Alfred Thayer Mahan concluded that sea power could enhance U.S. power and prestige as it had for Great Britain. At a time when the u.s. Navy’s principal missions were coastal defense and raiding commerce, Mahan developed a philosophy of sea power that won recognition and acceptance far outside naval circles.
If Mahan were alive today, he would most likely point out that control of space will be equally as important as the control of the seas has been in enhancing the power and prestige of any dominant world power. He would probably base his argument on the fact that the nation that controls space will ultimately see and hear almost everything that transpires around the world. He might also explain that all targets in the atmosphere or on the earth’s surface are only 200 to 400 kilometers from platforms in low earth orbit . A missile could travel as little as 200 kilometers and sink an enemy ship or destroy an airplane or surface target unless they were properly protected by antisatellite (ASAT) weapons . Currently, 350-nautical-mile ranges are typical for antiship cruise missiles and 1,500 nautical miles for comparable land-attack weapons.
Another advantage or controlling space is that, although the platforms in orbit might have limited maneuvering capability, they have almost infinite range. Once the initial energy is expended to launch a system into orbit, no additional energy is required to maintain the same speed for months, years, or even decades.
Control of space, like control of the seas, depends on more than mere physical presence. Mahan wrote about blockading ports that provided access to the seas. Similarly, it is possible to blockade the gateways to space — the space ports. Three of the current major space ports are vulnerable to blockade by sea: Cape Kennedy, Vandenberg Air Force Base, and Kapustin Yar, the _Soviet space port on the Volga River. Hostile ships equipped with surface-to-air missiles or sprint-type interceptors could effectively blockade both of our launch sites. A similar ship in the northeastern corner of the Black Sea could negate the Soviet launch facility. The blockade of these space ports is predicated first on control of the seas in the vicinity of these facilities and also on control of the sea lines of communication to these regions. Therefore, in order to secure unimpeded access to space, we must retain control of the oceans around these launch sites.
However, while both of our space ports are vulnerable to blockade from the sea, the two busiest Soviet Kosmodromes, Plesetsk and Tyuratam, are land-locked and cannot be blockaded in the classical sense, short of a land invasion. The Soviets have a clear advantage.
The access to space is also not without its equivalent “narrow seas.” Any satellite launched in any direction from a given location will pass over a point directly on the opposite side of the earth after completing the first half of its orbit. (Actually, the precise location is slightly off-set by rotation of the earth in 45 minutes, typical for a satellite in low earth orbit plus maneuvering, if any.) Control of areas opposite space launch facilities could deny entry and exit to the respective space programs just as control of Gibraltar or the Straits of Hormuz could deny entry and exit to some critical ports. The main difference is that Mahan’s “narrow seas” could be controlled from the shore, while the “narrow seas” of space can only be controlled from the oceans, at least for now.
The “narrow seas” for Plesetsk, Tyuratam, and Kapustin Yar all fall into the southern part of the Pacific Ocean (see figure 1). These three regions are too far from land for air coverage.
The corresponding points for Cape Kennedy and Vandenberg Air Force Base are in the southern parts of the Indian Ocean (see figure 2). There-fore, the United States can only guarantee its access to space by both securing our launch facilities and gaining control of the locations in the Indian Ocean, which can pnly be achieved by naval forces. At the same time, the u.s. Navy can deny Soviet access to space from two or three locations in the southern Pacific.
The Soviet direct ascent co-orbital ASAT weapon, commonly launched from Tyuratam, presents a new twist, however. It is designed to destroy our space assets in low earth orbits, including some of our Navy satellites. Like other launches from Tyuratam, it must overfly the specific region in the South Pacific and, consequently, missiles from a sea-based platform could intercept it. Therefore, control of the sea in this area is also vital if we are to defend our satellites against Soviet co-orbital ASATs.
Mahan would probably have concluded with the observation that in the emerging space age, control of space will be the dominant element in the equation of global power, and that control of the seas will be more important than ever, since such control is necessary to guarantee our access to space or deny access to our enemies. Also, we can best defend our space assets from a few specific locations on the oceans as long as the Soviets maintain a co-orbital antisatellite capability.
Aadu Karemaa[Reprinted from the Proceedings/April 1988, by special permission of the U.S. Naval Institute. Copyright U.S. Naval Institute 1988]