.
T

his December marks the Space Force’s third birthday. In that short period of time the service has sought to overcome its detractors, establish a unique culture, define its mission, and articulate its vision of America’s military future in space. In many ways it has been successful—its very existence highlights the bipartisan understanding of the service’s mission, and the fact that it was not a product of the previous administration, to be undone with the arrival of the next. Indeed, its intellectual framework existed well before President Donald Trump and is the culmination of a number of factors and trends in the politics of space security. The service’s efforts to define and communicate its mission to the public reflects an immaturity in the broader understanding of what security and politics mean in space.

Original Sin: Power, Technology and War in Outer Space | Bleddyn E. Bowen | Hurst

Bleddyn E. Bowen, a lecturer at the University of Leicester and expert in international relations and strategic theory in space, attempts to correct this shortcoming in his book “Original Sin: Power, Technology, and War in Outer Space,” a copy of which was kindly provided by the publisher. Bowen is, in the main, successful in that he offers a robust framework for understanding the politics of security on orbit. His efforts are, however, undone by a curiously aggressive post-modern interpretation of the genesis of the Global Space Age, the repetition of which throughout the text frequently interrupts the narrative flow of what is an otherwise welcome (and needed) contribution.

Bowen’s core thesis is that the history of the Global Space Age is predicated on the titular “original sin.” For all of the language of progress for all mankind and the perceptions of peaceful uses of outer space, the reality is that every step forward in space is inextricably linked to space’s militarization and the advancement of the thermonuclear age. In essence, space was militarized from the start and every innovation, technological advance, and bit of progress thereafter and indeed in the future—unless steps are taken to correct it—is in furtherance of that initial pursuit. He finds the original sin in actions that were taken to advance the space race, be it the expropriation of land from indigenous populations or the pursuit of “imperial” space policies.

To Bowen’s credit, he presents a compelling argument in support of his “original sin” thesis, although it is one with which many will find issue. The space race and modern space age does, as he notes, have an inextricable connection to World War II and Wernher von Braun (although its intellectual antecedents go back much further). Moral and ethical considerations were sacrificed to the exegeses of the moment—the looming specter of the Cold War driving political calculations such as Operation Paperclip—the American program that spirited German scientists such as von Braun out of Europe. The oft-cited and much praised space race was not a pure scientific endeavor, but inextricably linked to the advancement of military technology, not the least of which was precision targeting of intercontinental ballistic missiles and the delivery of nuclear warheads.

The issue with Bowen’s argument, which is repeated far too often for utility beyond self-flagellation, is that in the end, it does not change the present geopolitical realities of space—ones he so effectively highlights. His post-modern interpretation yields no insights beyond the arguments put forward by Neil deGrasse Tyson and Avis Lang, with far less self-indulgence, in their book “Accessory to War: The Unspoken Alliance between Astrophysics and the Military.” One would be hard pressed to find any modern innovation that is not linked to—directly or tangentially—the military and defense establishment. Bowen quips that he is not in favor of “defunding space,” but if he suggested as much, the reader would not be surprised.

More succinctly, Bowen’s argument could have jettisoned the post-modernism, and simply suggested that our understanding of space and the role it plays in modern society is flawed, as the general public and policymakers alike, assumes too much and understands too little. The fixation, the argument would go, on the civil or scientific aspects of space exploration omits its inextricable linkages to national and economic security. The end result is that our policymaking is predicated on a peaceful and benign interpretation that is, ultimately, wrong; Space is an inextricable component of our modern conception of security. Our collective policy naivete, therefore, is based on faulty understandings of the environment’s context and history, which in turn yields the wrong outcomes.

If one strips away Bowen’s “original sin” hypothesis, there is a very smart, very astute, and very timely book on the nature of space policy, its global implications, and the nexus of politics and conflict on orbit. Bowen successfully brings the debate around, and issues related to, space security back to earth. He rightly expands the aperture to look beyond the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia, exploring how Japan, India, the United Kingdom, and France developed their own civil and military space programs—indeed, he notes that other countries are often discounted in the space race, yet saw the value in, and desired their own, capabilities on and from orbit.

