Everett Carl Dolman is a Professor of Military Studies at School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, United States Air Force University, Alabama.
Around the turn of the new millennium, he coined the term Astropolitik, which envisages Great Power Rivalry in the final frontier, and space becoming an arena of combat just like land and oceans.
As nations vie for influence in outer space, develop ASAT( anti-satellite weapons), muster specialized space forces, and space-based assets and applications power digital economies, astropolitik and its implications cannot be more relevant.
In a conversation with him, we discuss the ambiguous boundaries of the New Space Age, the ever-growing relevance of Low Earth Orbit, and the future of space diplomacy.
“The measure of great power is calculated in arms and industry, and space is so integral that unless there is a massive change in the current trajectory of global interaction, any future war between major powers will be won or lost in the battlefield of space”.
How do you think the contours of space geopolitics have changed in the past two decades since you wrote your book ‘Astropolitik: Classical Geopolitics in the Space Age’?
As I use the term, geopolitics is the geographical basis for state power. Locations astride commercial pathways, and critical resources can determine the wealth of a state.
Mountains, swamps, rivers, or oceans could add to a state’s defense. When I developed the academic field of astropolitics, my intention was to extend various theories of geopolitics into the space domain to test their relevance in the modern age.
If I did it right, the geography—or astrography—of space is consistent. It is the relative value of specific locations and access to them that shifts in light of emerging technologies.
What has changed in the last twenty years is a significant reduction in the cost of access to orbit; the use of mega constellations of cheap, interconnected, and quickly replaceable small satellites that can be updated and replenished in months rather than decades, and generational advancements in directed energy—particularly electric pulsed lasers.
Along with it there’s shifting importance of the Moon as the value of the southern pole has become its most sought after territory due to its position allowing for 24-hours solar power access all-year-round and the likely reserves of water ice expected to be found there.
Space travel is still dictated by gravitational effects. Celestial bodies and their orbits determine the most efficient lines of communication and commerce. There are also points on the Earth that are advantageous for access to space. These can be plotted and exploited by space-faring states.
In 2001, you presciently said ‘whoever controls LEO, would control the Earth’. Does this mean the bid for space militarization by all leading space-faring countries is an inevitable reality and fait accompli?
Nothing is inevitable, but as the odds of an event become more probable, the more one should prepare to optimize one’s position when it eventually comes to pass.
Perhaps unfortunately, the essential dictum of geo and astropolitics remains; gain control of the most valuable positions, pathways, chokepoints, and resource bases and, at a minimum, ensure that your opponent does not. This can be done directly through a combination of military and diplomatic means, or indirectly through institutional, cultural, or moral change. The latter requires both time and faith.
From a realistic perspective, the surest way to ensure control and effective contestation of space is to endeavour to seize and hold those critical locations with force. Control of LEO would, if achieved, allow the conquering state to dictate who could place assets in space, thus gaining value from it.
Control of LEO would further allow the ability to monitor and strike at any point on the globe. While it may be inferred for many space-faring states, it is undeniable in its doctrine and actions that China is preparing to do just that.
If the United States, for example, could not access space it could not effectively project power across the Pacific Ocean, eliminating its most worrisome threat. Should any state perceive that the benefits of seizing LEO outweigh the risks, it is reasonable to expect it to try. It is also then reasonable for states to develop the capability to prevent such a seizure. This is where we find ourselves locked in a classic security dilemma.
The war in Ukraine has demonstrated that modern military forces maximizing space support for communications, tracking and targeting, command and control, and reconnaissance and intelligence can inflict tremendous harm on an opponent that relies on mass over manoeuvre.
The global economy runs on space support. 25 trillion dollars move around the world’s banks and markets daily. Nearly all global trade is dependent for commercial competitiveness on space-based navigation and communications. Internet commerce requires instantaneous encryption to ensure safe exchange, available through space-based timing signals.
Commercial and industrial space revenue eclipsed aviation a decade ago and is the most lucrative measure of state economic power. The measure of great power is calculated in arms and industry, and space is so integral to it that unless there is a massive change in the current trajectory of global interaction, any future war between major powers will be won or lost in the battlefield of space.
No trajectory of human interaction runs in a perfectly straight line. Change is the only accelerating constant. Small changes made today could bend the trajectory toward cooperation and peace, but in the meantime, space-faring states will hedge their bets and prepare for war in, to, and from space.