Dr. Spacelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Code

Posted: March 4, 2011 in Songs of Space and Nuclear War
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Stanley Kubrick’s dark comedy Dr. Strangelove parodied the nuclear ‘balance of terror’ of the early 1960s which if disrupted would result in (wait for it…) mutually assured destruction.  The recently released National Security Space Strategy (NSSS) rightfully skips over the whole nuclear MAD thing and instead offers that U.S. security in space can be strengthened largely through space-focused codes, rules, and norms. 

In a salute to Kubrick, let’s characterize these codes, rules and norms the NSSS proposes and even give them a name: spacelove.  Why spacelove?  Well, first because McLovin’ has already been taken and second, because these codes, rules, and norms are all about the golden rule–doing unto others in space as you’d have them do unto you.

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 NSSS has an overarching theme and it’s this: the DoD and the intelligence community (IC) adore 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 trends which are almost certain to move us away from this goal. 

The 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 common wisdom which holds that the best offense is a good defense, the most useful approach to increasing our space security would be to reduce our 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 near-certain fiscal constraints affecting both space and non-space systems.

If the United States currently has little of the listed ‘space vulnerability mitigation’ capabilities and if there’s little or no funding to do the mitigation anyway, can anything else be done to increase U.S. space security?  As a theoretical solution-in-part, the NSSS offers up codes, rules, and norms — the aforementioned spacelove — which is a sort of arms control-lite.  These codes, rules, and norms could have the practical effect of a treaty without the messy negotiation or ratification.  Effectively, spacelove would be a kind of self-imposed treaty. 

Spacelove-type thinking presumes if the United States will lead, other space actors will imitate our actions.  If spacelove works, it could drive a sort of universal self-regulation across a broad expanse of behaviors that put space-delivered capability at risk.  Addressing these risks could help minimize collisions in space, reduce space radio frequency interference, optimize crowded orbits, and discourage destabilizing actions.

So is it time, as the title suggests, to stop worrying and love the code?  As a stand-alone solution, certainly not.  Consider, for example, that within the last month Libya has been jamming space-delivered Al Jazeera broadcasts, that within the last year Iran has been jamming the BBC and Voice of America broadcasts, and that 1928’s Kellogg–Briand Pact didn’t actually end wars.  Additionally, many of the spacelove rules and codes and norms being proposed have already been codified into law long ago in the form of 1967’s Outer Space Treaty (OST).  How spacelove will manage to do what the OST hasn’t been able to is a story that still hasn’t been told.

Finally, because major weaknesses already exist in attributing things that happen in space to causation by particular nation-states or groups, and as enforcement powers regarding the existing OST are practically non-existent (consider the non-punishment which occurred when China created a massive space debris field with their 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 to self-limit — criminals, miscreants, rogues, and adversaries — are likely to present significant challenges to the efficacy of a spacelove approach.

Mark Stout is a researcher and analyst at Air University’s National Space Studies Center and runs its unofficial blog Songs of Space and Nuclear War.  The opinions expressed here are those of the author alone and may not reflect the views and policies of the US Air Force or the Department of Defense.

Note: this article originally appeared in Air University’s The Wright Stuff

  1. Coyote says:

    Are you suggesting that other people, who are basically good, will take advantage of our goodness while we offer them spaceloving?

    • Space Farmer says:

      It’s a distinct possibility! To paraphrase the participants of the Tour de France, East Germany, and the former Soviet Union, if you’re not cheatin’, you’re not trying hard enough.

  2. […] Dr. Spacelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Code (nationalspacestudiescenter.wordpress.com) […]

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