More broadly, he rightly argues that we need to consider space policy beyond the domain of military operations. Whereas there is no “sea policy” or “air policy,” but rather a robust set of policies and doctrines that govern operations in these domains, a similar framework is needed for space. This is a particularly timely and astute point, and one with which the United States still struggles. Looking at space as a holistic ecosystem in which a multitude of activities take place is far smarter than treating space, with all of its complexities, as a single environment. This will become even more important as operations in and from space, and to cislunar space, increase in the near future.

Whilst Bowen doesn’t quite state it as such, there is irony in the fact that the delineation between military and civil, conquest and science in the air and sea domains did not exist until such a time when technology had matured, and culture and institutions matured sufficiently. We are arguably at such an early stage in space, today.

He is also right to highlight the fact that our collective understanding of war and defense in and from space is far too immature. This is not a challenge of technology—he rightly points out that the technology is maturing—it is, ultimately, a challenge of doctrine and policy. This is something that I have heard repeatedly from experts within the Space Force and the commercial space sector. Technology and engineering are problems that can, by comparison, be easily overcome (within the laws of physics). Yet, the human challenges remain the biggest hurdles. What is our space doctrine? What signal do we want to send to an adversary? What precedent are we setting by using a weapon or capability in space? How should we respond to an escalation in space? What is the role of the private sector in space security (about which he has little comparably to say)? Do our adversaries understand our red lines and do they understand ours?

This last question is particularly concerning. Whereas traditional deterrence and escalation has a fairly robust body of literature and relative understanding by the parties involved (developed over 70 years of nuclear parity), space does not have a similar framework. As related by one space expert, the differences between what Beijing and Washington understand as red-lines is fraught with peril. In Track II discussions between representatives of both countries, the former assumed that blinding a space-based early warning satellite would be a signal; the latter would interpret that as an act of war.

Bowen does a superb job of cutting through the hyperbole of space weapons, thoroughly grounding the discussion in what is possible and indeed probable now. The vast majority of space assets are designed for the support and augmentation of terrestrial operations. Whether it is a communications asset, position, navigation and timing (PNT), or remote sensing satellite, space platforms support operations on-the-ground, whether civil or indeed military. Anti-satellite weapons such as missiles, lasers, and other capabilities, including cyber operations, do exist and do present a threat to orbital platforms. We are, nonetheless, a long way from “Star Wars” (or perhaps more aptly “The Expanse”).

His criticism of the defense framework of space as “the ultimate high ground” is well made and thought-provoking. As a contributing author to a report that borrowed the phrase for its title, it was a particularly insightful point, if a touch sharply made. He argues that the phrase captures little of the complexities of space or the challenges of high grounds in modern warfare. Bowen suggests that space instead of being a “high ground” and rather be termed a coastline. Here, space is a secondary and tertiary domain, and not a primary zone of operations (at the moment). Like the coast, capabilities are delivered from space to the main theater of activity: Earth.

“Original Sin” is a timely and welcome contribution to our understanding of space, politics, and security in the modern era. Its value is, however, undermined by his conceit that all progress in orbit is fruit from a poisoned tree. In the end, that titular original sin makes little difference to reality today. If states see space as a domain of operations or an adjunct to military operations, that is what it is and will continue to be. If one state sees it as such, then others will as well—what matters is how states respond to this reality and what framework of law, policy, and governance is developed for that domain.

Today, too much of the scientific and civil community sees space as “Star Trek,” and too much of the military sees it as “Star Wars.” The reality is likely far closer to “The Expanse” universe where politics and war have simply migrated to the stars (the alien proto-molecule of “The Expanse” as of this writing, notwithstanding). As Bowen perceptively writes, “Spacepower does not exist in a political and strategic vacuum; space warfare is merely the continuation of terrestrial politics by other means.”

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Diplomatic Courier's Book Reviewer and Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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www.diplomaticourier.com

As Below, So Above: Politics and Security in Space

Photo by NASA via Unsplash.

