Photo-illustration by David Herbick; Images: Alamy, iStock, Nasa, The U.S. Air Force
The bone that becomes a spaceship is the most famous scene in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and probably the most famous cut in all of cinema. A human ancestor, having used a tool, throws it into the air. As it falls with a spinning motion, Kubrick cuts to a spaceship of some kind, the first of six, each gracefully orbiting a gorgeous blue planet as Strauss’s “Blue Danube” waltz gives the viewer a sense of peaceful wonder.
The cut elegantly represents the entire evolution of humanity from the discovery of tools to the achievement of space flight. Those spaceships, though, are not what they seem. Kubrick had originally intended for a narrator to explain that the first three objects we see were not space stations or ordinary satellites—but orbiting nuclear weapons. Kubrick had meant to demonstrate that the Cold War nuclear stalemate had followed humans into space. After all, to what first use had early humans put that first tool at the dawn of man? Murder.
But Kubrick nixed the idea of using a narrator. Perhaps he was trying to keep up with current events. While Kubrick was filming 2001, the United States, the Soviet Union, and other countries of the world agreed to the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which would prohibit nations from placing nuclear weapons in orbit. The treaty entered into force just as filming wrapped. Some authors think Kubrick worried that some moviegoers would have been distracted by the apparent incongruity, making a movie about the near future seem out of date. Others say Kubrick was worried about comparisons to his epic comedy about nuclear war, Dr. Strangelove. That’s what Arthur C. Clarke, who cowrote the screenplay for 2001 with Kubrick, thought. “I think that Stanley felt,” Clarke said, “that after Dr. Strangelove, he didn’t want to have anything more to do with nuclear bombs.”
Kubrick’s change of heart illustrates the difficulty of explaining how the Cold War nuclear arms race played out in space. The United States and the Soviet Union made incursions into the heavens that raised the possibility of placing nuclear weapons in orbit. But neither power came to occupy space in a way that would have justified the inclusion of such weapons in Kubrick’s film.
Yes, there were other forms of military activity in space during the Cold War. Intercontinental-range ballistic missiles and other long-range ballistic missiles travel through the lower regions of space, and the superpowers relied on satellites to detect nuclear explosions, missile launches, and other military undertakings. Each country used space exploration as a significant element of propaganda, from Sputnik to the moon landings.
But throughout the Cold War, the well-founded worries of strategists and cineastes that the arms race might entrench itself in the new domain of outer space never quite came true. Both superpowers tested weapons developed to shoot down each other’s satellites. The Soviet Union, for a time in the 1970s, deployed a small number of missiles ready to launch nuclear weapons into orbit—although the so-called fractional orbital bombardment system it developed looked little like Kubrick’s. And in the early 1980s, the Reagan administration proposed the Strategic Defense Initiative, a program to develop space-based antiballistic missile systems that critics derided as “Star Wars.”
For the most part, though, these systems remained, like Kubrick’s orbiting nuclear weapons, in the realm of science fiction. The systems were feasible in principle, but the technology to turn ideas into weapons was still out of reach when the Cold War ended in the 1980s.
Now everything old is new again. The post–Cold War period has given way to a renewed hostility between the United States and Russia, as well as growing competition between the United States and China. All three countries seem to have picked up where they left off, modernizing their nuclear forces. And once again, the nuclear arms race is poised to expand into space.
The enormous technological advances of the past few decades now threaten to make possible at least some of the systems that worried strategists in the 1980s. The first Cold War was 40 years of terror during which the delicate balance preventing all-out warfare improbably held, despite human imperfection and dramatic technological changes. If the new arms race includes orbiting nuclear weapons, antisatellite weapons, and space-based antiballistic missile systems, it is hard to see how we can count on a second 40-year run of good luck.
These new systems may be technically feasible today, but they remain strategically unsound for the same reason that worried strategists during the first Cold War. Space was no sanctuary, but it was also not an arena of all-out competition. Although the same technological, military, and bureaucratic imperatives that inexorably drove the arms race into every aspect of human existence also pushed it into space, there was hesitation on the part of world leaders. Perhaps this reflected a sense that space was special, a place that might be spared the violence and competition that spoil life on Earth. But the hesitancy might also be attributed to the tyrannical demands of orbit.
If a satellite breaks up in orbit, the resulting debris will largely remain there, hurtling at many kilometers per second and posing a hazard to the remaining satellites.
