Foreign Policy

The Struggle for Space: The Final Frontier

“It’s politically sensitive, but it’s going to happen. Some people don’t want to hear this, and it sure isn’t in vogue, but-absolutely-we’re going to fight in space. We’re going to fight from space and we’re going to fight into space. That’s why the US has development programs in directed energy and hit-to-kill mechanisms. We will engage terrestrial targets someday-ships, airplanes, land targets-from space.”[1]

Space represents the 4th frontier after land, sea and air and for nearly half a century epitomized an important arena for dominance and superiority. Like the sea and air before it, space has become a critical enabling domain for global military operations.

Nearly 900 satellites orbit the earth everyday, for purposes such as weather monitoring, help in search and rescue, help in potential natural disaster detection, coordinating efforts on detecting and dealing with issues of space debris and minimizing harmful impacts on Earth and research in sciences. Many satellites also have military use, from reconnaissance to guiding weapons systems. Satellites remain the main focus of military space activities. They are widely used to provide support for military or security related activities such as verifying compliance with arms control treaties. They are also increasingly used to provide direct support for military operations. There are over 270 military satellites as well as 600 civil, commercial and multi-purpose satellites orbiting the earth and many satellites are increasingly ‘dual-use’ (can be used for both military and non-military purposes).

The US has gained the most advantages through its exploitation of space. Space technology is at the higher end of the technology ladder and has a huge knock on effect to other technological developments. Other nations and potential adversaries are keenly aware of the advantages and are seeking ways to exploit these advantages for themselves.

Militarization of space

Space exploration has its origins in the military build up for WW2 and began with the development of rockets by Nazi Germany, who developed the first liquid fuel rocket with the ability to carry missiles. The Nazi defeat resulted in both USSR and the US setting up programmes under which intelligence and military services extricated Nazi scientists from Germany of particular interest to both nations were those specializing in aerodynamics and rocketry. The US were the most successful in kidnapping scientists whilst the USSR succeeding in capturing production plants and missiles.

In 1946, the US Army achieved radar contact with the moon, by 1954, the Navy began communications experiments using the moon as a reflector and by 1959, it established an operational communication link between Hawaii and Washington DC. In 1957, the USSR successfully launched Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite to reach orbit, Sputnik caused fear and stirred political debate in the United States – The Space Race had begun. In 1958, President Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act establishing the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) incidentally Wernher von Braun the who was head of the Nazi rocket programme became NASA’s first chief director of the Marshall Space Flight Center and the chief architect of the Saturn V launch vehicle hence, he is the founding father of the United States space program.

The space race reached its peak during the cold war with both the US and USSR competing and establishing various programmes to ensure space technology remained balanced towards them. Having weapons in space was first proposed by President Ronald Reagan in 1983 at the height of the cold war, he argued a defence shield using laser or particle beam technology to intercept and destroy incoming nuclear missiles, which according to him was needed by the US due to the threat posed by belligerents. The Strategic Defence Initiative or “Star Wars” as it came to be known was eventually abandoned in 1993, due to serious technical difficulties, along with its large cost of $250 billion and the collapse of the Soviet Union resulted in domestic pressure for its abandonment.

Successive governments since Reagan have long made it clear the US wishes to expand its military capabilities and have weapons in space and therefore also be dominant in this fourth military arena. This new “ultimate high ground”[2] would provide further superior military capabilities. Emerging trends are clearly aimed at making the United States the first nation to deploy space-based weapons. America’s ballistic missile defense (BMD) ultimately is about space. A BMD interceptor used in an inherently offensive role capable of hitting a ballistic missile warhead hundreds of miles above Earth would be up to the easier task of hitting a satellite at the same altitude.

