Operations”. May 29, 2013. PP. 35.

[vii] Eric Beidel, Sandra Erwin, & Stew Magnuson. “10 Technologies the U.S. Military Will Need For the Next War”. November 2011. Retrieved from:             http://www.nationaldefensemagazine.org/archive/2011/november/pages/10technologiestheusmilitarywillneedforthenextwar.aspx

[viii] David Meadows. “Blog: Cybersecurity Is Crucial to National Security”. February 11, 2016. Retrieved from: http://www.afcea.org/content/?q=Blog-cybersecurity-crucial-national-security

[ix] National Academies. “Core Science and Technology Capabilities for the Chemical and Biological Defense Program”. 2012. Retrieved from:       https://www.nap.edu/read/13516/chapter/5#40

[x] David Gallington. “The Case for Internet Surveillance”. September 18, 2013. Retrieved from: https://www.usnews.com/opinion/blogs/world-report/2013/09/18/internet-surveillance-is-  a-necessary-part-of-national-security

[xi] Anthony Cordesman. “The Real Revolution in Military Affairs”. CSIS. August 4, 2014. Retrieved from: https://www.csis.org/analysis/real-revolution-military-affairs

[xii] William Brennan. “Bulletproofing America”. February 2017. Retrieved from: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/01/bulletproofing/508754/

[xiii] Michele Flournoy & Robert Lyons III. “Sustaining and Enhancing the US Military’s Technological Edge”. Strategic Studies Quarterly. Summer 2016.

[xiv] Shawn Brimley. “Offset Strategies & Warfighting Regimes”. October 15, 2014. Retrieved from: https://warontherocks.com/2014/10/offset-strategies-warfighting-regimes/

[xv] Scott Stephenson. “The Revolution in Military Affairs: 12 Observations on an Out-of-Fashion Idea.” Military Review. May 2010. Retrieved from:             http://usacac.army.mil/CAC2/MilitaryReview/Archives/English/MilitaryReview_20100630_art007.pdf

[xvi] Shawn Brimley. “Offset Strategies & Warfighting Regimes”. October 15, 2014. Retrieved from: https://warontherocks.com/2014/10/offset-strategies-warfighting-regimes/

[xvii] Max Boot. “The Paradox of Military Technology”. The New Atlantis. October 2006.   Retrieved from: http://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/the-paradox-of-military-technology

[xviii] Scott Stephenson. “The Revolution in Military Affairs: 12 Observations on an Out-of-Fashion Idea.” Military Review. May 2010. Retrieved from:             http://usacac.army.mil/CAC2/MilitaryReview/Archives/English/MilitaryReview_20100630_art007.pdf

[xix] Gerald Epstein. “Science and Technology: Making Smart Power Smarter”. CSIS Commission on Smart Power. July 12, 2007. Retrieved from: https://csis-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/legacy_files/files/media/csis/pubs/071207_smart_power_epstein_science_technology.pdf

[xx] Scott Stephenson. “The Revolution in Military Affairs: 12 Observations on an Out-of-Fashion Idea.” Military Review. May 2010. Retrieved from:             http://usacac.army.mil/CAC2/MilitaryReview/Archives/English/MilitaryReview_20100630_art007.pdf

Painting: Landscape # 10

“In The Mountains

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