Space may be thought of as a place, but orbit is more of a condition. A ballistic missile can pass through space without entering into orbit, falling back to Earth. But if a rocket accelerates an object like a satellite to a sufficient speed and at the correct angle, then instead of falling back to Earth, the satellite will fall over the horizon. It takes an enormous amount of energy to do so, which is why space launches require large and expensive rockets. The satellite, once in orbit, will continue to endlessly encircle the Earth in the same path. To change that path or to reenter Earth’s atmosphere takes more energy, which means a satellite must take any fuel it will need for such maneuvers when it is launched into space. The practical implication of these two facts is that it is difficult and expensive for satellites to maneuver. Moreover, satellites are in constant motion, continuously passing through the orbital paths of other satellites. Orbits are shared as they cross one another in their endless tumble around the Earth (with one exception: satellites orbiting the equator at an altitude that puts them in synchronicity with the Earth’s rotation appear to be stationary over one spot). If a satellite breaks up in orbit, the resulting debris will largely remain there, hurtling at many kilometers per second and posing a hazard to the remaining satellites.
The unique properties of orbit make it what economists call a commons—a resource that is not exclusive (anyone can access it) but rivalrous in the sense that it can become crowded and overused. One gets an understanding of this problem from the controversy about Starlink, the SpaceX project intending to place thousands of small satellites into orbit to provide Internet access. Another example is what happens when countries or companies are reckless about how much debris they create. Orbit can be managed, but not with the threat of force. It must be managed through rules agreed to by all spacefarers, whether they are countries, companies, or simply private individuals or consortia. At least until now, the challenge of managing activity in orbit for all of these entities has given world leaders pause when thinking about their military activities in space.
At the same time the United States and the Soviet Union were researching anti-satellite weapons, they were also agreeing to arms control treaties with provisions that prohibited interfering with spy satellites—although, because the very existence of such satellites was unacknowledged to each country’s own public, spy satellites were euphemistically referred to as “national technical means.”
There is no guarantee, sadly, that today’s political leaders will learn from the positive lessons of the past. Those in charge in Washington, Moscow, and Beijing all seem to have concluded that a new arms race is nothing to worry about. There is enough blame to go around when it comes to the deterioration of the political relationship between the United States and the other two countries. Vladimir Putin’s dismantling of Russia’s democratic institutions and his view that Russia’s security must be built on the insecurity of its neighbors can surely bear most of the blame for its changing relations with the West. But the West was no more generous to Moscow after the fall of the Berlin Wall than it was to Germany at Versailles. Similarly, Xi Jinping has consolidated his own power, reversing much of China’s reform and opening. He has been skillful at exploiting a real sense among many Chinese people that the United States seeks to stymie China’s growing economic and political clout.
But political hostility alone is not enough to trigger an arms race. Neighbors can detest each other without necessarily engaging in a competition for more and more dangerous weapons systems. Such a condition is what we know as deterrence. Each side fears the other and retains the ability to inflict catastrophic punishment if provoked. In such a situation, each side is resigned to the fact that despite its political differences with the adversary, the enormous destructive power of nuclear weapons creates a common mortal danger and shared interest in survival.
Political hostility alone is not enough to trigger an arms race. Neighbors can detest each other without necessarily engaging in a competition for more and more dangerous weapons.
For an arms race to take hold, one or both sides must believe they can build their military capabilities to a level that allows them to escape from vulnerability and, in some way, prevail in a nuclear conflict. A state, for example, might attempt to build enough nuclear weapons to completely destroy its enemy in a surprise attack or build missile defenses as insurance if a surprise attack should leave some of the enemy’s weapons intact. The enemy must then respond with its own measures to restore a sense of parity, for example by increasing the number of its nuclear weapons so that there are too many to destroy or so that enough missiles survive to overwhelm the defenses of the attacker. This is the fundamental dynamic of an arms race—although one should be clear that this race has no finish line, not on Earth, and not in outer space.
This dynamic, which drove the Cold War arms race, is now driving new arms races with both Russia and China. It is driving them both on Earth and, increasingly, in space. No level of nuclear vulnerability to the Soviet Union was accepted with any enthusiasm by American leaders during the Cold War, despite popular references to “mutual assured destruction.” With the collapse of the Soviet Union, many Americans became passionately convinced that the United States should eliminate vulnerability from its relationship with Moscow and prevent vulnerability from coming to define its relationship with Beijing.
