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Great Power Competition and the Consequences for Conflict in Space

June 1, 2020 | By apellegrino

Great Power Competition and the Consequences for Conflict in Space

By Rich Marsh

John J. Klein. Understanding Space Strategy: The Art of War in Space. London and New York: Routledge, 2019.

Joan Johnson-Freese. Space Warfare in the 21st Century: Arming the Heavens. London and New York: Routledge, 2017.

Jim Sciutto. The Shadow War: Inside Russia’s and China’s Secret Operations to Defeat America. New York: Harper Collins, 2019.

In 2018 the Department of Defense released a National Defense Strategy that codified an ongoing strategic shift with profound consequences for U.S. national security in general and space professionals in particular. The document stated that the long-standing, rules-based international order was in decline, corresponding to a rise in interstate strategic competition, which was now the primary concern for U.S. national security. This competition has spread to space, which, in becoming more valuable to many nations, is now a warfighting domain.

Under review here are three books from the 2020 National Security Space Institute reading list. Each takes the implications of the 2018 National Defense Strategy’s reassessment of the primary national security threat as its point of departure. Nevertheless, each author reaches distinct conclusions based on his or her study geostrategic landscape. These three books are useful for space professionals interested in lifting their noses from the grindstone to survey the international political and strategic terrain of which their work forms an important part.


Dr. Joan Johnson-Freese is a political scientist, professor at the US Navy War College, and an expert on national security space policy. She has published numerous works on space and national security going back nearly two decades. With Space Warfare in the 21st Century, she challenges the fundamental strategic assumptions that guide the planning and operations of military space. Her critical view of the military’s role in space provides the space professional a more complete perspective of the views that will shape US military space policy in the years ahead.


The main thrust of her work is that the United States is creating a security dilemma – where increased security investments actually produce less security – for itself in space through an unsustainable “primacist” approach to the domain. The primacist mentality, reflected in the jargon of “space dominance” and “space control,” is unnecessarily provocative and threatens to spark an arms race. The embrace of military force as the primary means to assure U.S. freedom in space is leading to an attitude that space warfare with China and Russia is inevitable; it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. This attitude is making a first strike against space assets by those potential adversaries a compelling option.


At root, Johnson-Freese believes the primacist approach to be the product of the “narcissism and hubris” of America’s unipolar post-Cold War period of the 1990s. American policymakers have not yet accepted that the rise of China and the recalcitrance of Russia as problems that cannot be handled by increasing the military might of the United States. She sees an inevitable transition from the United States to China as the preeminent regional power in Asia. By resisting this transition, instead of managing it, policymakers are working against the best interests of the United States.


To steer the United States away from its “competition spiral” with Russia and China, Johnson-Freese advocates shifting the weight of emphasis from military control of space to diplomacy. Instead of a competition spiral, she wants a “cooperation spiral” that sees the United States and China, in particular, cooperate in space initiatives for the progress of all humanity. Johnson-Freese has many recommendations to bring this about. She wants the United States to be more proactive in putting forth treaties that will establish international norms for the peaceful use of space and wants administrations to stop impeding the progress of international agreements and resolutions in the United Nations. This commitment to international norms and an accompanying restraint in bellicose dialogue (e.g. “space control”) will allow the United States to “regain the moral high ground” in space. Progress in diplomacy could lead to a “grand bargain” that would accommodate China’s rise, satisfy American security interests, and initiate the cooperation spiral, permitting the United States to secure the free use of space that is its stated goal.


The idea of accommodation with China in space or anywhere else is anathema to Jim Sciutto, CNN’s Chief National Security Correspondent, who sees both China and Russia as bad actors on the international stage. Whereas Johnson-Freese understands bad international behavior to be a matter of perspective, thus exhibiting a sort of moral relativism, Sciutto sees the actions of Russia and China as unequivocally nefarious. In The Shadow War, Sciutto devotes chapters to China’s island building and militarization of the South China Sea and Russia’s seizure of Crimea and proxy war in Ukraine. In comparison, Johnson-Freese mentions Crimea only to regret that it derailed UN progress on codifying international space norms. In a similarly dismissive way, she notes that China’s military projection into international waters could be bargained away through the abrogation of the United States’ commitments to Taiwan. She does not mention the conflict in Ukraine at all.


Sciutto’s central thesis is a bold one: Russia and China are waging a “Shadow War” against the United States under the noses of the American public. Without directly confronting the military might of the United States, both nations are nonetheless achieving aims that are inimical to U.S. interests. As a prominent journalist, Sciutto has many contacts with high-level defense officials, and it shows in the book. Citing former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, and the former head of FBI counterintelligence, among others, Sciutto balances Johnson-Freese’s perspective with that of the policymakers she criticizes. These officials and others make clear that Chinese and Russian actions demonstrate that both powers are not interested in mutually beneficial international cooperation. They are interested in upsetting the international system created by the United States and its allies and are doing everything they can short of direct armed conflict to realize that goal.


