The World & I
May 2002
By Alan W. Dowd

NEWS ITEM–Calling it “the military equivalent of a Pearl Harbor in space and the psychological equivalent of another September 11,” the president confirmed that several U.S. satellites were attacked and destroyed last night without warning or provocation. Citing national security and operational secrecy, the president refused to share the exact number or type of satellites that have been hit. Nor would he offer any clues as to the country responsible for the attacks. 

But he did provide information about the attacks themselves. According to the president, “Four days ago, the U.S. Space Command in Colorado reported a series of unannounced launches by a hostile nation. Soon after these launches, U.S. satellites began to encounter serious problems relaying information to and from earth.” Minutes after the first satellite was hit, Pentagon officials informed the president that a number of U.S. commercial and military satellites had indeed been attacked by a foreign government. 

The U.S. satellites were most likely hit by anti-satellite weapons, or ASATs. After rocketing into space, the ASATs in effect tore a hole in America’s web of communications and reconnaissance satellites. The resulting communications blackouts have brought America’s satellite-dependent economy to a virtual standstill over the last 30 hours. For some Americans, the blackouts have been little more than a nuisance, disrupting television feeds and rendering BlackBerry messaging systems worthless. But according to the president, the breakdowns have had a dramatic and potentially devastating impact. Hundreds of flights were delayed or canceled yesterday after pilots and air-traffic controllers reported communications failures in mid-flight. The president has since grounded all commercial air traffic. Banks have been unable to keep track of money transfers, while hundreds of other businesses are unable to ship goods, which has triggered food, gas and oil shortages in pockets of the country.

Equally troubling, the Pentagon has reportedly lost contact with ships at sea and troops in the field. Although they will not confirm or deny these reports, Pentagon officials do concede that they are unable to maintain 24-hour satellite surveillance over large swaths of the earth’s surface.

Dismissing suggestions that the attacks might have been accidental, the president vowed to retaliate. “I have ordered key units of the Air Force and Space Corps to strike targets both on earth and in space,” he grimly announced. When, where or against whom remains a closely guarded secret. Indeed, the president’s refusal to name the guilty party has touched off a firestorm of guessing and second-guessing in Washington. However, defense analysts say that only a handful of countries, among them China and a few radical Islamic states, have both the means and the motive to launch such a daring attack.

The ASAT attacks and inevitable U.S. counterstrikes mark the first time in human history that space will be a theater of military operations, and the president took pains to underscore the gravity of the moment. “Make no mistake, this was an attack against the United States of America,” he concluded. “The fact that it occurred beyond our gaze does not diminish what it is–a deliberate, pre-mediated act of war.”

The Next Battlefield

This scenario may seem far-fetched or even irrelevant as the U.S. military wages a war against terrorism that appears to have more in common with the 19th century than the 21st century. We all remember the photographs of U.S. Special Forces galloping into Afghanistan’s battlefields on horseback. However, those pictures tell only a fraction of the story. Revolutionary technologies, political changes at home and emerging threats abroad are blurring the line between science fiction and science fact – and transforming the way America wages war.

What’s been described above is actually quite plausible, and it is anything but irrelevant: In the War on Terror, which President George W. Bush has called the first war of the 21st century, the United States is depending upon its space assets to control and manage the field of battle. In the second war of the 21st century, which looms somewhere beyond the War on Terror, space itself could become the field of battle.

Indeed, among key Pentagon officials, there is a sense of inevitability about waging war in space. Perhaps no one has expressed that sense more clearly or persuasively than Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. His views on the growing likelihood of conflict in space were embodied in a little-known report to Congress from a commission that he himself headed prior to becoming secretary of defense. Officially called the Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organization, the bipartisan panel has been aptly–and mercifully–dubbed “the Rumsfeld Commission.”

As chairman of the Commission throughout 2000, Rumsfeld’s charge was to expose the vulnerabilities of America’s space assets, assess America’s long-term and near-term needs in space defense, and propose organizational changes to enhance the nation’s space defenses. The Commission’s findings are both sweeping and sobering, and as secretary of defense, Rumsfeld is using them to turn America’s gaze toward the heavens.

In the Commission’s view, it is not a question of if space will become a theater of military operations, but when. “We know from history that every medium–air, land and sea–has seen conflict,” the Rumsfeld Report concludes. “Reality indicates that space will be no different.”[1] Indeed, history reminds us that if man can possess something or travel through it, he will fight over it. And if he can travel through a place–whether it be a valley, a lake, a sea, or the sky–he will fight in that place.

