“We can no longer view space as a sanctuary.”
–Doug Loverro, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy (2015)
“The ‘space sanctuary’ concept has been overtaken by events.”
–Final Report to the President on the U.S. Space Program (1993)
“The last of these options, treating space as a sanctuary, is neither enforceable nor verifiable.”
–Final Report of the Ad Hoc NSC [National Space Council] Space Panel (1976)
When China launched a missile in 2007 that smashed its own satellite into thousands of pieces, the international space community erupted. U.S. policymakers and experts pointed to the rapidly orbiting cloud of debris and declared that this event signaled a transformation in how the United States should approach space. In reality, however, the dynamics brought to light in 2007 represent a much older and deeper tradition in U.S. space policy.
Over the last 10 years, a consensus has emerged that space is a contested, congested, and competitive domain. Some observers argue that this consensus represents a major and recent shift from treating space as a “sanctuary” free from violent conflict. As I show in a newly published report, however, policymakers have worried about protecting U.S. satellites from threats since the dawn of the Space Age. Although they initially responded with a policy to make space a sanctuary, by the 1970s, U.S. policy pivoted towards treating space as contested and has never turned back.
In the public debate, there has been a dichotomy between a “sanctuary” space policy and a “contested” space policy. Sanctuary policy aims to delegitimize the idea of conflict in space through arms control treaties, norms of behavior, and public statements that frame attacks on satellites as unacceptable. Contested space policy, on the other hand, urges for the development of strategies, doctrines, and offensive and defensive capabilities to protect satellites with the expectation that conflict in space is possible, if not likely. The history of this dichotomy is nuanced and often difficult to decipher. Some administrations pursued a sanctuary policy but also developed anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons. Others supplemented a contested space policy with some pursuit of space arms control. However, when looking at the balance of priorities and tradeoffs at the highest levels of national policy, it becomes clear that since 1976, a policy of treating space as a sanctuary has been consistently rejected.
The United States faces important choices about what to do in space today: how to balance defining space as a warfighting domain with a continued commitment to peaceful activities in space; how to organize, train, and a equip a force for a domain that has yet to witness a single shot fired in anger; and how to develop the strategic and societal value of space while preventing adversaries from using it against the United States. Before making decisions on where U.S. space policy should go next, analysts should understand what choices were made beforehand. This is especially true at a time when many argue that U.S. policymakers previously made choices and assumptions for space policy that are wrong for the situation today by ignoring the possibility of conflict in space. The evidence shows that policymakers were not so naïve as some may think. This implies that debates around national security space policy today should focus less on whether the United States government treated space as a sanctuary in the past, and more on whether it has successfully implemented existing policy that says space should be treated as a contested domain. By focusing on the former, policymakers and experts may have been trying to create solutions to the wrong problem. If they accept the latter, it could be easier to find and address other challenges, ranging from the complexities of budgeting and bureaucratic politics to the assumptions baked into threat assessments and conceptions of strategic stability.
The Rise of Space Sanctuary in the Early Cold War
President Dwight D. Eisenhower intentionally chose a policy of treating space as a sanctuary. At the time, he saw strategic reconnaissance satellites as the most important use of space because he believed they were crucial to observing the Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons program and preventing surprise attacks against the United States. Not everyone agreed. Leaders within the Air Force argued that space should be treated as a warfighting domain and that weapons systems should be developed to deter and defend against attacks on satellites. Although several ASAT programs proceeded, Eisenhower and his National Security Council generally rejected these pleas because they saw a contested space approach as risky, escalatory, and expensive. They sidelined the generals’ proposals and chose a sanctuary policy intended to create an international framework that politically and — according to the Eisenhower administration — “psychologically” protected reconnaissance satellites from attack. The administration moved space programs from the military services to civilian agencies and prioritized diplomatic over technical solutions for space security.
The Democratic and Republican presidents immediately following Eisenhower maintained the space sanctuary policy. Although the Department of Defense continued to develop ASAT systems, they were consistently de-prioritized relative to negotiations on peaceful uses of outer space and arms control involving space technologies. Under President John F. Kennedy, the United States pushed to define “peaceful” as the opposite of “aggressive,” instead of the opposite of “military,” so that reconnaissance satellites would be included among protected “peaceful uses” of space. President Lyndon B. Johnson completed this effort by codifying similar language in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. The administration of President Richard Nixon used the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty to secure a legal agreement banning interference with national technical means of verification — a euphemism for reconnaissance satellites. Although officials in these administrations expressed some concern for satellite vulnerability and the developing Soviet ASAT threat, policymakers decided that American space weapons could undermine the top priority arms control efforts and therefore kept ASAT programs quiet and limited. This era was dominated by a sanctuary policy.
The Long Fall of Sanctuary and Dominance of Contested Space Policy
This balance turned on its head when an accelerated series of Soviet ASAT tests in the mid-1970s triggered the fall of sanctuary and the rise of a policy treating space as a contested domain. In a series of memos in 1976, National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft and his staff called for a reconsideration of national security space policy, openly rejected the option of “treat[ing] space as a sanctuary,” and requested for President Gerald Ford to direct the creation of a non-nuclear anti-satellite capability, which he did in January 1977.
President Jimmy Carter attempted to leverage the ASAT program into a return to elements of a sanctuary policy through space arms control talks with the Soviet Union. But when talks broke down, Carter ultimately continued the contested space policy by focusing on reducing satellite vulnerability and pursuing the ASAT weapons even without the excuse of using them as a bargaining chip.
