Through the past half-century of the United States’ evolving use and exploitation of outer space, spacepower has become a fundamental element of our national grand strategy, a critical underpinning of our force projection, and essential to sustaining our social and economic way of life. Increasingly, foreign threats to and domestic cognizance of our overwhelming reliance on the application of space have highlighted our need and capacity for more resilient and proactive space operations.[i] A confluence of unprecedented challenges to and opportunities for our utilization of spacepower have necessitated its renewed strategic prioritization and review, leading policymakers and military planners to move forward with new approaches for applying, protecting, and continually guaranteeing the enterprise.[ii]

Underlying the issue and informing any future approach is the nature of spacepower itself. What is spacepower? What are its present significance and probable importance in the coming future? What do the similarities and differences between operations in space and other “traditional” domains – sea, air, and cyber – reveal about its characteristics in the context of national power? This paper looks to draw conclusions on the questions above, arriving at suggestions that seek to inform policymakers as they advance our national power in the ever-more contested and all-the-more crucial space environment.

The United States’ Use of Space – Past and Present

Since the dawn of the Space Age in the late 1950s, the United States has used outer space for national security, geopolitical, exploratory/inspirational, and economic purposes. Though space represents a single domain, its users are broken into three categories – civil, i.e. the civilian government; commercial, i.e. private profit-seeking industry; and national security, i.e. the armed forces and defense and intelligence apparatus. Each has contributed to our national space effort in different, though often overlapping and mutually supportive, ways.[iii]

The United States’ civil space program, managed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), has been fundamentally peaceful and exploratory in nature, though often in support of geopolitical aims and the pursuit of international prestige.[iv] The Explorer 1 satellite, the United States’ first, studied the Van Allen Belts; it was also a means to establish overflight rights above the Soviet Union for the future use of spy satellites. The Apollo Program marked the first human landings on another world, allowing for the unprecedented study of the Moon. Its genesis was the result, and its success can be considered the culmination, of the “Space Race” – the Cold War competition between the Soviet Union and the United States for technological prestige and supremacy.

The cooperative US/Soviet Apollo-Soyuz Test Project was a significant element and marker of the time’s détente. NASA’s Space Shuttle served in various capacities as a commercial launch provider, a means for international cooperation, a scientific platform, and a national security tool with which the DoD conducted national security-specific missions and deployments. The International Space Station, as a multinational platform, has fostered deep international cooperation and partnerships – notably with Russia, for which it is one of the most visible examples of cooperation during these times of otherwise tense bilateral relations.

Meanwhile, NASA’s scientific spacecraft have visited and studied every planet in the Solar System, an emblem of the civil space program’s inspirational and educational purpose. It demonstrates the nation’s “brainpower” to the international community, inspires students to pursue the engineering, science, and technology fields key to a competitive 21st-century economy, and broadens humanity’s knowledge and understanding of its home planet and the universe beyond.

The United States’ commercial space sector has long been an element of the nation’s broad space effort and is an increasingly substantial part and enabler of the United States’ economic strength.[v] Commercial satellites have served as components of the country’s telecommunications network for decades and have recently provided banking, the internet, and television, among other things, the connectivity and access expected of the modern era. Over the past decade especially, digital imaging satellites, in conjunction with civil weather and imaging satellites, have provided mapping and geographical data and images in support of a wide range of applications, from fishing and agriculture to meteorology, business strategy, refugee and migrant tracking, and beyond.[vi]

Commercial launch has significantly expanded over the past decade, with a breadth of new launch providers entering the market to take advantage of growing demand. Launch companies provide launch to both commercial satellites and NASA spacecraft, cargo, and, shortly, astronauts. Crucially, national security spacecraft launch aboard private sector rockets. Innovative approaches and technologies applied by private entities in the launch arena hold the possibility of considerably driving down launch costs and increasing launch cadence, potentially enabling a means of quick reconstitution, if needed, for national security assets.[vii]

There is heightened awareness of and motion toward applying the commercial sector’s growing capabilities beyond launch to support national security space efforts. The DoD relies heavily on commercial communication satellites to meet its ever-increasing bandwidth demands.[viii] DoD purchase of commercial satellite imagery is coming to be seen as an efficient and effective way to “fill in gaps” in image coverage and quickly provide image intel to the intelligence community, the warfighter, and theater commanders.[ix] “Hosting” DoD payloads aboard commercial satellites is gaining traction as a means of distributing our national security space architecture to make it more resilient.[x]