Sciutto’s narrative is particularly useful to the space professional interested in a detailed discussion of the problem at which the Army’s Multi-Domain Operations (MDO) concept is directed to solve. Sciutto demonstrates how Russia and China are contesting the status quo in all domains and having success in each one. Russia has reclaimed Crimea from Ukraine; China has reclaimed islands from the sea; China steals technology from U.S. companies; Russia steals emails from U.S. political parties; Russia builds “kamikaze satellites”; China builds “kidnapper satellites.” Much like MDO and its joint counterpart, Joint All-Domain Operations, Sciutto sees the solution to this problem as a symmetrical one. He wants the United States to begin contesting in all domains also, taking the offensive against Russia and China using the tactics of the Shadow War.


The perspectives of these two informed observers of global power politics diverge at a fundamental theoretical question: whether illiberal regimes like Russia and China can long persist within a liberal international order. Sciutto suggests they are already out of the international order established by the United States and seeking to fracture the alliances of the western nations and create their own power blocs. On the contrary, Johnson-Freese sees much that can be done to incorporate China into a cooperative international order and deter it from destabilizing that order; treaties, trade, and sharing of space “utilities” like GPS could all serve that purpose. A policy based on Sciutto’s thinking will see continued investments in military space capabilities, whereas a policy based on Johnson-Freese’s thinking will see a reduction in military space spending and a pullback from the sort of symmetrical multi-domain operations toward which the Department of Defense has been moving.


While both Sciutto and Johnson-Freese fear the prospect of war in space, neither considers how such a war would be fought, nor how it could be won. The development of principles for fighting in space is the task that Dr. John J. Kline takes on in Understanding Space Strategy. Klein is a senior fellow at Falcon Research, Inc. and an adjunct professor at the George Washington University Space Policy Institute.


Kline’s approach is to derive his principles from the classic works on strategy in the other warfighting domains. Readers familiar with Carl von Clausewitz, Sun Tzu, Alfred Thayer Mahan, Giulio Douhet and other historical strategists will find much that is familiar in the book. Like the 19th and early 20th century figures from which he draws, but unlike the two other authors under review here, Kline is content to see war as a given part of human affairs and worthy of dispassionate study on its own account. He spends little time on the morality of space warfare, or the details of who is right and wrong amidst the recent great power competition. His focus is the principles that govern a successful strategy for winning a war in space.


In deriving his principles from the air and sea, perhaps his most significant conception is that of the celestial line of communication (CLOC), a concept he developed in a previous book on space warfare strategy. Kline sees ensuring the security of celestial lines of movement and electromagnetic transmission as the centerpiece of space strategy. Unfortunately, he takes as a given, rather than providing reasoning and evidence, for why the principles of maritime and air strategy should apply to space. Why should the theories of Mahan and Julian Corbett in the maritime domain and Douhet and Billy Mitchell in the air domain apply to space? Kline provides no rigorous proof for the student of space



The primary flaw with Kline’s approach lies in the lack of space warfare from which there is to learn. Kline is left with extrapolating principles mostly from men for whom a man-made satellite was nothing more than a theoretical possibility. The linchpin for Kline’s theorizing is Clausewitz’s maxim of war’s unchanging nature: a “paradoxical trinity” of violence, chance, and reason, a fundamentally human endeavor that is as permanent as human nature. Though the unpredictability of war and its resistance to the rational direction of men has been borne out through history, this philosophical point provides little of substance on which to base a concrete space strategy. Consequently, Kline mainly provides the reader abstractions – choke points, high value positions, high ground, dispersal, and concentration – without giving these ideas context for space.


The a priori nature of his reasoning is perhaps most noticeable in his eyebrow-raising assertion that in space warfare, the defense will be the stronger form of war. This contradicts the commonplace assumption that the predictable trajectories, fragility, and expense of systems operating in space make them highly vulnerable and difficult to defend. In applying the truism from the land, sea, and air domains that the defense provides advantages that compensate for numerical or firepower disadvantages, he yet provides no real argument why this should be the case for space.


While Mahan had centuries of naval history from which to draw his principles and Clausewitz had the wars of the French Revolution, Kline has speculation. What Kline requires is a history of space warfare from which to study the tactics and operations of commanders. Through such a history he could extract his principles, which will certainly be different in character than those of warfare in other domains, if still reflecting the same unchanging nature of war. Unfortunately, no such history has yet been written.


While Kline develops some principles for warfare in space on its own, he does not integrate his space warfare principles with those of warfare in the other domains. This is an area in which much work is still needed. The Joint All-Domain Operations Concept and the JCS’s initiative for Joint All-Domain Command and Control are a step in the right direction. How the various warfighting domains will influence each other with the advent of the militarization and weaponization of space is a question that should drive future research.


What the agreements and disagreements between the works of these three authors make clear is that policymakers and strategists have only just begun to grapple with the problems posed by space. It is a domain in which geopolitical competition and technological advancement is outpacing the ability of academics and practitioners alike to anticipate the consequences of the decisions being taken by the leaders of nations around the globe. The questions these authors consider are integral to the vertiginous developments that are shaping the environment in which space professionals operate daily. A study of these and similar works is a worthy investment of time for all those seeking to understand the changes shaping politics and warfare in the 21st century.  


Author bio: Rich Marsh is the editor of PURVIEW, a 2006 graduate of the United States Military Academy, a military historian in the Army reserve, and a PhD candidate in The Ohio State University history program.