December 17, 2022

While there are many peaceful uses of outer space, the reality may be that space was militarized from the start. Joshua Huminksi reviews Bleddyn E. Bowen’s “Original Sin,” writing that it's a timely and welcome contribution to our understanding of space, politics, and security in the modern era.

T

his December marks the Space Force’s third birthday. In that short period of time the service has sought to overcome its detractors, establish a unique culture, define its mission, and articulate its vision of America’s military future in space. In many ways it has been successful—its very existence highlights the bipartisan understanding of the service’s mission, and the fact that it was not a product of the previous administration, to be undone with the arrival of the next. Indeed, its intellectual framework existed well before President Donald Trump and is the culmination of a number of factors and trends in the politics of space security. The service’s efforts to define and communicate its mission to the public reflects an immaturity in the broader understanding of what security and politics mean in space.

Original Sin: Power, Technology and War in Outer Space | Bleddyn E. Bowen | Hurst

Bleddyn E. Bowen, a lecturer at the University of Leicester and expert in international relations and strategic theory in space, attempts to correct this shortcoming in his book “Original Sin: Power, Technology, and War in Outer Space,” a copy of which was kindly provided by the publisher. Bowen is, in the main, successful in that he offers a robust framework for understanding the politics of security on orbit. His efforts are, however, undone by a curiously aggressive post-modern interpretation of the genesis of the Global Space Age, the repetition of which throughout the text frequently interrupts the narrative flow of what is an otherwise welcome (and needed) contribution.

Bowen’s core thesis is that the history of the Global Space Age is predicated on the titular “original sin.” For all of the language of progress for all mankind and the perceptions of peaceful uses of outer space, the reality is that every step forward in space is inextricably linked to space’s militarization and the advancement of the thermonuclear age. In essence, space was militarized from the start and every innovation, technological advance, and bit of progress thereafter and indeed in the future—unless steps are taken to correct it—is in furtherance of that initial pursuit. He finds the original sin in actions that were taken to advance the space race, be it the expropriation of land from indigenous populations or the pursuit of “imperial” space policies.

To Bowen’s credit, he presents a compelling argument in support of his “original sin” thesis, although it is one with which many will find issue. The space race and modern space age does, as he notes, have an inextricable connection to World War II and Wernher von Braun (although its intellectual antecedents go back much further). Moral and ethical considerations were sacrificed to the exegeses of the moment—the looming specter of the Cold War driving political calculations such as Operation Paperclip—the American program that spirited German scientists such as von Braun out of Europe. The oft-cited and much praised space race was not a pure scientific endeavor, but inextricably linked to the advancement of military technology, not the least of which was precision targeting of intercontinental ballistic missiles and the delivery of nuclear warheads.

The issue with Bowen’s argument, which is repeated far too often for utility beyond self-flagellation, is that in the end, it does not change the present geopolitical realities of space—ones he so effectively highlights. His post-modern interpretation yields no insights beyond the arguments put forward by Neil deGrasse Tyson and Avis Lang, with far less self-indulgence, in their book “Accessory to War: The Unspoken Alliance between Astrophysics and the Military.” One would be hard pressed to find any modern innovation that is not linked to—directly or tangentially—the military and defense establishment. Bowen quips that he is not in favor of “defunding space,” but if he suggested as much, the reader would not be surprised.

More succinctly, Bowen’s argument could have jettisoned the post-modernism, and simply suggested that our understanding of space and the role it plays in modern society is flawed, as the general public and policymakers alike, assumes too much and understands too little. The fixation, the argument would go, on the civil or scientific aspects of space exploration omits its inextricable linkages to national and economic security. The end result is that our policymaking is predicated on a peaceful and benign interpretation that is, ultimately, wrong; Space is an inextricable component of our modern conception of security. Our collective policy naivete, therefore, is based on faulty understandings of the environment’s context and history, which in turn yields the wrong outcomes.

If one strips away Bowen’s “original sin” hypothesis, there is a very smart, very astute, and very timely book on the nature of space policy, its global implications, and the nexus of politics and conflict on orbit. Bowen successfully brings the debate around, and issues related to, space security back to earth. He rightly expands the aperture to look beyond the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia, exploring how Japan, India, the United Kingdom, and France developed their own civil and military space programs—indeed, he notes that other countries are often discounted in the space race, yet saw the value in, and desired their own, capabilities on and from orbit.

