Maneuver Warfare in Space: The Strategic Mandate for Nuclear Propulsion

Arlington, VA | January 13, 2022 — The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies is pleased to announce a new entry in its Policy Paper series, Maneuver Warfare in Space: The Strategic Mandate for Nuclear Propulsion by Christopher Stone, Senior Fellow for Space Studies at the Mitchell Institute Spacepower Advantage Center of Excellence.

America’s national security space enterprise is at an inflection point. Current U.S. Space Force (USSF) designs are based on constellation architectures with limited maneuverability and armed with few countermeasures. These constellations are increasingly vulnerable to attack, as China and Russia are both deploying new anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons. Furthermore, they plan to propel their own new, multi-layered counterspace architectures with fuel-efficient, space nuclear propulsion (SNP) technologies. These weapon systems highlight they are shifting to a warfighting strategy based on rapidly maneuvering in space to conduct offensive and defensive operations.

Current U.S. space systems powered by chemical rockets can be thought of like the airships of a century ago, while adversary space nuclear thermal propulsion (SNTP) systems are like modern fighter aircraft, given their increased thrust and extended endurance. SNTP can provide China and Russia with the means to leapfrog current U.S. space architectures and operational concepts and devastate U.S. space forces. However, this does not have to be our future. DOD has an opportunity to leverage decades of SNTP technology development to create a more maneuverable and defendable space architecture to protect U.S. interests. Creating this new, maneuver-based force design will be a major step toward ensuring the USSF has the resources it needs to gain and maintain our nation’s space superiority in peace and in war.

The Mitchell Institute Policy Papers is a series presenting new thinking and policy proposals to respond to the emerging security and aerospace power challenges of the 21st century. These papers are written for lawmakers and their staffs, policy professionals, business and industry, academics, journalists, and the informed public.

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