The ancients used the earth itself to wage war. Forests and mountains became fortresses; tree limbs were turned into clubs, tree stumps into battering rams. As John Keegan observes in his History of Warfare, 10,000 years ago, our ancestors revolutionized war by inventing the bow, the sling, the dagger and the mace.[2] Suddenly, a relatively harmless stone became lethal, as the velocity of delivery increased geometrically with man’s new creations. Every pebble could become ammunition for a slingshot, every fragment of animal bone an arrowhead, every broken branch a spear.

Of course, war and its weapons were not quarantined to land for long. Keegan notes that “the earliest representation we have of naval warfare [is] a fight between warriors of the Pharaoh Ramses III and the Sea Peoples in the Nile delta in 1186 BC.”[3] By 490 BC, the Persians used the sea to transport and deploy troops on land, as they conducted some of the earliest amphibious landings near Marathon. Amphibious warfare would be refined again and again, from the disaster of Gallipoli to the triumph of Normandy to MacArthur’s masterpiece at Inchon.

Defying gravity, man would also carry war into the skies. Inspired by DaVinci’s 300-year-old sketches, German aeronautical engineer Otto Lilienthal began to build and test-fly gliders in the late 19th century; a contemporary of his, American inventor Samuel Pierpont Langley, included an engine in his designs. By 1903, the Wright Brothers conducted the first self-powered flight of a genuine aircraft.

Within a decade, the airplane was being used to conduct reconnaissance in the Italian-Turkish war. In 1911, the U.S. Army used a Wright Brothers prototype to test the airplane’s ability to drop munitions. (The Army had shown an interest in the use of aircraft for military-reconnaissance operations as early as 1898.) By 1915, the plane’s rapid evolution from benign invention to weapon of war was complete, as both sides in the Great War armed their air fleets with cannon and bombs. The offspring of those first wobbly warplanes are now at work in the War on Terror, like latter-day Greek gods roaming the skies and seemingly striking their targets at will.

NASA, Nike and the Nikkei

In space, as in the earth’s atmosphere, man initially used his new environment for observation and reconnaissance. As General Howell Estes, former commander of U.S. Space Command and a member of the Rumsfeld Commission, explains, “The potential of aircraft was not recognized immediately.”[4] However, once man grasped the military importance of airspace and aircraft, he exploited it.

Mankind’s use of space is following a similar trajectory. As Air Force Magazine detailed in a recent study of space operations, most of America’s early flights into space were made by civilian rockets–not military. From 1958-1963, the United States conducted 31 civilian space shots and just 17 military launches. Likewise, 40 of the Soviet Union’s first 52 launches were civilian (at least officially). In fact, in the first three years of the Space Age, there were no military launches at all–by Americans or Russians.[5]

Of course, that quickly changed. From 1967 through 2000, NASA’s annual launch totals eclipsed the Pentagon’s just three times. (This civilian figure does not include independent commercial launches.) Not once between 1967 and 1994 did Moscow conduct more civilian launches than military launches; in fact, prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Soviet military’s share of launches was usually double that of the civilian sector. Overall, Moscow has conducted 1,629 military launches and just 972 civilian, while the United States has launched 435 military rockets into space and only 254 civilian.[6]

Today, “Space-based capabilities have become an integral part of American military operations,”[7] according to General Ralph Eberhart, commander of U.S. Space Command. Entire units, such as the 527th Space Aggressor Squadron and 76th Space Control Squadron, are conducting war games set in space and working to prevent a September 11 or December 7 from ever happening in the heavens. Indeed, the Air Force has opened a new Space Warfare School, and the Army just graduated its first class from its own Space Operations program.

As the Rumsfeld Commission ominously observes, “We are now on the threshold of a new era of the Space Age, devoted to mastering operations in space.”[8]

However, it would be a mistake to conclude that the military is steering us toward that destination. To the contrary, the military is following U.S. interests into space. At its core, the U.S. military’s job is to protect American interests, no matter where they lie. And today they are increasingly found beyond the earth’s atmosphere.

Space already plays a crucial role in the U.S. economy, and America’s dependence on space will only deepen in the coming decades. Whether we recognize it or not, what happens in space affects our very way of life.  “More than any other country,” Rumsfeld argues, “the United States relies on space for its security and well-being.”[9]  

The United States has more than 800 active satellites and probes orbiting the earth at this very moment. Fully a quarter of them have no military purpose at all. Instead, they circle the earth to relay everything from Nike ads to the Nikkei Average; improve the use and development of farmland; guide ships, planes and trucks to their destinations; synchronize financial networks; support police and fire departments; and connect a people and an economy that move at ever-increasing speed.