The United States’ use of space for national security purposes had been critical for our self-defense throughout the Cold War and, in the decades since, has become a key element of our power projection and asymmetrically advanced warfighting capabilities. During the Cold War, amidst fear of the Soviet nuclear threat, space assets such as missile warning systems provided early warning of attacks and were a lynchpin of the U.S. nuclear command and control system; they continue to serve these purposes.[xi]  Image and signals intelligence satellites provide strategic reconnaissance of and intelligence on adversaries, abetting strategic planning and allowing for the verification of arms control treaty adherence. A cornerstone of the United States’ intelligence gathering effort during the Cold War, they have since become more pervasive.[xii]

As particularly evidenced by the experiences of Operation Desert Storm, interventions in the Balkans, and the conflicts of the 2000s, space systems have become fundamental force enhancers for the United States’ military’s conventional operations.[xiii] Positioning, navigation, and timing assets such as GPS provided precise and reliable information that allows the warfighter to more effectively plan and train, coordinate, react to enemy actions, and execute operations. Almost every modern precision-guided weapon system in the United States’ arsenal, integral to our rapid global strike capacity, relies upon these assets. Military communications satellites allow for near-instantaneous interactions between forces in theater and across the chain of command, greatly enhancing battlefield command and control. Reconnaissance and surveillance satellites grant commanders heightened situational awareness of their environment and enemy movements and locations. Environmental monitoring assets lend support to operational decision making, allowing forces to avoid adverse conditions while exploiting favorable ones.[xiv]

Space’s Present and Future Importance

Clearly, the United States’ use of space in the present day is an underpinning of its global economic, geopolitical, and military hegemony. The civil space program, as described above, demonstrates the United States’ leadership as a scientific and technological power and fosters stronger relationships with allied powers while preserving cooperation with potential foes. Over the next decades, the civil effort will continue to serve these means. NASA’s “Journey to Mars” – its planned campaign of human Mars missions – has been described as a necessarily international effort.[xv] As the first human landing on another planet, it will undoubtedly be a significant demonstration of American ‘brainpower’ and technological leadership.

The commercial space sector serves as an integral element of our daily lives. It is a singularly important enabler of the interactivity and communications which drive our increasingly globalized and interconnected economy and modern lifestyle. With the future looking to be even more technologically-driven and connected, it will continue in this role, if not redouble. With the sector broadening and more commercial applications of space coming to the fore, it appears that space may become a greater economic center of gravity for the United States. Meanwhile, foreign commercial and civil activity in space are becoming more widespread and pronounced. As such, the commercial sector’s future importance will likely be enhancing and sustaining the United States’ economic dominance in an emerging space “marketplace.” Likewise, it appears poised to more strongly support and compliment the civil and national security sector’s evolving efforts and architectures.[xvi]

The national security application of space is integral for the United States’ global force projection and present-day capabilities. The United States’ military’s current asymmetrical advantage is borne largely from its capacity to rapidly gather, use, and employ information for strategic and tactical gain. The exploitation of this capacity will remain an underpinning of military doctrine for the foreseeable future and will necessarily be enabled and supported through the use of force-enhancing national security space systems.[xvii]

Of note, though, is that space had, until recently, been regarded by mission planners as a “sanctuary,” a domain offering the United States uncontested freedom of operation.[xviii],[xix] This has since decidedly changed. China, Russia, and other adversaries are progressively developing more threatening anti-space capabilities, highlighting vulnerabilities in our national security space systems.[xx] In light of this, the future importance of the national security space effort will involve heightened protection of our space assets in an increasingly congested, contested, and competitive environment. This will entail assuring the mission in space by developing the means to disaggregate, diversify, distribute, and protect our space assets.[xxi] According to some schools of thought, this should also involve establishing active defense and deterrence measures through the development and deployment of offensive anti- and counter-space weapons.[xxii]

Spacepowers’s Similarities – And Differences – To Other Domains

Throughout the ‘space age,’ spacepower has been compared to and against other forms of national power – particularly airpower, seapower and, more recently, cyberpower. In the approach toward a theory of spacepower and the history of interservice posturing to claim responsibility for it, this tendency for comparison is understandable: other forms of national power provide established assumptions, doctrines, and familiar points of departure for those attempting to conceptualize the current and future significance and application of space.

