Why worry about a space war? An interview with Everett Dolman, space strategist

This may well be a conversation for the future – but occurring now. The discussion is about looming competition between two space powers, one established, and the other rising. The big players are the US and China. The expert is Everett Dolman, a professor at the US School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, who has the rare job of thinking, writing and teaching full-time on the subject of space strategy. Dolman, author of Astropolitik: Classical Geopolitics in the Space Age (Strategy and History), concludes that the space war may have already begun, but the limits on understanding the movements of satellites from afar prevents us from knowing for certain.

Below is an edited transcript of my interview with Dolman for a story for Fairfax. This was one of those cases where the interview yielded more than I could fit into the piece.

Why space?

Dolman: Space is invisible to us in a lot of ways. It enables smart phones and different supply chains. It enables the economy in ways that are so embedded now, that to any extent that that is taken over or lost becomes disastrous to us at a level I don’t think we perceive because it’s invisible. It’s like Arthur C Clarke said, “any technology sufficiently advanced is the same as magic.”

As we become more involved in space, it becomes the source of a lot innovation. That’s something a lot of people forget. Robotics is based on outer space sciences and developments. It’s vastly important. It’s becoming more geopolitically important in some odd ways.

Conflict in space may not just be the stuff of James Bond films. Pictured: a scene from Diamonds Are Forever.
Conflict in space may not just be the stuff of James Bond films. Pictured: a scene from Diamonds Are Forever.

If you look at space as part and parcel of cyber, at it is, we interact with space virtually, as we do with unmanned vehicles, remotely piloted vehicles, as we do with World of Warcraft. It’s an adaptation of how we do things and how we get better at things, like flight simulations or operation simulations. Things are getting so good, so three-dimensional, so highly capable, almost all enabled by space technology or directly using space technologies, it’s changing the way we do business and we don’t understand how integrated it is and how much of a backbone it is.

Why space competition?

Dolman: For large nations, space is the ‘high ground’ that is so vitally necessary [in a conflict]. And that causes problems. Some of the Chinese-US conflict is in understanding the value of that high ground. It looks like the Chinese more and more are planning to contest it, if need be.

We [the US] look at space as potential providing a great transparency to enhance our security. If we can see what they’re doing and they can see what we’re doing, we should all be safer. But I think the Chinese look at it more and more as Sun Tzu might: When you can see everything I can do, when you know my capabilities, you can plan my demise in detail. That’s not necessarily [a] confidence building [measure].

Did the US and USSR come to share the same view of how space worked?

Dolman: I think they did… The policy minds of Moscow looked West rather than East since 1800 or so, maybe Peter the Great (in 1720s), maybe even earlier, they had that outlook. It’s just a way of seeing the world based on cultural experiences and growth and history. It’s just as valid as any other.

When we look at geopolitics as the geographic or territorial sources of state power, space has rapidly become a completely uncontested and open environment, or at least uncontrolled. It’s contested every day in subtle ways. It is ripe is for someone to do something completely diabolic and a rogue nation doing a horrible nuclear detonation.

It’s very unlikely but within the realm of possibility. But it’s more likely that in 10-15 years, China or the US or some nation, barring an international accord or agreement or action, will simply seize control of the ability to operate in space, or private companies might.

Is this where things are drifting decades after the Space Race ended?

Dolman: Remember that when [the space race] started there were no rules in space. None.

The problem now is that we have some very defined rules that came out of that race and that Cold War competition that are now restricting and constraining space in such [a] disadvantageous [way] to the West that China is taking tremendous advantage of this gap in de facto law de jure.

And there is no race [today]. China and US are not natural enemies. Geopolitically, US is a great maritime power and air power. Geopolitically, China is a great land power.  They are separate and can’t threaten each other. And the people on a one-on-one level get along very well. Each side admires much of what the other does and get along pretty well and neither side is looking to occupy the others sides’ territory. But the both fear the influence the other might have. And so China has been historically defensive, central. US has been historically expansive on trade because that’s where their strength lay. Those two geopolitical realities really collide first now in outer space, where to the Chinese it’s an area that need be protected in times of crisis and to the US it’s a place that needs to be open to prevent that crisis.

It’s a problem right now that is unsoluble because both sides look at in different geopolitical (ways).

NASA has pitched the commercial launch contracts for the International Space Station as a move to open the commercial frontier of space. How would you describe it?  

Dolman: There are real advantages for US opening its space program to commerce enterprise and those advantages really accrue in times of peace.

We did this during the Cold War in many ways for the US in outer space. We built these magnificent, extensive, large, single-point-of-failure satellites that in times of war, our space capabilities would be wiped out in days.

Whereas the Russians built heavy, redundant, network satellite systems that in times of war would have been dominant. The fact is, we had a lot of peace and that type of economic or political outlook lost out.

We’re in situation now where if we don’t have war, freeing America business and competition to the extent it can be going to space is going to require some changing of the rules eventually. But it’s a frightening thing to a command- economy system. Or to a system that is, as Gorbachev did with perestroika [in the final years of the Soviet Union], taking a step backwards to go two steps forward, is allowing an amount of capital in freemarkets to flourish, and is concerned about the relationship that has with democratization but its willing to do it to stay apace [with the West].