America’s commercial space revenues alone exceed $80 billion. Moreover, the Pentagon and Central Intelligence Agency are now in the midst of a massive effort to replace their entire fleet of satellites over the next decade, at a cost of $60 billion.[10]

Clearly, the United States has more to gain and much more to lose in space than any other nation on earth.

A Bird’s Eye View of Terror

Critics of space-based weaponry and 21st-century military upgrades have cited the rather low-tech September 11 attacks to dismiss the Pentagon’s pricey wish list of space gadgetry.  However, the War on Terror is actually a stark illustration of how critical space assets are to U.S. national security.

As Washington and Manhattan came under attack on September 11, 2001, outgoing Joint Chiefs Chairman Hugh Shelton was somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean, returning from Europe. It fell to Vice-Chairman Richard Myers to coordinate the Pentagon’s initial response. However, Myers, who has since replaced Shelton as Chairman, was on Capitol Hill meeting with Senator Max Cleland. Separated from the nation’s military nerve center, Myers needed someone to paint him a clearer picture of what was happening. It’s no accident that he was on the phone with Eberhart within minutes of the attacks. As commander of U.S. Space Command, only Eberhart could offer Myers a bird’s eye view of the unfolding chaos; only Eberhart could paint the picture Myers needed.[11]    

Almost immediately, NORAD began combing the skies over North America, the Pacific and the Atlantic for erratic or hostile aircraft, a mission which continues to this day. NORAD is relying on satellites to monitor every commercial flight and send real-time information to and from combat air patrols, AWACS aircraft, FAA officials and air-traffic controllers.

Overseas, U.S. satellites are gathering information and tracking the movements of armies and individuals alike. In fact, satellite intelligence is so critical to the war effort that the U.S. military is paying private satellite-imagery providers like Space Imaging, Inc., for exclusive rights to their photos. 

America’s first counterstrikes in the War on Terror were thrown by satellite-guided cruise missiles. U.S. pilots are using Joint-Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs) to pound terrorists and their sponsors with exacting precision. One of the stars of the air war in Afghanistan, the JDAM continually receives data from GPS satellites to lock on and destroy targets in any weather and at any time of day, thereby protecting U.S. pilots and saving innocent civilians.

The Global Hawk surveillance drone, which transmits photographs via satellite, has enabled U.S. forces to attack targets within minutes and hours, rather than days as in previous wars. Indeed, thanks in large part to intelligence from the Global Hawk and GPS, it took U.S. Special Forces and indigenous troops about five weeks to rout al Queda and their Taliban hosts, who had controlled Afghanistan for five years.

America’s Achilles Heel

Space superiority has given the Pentagon a huge intelligence edge in the early phases of America’s anti-terror campaign. However, using space as an observation platform is just the beginning. According to the Rumsfeld Commission, the United States will soon need to “conduct operations to, from, in and through space in support of its national interests.”[12]  Not coincidentally, potential enemies of the United States have drawn the same conclusion.  As Eberhart suggests, America’s adversaries increasingly see “space as an asymmetric method for leveling the playing field.”[13] 

In a twist of irony befitting a Greek tragedy, the satellites that make America’s economy so powerful, its military nearly omniscient, and its culture virtually irresistible also make America dangerously vulnerable. In the understated words of the Rumsfeld Report, America’s dependence on space “makes its space systems potentially attractive targets” to a growing number of hostile nations.[14]

Indeed, the ability to attack America’s space assets is no longer limited to a select club of military powers and economic giants. Anti-satellite weapons, satellite-jamming equipment and micro-satellites are inexpensive and increasingly accessible on the global market. The Russian military, for example, is peddling a cheap and discreet hand-held satellite jamming system. China is developing micro-satellites, which cost 1 percent of a traditional satellite and have the ability to shadow their prey for months or years before attacking.[15] Just one “mother satellite” can spawn dozens of parasitic micro-satellites.

If September 11 taught us anything, it’s that American territory is vulnerable to attack. Sadly, America’s vulnerabilities are even more pronounced in space. According to the Rumsfeld Report, the U.S. government is not adequately organized or prepared to protect the country’s space assets. For example, when a Galaxy IV satellite malfunctioned in 1998, 80 percent of the pagers in America were rendered inoperable and cable-television transmissions were disrupted. In 2000, when ground-control stations malfunctioned, an undisclosed number of U.S. satellites went dark.  Although these were just minor malfunctions, they became major problems. They provide a sobering glimpse of what could happen if someone made a concerted effort to attack America’s interconnected web of satellites. 

