Taking Space War Seriously
Review of: Bleddyn E Bowen Original Sin: Power, Technology and War in Outer Space (Hurst 2022)
Bleddyn Bowen’s Original Sin serves as a much-needed corrective of the myths and misconceptions of spacepower. His book seeks to set out several core arguments – that the military use of space is a ‘normal’ part of not just space activities but military activities in general. He seeks to ‘normalize’ military space activities – convincingly arguing that the military use of space is no different that the military use of the oceans or the air. Additionally, the military use of space is nothing new, indeed space activities were ‘born’ of war (the ‘original sin’ of Original Sin) and more specifically the vengeance weapons and slave labour camps of Nazi Germany. Indeed, as Bowen argues it makes more sense to talk of the ‘civilianizing’ of space rather than the ‘militarizing’ of space. In most countries the direction of travel was for military technology to be turned to civilian objectives rather than civilian space systems transitioned into military hardware – the Redstone rocket that lofted Alan Shepard into space began life as a ballistic missile it wasn’t developed as a human space launch system that later became a ballistic missile.
Bowen also takes aim at the ‘high ground’ conception of spacepower, which was a focus of his previous book, arguing that a coastline metaphor is much better at least for Earth orbit (which is where more than 99% of space activities occur). The ‘high ground’ school argues that space is the ‘ultimate high ground’ and that whoever dominates outer space is able to dominate the Earth and therefore it is imperative that the ‘right’ powers dominate the space environment. While, as Bowen acknowledges, this conception of space does have some value it its an oversimplified view that has lead to many misunderstandings. Outer space is not airspace and ‘space supremacy’ in the sense of ‘air supremacy’ is not a realistic option particularly given the relative ease of conducting anti-satellite operations from the Earth. And as Bowen points out, the Taliban were able to succeed despite the US’ overwhelming space superiority, so spacepower is not a ‘knockout’ punch.
And this tied to the important core point of the book; space is ‘normal’ and this goes beyond the military applications that is Bowen’s focus. Space is not a ‘special’, ‘weird’, or ‘separate’ domain of human activity it is part and parcel of the geopolitical milieu. And the humanities and social sciences need to take space and spacepower more seriously, and ‘normalize’ it. This is not to be in favour of ‘space war’ but to recognize that ‘space war’ is just war and that an effective opposition of space warfare requires recognizing that and being more broadly opposed to warfare. As Bowen himself points out an attack on a spacecraft (which involves no humans) is not less moral than an attack on a terrestrial target. I’m in full agreement with this position. My own work focuses on space resources, and much of it is arguing that space resources need to be seen as part of the global/planetary resource exploitation system as opposed to being something new or separate – in short space resource utilization is not anything new but an extension of the resource frontier to outer space. Space is not special or unique at least from the perspective of human activities – the same lenses we use to look at human activities in Antarctica or at sea, or on land or in the air need to be applied to our study of activities in outer space. The same ‘sins’ (original or otherwise) apply there, space activities are conducted within a historical and cultural legacy of war and empire. Space is no freer of that than anything else.
If there is one criticism that I would levy, its that Bowen doesn’t take activities beyond Earth orbit seriously enough. However, this is a soft criticism as he is correct that much of this remains speculative and ‘non-military’. Though the Artemis Accords and the potential competition between the US led group of parties and China is a prospect that could have significant consequences within the next 20 years or so. The correct analogy here is Antarctica in the 1940s and 50s rather than the ‘New World’ of the late 15th century – and similarly the perceived strategic value of the Moon and its resources is probably more important that its actual value but it does seem like a bit of a blind spot although I admit that I am probably overly focused on space resources! And of course, I can’t complain too much as this lead plenty of space for my own future work!
Overall, Original Sin is an excellent book which makes an important contribution – indeed it is an excellent argument for ‘astropolitics’ as a serious field of study, which is still unfortunately necessary. It should have a broad appeal particularly suited for ‘non-specialists.’ Those familiar with Bowen’s work will probably not find much ‘new’ here but it is well argued and well written and still worth your time. But it will be an invaluable text for those new to the field for whatever reason – this will be a go to recommended text for any students in the future.