Space is an area they believe will be very powerful in a geopolitical context for power negotiations in the future – and [the Chinese] are banking on it.

Their space station, their Moon and Mars aspirations are linked into that along with some of the testing they have done with anti-satellite capabilities.

If it’s not a Space Race, what is it?

Dolman: At this point, for the US, it’s populating space with profit-making ventures that we have a tremendous advantage in our economic system in creating. We can create demand in certain ways.

When we looked at the space race in 1963, it was really not just for conquering space, it was who was going to kill who in the nuclear Armageddon to come. And space represented all of that with the missiles.

This SpaceX race that is going on is really about: can the economic systems continue to dominate? Can the more innovative, creative versus the more technically sophisticated (in many ways) and coordinated system Chinese system [prevail]? Which one is going to better to conquer economically and populate space, giving it a lot of room?

The advantage to that is, the more we can populate space the more valuable it is, the less likely the two states involved would get into an engagement that would mess that up, like have a kinetic war, having killing satellite banging into each other.

[Instead] It would be someone who is not a great space power, or reliant on space power, who would have the most desire to populate space in such a way that it would wipe out the space capabilities of everybody in some sort of huge kinetic war.

More likely it would be laser-blinding, moving satellites, shutting them down electronically, hijacking them, something like that. Or when you kill them kinetically doing it in such a way that the physical force goes into the atmosphere and burns everything up. That’s how most of the Chinese and Russian systems, still active today, do it in such a way not making any debris. You’d have to do it in some sophisticated way. In that sense, space becomes the more valuable the more that goes into it. It would require privatization or another agreement on some social outlook. And the one who is there with the most tends to get to make the rules. That happens in a frontier.

There has never been a case of one government taking down another government’s satellite in space, has there?

Dolman: No. The problem with space is our ability to identify things that are happening there is not great. Space situational awareness is what it’s called. We sometimes just can’t attribute why a satellites might go out or not. There has been a collision of satellites – one was completely dead, as I understand – a couple years ago that caused debris. But that was acknowledged by all sides it wasn’t expected, etc.

But there have been a few satellites that have gone out that could be a meteor strike, could be solar activity over time and maybe some wire got zapped. But as I understand, there have been accusations… that someone is messing with their satellite, especially overlapping frequencies. I can’t confirm any of it…But there is no attributed attack.

Could US-China space war be ‘inevitable’ even if the two nations aren’t ‘natural enemies’

Out of sight out of mind. That may explain how space competition between China and the US gets so little attention. With satellites orbiting hundreds of miles overhead and space “militarized but not weaponized” it’s easy to forget that space too, is an aspect of China’s rise. And because it involves high-technology, it’s probably an important one to watch.

Space war: an artist's rendering.
Space war: an artist’s rendering.

The Center of Strategic and International Studies’ James A. Lewis notes that “the only likely military contest in space is between the United States and China.” Space activities, he writes, are support China’s longer-term economic and strategic goals. “China’s intentions are to catch up with and surpass the West.”

Here is a piece I did on the subject for Fairfax that also takes in the growing space economy.

The subject of US-China space competition is, at this point, more for the elites than the masses. That’s because, until China puts a taikonaut on the moon, the American public likely won’t notice too much.

As Professor of Strategy at School of Advanced Air and Space Studies Everett Dolman told me: “China and US are not natural enemies” [nonetheless] both sides “fear the influence the other might have” and the geopolitical realities of the two “really collide first now in outer space.”

And the looming collision is on the radar of elites. A report on the subject was prepared this month  for the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission.

The report gives a detailed account of China’s evolution space strategy, viewing it as the ultimate “high ground” in a battle.

The People Liberation Army’s interest in space got rolling “after the 1991 Gulf War, which has been referred to as the first space war, and has only increased since,” the report notes. Today the thinking is that as air warfare has evolved, so will space warfare.

According to Chinese sources, space warfare is now at the equivalent stage of the state of air power in World War I in which intelligence gathering was the main mission of air forces. But just as with air power, space power will become so vital to military operations that militaries will seek to control space, resulting in a contest over its supremacy.

As a result, Chinese analysts conclude that space war is inevitable and that the Chinese military must not only develop space-based command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets, but also develop the means to protect those assets and to deny an enemy access to its space-based C4ISR assets.

In this regard, Chinese writers on space advocate the PLA to prepare to achieve space supremacy, defined as the ability to use space and to deny the use of space to its adversaries.

As grim as that sounds, a competition in space may not be nearly as lethal as one on the ground. In fact, if the parallel can be made to the cyberrealm, such a conflict may come down to which country has superior technology, rather than which one has bigger armies capable of more deadly destruction. The competition may be discrete, again, like it is in the cyberrealm. The question remains: when will the wider public notice?

The answer: maybe not until their own space-enable communications or entertainment are affected.