Stale Mate: Deterrence, Strategy, and the Militarization of Space

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In 1983, John Badham’s WarGames effectively highlighted the potential dangers of relying too much on technological advancement for military strategy and the potential foolishness of focusing on deterrence theory for decision making. Since the onset of World War Two and the race for arms technology development that it brought on, nation-states around the world have turned their strategic eye from land to sky. Despite the continued efforts of the United Nations and other non-governmental organizations to make space more of a humanitarian frontier than a target of military expansion, space (especially Earth’s orbit) has been used for spying on and fortifying against the Earth’s nations. In all, space has been used as much for military strategies as for the advancement of useful technologies like GPS and communications systems. The future does not, unfortunately, hold much promise for a change in strategic trajectory.

From the early development of the German V2 to the ICBMs and SLBMs of the world’s modern arsenal, early ballistic missiles were nothing more than crude bombs with wings that eventually evolved into something much more reliant on information and technological systems. Now, these ballistic missiles exit and re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere during the terminal phase of the missile’s flight. This allows these missiles to reach any worldwide target in a thirty-minute window. In response to these offensive capabilities, there has been significant development in the modernization of missile defense, from radar systems to interceptor ‘kill vehicles’ (such as the ones developed by Raytheon). This back and forth of technological advancement and military might has transformed space into a platform for military applications of ballistic (and nuclear) missile offense and defense.

Gaps and Possibilities

The topic of the militarization of space has been discussed extensively both in academic literature and popular media - especially in the 1980s when the term was popularized. However, one gap in the literature is a comparison of past actions toward space militarization and the current state of affairs. Particularly relevant to the discussion is an examination of the United States, which has proved to be a superpower in space as much as on Earth. The particular examination of the United States in terms of military uses of space should prove to be a unique contribution to the existing literature. This is the topic that the paper addresses from an analytical perspective.

The ultimate objective of the paper is to assess the current standing of the United States in terms of the militarization of space. This assessment includes looking at the current strategies, the systems that are in place, the plans for expansion, the rhetoric of the United States’ public policy, and a brief comparison to other major players. While there the “space race” of the Cold War is no longer an accurate term, it is clear that the United States seeks to establish a clear and powerful military presence in the universe. This is, ostensibly, for both deterrence and securitization reasons.

The question of whether this establishment of military prowess is purely defense or possibly offensive is a question for another time – however, the paper contends that the continued use of deterrence theory in regard to space technology and exploration of ability will prove neither useful nor viable in the future. This is, ultimately, an argumentative and normative take on an academically complex issue. These two major propositions – that the United States seeks the militarization of space and that this militarization will not prove to be viable in the long run – will be supported by a brief examination of deterrence theory and the United States’ expanding abilities.

Literature Review

Before looking to the United States’ current capabilities, a few major events and developments in the field of militarization and space are summarized. While not exhaustive, this discussion lays a clear foundation for discussing the nation’s modern capabilities in terms of deterrence theory, militarization, and the future. This discussion is divided into an examination of international endeavors, the theoretical concepts of deterrence and geography of space, and unilateral endeavors (especially by the United States). Each of these has a clear bearing on the topic.

International Endeavors

First of all, in 1967, the nations of the world united to create what is informally known as the “Outer Space Treaty” – although the full title is the “Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies.” This treaty, while adopted almost fifty years ago, remains a major touchstone in terms of the regulation of space exploration and expansion, both for technological and military uses.

While there have been other, subsequent treaties and agreements, this Outer Space Treaty “forms the basis of international space law” (UNODA, 2013, n.p.). The treaty was opened to be signed by the three major players – the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union – in January of 1967, and became enforced ten months later (UNODA, 2013). As of last year, almost 130 countries have signed the treaty, making it truly an international endeavor to moderate space. The key points of the treaty, as given by the United Nation’s Office of Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) are outlined in ‘key principles’, and are worth quoting at length for our purpose:

…the exploration and use of outer space shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries and shall be the province of all mankind; outer space shall be free for exploration and use by all States; outer space is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means; States shall not place nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in orbit or on celestial bodies or station them in outer space in any other manner; the Moon and other celestial bodies shall be used exclusively for peaceful purposes; States shall be responsible for national space activities whether carried out by governmental or non-governmental entities[…]. (UNOOSA, 2013, n.p.)

The above key principles give the best picture, not of the actual state of affairs, but of the ideal as laid out by the international community. Despite the apparent detail of the treaty, it is interesting (and telling) to note that the treaty does not prohibit the use or placement of ‘conventional weapons’ (such as ballistic missiles) in space. This is a loophole that has allowed multiple countries (particularly the Soviet Union-turned-Russia and the United States) to utilize the Earth’s orbit and outer space for military strategy, despite the treaty’s obvious attempt at making space neutral and beneficial for man, rather than the state (Frakes, 2003). Despite numerous attempts, the loophole has not been closed, and the militarization continues. The degree to which this can be addressed on an international stage will largely determine the course of the future relationship of space and mankind.

