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Book Review: Space Warfare in the 21st Century: Arming the Heavens

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Space Warfare in the 21st Century: Arming the Heavens by Joan Johnson-Freese. Routledge, 2017.

In Space Warfare in the 21st Century, Joan Johnson-Freese (PhD, Kent State University, political science/international affairs) seeks to persuade the incoming Trump administration to change the nation’s space policy that, in her view, has been mostly on the wrong track especially since 2006. Johnson-Freese argues that in the decade following the G. W. Bush administration’s national space policy directive—with the exception of the Obama administration up to 2013–14—US space policy has been marked by increasingly dangerous unilateralism (a “primacist” approach), a “do-as-we-say-not-as-we-do” trend with regard to space activities, overreliance on military deterrence at the expense of a “layered” deterrence that also employs nonmilitary capabilities, loss of the “moral high ground,” and, in her phrasing, “chest-thumping.” A highly respected national security affairs and space scholar who has served on the Naval War College faculty for nearly two decades—and at Air War College before that—Johnson-Freese with her 2017 book largely takes the next logical step to her 2009 work, Heavenly Ambitions: America’s Quest to Dominate Space. In the earlier work, she seeks to influence the incoming Obama administration to shift gears in terms of national space policy from the unilateralism of the preceding administration. It did so to a considerable degree, that is, until taken aback in 2013 by a Chinese scientific mission that, to US analysts, appeared to be an antisatellite (ASAT) test.

The book’s thesis is well stated in the context of a 2010 RAND study that presents a space deterrence strategy “intended to protect US space assets by simultaneously addressing both sides of a potential adversary’s cost-benefit decision calculus,” a strategy that also affirmed “the fundamental interest in space stability” (3, 159). It is the United States’ lack of commitment to space stability that is of greatest concern to Johnson-Freese, who argues, “While a full complement of interrelated approaches utilizing all elements of US power is stressed [in the 2010 study] . . . as being necessary to effectively deal with space security issues, in practice focus is increasingly being put on military options—and even more specifically, deterrence by punishment—at best overshadowing and more realistically discounting or excluding others. Focusing on military options has too frequently become the US fallback position (3–4).

Although the G. W. Bush “primacist” space policy predated China’s 2007 ASAT test by three months, the Chinese destruction of its own defunct weather satellite has been a focal point for years since—perhaps affirming the Bush policy for many. This is in large part because of the high volume of potentially destructive space debris created by the explosion that will be around for many decades, if not longer. Despite such consequences, Johnson-Freese argues that the US has been prone to misread Chinese behavior and to assume the worst of intentions. Intent in space is inherently difficult to discern when dual-use technology is involved (as it always is in space), and even more so when dealing with a tradition opposed to transparency traceable back to Sun Tzu in a 3,000-year-old culture with a closed political system half a world away.

The author’s treatment of the US response to the oft-cited 2007 ASAT demonstration might have been improved by including the assessment of former defense secretary Robert Gates. In his memoir, Duty, published in 2014, Gates takes the position that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) leadership probably acted on its own “without the knowledge of the civilian leadership in Beijing” (Duty, 414).1 The point made by Gates is relevant for Johnson-Freese’s argument (she is no apologist for Beijing) that the US responded too severely to the Chinese ASAT test—perhaps viewing it wrongly as indicative of Chinese civilian leadership’s policy rather than the desire of engineers to test their fruit of long years of work—a point made in Space Warfare (71, 168).

As valuable as this book is, a couple of unforced errors crept into the text. On page 48, Air Force general Martin Whelan was rendered “Wheeler” in one spot. In the book’s closing pages, Kirtland Air Force Base was rendered “Kirkland” and Theodore Roosevelt—a Republican president—was referred to as a Democrat. There were a few minor annoyances, such as stating that Donald Rumsfeld moved “directly” from chairing the space commission to defense secretary; however, it was the 1998 commission that was in view, and cited, in that paragraph, not the 2001 commission from which he returned to running the Pentagon (124). In a discussion of the first Schriever Wargame conducted by Air Force Space Command in 2001, Johnson-Freese assumed the Red force—“a near space-peer adversary”—was to represent China and the Brown force, a smaller neighbor, Taiwan (62). This is perhaps a small example, in this writer’s view, of her tendency to see US policy toward China as especially harsh, even more so than toward Russia. This writer suggests another, not unreasonable, scenario might have been Russia (Red) and Ukraine (Brown). Those issues notwithstanding, Space Warfare in the 21st Century is an important and compelling book that should be found on the shelf of every US space and national security professional in the 2020s.

Forrest L. Marion, PhD
Air Force History and Museums Program

1 The former defense secretary reached a similar conclusion regarding the PLA’s rollout of its new J-20 stealth fighter about two hours before he was to sit down with President Hu in Beijing, amounting to a political smackdown of the highest order. This was in January 2011. Hu seemed to know nothing of what had just happened (Duty, 527–28).

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