Stanley Kubrick’s dark comedy Dr. Strangelove parodied the nuclear ‘balance of terror’ which if disrupted would result in (wait for it…) mutually assured destruction. While the just-released National Security Space Strategy (NSSS) skips over the whole MAD thing, it does propose strengthening U.S. space security in large part with space-focused codes, rules, and norms.
Cumulatively, and in a salute to Kubrick, let’s characterize these codes, rules and norms the NSSS proposes and even give them a name: Dr. SpaceLove. Such SpaceLove, as envisioned by the NSSS, is intended to reassure others regarding U.S. aspirations in space, encourage responsible spacefaring behavior, and lead by example. Part of the NSSS’s SpaceLove approach advocates continuing to do things we’ve done for a long time; other parts of the SpaceLove approach…well, it’s really kind of hard to say exactly what they might bring.
The overarching theme of the NSSS is this: the DoD and the intelligence community (IC) love what they’re getting from space and they want to preserve this situation. In fact, DoD and the IC even have a stated objective of enhancing the national security advantages that space gives the United States despite the fact the NSSS highlights current trends which are moving us away from this goal (to say nothing of possible budgetary cratering).
The current trends the NSSS acknowledges are that space is congested (crowded with debris, satellites, and radio frequency interference), contested (potential and de facto adversaries can mitigate the benefits the U.S. receives from space through space warfare), and competitive (others are catching up to U.S. space systems and capabilities). Although it goes without saying, let’s say it anyway: space is also costly. So is there a best approach to increase the space security of the United States?
If you believe in the platitude/metaphor/common wisdom which holds that the best offense is a good defense, a useful approach to increasing space security would be to reduce space vulnerabilities. Space vulnerabilities can be mitigated in part with redundant (space and non-space) systems, robust and hardened space and terrestrial systems, and with flexible and nimble acquisition methods supported by a reconfigurable and responsive industrial base. However, these mitigation methods tend to gloss over the ‘space is costly’ part of the equation.
But since the United States has very little of the listed ‘space vulnerability mitigation’ capabilities and if there’s no funding to do the mitigation anyway, can anything else be done to increase U.S. space security? As a solution-in-part, the NSSS offers up arms control-lite, that is, an approach favoring space-focused codes of conduct, rules of the road, and norms, AKA Dr. SpaceLove. These codes, rules, and norms would have the practical effect of a treaty without the negotiation or ratification; a kind of self-imposed treaty.
Dr. SpaceLove-type thinking presumes if the United States gets on board, other space actors will emulate our actions. As such, Dr. SpaceLove could self-regulate a broad expanse of behaviors that may put space-delivered capability at risk. Addressing these risks could include minimizing collisions in space, reducing space radio frequency interference, optimizing crowed orbits, and discouraging destabilizing actions.
Is a SpaceLove strategic approach likely to work? As a point of departure, 1928’s Kellogg–Briand Pact didn’t end war. And actually, many of the space rules and codes and norms being proposed were codified into law long ago in 1967’s Outer Space Treaty (OST). How Dr. SpaceLove will be able to do what the OST hasn’t been able to do remains to be seen.
Additionally, because major weaknesses exist in attributing things that happen in space to particular nation-states or groups, and as enforcement powers regarding the existing OST are practically non-existent (consider the massive space debris field created with China’s 2007 anti-satellite test) codes, rules, and norms are effectively a self-limiting partnership of the willing. This means the real-world actions of those space players who are not so willing could present significant challenges to the efficacy of a Dr. SpaceLove approach.
So is it time, as the title suggests, to stop thinking and drink the Dr. SpaceLove kool-aid? At this point, it seems prudent to hold off at least until the Atomic Scientists get their Doomsday Clock fixed.