For these Americans, the most important steps toward escaping vulnerability were withdrawal from the 1972 ABM Treaty, which limited missile defenses, followed by the deployment of effective defenses against strategic attack. The George W. Bush administration accomplished the first goal, withdrawing from the ABM Treaty in 2003. The second goal, however, has remained elusive. Although the United States has deployed more than 40 interceptors at its Ground-Based Midcourse Defense system in Alaska and California, the system’s test record is spotty, with 11 successes in 19 tests.
At the same time, we now know that Russia and China will not allow the United States to build its way out of mutual deterrence. They responded to Bush’s withdrawal with new military programs designed to defeat future American missile defenses, although it took many years for these systems to reach the stage where they could be revealed, either officially or through testing. Just as the United States believed it could use its enormous technology to escape mutual deterrence, Russia and China believed they could use their own capabilities to restore it—and that their response would be in space.
For example, both Russia and China developed and tested “hit to kill” antisatellite weapons, missiles that are designed to ascend into space, delivering a “kill vehicle” that can slam into a satellite and shatter it. Missile defenses on the ground depend on satellites to detect and track missiles in time for the defense to get a shot off. Both Russia and China developed antisatellite weapons to destroy the satellites that the U.S. missile defense system relies on.
There are many possible ways to destroy a satellite, but this method of simply plowing into it was demonstrated by the United States using kill vehicles developed for missile defense interceptors, which use blunt force rather than explosives to down missiles. (The United States used a repurposed missile defense interceptor to destroy one of its own satellites in 2008. India, too, has tested such a system based on its own missile defense interceptor.) Such weapons leave behind an enormous space hazard from the shattered satellite debris. Russia’s 2021 antisatellite test left more than 1,000 pieces of debris in orbit, one of which nearly struck a Chinese satellite. And this was a test carefully conducted to minimize debris.
The ability to blind an enemy by destroying its satellites is also destabilizing. The existing balance of terror depends in large part on space systems. Warning of a missile attack is provided first by space-based sensors, as is much of the tracking of any incoming missiles. Positioning and navigation for many military systems rely on satellites. And many important communications are routed through satellites. These systems are all vulnerable.
Even in the best of circumstances, the idea that nuclear deterrence will hold forever seems optimistic. Nuclear deterrence requires that both adversaries be careful and calculating, that they each see the risks clearly and maintain complete control over all their strategic forces at all times. There is little room for human frailty or computer error in these circumstances, even though the possibility that something might go wrong—what economist Thomas C. Schelling called the “threat that leaves something to chance”—is necessary to provide the terror that animates the whole system. Extending the arms race into space dramatically complicates the calculations necessary for stable nuclear deterrence.
Satellites are weak, vulnerable—and absolutely critical. They are, in other words, an extremely tempting target for whichever side in a conflict decides to attack first.
Consider China’s recent test of a hypersonic glider, which was launched from the central part of the country and placed into orbit, heading in a westerly direction. The glider traveled halfway around the world, then reentered the atmosphere and glided several thousand kilometers before landing near a target in China. The United States believes this system is intended to deliver nuclear weapons. Russia has developed a similar system, although it appears to reman suborbital. Hypersonic gliders are difficult for existing U.S. missile defense radars and space-based sensors to track. Moreover, the ability to enter into orbit means that China could fire the system at the United States over the South Pole, completely avoiding the U.S. missile defense system in Alaska.
The United States has asserted that its Alaskan missile defense system is intended not for Russia or China, but rather for so-called rogue states like North Korea. But no one in Moscow or Beijing believes this, and when pushed, U.S. officials have indicated that the system could, in an emergency, be used against any adversary.
Such reassurances do little in the impassive face of competition. Not long after China tested its hypersonic glider, the United States announced the development of a new satellite that would greatly improve tracking such gliders (also being built by Russia). A few days after that, Russia conducted a test of a weapon intended to destroy such satellites. This is the endless cycle of an arms race—missiles and antimissiles, gliders to evade the antimissiles, satellites to find the gliders, and antisatellites to hide them again. In the past, U.S. officials have argued that conventionally armed ICBMs would be needed to strike antisatellite systems based in remote places such as central China. This cycle never ends.