Contested space policy went public under President Ronald Reagan. He openly advocated for space-based missile defense under the Strategic Defense Initiative, established the Air Force Space Command and the first U.S. Space Command, and conducted a test of the ASAT weapon — started under Ford — by destroying a satellite in orbit. The term “space control” became a way to implement a contested space policy, as Reagan administration officials rejected sanctuary by claiming that the United States needed to protect freedom of action for U.S. assets in space and deny such freedom of action to adversaries, namely the Soviet Union. The policy persisted despite congressional backlash favoring sanctuary policy. Capitol Hill restricted funding for space control programs and effectively banned further tests of the ASAT program in December 1985.
The contested space policy continued in the post-Cold War period, even with no apparent challenger to the United States in space. Although flagged as a revolutionary moment for military space, often cited as the “first space war,” the Gulf War (Operation Desert Storm) did more for continuity than change of space policy. However, senior decision-makers in the 1990s argued that the war proved that space sanctuary had been “overtaken by events.” This is one of the paradoxes of the history of U.S. space policy: The events that were most often referenced as marking major shifts in the space environment were used time and time again to justify the same policies that had existed previously.
The administration of President Bill Clinton distanced itself from the aggressive public rhetoric of of the Reagan administration’s contested policy, giving the appearance that sanctuary policy might make a comeback. But the official policy treating space as a contested domain and pursuing space control remained. Although the administration cut funding to several space weapons programs, it also excluded space from arms control pursuits. Officials argued that arms control should not be allowed to obstruct space control goals in a reversal of the diplomacy-versus-weaponization balance of the sanctuary era. The Clinton administration instead focused on developing temporary and reversible means for space control, recognizing the threat that debris from destructive ASATs could pose for U.S. satellites.
The contested space policy accelerated during the George W. Bush administration under the advocacy of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who had just chaired the Rumsfeld Commission. The concern raised by the commission of a “Space Pearl Harbor” spread amongst policymakers, and many in the Air Force doubled down on the language and policy of contested space. The Air Force re-designated several units as “space control squadrons” and fielded the Counter Communications System for electronic warfare, today’s first and only publicly acknowledged offensive weapon of the U.S. Space Force. Numerous Air Force officers, led by Air Force Space Command Cmdr. Lance Lord, issued a public series of articles denouncing sanctuary as a space policy.
The decade and a half since the fall of the Soviet Union is often described as a period in which policymakers retreated from contesting space due to the absence of threats and limited resources. However, the primary documents show that decision-makers continued to express concern over asymmetry and vulnerability in space while pressing for the inclusion of space control in plans, strategies, and programs. Even if contested space policy did not always filter down into the resources and programs advocates desired, the official policy itself persisted through Democratic and Republican administrations before and after the Cold War. This persistence was likely due to the reliance of the U.S. military on satellites for communications, navigation, and reconnaissance, which forced policymakers to consider the vulnerability of satellites as a national security risk worth acknowledging in policy.
Contested Space Today as a Culmination of Past Policy
In 2007, China tested a direct-ascent ASAT weapon. U.S. space security leaders and policymakers in the months and years since have been almost unanimous in the need for a contested space policy. However, as before, the rhetorical use of the ASAT test and other space threats from Russia, China, and others to justify contested space policy shows more continuity than change from a policy perspective. Just like the 1976 ASAT tests and 1991 Gulf War, the 2007 ASAT test is often referenced to demonstrate asymmetry and vulnerability in space, as well as the need to protect U.S. satellites.
This shines new light on the space policies of the Barack Obama and Donald Trump administrations. The 2011 National Security Space Strategy helped popularize the phrase “congested, contested, and competitive” and the 2019 re-establishment of U.S. Space Command and authorization of the U.S. Space Force publicly emphasized space as a warfighting domain. However, these recent changes reflect more of a shift in public discussion and policy implementation than a revolution in policy itself. Although many official documents and congressional testimonies argue that space is no longer a sanctuary, U.S. decision-makers had consistently rejected sanctuary as a policy long before the end of sanctuary became a popular discussion.
Yet despite the United States consistently pursuing a policy of contested space, many argue that the U.S. national security space enterprise should now “change” from a sanctuary to a contested policy. Most of the time, these calls are, at their core, not a call for a new policy, but for a different action, especially for higher resource priority and for a more defensible or even aggressive approach to space. To argue for these changes, advocates posit that the United States has been at best naïve and maybe even ignorant when it comes to the space domain. But policy documents, many of which were previously classified, now show that policymakers have seen space as a place of conflict, not as one shielded from the reality of war.
For 44 years, U.S. space policymakers have consistently turned to contested space as their solution to concerns over satellite survivability. Until analysts and policymakers recognize the continuity in U.S. space policy over decades, they will be unable to identify which changes are significant and which are simply new packaging of old ideas. There are many ways a policy of contested space could be implemented across the U.S. space enterprise, some of which have been tried before. Whatever policymakers decide, they should look to the past to help inform the present.
Robin Dickey is an associate member of the technical staff at The Aerospace Corporation’s Center for Space Policy and Strategy, focusing on national security space. Her prior experience includes risk analysis, legislative affairs, and international development. She earned a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in international studies at Johns Hopkins University.