At an immediate glance, broad similarities can be struck between spacepower and air- and seapower. In physical terms, spacepower like airpower involves activity above the Earth’s surface. Similar to air- and seapower at their greatest extent, spacepower entails coverage of the entire globe, allowing for global force projection. As with the air and sea, space is a domain which enables commerce and through which it flows; similar to the sea, it is a realm where exploits in exploration and discovery lend to international prestige. Space assets are subject to laws akin to those governing the air and the sea: like aircraft and ships, spacecraft must be registered to a state held liable for them; the right to space overflight is analogous to the right of innocent passage through the sea.[xxiii] Broadly generalizing, air- and seapower like spacepower are subsets of a nation’s military enterprise which, when established with superiority, can provide substantial and occasionally decisive asymmetrical advantages in terrestrial engagements with an adversary.

Upon deeper analysis, however, the equivalences between spacepower and these other forms of power begin to break down. Compared to mobility in the air and on the sea, space assets are highly constrained in their ability to maneuver and redeploy due to the physical limitations of orbital mechanics. Likewise, space assets are uniquely vulnerable to attack; space is an offensive-friendly domain where the costs and means to protect an asset are substantially higher than the those to attack one. In this regard, the doctrinal approaches to defending our spacepower, as well as the escalatory actions in response to attack, differ quite profoundly from those associated with air- and seapower.[xxiv]

Unlike airpower, which was defined close to its genesis by offensive capabilities and operations, spacepower to date has largely been devoid of offensive actions and is more readily defined by defensive capabilities. Airpower as a construct explicitly focuses on its military application, generally failing to heed a nation’s civil and commercial utilization of the air, whereas spacepower is manifest from the broad combination of the three users. Unlike the application of seapower against sea assets, space has not witnessed the likes of piracy; it has not been employed to “blockade” an adversary to starve their economy, nor will it likely be capable of doing so in the near- to mid-future. Tellingly, space is absent in both notion and practice the “grand battle fleets” that have substantially defined seapower and seapower doctrine for centuries.[xxv]

 Instead, spacepower in its present form is perhaps most similar to cyberpower. Both are valued for their ability to rapidly assemble and move information at a global level in support of a wide host of applications. Their weaknesses lie in their susceptibility to jamming and denial of access. Both, though significant force enhancers, cannot decisively affect the course of terrestrial combat and operations alone.

On the Nature of Spacepower

This short review of the United States’ broad application of space cannot adequately address the comprehensive nature of spacepower; indeed, full treatises on the matter are only beginning to approach a more conclusive definition. Nonetheless, it has teased out a general notion of the nature of spacepower:

Spacepower constitutes the application of space assets and systems in a distinctly unique domain to enhance a nation’s comprehensive power and support and advance its broad terrestrial objectives.

Spacepower alone, at least at present, is not decisive or detached; rather, it is distinctly an enhancer which necessarily operates in conjunction with other forms of national power. It only supports that which it does because of our capacity and need to take advantage of it – an interconnected economy which relies upon rapid and global information transit, a technological leadership that relies upon inspirational goals such as space exploration, a military which doctrinally relies upon force projection and information dominance. In short, spacepower is not for space’s sake, but rather for Earth’s sake; not because we can use it, but because we’ve come to need to.

Nonetheless, spacepower provides unique advantage to the nation that possesses it. Ours is a world where power in all forms – economic, technological, social, and military – is established by the capacity to employ and disseminate information and operate with global reach and instantaneous communication. Spacepower is an integral element of our capability to do so. Its nature, then, is being a necessary means by which a nation, currently ours, arrives at and preserves its eminence in one or more of the metrics which define global hegemony.

Dissimilar to traditional forms of power, spacepower is constituted through the symbiosis of its users and their uses of space. It is not a separately national security, civil, or commercial endeavor. As spacepower is the broad advancing of national aims through the use of space, these users represent its subsets, by which particular national aims are supported in particular ways. Equally significant, the subsets of spacepower enable each other in a manner that defines the whole endeavor. Covert operations in space are acceptable in light of more overt civil efforts. Commercial space is coming to abet national security space in an increasingly indissoluble manner. National security space provides services, such as space situational awareness, needed by the other sectors. Spacepower’s nature is thus cohesively economic, exploratory, inspirational, and protective.

Most notably, the concept of spacepower itself is constantly and now more rapidly changing, adapting, and evolving. Space is a unique domain with few concrete terrestrial analogies and, as such, few historically rooted examples from which we can gather applicable lessons. The United States’ use of spacepower has been wholly unique in that we have defined it from its genesis and taken comparatively singular advantage from it. With the character of space changing, both in the proliferation of foreign space actors and our own developments in its use and our assets, its future is an uncertainty. The nature of spacepower as it evolves is thus malleable, perhaps more reactive and anticipatory to trends and circumstances than dictational.