The possibility that missile defenses would draw the arms race into outer space was a concern from the very moment that President Reagan announced his SDI initiative. That is precisely why the moniker “Star Wars” stuck. The antimissiles ultimately might or might not be based in space. But the warning and tracking sensors, on which the entire missile defense system would depend, certainly would be deployed on satellites in orbit. Russian and Chinese scientists immediately saw that their response would involve targeting those satellites in space—and said so publicly.
Moreover, the unique properties of orbit make satellites, traveling on predictable paths through the transparent vacuum of space, easy targets. Their limited ability to maneuver makes them sitting ducks, and their lightweight construction, due to cost considerations, makes them extremely fragile. They are weak, vulnerable—and absolutely critical. They are, in other words, an extremely tempting target for whichever side in a conflict decides to attack first.
In the late 1990s, as it became clear that the United States was likely to abandon the limitations of the ABM Treaty, Russia and China sought a dialogue to prevent the resumption of an arms race. Because the United States refused to negotiate limits on missile defenses, the Russians and the Chinese proposed negotiations in Geneva on what they called “preventing an arms race in outer space.”
The United States rejected this proposal as a backdoor effort to limit missile defense—which it was, for all the reasons outlined here. And the United States simply was not prepared to discuss limiting missile defense or arms control in space. During the mid-2000s, China first began testing its antisatellite weapon to target U.S. satellites, which would serve missile defense sensors in space. The United States detected early tests of the system and was aware as China prepared to destroy one of its own satellites in orbit. The Bush administration discussed trying to dissuade China, then led by Hu Jintao, from going through with the test. But officials also feared that raising the issue with the Chinese would legitimize discussions of U.S. missile defenses. So, in the end, they simply watched it happen. And then, a year later, Washington contrived a reason to shoot down one of its own satellites. “Anything Hu can do,” one official sang to me, “I can do better.”
During this period, I was involved in nongovernmental conversations in Geneva, traveling each year to a conference sponsored by countries alarmed about the prospects of arms in outer space to discuss the possibility of limiting them. The Bush administration was immovable. The United States’ European allies, working with nongovernmental experts, attempted to find a middle ground. Knowing that the Bush administration had ruled out any treaty or legally binding agreement, they instead developed a voluntary “code of conduct” with various measures to improve transparency and build confidence. The Russians and the Chinese were wary, but the Europeans were hopeful that the incoming Obama administration would embrace this agreement before any more antisatellite tests were conducted on either side. The Obama administration rejected the code of conduct. “Too restrictive,” one official stated publicly, before declining to elaborate.
The decision to reject the code of conduct was an ideological choice. The U.S. Navy, for example, behaves in the belief that legal regimes like the law of the sea free it to operate in any of the world’s oceans or seas. In space, however, the newly created U.S. Space Force sees legal regimes as threatening. Space may be a commons, but we have chosen to avoid legal mechanisms to manage the orbital environment in favor of “projecting military power in, from, and to space.” Such a strategy seems unlikely to work in orbit, where there is no territory to hold and where what enters into orbit is likely to remain there for a long time.
China, India, Russia, and the United States have all conducted antisatellite tests that created large amounts of debris. If they continue to conduct these tests, or if other countries follow suit, then the debris problem will continue to worsen, posing threats to both satellites and human crews in space. And antisatellite weapons are just the beginning. There are so many new actors in space. More than a dozen countries have the ability to launch satellites into orbit, including India, Iran, Japan, South Korea, and even North Korea. Add to that the private space launch companies owned by billionaires, like Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin. New technologies, such as autonomous proximity operations, also allow for the development of small satellites that can rendezvous in orbit with other satellites—to inspect them, fix them, or even damage them. The orbital environment is changing rapidly. Increasingly we need rules, as well as the ability to understand our interests in the broad context of common interest among all spacefaring states to maintain the orbital environment. These rules must address military activity in space. Yet the international community was unable to agree on even a voluntary code of conduct.
The old ideas, the ones that bring us to the brink of oblivion, have their enduring appeal. And so, instead of a code of conduct or arms control, we’re taking our concepts about deterrence, competition, and ultimately violence and sending them into space—hurling them upward, exactly like Kubrick’s bone, stained with blood from a primal act of political violence, to become a constant and permanent source of danger passing gently overhead.
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Jeffrey Lewis is a scholar at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies and the founder of the ArmsControlWonk blog and podcast.