Preoccupation with Aggression: The Latest U.S. National Security Space Strategy

Tasneem Jamal Space Security

Cesar Jaramillo

The Ploughshares Monitor Spring 2011 Volume 32 Issue 1

The unclassified summary of the National Security Space Strategy (NSSS), newly released by the US Department of Defense (2011), combines lofty goals with dubious tactics. While it states that the United States will support the establishment of norms of behaviour for the responsible use of space, it also makes clear that the country will retain the capabilities to use force and to respond in self-defence as a means to dissuade others from acquiring them.

This mix imbues space security discourse with a questionable logic reminiscent of the US posture on nuclear weapons and its emphasis on deterrence. Perhaps most disconcertingly, the NSSS appears to validate the findings of a 2001 commission chaired by then defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, which concluded that “every medium—air, land and sea—has seen conflict. Reality indicates that space will be no different” (Report of the Commission 2001, p. 10). The message conveyed by the NSSS seems clear: US space policy will be driven by this assumption, and the country will ready itself—unapologetically—for potential war in space.

The NSSS, which completes the Congress-mandated Space Posture Review, outlines how the National Space Policy released in June 2010 will be carried out and sets forth US strategic objectives for the space environment. Among its goals is to “ensure national security access to space and use of space capabilities in peace, crisis or conflict” (p. 4). For political analysts the NSSS also constitutes a concrete reference point on how space policy under President Barack Obama differs from the hawkish stand adopted by George W. Bush.

Overall, a positive change in tone, approaches and aspirations is evident. Whereas the 2006 National Space Policy (US DoD 2006, p. 2) stated that “the United States will oppose the development of new legal regimes or other restrictions that seek to prohibit or limit US access to or use of space,” the newly released NSSS declares that the United States “will support development of data standards, best practices, transparency and confidence-building measures, and norms of behaviour for responsible space operations” (p. 5).

Congested, contested, competitive
But the 2011 policy is far from advocating the adoption of a legally binding policy instrument to prohibit hostile actions against an adversary’s space assets. Recent developments suggest that the United States may consider endorsing the European Union’s Code of Conduct proposal. Despite being a step in the right direction, the EU proposal is non-binding and, for the most part, skirts the thorny issue of space weaponization. 

Still, the NSSS does break from—at least in part—the unilateralist approach espoused in the 2006 policy. It also repeatedly alludes to legitimate goals and aspirations for the space environment, which it characterizes as increasingly congested, contested and competitive. Specifically, the NSSS has these objectives:

  • to strengthen safety, stability and security in space;
  • to maintain and enhance the strategic national security advantages afforded to the United States by space; and
  • to energize the space industrial base that supports US national security.

Space congestion results from the substantial increase in recent years in the number of actors with assets in space. Today over 60 nations—in addition to commercial satellite operators—have space assets. This congestion is compounded by more than 20,000 pieces of space debris large enough to be tracked, plus hundreds of thousands of smaller pieces, all of which can severely damage spacecraft. 

In the context of the NSSS, contested refers to the wider availability of capabilities that could be used in a hostile manner by potential US adversaries to deny, degrade, disrupt or destroy its space systems. Working from the assumption that “potential adversaries are seeking to exploit perceived space vulnerabilities” (p. 3), the NSSS predicts that threats to US space systems will increase over the next decade. 

The NSSS also describes space as increasingly competitive. The advantage held by the United States has gradually eroded as market-entry barriers have lowered. According to the 2011 strategy, the United States will strive to maintain and enhance its dominant position by ensuring “the competitiveness of the US space industrial base while also addressing national security needs” (p. 3).

The NSSS takes the high ground in responding to a complex and challenging space environment. It speaks of a willingness to “partner with responsible nations” (p. 5), recognizes the need to “strengthen safety, stability and security in space” (p. 4), and declares the nation’s belief in “setting pragmatic guidelines for safe activity in space” (p. 6). It also states the United States’ “intent to act peacefully and responsibly in space and encourage others to do the same” (p. 13). 

But a closer examination reveals an infusion of tried-and-failed terrestrial security paradigms into the space security discourse. Such an approach implicitly equates the dynamics of a potential space conflict to ones observed on Earth. In effect, this strategy deviates from the notion that the inherent uniqueness of space calls for a substantially different security architecture. 

The 2011 National Security Space Strategy provides unequivocal confirmation that the United States sees space as a potential arena for military confrontation. References to deterrence abound; the terms deter and deterrence appear at least 10 times in the 15-page summary. Paradoxically, the NSSS states that the United States will enhance its capability to “deter the development, testing and employment of counterspace systems,” while retaining the capabilities to respond to potential attacks, “should deterrence fail” (p. 10). The implication is that, while the United States can pursue and retain such capabilities, others should not—a position that ostensibly evokes the type of US nuclear weapons policy that has often been grilled for perpetuating a double standard. 

Striking a new note in space security debates, the NSSS also appears to flirt with elements of collective security, whereby an attack on one member of an alliance is considered to be an attack on all. The summary states that the United States will “pursue international partnerships that encourage potential adversary restraint” (p. 10).

It does not, however, fully elaborate on the extent of such agreements. In the case of NATO, for instance, notions of collective security and extended deterrence have perpetuated the dependency on nuclear weapons by European countries. If such a concept were to be applied to space, it would not be farfetched to envision a scenario in which the alliances created to deter the use of counterspace systems gradually made those very systems seem indispensable.

The NSSS summary also contains language that could be construed as fostering a discriminatory two-tiered system. For instance, instead of unequivocally condemning the use of anti-satellite weapons in all cases, it denounces only their “irresponsible testing or employment” (p. 2; emphasis added). This is likely a thinly veiled reference to China’s use of such a weapon to bring down one of its own satellites in 2007, creating vast amounts of space debris. (Presumably it does not refer to US use of a similar weapon the year after, which did not create significant debris.) It should be noted that the United States has been reluctant to endorse any initiative that bans the use of anti-satellite weapons.

The NSSS aims for an environment in which “responsible nations have access to space and the benefits of space operations” (p. 4; emphasis added). But who is to determine the criteria under which a nation is deemed responsible? And who is able to deny access to any who behave irresponsibly?

A preoccupation with aggression
The new National Security Space Strategy rightly reflects legitimate concerns about the quickly changing space environment. However, the preoccupation with potential aggression and the determination to retain capabilities to respond to perceived threats stands in stark contrast to the feeble US diplomatic efforts to strengthen the precarious normative framework on which space security is grounded.

The influence that the vast US diplomatic apparatus has exerted on other global issues has not been in play at the multilateral forums at which space security is discussed. In fact, none of the proposals currently being considered as a regulatory framework for space activities originated in the United States.

The release of the NSSS may represent renewed US energy for leadership in space security. But will the US pursuit of the laudable aspirations contained in this document replicate terrestrial dynamics of conflict in outer space?


Report of the Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organization. 2001. January 11. 

US Department of Defense. 2011. National Security Space Strategy Unclassified Summary.

———. 2006. US National Space Policy.

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