Deterrence Theory

Unfortunately, it seems that the ideals of the Outer Space Treaty will not stand up against military necessity. The might of nations takes prominence over the progress of mankind. This is largely thanks to a foreign affairs and diplomacy strategy known as deterrence. First expounded upon during the Cold War, particularly in reference to nuclear weapons capabilities, deterrence is described as “a strategy intended to dissuade an adversary from undertaking an action not yet started, or to prevent them from doing something that another state desires” (Brodie, 1959, p. 264). Bernard Brodie captures the essence of deterrence theory in his infamous phrase, “A credible nuclear deterrent must be always at the ready, yet never used” (Brodie, 1959, p. 8). In other words, the most powerful states will prevail over weaker states, ideally without having to actually utilize nuclear weaponry. This idea only grows when one considers the fact that the world is increasingly dependent on technological advancement, rather than pure numbers or size of the territory.

Seven years after Brodie’s work, Thomas Schelling contributed to the theory by providing a juxtaposition of deterrence against more scientific military strategy. He states that military victory is now based on “the art of coercion, of intimidation and deterrence” and “to be coercive or deter another state, violence must be anticipated and avoidable by accommodation. It can, therefore, be summarized that the use of the power to hurt as bargaining power is the foundation of deterrence theory, and is most successful when it is held in reserve” (Schelling, 1966, p. 2).

The above thinkers gave a succinct yet powerful description of a military strategy that continues to this day, outside the realm of nuclear power. It has now expanded to the role and function of the military in outer space. As technology and science advance and converge, states will continue to test the waters of outer space. Satellites will (and have) been used for spying and military planning and tracking, and ballistic missiles are perhaps the most obvious manifestation of the military in space. While there are no permanent military installations in space as of yet, only time will tell whether this status quo is maintained. The reliance of states on deterrence theory in space ensures that the ideals of the Outer Space Treaty are not long for this world – no pun intended. Several examples of this direction are given below, each discussed within the framework of deterrence theory.

The Geography of Space

Before looking at these examples of strategic development, there is one other relevant theoretical position to consider. Sir Halford John Mackinder was an English academic geographer, considered the ‘father’ of modern geopolitics and geostrategy. The idea of ‘geography of space’ is built upon Mackinder’s division of the geography of Earth into regions defined and divided by their strategic value. The strategic relationship of any given state to each strategic region is based on their transportation technology – or, military mobility more specifically (Dolman, Gray, & Sloan, 2003, p. 83). Much like deterrence theory, “if a state could not physically control a strategic area, then it must at least endeavor to deny control of the area to other powers” (Dolman et al., 2003, p. 85). Of course, it is obvious that any state that has the most controlling presence in space holds a considerable amount of power over other states. Given the existence of agreements such as the Outer Space Treaty, no one state can establish a strong and definitive military presence in space. Instead, major state players have pushed the envelope in competing with each other for control of these various ‘geo regions’ in space.

The geostrategic regions of space are divided into four main areas: Earth (“the crucial territory for transport, take-offs, landings, communication, production, and maintenance”), Earth Space (“operating region for all military and communications satellites and networks”, Moon Space (includes “strategic Lagrange points”), and Solar Space (with vast resources, but limited ability for exploitation) (Dolman et al., 2003, p. 85). Earth Space, it seems, is the most strategic of the regions at this point of time, because it states are able to utilize it for the most explicit military action. Earth Space is the region that long-range ICBMs travel through in the high point of their flight. While the use of solar space for colonization and mining may still be the stuff of science fiction, the strategic value of earth space has become quite clear in the last few decades. The abilities only continue to expand outward, toward the other strategic regions of space.

Unilateral Endeavors

The value of this strategic region has led to the expansion of both offensive and defensive military measures in some of the world’s key players. One of the best examples of this is the United States’ National Missile Defense, an initiative that has seen several different programs at the forefront in recent years. The first of these was the United States’ Sentinel Program, which was planned in the 1960s as a defense against Soviet ballistic missiles. Despite the plans, the program never became operational. Since the scrapping of this initial project, “the role of defense against nuclear missiles has been a heated military and political topic for several decades” (Abrahamson & Cooper, 1993, n.p.). This discussion has involved nuclear strategy, missile defense systems, the role of ICBMs and, now, the potential value and utilization of outer space – or, Earth Space.

Because of the stipulations agreed to by the United States in the Outer Space Treaty, the United States does not position or station actual weapons in orbit. However, just like the offensive ICBMs, defending missiles do make use of the space by traveling to very high altitudes. This is necessary for a successful interception, especially to offset potential collateral damage. This is a clear application of geostrategy and Earth Space, whether it is consciously realized or not, and it is just one example of the increasing militarization of space. The missiles for defense may land or sea-based, but they are completely dependent on technologies that allow the use of space.