More broadly, he rightly argues that we need to consider space policy beyond the domain of military operations. Whereas there is no “sea policy” or “air policy,” but rather a robust set of policies and doctrines that govern operations in these domains, a similar framework is needed for space. This is a particularly timely and astute point, and one with which the United States still struggles. Looking at space as a holistic ecosystem in which a multitude of activities take place is far smarter than treating space, with all of its complexities, as a single environment. This will become even more important as operations in and from space, and to cislunar space, increase in the near future.

Whilst Bowen doesn’t quite state it as such, there is irony in the fact that the delineation between military and civil, conquest and science in the air and sea domains did not exist until such a time when technology had matured, and culture and institutions matured sufficiently. We are arguably at such an early stage in space, today.

He is also right to highlight the fact that our collective understanding of war and defense in and from space is far too immature. This is not a challenge of technology—he rightly points out that the technology is maturing—it is, ultimately, a challenge of doctrine and policy. This is something that I have heard repeatedly from experts within the Space Force and the commercial space sector. Technology and engineering are problems that can, by comparison, be easily overcome (within the laws of physics). Yet, the human challenges remain the biggest hurdles. What is our space doctrine? What signal do we want to send to an adversary? What precedent are we setting by using a weapon or capability in space? How should we respond to an escalation in space? What is the role of the private sector in space security (about which he has little comparably to say)? Do our adversaries understand our red lines and do they understand ours?

This last question is particularly concerning. Whereas traditional deterrence and escalation has a fairly robust body of literature and relative understanding by the parties involved (developed over 70 years of nuclear parity), space does not have a similar framework. As related by one space expert, the differences between what Beijing and Washington understand as red-lines is fraught with peril. In Track II discussions between representatives of both countries, the former assumed that blinding a space-based early warning satellite would be a signal; the latter would interpret that as an act of war.

Bowen does a superb job of cutting through the hyperbole of space weapons, thoroughly grounding the discussion in what is possible and indeed probable now. The vast majority of space assets are designed for the support and augmentation of terrestrial operations. Whether it is a communications asset, position, navigation and timing (PNT), or remote sensing satellite, space platforms support operations on-the-ground, whether civil or indeed military. Anti-satellite weapons such as missiles, lasers, and other capabilities, including cyber operations, do exist and do present a threat to orbital platforms. We are, nonetheless, a long way from “Star Wars” (or perhaps more aptly “The Expanse”).

His criticism of the defense framework of space as “the ultimate high ground” is well made and thought-provoking. As a contributing author to a report that borrowed the phrase for its title, it was a particularly insightful point, if a touch sharply made. He argues that the phrase captures little of the complexities of space or the challenges of high grounds in modern warfare. Bowen suggests that space instead of being a “high ground” and rather be termed a coastline. Here, space is a secondary and tertiary domain, and not a primary zone of operations (at the moment). Like the coast, capabilities are delivered from space to the main theater of activity: Earth.

“Original Sin” is a timely and welcome contribution to our understanding of space, politics, and security in the modern era. Its value is, however, undermined by his conceit that all progress in orbit is fruit from a poisoned tree. In the end, that titular original sin makes little difference to reality today. If states see space as a domain of operations or an adjunct to military operations, that is what it is and will continue to be. If one state sees it as such, then others will as well—what matters is how states respond to this reality and what framework of law, policy, and governance is developed for that domain.

Today, too much of the scientific and civil community sees space as “Star Trek,” and too much of the military sees it as “Star Wars.” The reality is likely far closer to “The Expanse” universe where politics and war have simply migrated to the stars (the alien proto-molecule of “The Expanse” as of this writing, notwithstanding). As Bowen perceptively writes, “Spacepower does not exist in a political and strategic vacuum; space warfare is merely the continuation of terrestrial politics by other means.”

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Diplomatic Courier's Book Reviewer and Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.