From the 16th through the 20th centuries, global hegemony generally belonged to whatever nation possessed the strongest navy. Even today, American power is based, first and foremost, on our ability to project overwhelming force, via the U.S. Navy, to any part of the world. The primacy of naval strength, however, is about to be overturned.
Three mid-20th century developments explain why.
First, Nazi Germany launched the world's first operational ballistic missile at Paris in September 1944. Second, the United States exploded the first nuclear weapon in the New Mexico desert in July 1945. And, third, the Soviet Union launched the first satellite, Sputnik, into space in October 1957 (and the first intercontinental ballistic missile in the same year).
Taken together, these technological milestones will determine the fate of the world in the 21st century and beyond.
Once the awesome destructive power of nuclear weapons was harnessed to long-range, or intercontinental, ballistic missiles, the military usefulness of most naval vessels, even the massive supercarriers, was greatly reduced. A single nuclear warhead, delivered within minutes by a ballistic missile traveling at many times the speed of sound, could destroy an entire carrier battle group.
For the superpowers, therefore, starting in the 1950s, navies took a backseat to strategic nuclear forces. By the 1960s, those forces were overwhelmingly dependent on missiles — launched from bases on land, submarines underwater, or aircraft — to deliver their fearsome payloads.
The destructive power of these nuclear missiles, combined with the near-impossibility of intercepting them or defending against them, created the central dynamic of the Cold War: mutually assured destruction, or MAD. Neither superpower would risk war, because of the high nuclear stakes and the minuscule chance of achieving anything resembling “victory.”
At first, satellites were relatively insignificant to this equation. Yes, they could spy on the enemy's nuclear capabilities, and they could help to identify targets for nuclear attack, but otherwise they did not substantially affect the balance of power between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.
Today, we stand at the dawn of a new age, and the nature of the threats we face is very different from those of the Cold War period. Increasingly, ballistic missiles are accessible even to middle-rank and some minor powers. Iran and North Korea have developed impressive missile capabilities. In fact, North Korea, a poor country, can plausibly claim to deploy an intercontinental ballistic missile — no mean feat. U.S. cities may or may not be vulnerable to such missiles, given our existing anti-missile systems, but U.S. carrier battle groups certainly are.
Even more importantly, China is developing a host of new missile types, many of which are designed to destroy U.S. carriers and their escorts. These Chinese missiles are sophisticated and they are numerous. In effect, the Chinese have leveraged their geographic position in East Asia to turn their country into a vast missile platform. Meanwhile, their ability, as an industrial and technological power of the first rank, to churn out missiles that can obliterate U.S. carriers vastly exceeds America's ability to replace any carriers we might lose — assuming the U.S. was prepared to risk losing even a single one.
These Chinese missiles need not be armed with nuclear warheads. A powerful conventional warhead, delivered with enough accuracy and reliability, would be sufficient to neutralize even the largest carrier. The use of conventional weapons rather than nukes would also greatly lessen the danger of nuclear retaliation.
In short, the proliferation of advanced ballistic missile technology, in China and elsewhere, renders the U.S. Navy highly vulnerable. Indeed, the Navy realizes this and is already effectively ceding the waters close to China to the Chinese.
If the long list of countries bristling with lightning-fast and highly precise ballistic missiles can render U.S. naval supremacy obsolete, then what is the answer, and how can American global hegemony be preserved?
Arguably, despite these new dynamics, submarines, which are stealthier than surface ships and significantly less vulnerable to missile attack, could still project U.S. power across the globe, but they alone cannot ensure U.S. hegemony. The only real answer lies in anti-missile technology. If enemy ballistic missiles can be intercepted and destroyed before reaching their targets, U.S. carriers, and other U.S. military assets, can play their traditional roles, and the existing balance of power will be preserved.
Fortunately, the U.S. leads the world in its anti-ballistic missile capabilities. U.S. anti-missile systems run the gamut from relatively short-range land- and sea-based variants designed to intercept tactical to intermediate-range missiles, to the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system, designed to destroy intercontinental ballistic missiles.
U.S. missile defense programs, however, are dangerously underfunded, and our potential adversaries are working on much more sophisticated missiles that can evade detection and/or destruction. When all else fails, they are building so many missiles that our defenses cannot possibly hope to meet every threat. There are thus real concerns that a new “missile gap” is emerging.
We need, therefore, to invest in expanding and upgrading our anti-missile systems as a matter of the highest possible urgency. As these systems improve, the likelihood that any enemy would be bold enough to launch a missile attack on the U.S., or the U.S. Navy, correspondingly declines — and American hegemony remains intact.
We also need to develop new anti-missile systems that can target enemy missiles as soon as possible after launch. It is here that the third major mid-20th century milestone mentioned above — the Soviet launch of the first satellite, called Sputnik — becomes more relevant.
Since the 1960s, many of the boldest concepts for missile defense have involved space-based monitoring and destruction of enemy missiles in the preliminary launch phase, or in space itself. It is easy to dismiss the concept of an orbiting kinetic or laser weapon designed to destroy ballistic missiles as “Star Wars” or science fiction. Such a capability may indeed be years or decades away.
What is certain, though, is that, to target enemy ballistic missiles effectively, and potentially to destroy large salvos of enemy missiles reliably and completely, U.S. domination of space is absolutely necessary. Already, it is our satellites that give us the ability to track missile threats. It is eminently plausible that similar satellites will give us the ability to destroy the enemy's space-based assets, and thus part of his intelligence-gathering and missile-targeting ability, and possibly his missiles as well.
President Trump's proposed “Space Force” provokes guffaws in many quarters, but nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles have already revolutionized the global strategic balance. The future balance of power will undoubtedly focus on a race to develop more and better missiles, and more and better means to intercept or otherwise neutralize enemy missiles.
For this reason, it would be surprising if the decisive battle of a hypothetical World War III were not fought, and won, primarily in space.