The Growing Competition in the Ocean of Space: Classic Maritime Strategy Applied to the Final Frontier

The Growing Competition in the Ocean of Space: Classic Maritime Strategy Applied to the Final Frontier

The United States needs a new lexicon that explains the space environment in clear terms. 


The United States needs a new lexicon that explains the space environment in clear terms. Whether Americans like it or not, space has morphed from our aspirational “final frontier” to an area defined by growing international competition that could flash into a hot war. Recent actions by rising powers have left the United States and the West with the realization that they can no longer look to international law as the guarantor of peace in space. U.S. military commanders are now testifying to the emerging threats to U.S. interests in space and policymakers are contemplating how best to approach this competition – first swinging towards cooperation with foreign space programs and then away. The vastness of space, the extreme speeds associated with orbiting platforms, and the mathematical complexities of maneuvering place discussions on space tactics and strategy literally into the realm of rocket science.

General John Hyten, who recently assumed the helm of U.S. Strategic Command, testified that both China and Russia are pursuing worrisome space capabilities. Both nations are developing weapons that can disable U.S. satellites in orbit and maneuvering unmanned vehicles that can directly attack U.S. assets in space. China, specifically, is planning a series of unmanned and manned missions to the moon in the near future, and its manned program, run by the military, has announced plans to put a permanent base on the moon. How do we describe these challenges? What language should we use to convey to civilian political leaders and the American people that these trends are troubling? Lastly, when considering the various orbital planes as well as the region of space between the earth and the moon, and even the surface of the moon itself, how do we present the geography of space in an understandable manner?


This is not the first time new military capabilities have emerged in our national conversation. There was a time, between the two world wars, when tanks and airplanes were considered to be “new” weapons, raising great confusion as to how they should be used. Writers of the era, to include future World War II commanders George Patton and Hap Arnold, chose to present the highly mobile tanks as an extension of horse cavalry and aircraft as extreme, long-range artillery. These adaptations helped to present new technologies in a manner comprehensible to the broader public. When we consider space as an area of competition today, therefore, it would be useful to draw comparisons with past national competitions.

Examining the sea, in particular, can provide a number of strategic insights. Despite seeming differences in these two environments, space and the sea share a number of similar characteristics. Both are vast and trackless, dotted with various “islands,” widely dispersed across void, open expanses. The two environments also offer untold resources and riches to those who can claim them. Just as England and the East India Company funded expeditions to gather the resources of the world into Britain’s home islands, many new commercial companies today are positioning themselves to make the leap outward in search of valuable ores and other objects of value. Simultaneously, other nations, including China, are similarly situated to take advantage of the new economy that is opening up in space. Such competitions between commercial entities can often lead to friction and even conflict. Such was the case between the Dutch East India Company and its English competitor. This conflict triggered the British Navy to stretch outward in order to protect the nation’s commercial assets.

This maritime competition helped to define the early years of modernity as the global economy developed exponentially through the growth of Free Trade as a practice as well as a philosophy. Later strategic theorists, including the American naval captain Alfred T. Mahan, revealed the framework of maritime competition in a series of books and articles regarding sea power. These works, notably, “The Influence of Sea Power Upon History,” laid the foundation of what is today considered classic maritime strategy, a strategy that can provide a useful starting point for conversations regarding the space environment.

Mahan’s six elements of sea power – geographical position, physical conformation, extent of territory, number of population, national character, and the character and policy of government – all help to frame key questions regarding who is currently a space power and who is likely to emerge naturally as a space power in the future. For instance, China’s physical conformation, which lacks vital natural resources, is an incentive for Beijing to explore space in a manner analogous to Great Britain’s maritime expansion, while the United States’ large resource holdings might actually hinder its outward expansion from the earth. 

Mahan also highlighted three guiding principles of sea power – setting, position, and strength – and applied them to the international competition of his day. These principles carry equal weight in our own era. Setting, for instance, provides analogies for us to consider regarding the geography of space with low earth orbit equated to Mahan’s “near sea” and the moon as the first “far island,” two very critical nodes in man’s commercial expansion into the solar system. However it is other locations, the LaGrange points and the interesting region referred to as “the graveyard” just beyond geosynchronous orbit that would perhaps most appeal to Mahan because it is from these locations that space commerce can most easily be interdicted. Space control, again analogous to sea control today, will rest upon a nation’s ability to guarantee access to critical nodes in space as well as, when necessary, deny access to competing nations. This is the threat that General Hyten is referring to, an aspect of “Influence” that both the Chinese and Russians already understand.

The competition in space has already begun. The space race between the former Soviet Union and the United States has evolved to include China, as well as a number of other new entries, both allies and potential adversaries, including the European Union, India, and perhaps even Iran and North Korea. However, the competition is no longer limited to nation states and their government-managed space programs.  Just as the British East India Company led the way towards British expansion, private companies such as SpaceX, Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, and Stratolaunch Systems have joined tried and true launch companies such as the United Launch Alliance and AirBus to provide a new generation of lift vehicles that employ cutting edge technologies including new, more powerful, methane fueled rockets. 

Commerce is once again leading the flag, but care must be taken to recognize that other nations have already entered the competition. Once established and based in the new geography of space, potential competitors will be difficult to dislodge or overcome. Space power is emerging just as sea power did 200 years ago, and there is much to gain from our prior experiences upon the oceans, if we only can open ourselves to learn from them.

Dr. Jerry Hendrix is a Senior Fellow and Program Director of the Defense Strategies and Assessments Program at the Center for a New American Security. A retired Captain of the United States Navy, Hendrix previously served as the Director of Naval History and Military Assistant to the Director of the Office of Net Assessment.

Michelle Shevin-Coetzee is a Research Assistant at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

Image: U.S. Air Force