US Policy

Missile Defence and Spacepower: A Panel Proceeding at ISA 2017

Dr. Bleddyn Bowen

This blog post is a short summary of a panel, on which I presented a paper, at the 2017 International Studies Association Annual (ISA) Convention in Baltimore, Maryland. The panel I was kindly invited to present on was titled ‘Missile Defenses, Space Weapons, and Advanced Conventional Weapons: Strategic Choices in Troubling Times for Arms Control and Disarmament,’ and was held on the 25th of February, 2017. It was expertly chaired by Dr Rachel Whitlark of the Georgia Institute of Technology, who also acted as a superb discussant. I would like to extend my thanks to Dr Whitlark, my fellow panellists, the audience at the panel, and ISA for an excellent conference.

Katarzyna Kubiak, German Institute for International and Security Affairs: ‘Strategic Culture and German Policy on Ballistic Missile Defence’

Katarzyna argued that the preferred German policy of using Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) as a NATO-wide policy has fallen into disuse due to the deterioration in NATO-Russian relations and the continued disagreements within NATO as to how to deploy the European BMD system. Amidst this shift, Katarzyna examined German policy preferences over missile defence through the lens of strategic culture, and found that existing strategic culture did not help German policymakers adapt and pursue a new position on BMD. With no sign of a rapprochement between NATO and Russia, Germany now has to contend with balancing its residual preference to support BMD through NATO whilst risking further antagonising Russia.

Marco Fey, Peace Research Institute Frankfurt, ‘US Strategic Missile Defense Politics: Do We Really Witness an Emerging Consensus in Congress?’

Marco delivered a presentation that examined US Democratic and Republican attitudes towards missile defence between 1995-2014 using content analysis. Historically, the Democrats have staunchly opposed missile defence whilst the Republicans have faithfully advocated it. Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, known as ‘Star Wars’ by its detractors, made BMD a simple partisan issue in the 1980s. Many observers claim that, under Barack Obama, the Democratic Party came to support missile defence. This, however, may not be the case. Marco, analysing speeches, debates, and legislative documents, came to find that although Democratic support for BMD has grown since 1995, in 2014 there was still no consensus within the Democratic Party over it. The shift towards supporting BMD is undeniable, however.

Andrew Futter, University of Leicester, ‘Full-Spectrum US Missile Defense: Toward a New Era of Instability?’

Andrew presented his thoughts on full-spectrum BMD, which includes ‘left of centre’ options such as cyber infiltration and disabling of enemy ballistic missile systems before they are launched. Although the US is considering cyber capabilities to complement its kinetic missile interceptors, China and Russia are probably to remain unconcerned about US hacking initiatives into missile control systems, due to their own extensive cyber capabilities. Full-spectrum BMD is likely to be a more significant threat to smaller and poorer nuclear powers. Andrew also raised the possibility that this shift to pre-emption could have dire consequences for strategic stability, and that American cyber defences regarding missile command and control may not be that robust should potential adversaries copy American thinking. Perhaps antiquated computer systems using large floppy disks may be a safer option than the lampoons of US Air Force missile control systems suggest.

Namrata Goswami, Senior Analyst and Minerva Grantee, Maxwell AFB, ‘China’s Attitudes and Aspirations toward Expansionism, Territoriality and Resource Nationalism in Space’

Namrata presented her analysis of evolving Chinese thought and discourse on space exploration, particularly regarding lunar exploration, asteroid redirection and mining, and space-based solar power. China’s plans regarding lunar missions and resource extraction, asteroid mining, and space-based solar power currently have deadlines in the 2020s, but China’s space achievements that we have all become familiar with were first articulated in the early 1990s – manned missions, a space station, and robotic missions. A degree of credibility should be given to lofty Chinese goals, so long as the funding and political stability that underpins any such expensive technical programme remains. As it stands, such ambitions enjoy the full support of Xi Jinping, the Central Military Commission, and the 8th generation of space scientists. Namrata also hypothesised extremely interested land-grabbing scenarios where China rushed to harvest resources on the moon, whilst copying the United States’ own private stellar resources law (SPACE Act 2015) to justify its own mineral extractions and profiteering in space.

Bleddyn E. Bowen, Defence Studies Department, King’s College London, ‘Down to Earth: The Influence of Spacepower Upon Future History’

A detailed summary of this paper was provided previously on Defence in Depth, and can be found here. I noted that Chinese and American war plans over Taiwan, which are now dependent on their own precision-strike weapons systems and space infrastructure, must exploit, and adapt to, the dispersing influence of spacepower. I also challenged the view, prevalent among many analysts, that such a war will start with a ‘Space Pearl Harbor’ – a major first strike from China against US space assets. I posited that such an astrostrategy was one possible strategy, and that an alternative of holding weapons systems in reserve until a critical moment in the terrestrial campaign was a possible alternative. I argued that deciding when to strike against space systems may be determined by when and where either side wishes to exploit and deny the dispersing effects of spacepower upon terrestrial warfare.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.