Weapons in Space

In August 2006, President Bush authorized a new national space policy, superseding the National Space Policy of September 1996. The policy was based on 8 principles. New policies include supporting the “peaceful use of space by all nations.” However, “Consistent with this principle,” claimed the policy, “peaceful purposes” would “allow U.S. defense and intelligence-related activities in pursuit of national interests.” Two other key principles noted the use of force, if needed to defend US interests.[3]

The US considers space capabilities including the ground and space segments and supporting links vital to its national interests. Consistent with this policy, the new space policy ‘preserve its rights, capabilities, and freedom of action in space; dissuade or deter others from either impeding those rights or developing capabilities intended to do so; take those actions necessary to protect its space capabilities; respond to interference; and deny, if necessary, adversaries the use of space capabilities hostile to U.S. national interests.’[4]

In April 2005, “Gen. James E. Cartwright, who leads the United States Strategic Command, told the Senate Armed Services nuclear forces subcommittee that the goal of developing space weaponry was to allow the nation to deliver an attack ‘very quickly, with very short time lines on the planning and delivery, any place on the face of the earth.’ The US has taken such a hard-line stance due to threats it perceives from adversaries, this has resulted in the US voting against a number of treaties, which propose the banning of weapons in space. This was confirmed in the national space policy of October 2006 which states ‘The United States will oppose the development of new legal regimes or other restrictions that seek to prohibit or limit U.S. access to or use of space. Proposed arms control agreements or restrictions must not impair the rights of the United States to conduct research, development, testing, and operations or other activities in space for U.S. national interests.’[5]

The US has continued the development of technology which would allow it to place weapons in space. In 2004, the US Air Force issued a document called ‘Transformation Flight Plan’ which envisaged a whole array of space weapons both offensive and defensive. They would include anti-satellite systems and even things called “hypervelocity rod bundles” that could be hurled down on a target from space.[6] 

Game of nations

In January 2007 China used a ground-based medium-range ballistic missile to destroy one of its aging weather satellites 500 miles above the earth. International criticism came from far and wide Gordon Johndroe, US National Security Council spokesman believed “China’s development and testing of such weapons is inconsistent with the spirit of co-operation that both countries aspire to in the civil space area.”[7] Japan, Australia and the US expressed concern as this is the first known satellite intercept test since the space race between the US and the Soviet Union.

China is considered a possible adversary of the US in the future, and may be one of the countries that could threaten US dominance in space, even though for now it has constantly opposed the use of space for military purposes. China’s use of a ground-based missile was one of the first such acts since the 1980s when the Soviet Union and the US did such things. China is feared to be developing better weapons to do such things, and there was also concern that China didn’t inform anyone that it was doing this. China’s lack of transparency is a cause of concern for the US. China has an extensive space-based science programme and also has its own navigation, telecoms and imagery satellites. As with many countries, the ‘dual-use’ Nature of satellites means it can be hard to distinguish between military and civilian activities.

As of 2005, 45 countries had launched a satellite, with Iran being the 45th. India and China’s programmes are developing the quickest. India’s first dedicated military satellite system for surveillance and reconnaissance was launched in 2007. Countries such as Russia, China, India, Israel, Japan and the European Space Agency( ESA) now have launch facilities, which other countries can pay to use.  

Apart from China and Russia none of the other countries have the capabilities or will to even reach such a stage for decades. The evidence of actual space weapons programs by Russia and China, potential adversaries is thin and both nations have continued to consistently oppose the weaponisation of outer space in its official statements, and, along with Russia, China has led the initiative to create an international treaty banning all weapons in space.

The US looks upon all those who may potentially rival or supersede it as belligerents because Space exploration and its research has been the powerhouse for a number of developments within the military, this was summed up accurately in the first paragraph of the new national space policy ‘In this new century, those who effectively utilize space will enjoy added prosperity and security and will hold a substantial advantage over those who do not.’ And the Vision for 2020, a 1996 report of the US Space Command, which coordinates the use of Army, Navy, and Air Force space forces,  was set up in 1985 to help institutionalize the use of space explicitly mentions’ the US wants to ‘control space to protect its economic interests and establish superiority over the world,’ it also mentions “US Space Command – dominating the space dimension of military operations to protect US interests and investment. Integrating Space Forces into war fighting capabilities across the full spectrum of conflict.” The report opens with the following: “Nations built navies to protect and enhance their commercial interests, by ruling the seas. Now it is time to rule space.”[8]