There are two prominent examples of the United States' systems and initiatives of missile defense. The first was the Strategic Defense Initiative, proposed by United States President Ronald Reagan more than thirty years ago, on March 23, 1983. This specific initiative was the first of its kind because it utilized the relationship between ground-based weapons and space-based systems (Abrahamson & Cooper, 1983). The unique aspect of this specific project was not in its development of technology. The ground-based weapons were already developed, and the United States had been in space for years. What was truly groundbreaking was the combination of these technologies to affect a viable change in strategic space policy in order to protect United States interests.

The other unique aspect of the program is that it placed an emphasis on strategic defense, relying less on the theory of deterrence and more on the ability to adequately defend against the enemy. By that point, deterrence theory had digressed to the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD). It was this doctrine that caused Reagan to seek an alternative in the first place. The initiative, however, still ultimately falls under deterrence theory. If the enemy knows that the United States has an effective defensive web against possible missile or air attacks, it will be much less likely to attack in the first place. Therefore, under the ideal circumstance, the enemy is deterred, and the United States is successful, without ever having to fire a missile (besides the non-nuclear interceptor). This is the strategy that has guided military expansion into space.

Ironically, at the time the new-fangled program proposed by President Reagan was criticized as being unscientific and unrealistic. The initiative’s proper title, Strategic Defense Initiative, was replaced in the media by a title designed for derision and mockery – “Star Wars”, after the George Lucas science fiction film released six years earlier, which still maintained popularity. Only time told the facts – the program was not only feasible but successful and useful for future years. Almost twenty years later, President George W. Bush expanded and redefined National Missile Defense with a directive to deploy updated operational ICBMs by 2004.

Alongside these developments came an additional attempt at normalizing and neutralizing the international race for the technological control of outer space – the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM Treaty). The ABM Treaty was signed by the United States and the USSR in 1972 and was held and enforced for thirty years until the United States unilaterally withdrew from the agreement (Howell, 2008). This was incidentally in conjunction with President Bush’s initiative outlined above. Under the ABM Treaty, both the United States was “allowed to deploy a single anti-ballistic missile system with only 100 interceptors to protect a single target” (Howell, 2008, p. 389). When it became clear that the United States was planning on expanding its anti-missile defense system, the United Nations General Assembly voted to press the United States into complying with the ABM Treaty. In response, the United States unilaterally withdrew from the treaty (Howell, 2008). Among other things, this proved the prevalence of the strategic value of space.

The developments discussed above give insight into the argument that the security of nations through the militarization of space takes precedence over the possibility of neutralization and exploration. The continued use of the theory of deterrence ensures that national security will continue to trump even institutionalized international endeavors to normalize efforts. Before discussing the current state of affairs, it is worth noting a unique take on strategy and deterrence. Columba Peoples (2011) argues that the ‘militarization of space’ “fails to capture the vagaries of contemporary space policy” (p. 76). In a phrase, the militarization discussion inaccurately portrays the strategy of the major world players. Instead, Peoples (2011) argues from the following standpoint:

An increasing number of international actors now argue that the infrastructure of modern society – including communications, media, and environmental monitoring – is crucially reliant upon satellite technologies. As a result it is now more accurate to say that outer space is becoming ever more securitized: that is, access to space is now commonly framed as essential to the military, economic, and environmental security of leading states and international organizations (p. 76).

This ‘securitization’ approach, while unique in its vocabulary, is ‘business as usual’ in terms of militarization and deterrence theory. In the information age, the securitization of space means the militarization of space. Nation-states are forced to compete with each other for the securitization and control of space – if not out of an actual desire to progress, then out of having no other choice. The implications of Peoples' approach will be discussed further in the paper’s future outlook. For now, the connection between securitization and militarization has been established.

Application Design

The research design of the paper is quite simple – a qualitative analysis of existing literature and programs related to National Missile Defense and the militarization of space. This review of major developments and examples of militarization has been given above. The Application Design utilizes this expansive understanding as a foundation for the discussion of an overview of development and deployment. After a brief examination of the current state of affairs, the paper gives a Development Operational Overview & Deployment conclusion, followed by a future outlook. This will be accomplished by viewing this state of affairs from a deterrence theory standpoint, as discussed above. From this standpoint, the paper argues that it necessitates the future militarization of space, despite international efforts like the Outer Space Treaty.

