Military History Space and War
David C. Arnold
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 February 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 February 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0168


Even though no physical warfare has taken place there, space remains central and vital to the war-fighting capabilities of many nations, particularly the United States, which has changed its way of war fighting from Russell Weigley’s sheer mass of the American approach to a satellite‐enabled, highly accurate, low-density, information-age approach. Therefore, the history of space and warfare is best summarized in two contexts. The first context is the history of the development of policies for the military uses of space. This approach looks at the decision makers and the choices they made in developing policies that militarized space. The second context is the practice and application of technologies in space for practical military purposes. Warfighters in the early 21st century depend on space for missile warning and defense; intelligence; surveillance and reconnaissance; space control; weather; and positioning, navigation and timing, all applications of technologies in space for practical uses, including warfare. To support these approaches, there are generally two types of sources on this list: the largely internalist histories focused on a technology but not on its greater place in society or government policies; and externalist histories that focus less on black boxes and more on the role of a space technology in the “wider view,” to borrow a phrase from James R. Hansen’s important article on aviation. Few books are able to achieve both. This article is intended to offer readings for people interested in the history of the way space has been used by war fighters but acknowledges that there is debate over the weaponization of space and the domain’s uses by war fighters. Many of those debates could be used as primary-source material for a history of arms control and space issues. Many books tagged with the “space weapons” or “space warfare” subject listings are not histories of the topic of space and warfare but are policy discussions on other topics like arms control. Therefore, it is important to note that this article is not a list of current political and policy issues but rather a look at historical policy issues and the practice and application of military technology in the space domain. Views expressed here are the author’s and do not represent the views of the National War College, the National Defense University, or the Department of Defense. Library of Congress Subject Headings for this topic: Space weapons. Space warfare.

General Overviews

McDougall 1985 is the most important political history of the cold war space race. Stares 1985 initiated the discussion about the militarization of space, which Kalic 2012 updates and deepens. Chapman 2008, AU-18 Space Primer, and Robertson 2011 all serve as useful reference sources.

  • Air Command and Staff College. AU‐18 Space Primer. Maxwell Air Force Base, AL: Air University Press, 2009.

    AU-18 is a useful encyclopedia for individuals who are not familiar with US military space capabilities, organizations, and operations. It is an unclassified guide that includes descriptions of history, theory, doctrine, organizations, missions, flight dynamics, systems, acquisitions approaches, space law, and so on.

  • Chapman, Bert, ed. Space Warfare and Defense: A Historical Encyclopedia and Research Guide. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC Clio, 2008.

    This is an interdisciplinary encyclopedia and research guide with hundreds of entries on military systems, well known and unknown. It includes references including treaties and other primary sources, a glossary, a chronology, and a brief annotated bibliography that covers many contemporary policy issues. It also looks at the historical development and evolution of military space policy in the United States, USSR, and European Union.

  • Kalic, Sean N. U.S. Presidents and the Militarization of Space, 1946–1967. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2012.

    Looks at the militarization of space by focusing only on a more limited period, that is, through the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. He focuses on the processes that shaped the development of the space policies in the administrations of Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson, arguing they wanted to maintain the sanctuary of space for “peaceful uses” without sacrificing the need for the “non‐aggressive” military use of space.

  • McDougall, Walter A. . . . The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age. New York: Basic Books, 1985.

    Stands alone as the only book on this list to earn the Pulitzer Prize for History. McDougall’s thesis on the technocratic origins of the cold war space programs illustrates the importance of policymakers in what are generally thought of as technological developments. Although not a traditional history of a technology, McDougall nevertheless places the technologies of the early space race into their international political context.

  • Robertson, Ann E. Militarization of Space. New York: Facts on File, 2011.

    This is a reference book. Its strength lies in its reference material, presenting in one place a large number of primary sources, including the 1984 US Space Policy, the 2010 US Space Policy, the 2001 Rumsfeld Space Commission Report, and a large number of international primary sources. Additionally, there are charts, fact, figures, brief biographies, chronology, glossary, and a useful annotated bibliography that goes well beyond the militarization of space.

  • Stares, Paul B. The Militarization of Space: U.S. Policy, 1945–1984. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985.

    Argues the United States and the Soviet Union militarized space from the 1940s through the first Reagan administration. The lack of weapons in space was due not to preplanned policy but due to “national interests, military disincentives, and technical constraints” (p. 238). He also argues, though, that with changes brought by the 1980s, the world was “entering a new phase in the militarization of space” (p. 18) in which space weapons are more likely.

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