An Alternative framework

The current debate about space is riddled with a number of problems; the major powers who have some elements of space capability are viewing the whole affair from a purely national interest perspective which implicitly means space is their right. All attempts on securing treaties have thus failed as such agreements are viewed from a national interest perspective. All attempts by the Untied Nations were always destined to fail as international law will never supersede a nation’s national interest or sovereignty; hence the US has vetoed all attempts of a global agreement on space for exploration and peaceful uses only. China and Russia similar to the US put their national interests first and have only taken part in international agreements to restrict the US. The current international framework was designed and set-up to protect the interests of nations such as the US, Britain, France, China and Russia after WW2 hence space exploration for them would always be viewed from a national interest perspective which today is dominated  by US hegemony.

Islam has a completely different perspective for space exploration and a future Khilafah would pursue such a policy. Space represents an area which although no nation physically owns its use affects the whole world and needs them to come together to agree on its use and pool resources. This is similar to the use of the world’s oceans and common resources such as the Suez Canal and the Silk Road in the past. In the past such common resources were usually under the authority of locals or a dominant power who would charge a tax for its use which would then be used for its maintenance and development. Hence the Uthmani’s would charge a tax for large areas of the Mediterranean in order for harbours and ports to be developed to facilitate trade. Space is again such an area which transcends national boundaries and needs the world to come together similar to issues such as Aids, global warming, terrorism, conflict diamonds etc.

The coming together on resources which are needed for the masses is something which has been present in Islamic jurisprudence throughout the Islamic history. In Islam Public property is commonly where permission has been to the community to share the use of the asset. Assets which are public property are those which the Lawgiver stated that as belonging to the community as a whole, there are of three types: that which is considered a public utility, so a community would disperse in search for it if it were not available, the uncountable stores of minerals and resources by their nature, that prevent individuals from possession.

If things are left to the current paradigm of US hegemony space will go the same way as oil and gas have, where the global powers wrestle control of vital resources leading to further chaos and conflict as can be seen in Africa. The Khilafah can guarantee access to vital resources based on justice as it does not view the world through a capitalist self-interest angle but rather it views the world as something which it will be accounted about, and the actions it undertook to ensure justice prevailed.

Thus the world needs to come together on common resources and this can be achieved if all nations view them as common assets which all can freely benefit from. In regards to space, all the world needs to come together as it’s beyond any one nation to develop. If any nation does try to gain a monopoly public opinion can be used to put an end to the belligerence.

In summary

  • – Space is a huge area that no-one can practically lay claim to
  • – The world needs to come together so Space assets and technology develop
  • – Satellites are the most important outcome of space, tsunami detection and weather research are the outcomes of satellite developments
  • – The militarization of space should only take place if all nations can participate, not just the major powers
  • – Islam has addressed issues such as common utilities and resources that practically cannot be owned individually and designated them as common utilities for use for all peoples.
  • – The Khilafah should work towards a Hilf al Fadoul type agreement over Space



[1] Commander-in-Chief of US Space Command, Joseph W. Ashy, Aviation Week and Space Technology, August 9, 1996, quoted from Master of Space by Karl Grossman, Progressive Magazine, January 2000

[2] Jonathan Power, May 9, 2001, ‘Space-After Tito’s fun it might be Rumsfeld’s nightmare’, Trans-national Foundation for Peace and Future Research,

[3] Unclassified National Space Policy, Office of Science and Technology Policy, Executive Office of the US President, October 6,

[4] ibid

[5] Unclassified National Space Policy, Office of Science and Technology Policy, Executive Office of the US President, October 6,,  Pg 2


[7]19th Jan 2007 ‘Concern over China’s missile test’, quoted from article in the magazine American Aviation Week and Space Technology

[8] E Howell General, (1996) ‘vision for 2020,’ US space command,