The Politics of Space Security: Strategic Restraint and the Pursuit of National Interests

  • Published

The Politics of Space Security: Strategic Restraint and the Pursuit of National Interests, 3rd ed., by James Clay Moltz. Stanford University Press, 2019, 363 pp.

The dawn of the space age six decades ago forever altered the global security environment by introducing a new domain, ripe with possibility and peril. Thanks to rapid technological innovations, our twenty-first-century world now depends on space-based assets for commerce, transportation, communications, weather modeling, and military operations. Nevertheless, space remains a fragile, inherently interconnected environment where direct and indirect threats, such as space weapons and orbital debris, have the potential to disrupt or eliminate these benefits for all nations.

In The Politics of Space Security: Strategic Restraint and the Pursuit of National Interests, author James Clay Moltz examines the history of the space security environment from the beginning of the space age to the modern day. Moltz, currently the dean of the Graduate School of International and Defense Studies at the Naval Postgraduate School, is well versed on the subject, having held numerous faculty and organizational positions in nonproliferation and security studies and boasting an extensive publication record. The book is divided into three distinct sections, with the first overviewing four existing space security schools of thought in space nationalism, technological determinism, social interactionism, and global institutionalism. The second section takes the reader on a detailed journey of the evolving political, technological, and military influences on the space security environment, from the origins of the US-Soviet space race, through the Cold War, and to the end of the twentieth century. It notes where nations and world leaders exhibited characteristics of the previously discussed space security schools of thought. Moltz focuses heavily on the Cold War era and how the US-Soviet relationship shaped the space security environment by establishing behavioral norms through a rather fitful learning process characterized by varying degrees of cooperation and competition. The final section continues the narrative into the twenty-first century and to the beginning of the Trump administration, highlighting the emergence of the commercial space sector and China as significant space security actors. As previous editions of the book were published in 2008 and 2011, this third edition includes new analysis of the space security environment from 2011 to 2018. Moltz closes with an assessment of the historical trends and lessons learned that can be applied to the current space security environment, a discussion on emerging issues in international space management, and alternative scenarios for future space security relations based on the four schools of thought.

Moltz’s thesis is that spacefaring nations must exercise strategic restraint and reduce environmental impacts when pursuing national interests in space due to the space domain’s interconnected nature. Outright conflict has largely been avoided in space because of the learned behavior of the various actors as well as the triumph of photoreconnaissance satellites in providing a stabilizing effect through increased transparency of adversary capabilities and actions. Moltz critiques space weapons development as a destabilizing influence on the space security environment, whether the unchecked American and Soviet high-altitude nuclear weapons tests of the early 1960s or the unilateral US space weapons programs of the early 2000s. Additionally, he rebukes aggressive destabilizing events, such as the Chinese antisatellite test in 2007, for negatively affecting not only space security relations but also the physical space environment through the creation of orbital debris.

The book is well researched with extensive footnotes providing supporting commentary and plenty of sources for further research. The detailed retelling of the lesser-known details of the Soviet space program is particularly illuminating and based on Moltz’s research and personal interviews conducted for his dissertation. Given the sheer scope and depth of events covered and its academic prose, Moltz rightfully states that the book is primarily intended for a scholarly space policy or security studies audience. Although the book is written in a historical narrative format, the full timeline of events can occasionally be difficult to piece together since each chapter’s epoch has topical subsections that each follow their own chronology.

Despite the book’s impressive detail, the work would have benefited from a more balanced examination of the broader national or global security factors that motivated leaders to implement military-oriented space security policies. Doing so would allow a deeper exploration of the relationship between the military-strategic and environmental security frameworks for analyzing space issues. Moltz regularly paints military-oriented space security approaches (particularly by the US) in a negative light while praising efforts to establish international arms control treaties and periods of détente. In more narrowly prioritizing space security over other geopolitical considerations, Moltz often downplays the ideological threat posed by the primary adversaries of the US, namely the Soviet Union during the Cold War and China and Russia today. Several times Moltz uses President Ronald Reagan’s description of the Soviet Union as an “evil empire” in a somewhat dismissive manner and later describes China as a “pale ideological substitute for the Soviet Union,” citing its “scarcely communist system” and “lack of global territorial ambition.” Although nuance and moral ambiguity are certainly a part of international relations, the geopolitical and ideological goals of these regimes run counter to the freedoms protected by the US and its allies around the world. On military space issues, Moltz thoroughly covers the history of missile defense but surprisingly provides minimal discussion on the US dependence on and vulnerability of space assets for military operations and civilian usage. When vulnerabilities are discussed, Moltz myopically focuses on the environmental vulnerability of all space users posed by kinetic or electromagnetic pulse space weapons versus nonkinetic offensive space capabilities that degrade or disrupt military operations in all other war-fighting domains. Although the official creation of the US Space Force occurred just beyond the timeline of this book, a subsequent edition should discuss the growing role of space as a war-fighting domain and how nations are seeking to balance defensive military space measures with international treaties and other forms of space cooperation to promote space security.

Beyond these shortcomings, Moltz has succeeded in capturing a wealth of knowledge on the historical influence of international politics on space security. His book serves as a valuable space age reference, and readers will be challenged to analyze the application and effectiveness of the space security schools of thoughts throughout history and determine their optimal combination when applied to the present and future.

Capt Keegan S. McCoy, USSF, PhD


"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."