Suggestions for Policymakers

With the nature of spacepower broadly characterized, a number of suggestions can be made to support policymakers as they define, develop, and direct it through the coming future. Among them:

  • Our global hegemony, while not defined by spacepower, is in large part enabled by it.
  • The United States is losing its asymmetric position and security in space amidst the growth of foreign threats and, as such, must take concrete steps toward preserving its spacepower.
  • Spacepower is borne from the confluence of its users’ activities. A focus on one subset (such as national security space at present) cannot come at the detriment of another. Rather, attention should be put on better applying and more cohesively integrating the whole enterprise.
  • Space is a unique domain and spacepower is a unique form of national power. Its future development should thus be directed through close analysis of trends and circumstances, not terrestrial analogies or historical case-studies.

Works Cited

[i] Peter L. Hays, United States Military Space: Into the 21st Century (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, September 2002), pps. 25-30.

[ii] Secretary of Defense and Director of National Intelligence, National Security Space Strategy: Unclassified Summary (Washington: Department of Defense, January 2011), pp. 5.

[iii] Lieutenant Colonel Michael P. Gleason, Ph.D., Space Policy Primer: Principles, Issues, and Actors (USAF Academy: Eisenhower Center for Space and Defense Studies, February 2010), pps. 12-14.

[iv] Roger D. Launius, History of Civil Space Activity and Spacepower, Spacepower Theory Study,, pps. 1-15.

[v] Lieutenant Colonel Michael P. Gleason, Ph.D., Space Policy Primer: Principles, Issues, and      Actors (USAF Academy: Eisenhower Center for Space and Defense Studies, February 2010), pps. 44-46.

[vi] Committee on National Security Space Defense and Protection, Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences, National Security Space Defense and Protection (Washington: National Academies Press, 2016), pp. 19.

[vii] Peter L. Hays, United States Military Space: Into the 21st Century (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, September 2002), pp. 25.

[viii] Benjamin D. Forest, An Analysis of Military Use of Commercial Satellite Communications (Monterey: Naval Post Graduate School, September 2008),, pps. 9-21.

[ix] George I. Seffers, Satellite Snapshots Fill Imagery Gap, SIGNAL Magazine,

[x] Mike Gruss, U.S. Air Force Picks 14 Companies to Support Hosted Payload Efforts, SpaceNews,

[xi] Elbridge Colby, From Sanctuary to Battlefield: A Framework for a U.S. Defense and Deterrence Strategy for Space (Washington: CNAS, January 2016), pp. 4.

[xii] Joint Staff, Joint Publication 3-14: Space Operations (Washington: Department of Defense, 29 May 2013), pp. 34.

[xiii] Barry D. Watts, The Military Use of Space: A Diagnostic Assessment (Washington: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, February 2001), pp. 33.

[xiv] Joint Staff, Joint Publication 3-14: Space Operations (Washington: Department of Defense, 29 May 2013), pp. 35.

[xv] National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NASA’s Journey to Mars: Pioneering Next Steps in Space Exploration (Washington: NASA, October 2015),, pp. 3.

[xvi] Ryan Lewis and Todd Stavish, The New Race for Space, IQT Quarterly 6, no. 3 (Winter 2015), pp. 4.

[xvii] Barry D. Watts, The Military Use of Space: A Diagnostic Assessment (Washington: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, February 2001), pp. 1.

[xviii]  Peter L. Hays, United States Military Space: Into the 21st Century (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air  University Press, September 2002), pp. 6.

[xix] Benjamin S. Lambeth, Mastering the Ultimate High Ground: Next Steps in the Military Uses of Space (Santa Monica: RAND, 2003), pp. 123.

[xx] Elbridge Colby, From Sanctuary to Battlefield: A Framework for a U.S. Defense and Deterrence Strategy for Space (Washington: CNAS, January 2016), pp. 6.

[xxi] Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense & Global Security, Space Domain Mission Assurance: A Resilience Taxonomy (Washington: DoD, September 2015), pps. 3-7.

[xxii] Everett C. Dolman and Henry F. Cooper, Jr., Increasing the Military Uses of Space,  Spacepower Theory Study, pps. 4-7.

[xxiii] Air Command and Staff College Space Research Electives Seminars, AU-18: Space Primer (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, September 2009), pps. 30-31.

[xxiv] Barry D. Watts, The Military Use of Space: A Diagnostic Assessment (Washington: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, February 2001), pps. 25-30.

[xxv] Ibid.