In a very real sense, space is America’s Achilles Heel.  If, for example, a foreign power disabled or destroyed America’s Global Positioning Satellites (GPS), the attack would limit much more than a Cadillac owner’s ability to use his OnStar navigation system. As Eberhart explains, GPS is “fully integrated into the warfighting capabilities of all our services and unified commands.” According to Eberhart, “GPS has become a way of life for both our military and commercial industry.”[16] In other words, a direct hit on a couple GPS orbiters would do serious harm to deployed forces--and America’s enemies know it. 

China, according to evidence unearthed by the Rumsfeld Commission, is openly preparing to engage and defeat the United States in space. Bejing is working with a number of governments, including Russia, Brazil, Pakistan, and Iran, to deploy reconnaissance and communications satellites. Last fall, the Chinese unveiled a plan to launch at least 35 satellites in the next five years. The Chinese military is in the midst of building a U.S.-style network of satellites to provide constant surveillance of the earth, along with a homegrown version of GPS to maneuver troops, ships and aircraft.

A 2000 Pentagon report concluded that China is developing jamming equipment to disable GPS receivers, micro-satellites weighing as little as 20 pounds to latch on to satellites and destroy them, and lasers to blind U.S. orbiters. In testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, Richard Fisher, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation, explained that China “might already have a ground-based laser capable of damaging low-orbit reconnaissance satellites.”[17] According to Fisher, “In the case of conflict with Taiwan, U.S. satellites would be the first target for the Chinese army.”[18]

China is not alone. Iran, Turkey, Indonesia, North Korea and Cuba all have satellite-jamming capabilities. Others could acquire or develop ASAT capabilities in short order. According to the Rumsfeld Report most U.S. commercial satellites lack protective countermeasures against ground-based jamming.

Of course, none of these countries can match the space capabilities of our erstwhile friends in Moscow, who pioneered the military use of space in 1963. Almost four decades have passed since the Soviet Union established an entire military command devoted to “destroying the enemy’s cosmic means of fighting.”[19] Moscow’s groundbreaking anti-space force integrated rocket-launched ASAT systems, ground- and space-based lasers, and air-launched satellite-kill vehicles into Soviet warfighting doctrine. The force existed in that form until 1992.

Last summer, Russian President Vladimir Putin resurrected the Soviet anti-space force as part of a wider effort to reorganize the Russian military. Its new name is the Military Space Force, and according to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov its new mission is to deliver better communication, intelligence, command and control capabilities to the battlefield.[20]

Like Putin, Bush is building on the work of his predecessors. It may come as a surprise to some that important steps toward space defense were taken by President Bill Clinton. In 1996, the Clinton Administration outlined a National Space Policy that laid the foundation for much of what the Rumsfeld Commission recommended. Among other things, the Clinton White House concluded that America’s space program should be used to strengthen and maintain U.S. national interests; promote the peaceful and unrestricted use of space; and support commercial enterprises.

To realize those ends, the policy directed the Pentagon to “develop, operate and maintain space-control capabilities to ensure freedom of action in space and, if directed, to deny such freedom of action to adversaries.”[21] Not surprisingly, Rumsfeld has quoted this section of the Clinton policy verbatim in explaining the rationale for his reforms.

The Rumsfeld Revolution

In Washington, rarely is someone given the opportunity–or perhaps “curse” is a better word–to offer revolutionary recommendations, and then translate them into policy. Yet Donald Rumsfeld is doing just that. Last May, Rumsfeld began to put many of the space commission’s findings into practice, while encouraging Congress to provide the funding necessary to transform the United States from an earth-bound power into a “space-faring” power. Rumsfeld has already adjusted key Pentagon chains of command, opened new lines of communication between the CIA and Defense Department, broadened the authority of the Air Force, and folded critical duties of the National Reconnaissance Office into the Air Force. Choosing Myers to replace Shelton is further evidence that Bush and Rumsfeld mean business in space: Prior to joining the Joint Chiefs, Myers headed up U.S. Space Command in Colorado, where he aggressively advocated the development and use of space-based weaponry.

If Rumsfeld has his way, this is only the beginning. His commission openly contemplates the establishment of a U.S. Space Corps within the Air Force, based on the Navy-Marine Corps model. 