Development Operational Overview

In September of 2000, President Bill Clinton gave supporting remarks of the National Missile Defense, saying that "such a system, if it worked properly, could give us an extra dimension of insurance in a world where proliferation has complicated the task of preserving peace” (Bradner, 2009, n.p.). This kind of rhetoric regarding National Missile Defense programs gives insight into the continued role of deterrence theory in strategic decision making. Thus, it is clear that National Missile Defense – and the space technology that it requires – remains salient to United States policy and strategy. While the overall system is run by the administrative Missile Defense Agency (MDA), the role of the military in defining the function of outer space is clear, with the United States Army’s Space and Missile Defense Command taking lead on National Missile Defense issues.

The current state of the national missile defense systems is defined by several different components: ground-based interceptor missiles, the Aegis ballistic missile defense system, (sea-based), airborne systems, shorter-range anti-ballistic missiles, and the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD). This last component essentially utilizes ground-based, long-range interceptor missiles in order to destroy incoming missiles high in the atmosphere – essentially in space. This is necessary because it is the only point at which it is feasible to intercept a fast-moving ICBM. Other anti-ballistic missile systems are not able to intercept an incoming ICBM warhead, seeing as it moves much faster than the tactical missile counterparts. However, the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense program shows promise of successfully intercepting these missiles (Bradner, 2009). If the developments are successful, this will be one step further in the militarization of space.

Of course, the initiatives are not completely one-sided. In conjunction with these developments, the United States has sought multilateral cooperation and international participation. This includes launch bases in Japan and Australia, radar sites in the United Kingdom, Greenland and Qatar, and cooperation in technological development in other nations (Bradner, 2009). These are only some examples of the many international cooperatives that the United States runs. The fact that the United States is obliged to cooperate with other nations to establish their defensive network goes to show how reliant the military use of space is on normal geopolitics and international relations. This is as much to do with the restrictions of international agreements such as the Outer Space Treaty as it does with technological limitations and concerns.

Finally, it is clear that the United States has as much of a military interest in outer space as it does a scientific one. The more cynical of thinkers understand that the original space race in the 1950s and 1960s was not only about establishing an international reputation for being the ‘best’ in science and technology. It was also a race against time, to establish a credible presence in the newly discovered frontier. Jefferson’s motives in sending the Lewis & Clark party across North America were not purely explorative; in much the same way, Kennedy’s motives in commissioning space exploration were not purely scientific. Instead, nations have engaged in these actions with national security (and, thereby deterrence) at the forefront of their collective minds.

Summary and Conclusions

This paper has examined the militarization of space in terms of international cooperation, theoretical approaches, past examples of unilateral action, and the current state of the use of space in missile defense. From the establishment of the Outer Space Treaty almost fifty years ago, the narrative of cooperation has struggled to take root. However, the many examples of militarization make it quite clear that these sporadic efforts have failed to meet their idealistic aspirations. Instead, the strategic march of securitization and deterrence has defined the narrative of the past century.

Ultimately, the United States developments in the militarization of space are extensive, strategic, and really not going anywhere at all. This paper argues that, given the current state of affairs of geopolitics, strategic regions of space, and space-based missile defense systems, there is a clear base of evidence that the militarization of space has taken prominence over other scientific and technological developments. States have put national security via securitization and deterrence ahead of international cooperation for expansion, exploration, and development. This is seen clearly in the above examples. Through all of this, individual actors have been driven by a larger narrative that binds their actions toward a specific course – that of deterrence and securitization.

Toward the Future: The Outlook of the Militarization of Space

It may be partially accurate to say that the future of the militarization of space is uncertain. However, it is just as accurate to say that the future of the militarization of space is certain. This is a conundrum that needs clarification. First, the future is uncertain only in that we cannot predict who will be the power players fifty or a hundred years from now. Second, and in contrast, the future is certain in that the militarization of space will continue, despite initiatives at furthering the opposite.

As Jeffrey Kluger (2012) of Time states, “the militarization of space is not to be laughed off” (n.p.). He goes on to point out that “the dozens of black-box payloads carried into orbit for the Department of Defense by the space shuttles during their 30-year career attest to how deeply the U.S. is invested in protecting our skies” (Kluger, 2012, n.p.). Despite these acknowledgments, Kluger’s major claim is that the United States has shown a commitment to remain peaceful in space. He cites the examples of Eisenhower launching a civilian, rather than military, missile as the vehicle of the first satellite, of Lyndon B. Johnson’s signing of the Outer Space Treaty, and of Apollo 11’s message that “We came in peace for all mankind” (Kluger, 201, n.p.). However, as the paper has shown above, these only serve to deliver a mixed message while the militarization of space continues.

The fact remains that the prevalence of deterrence theory in driving geopolitics means that the continuation of the militarization of space will not diminish any time soon. Instead, it will only increase as science and technology progress. In a phrase, it is because of the use of deterrence theory that space will always be looked at as a potential for military use – for better or for worse. The future of science and technology will be associated with the militarization of space.


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