“Space deterrence” is defined here as deterring harmful actions by whatever means against national assets in space and assets that support space operations. Analogously, nuclear deterrence is defined as deterring harmful actions by means of nuclear weapons. Concepts of nuclear deterrence have been well developed. In contrast, attention to space deterrence has been sporadic during and after the Cold War, sparked mostly when anti-satellite (ASAT) capabilities have been tested. These concerns faded after the demise of the Soviet Union, and have now revived with the advent of China’s ambitious space program.
Demonstrable vs. inferred deterrence
Nuclear deterrence and space deterrence have common elements as well as distinct differences. No difference is more striking than with respect to the visibility of nuclear deterrence capabilities compared to the largely inferential nature of space deterrence. The advent of nuclear weapons was advertised with spectacular effect, with the mushroom cloud immediately becoming the symbol of the “atomic age.” Ever since, nuclear deterrence widely was presumed to be strengthened by visible displays. Tests of warhead designs were carried out in the atmosphere and were subsequently driven underground, easily confirmed by seismographs. Missile flight tests repeatedly affirmed vigilance and readiness. Some states possessing nuclear weapons still parade nuclear-capable missiles on national holidays.
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