It would be wrong to conclude that all this talk of space defense is a passing fancy for Rumsfeld. In fact, Rumsfeld was trying to prepare the Pentagon for extraterrestrial combat long before George W. Bush–or even his father, for that matter–entered the White House. As NPR’s Tom Gjelten reported last year, Rumsfeld argued during the Ford Administration that space could become a new battleground for the U.S. military, recommending a number of initiatives to protect American communications and reconnaissance satellites.[22]

Still, if the findings of the Rumsfeld Commission are any indication, its namesake must be disappointed in how timid and unimaginative America has been in the intervening quarter-century. Indeed, Moscow’s efforts during the Cold War remind us that the U.S. military has vast stretches of ground to cover before it is fully prepared for combat is space, and Beijing’s efforts today remind us that the United States may have to fight over that ground.

Even as tomorrow’s battles brew in space, another battle is already underway inside Washington. Agencies and military branches alike are fighting turf wars over a place where there is no turf. Indeed, the Army, Navy and Air Force all have their own space commands and show no signs of letting them go. Although the nation’s annual investment in space grew from $785 million in 1959 to $26.7 billion in 2000, space spending has not kept pace with the needs and demands of the 21st century. In terms of GDP, Washington’s current outlays for space research, which amount to just .27 percent of GDP, are actually lower than what Eisenhower invested at the dawn of the Space Age, when the country devoted almost .4 percent of GDP to the space program.[23] Moreover, it’s important to note that the Pentagon share of space monies is barely $8 billion.

With the Apollo generation retiring and the United States producing fewer science graduates than any industrialized nation, the talent pool of American physicists, designers and engineers is rapidly draining away. And on top of all this, an eclectic mix of states–from China and Pakistan to Russia and Greece–is gaining support for treaties that would limit America’s ability to use space for military operations and national defense.

These developments and policies have conspired to leave the nation exposed to far more risk than Rumsfeld could have imagined when he first raised the issue of space defense with President Ford. However, Rumsfeld is trying to make up for lost time. By strengthening America’s space defenses, Rumsfeld hopes that the Pentagon can deter America’s enemies. “Our first choice,” Rumsfeld explains, “is not to prevail in a conflict, but to be arranged in a way that can dissuade others from engaging in acts hostile to the United States.”[24] However, as September 11 illustrated, deterrence doesn’t always work. That is why America must prepare for the worst. The goal is not to hasten the spread of war, but to blunt its effects.

We are not doomed to a future of senseless bloodshed--in space or on earth--by admitting this. To the contrary, we are doomed by ignoring it.

[1]The Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organization, Report to Congress, January 11, 2001.

[2]John Keegan, A History of Warfare, New York, 1994, p.118.

[3]Keegan, p.64.

[4]Howell Estes, “Space: The Fourth Medium of Military Operations,” October 18, 1996, www.defenselink.mil.

[5]Air Force Magazine, “Space Operations” and  “Foreign Space Activities,” August 23, 2001, www.afa.org/magazine/space/satellites.

[6]See Air Force Magazine.

[7]General Ralph Eberhart, statement before Senate Armed Services Committee, July 11, 2001.

[8]Rumsfeld Report, p. xi.

[9]Donald Rumsfeld, remarks at the Pentagon, May 8, 2001.

[10]Rumsfeld Report, p. xii; p.11.

[11]See Kathleen Rhem, “Myers and September 11,” AFIS News, October 23, 2001.

[12]Rumsfeld Report, p. xi.

[13]General Ralph Eberhart, statement before Senate Armed Services Committee, July 11, 2001.

[14]Rumsfeld Report, p.viii.

[15]Cheng Ho, “China eyes anti-satellite system,” Spacedaily.com, January 8, 2000; Federation of American Scientists, “World Space Guide,” www.fas.org.


[17]Richard Fisher, statement before House Armed Services Committee, July 19, 2000.

[18]Patrick Baert, “China pushing ahead with plans to put its astronauts in space,” Spacedaily.com, November 7, 2000.

[19]See Federation of American Scientists.

[20]Interfax, “New Russian defense chief explains Space Force’s military role,” www.space.com, March 28, 2001.

[21]National Science and Technology Council, National Space Policy, September 19, 1996.

[22]Tom Gjelten, interview with Donald Rumsfeld, June 26, 2001, www.defenselink.mil.

[23]See Air Force Magazine; see also Department of Commerce, “Gross Domestic Product and Related Measures Table,” August 2001.

[24]Rumsfeld, May 8, 2001.