High anxiety

Forget about space dominance–U.S. interests should start focusing on space competence.

A war scare of sorts has erupted in recent months. It all began last May, when the New York Times published a front-page article alleging the United States was on the verge of authorizing a massive, secret space weapons development program. This planned arsenal was said to include a wide range of space-based weapons.

The report was taken as truth by many. Particularly gullible (or perhaps complicit) were Russia and China. Both nations trumpeted the so-called rush to militarize space as a huge threat, held widely publicized conferences, and renewed their push for the Treaty on the Prevention of the Deployment of Weapons in Outer Space, which they jointly proposed in 2002. Most disturbingly, both nations threatened their own space weapons development in response to America’s supposed space weapons rush. There’s just one problem–a massive U.S. space weapons program does not exist.

To be sure, U.S. political leaders have worried about national security in space. In 2001, the Commission to Assess U.S. National Security Space Management and Organization (the “Rumsfeld Commission”) warned of a “Pearl Harbor in space” that could result in the United States losing its vital space capability through a foreign sneak attack. These findings led to what appeared to be the beginnings of a U.S. Space Force: Official-looking documents soon emerged from the incipient headquarters in Colorado Springs with slightly scary advocacy of “space dominance.”

Five years later, not only has there not been a space weapons push, but overall U.S. military use of space is in sharp decline. Virtually all of the management changes advocated by the Rumsfeld Commission have been reversed. The air force, supposedly about to become a space force, is now opting for so-called near-space operations, including balloons and airships.

That’s a far cry from the breathless claims of orbiting death rays. Indeed, the space dominance mantra has morphed into a legitimate focus on “space situation awareness”–knowing what’s actually happening in space. A lesser focus is on defensive counter space, which entails guarding against the loss of space assets. A key element of that strategy is responsive space: The ability to affordably replace damaged or inoperable space systems on short notice with small satellites and low-cost launchers.

Most of what might be called true offensive space weapons, such as space lasers, were canceled long ago. The programs of the Missile Defense Agency for space-based missile defenses, never large in recent years, have been marginalized by Congress and Pentagon leadership. Only extensions of electronic and information operations remain. These programs aim to protect American use–and deny adversaries’ use–of a growing fleet of commercial space assets. (The underlying objective is that any electronic measure the United States deploys be temporary and reversible.) This focus is well placed. Last December, Libya illegally jammed commercial satellites in order to deny a dissident group access through a purchased satellite channel.

Why has a retrenchment in U.S. space dominance occurred? First, space weapons have little application to the overriding security threat of Islamist terrorism. Second, for the time being, a rapid rise of technological adversaries does not appear imminent. But the most compelling case against space weapons is that the U.S. space industry and associated military space leadership are incapable of delivering any space capability, let alone a space weapon. Space weapons advocates (and there are some in the military) have little chance when every space penny goes to funding overruns on such programs as the Space-Based Infrared System (intended to detect and track ballistic missiles) and Future Imagery Architecture (a planned constellation of reconnaissance satellites)–programs that are both five times more expensive than initially estimated.

Those who are genuinely concerned with space security should take no comfort in these developments. We are confronted with an increasingly interconnected world served by global utilities, many of which are based in or rely upon space systems. The war on terrorism is actually a multi-decade war of ideas. Space is a vital component of the information distribution and collection systems that will make it possible to win that war. Yet, U.S. leadership in space security and industry seems incompetent to address these issues, particularly from a technically sophisticated standpoint. As such, not only U.S. security, but also global security is at risk.

Given the lack of U.S. enthusiasm to develop space weapons, some ask why not sign a treaty to halt a space arms race before it starts? That’s a legitimate question, but it’s also one with a good answer. I am among those who believe that the threat of space weapons–particularly space-based missile defenses–played an important role in ending the Cold War. If the very threat of space weapons could yield such leverage against a peer competitor, what could someone offer the United States now that’s worth giving up that potentially powerful position for all time?

The spread of dual-use technology is another reason to go slow on comprehensive bans. For example, Germany, in concert with Russia, has a program called TECSAS that is designed to rendezvous with an uncooperative satellite and repair it. It’s a simple task to “unrepair” such target satellites as well. If, treaty-bound, the United States was prevented from fielding similar technology, it may face a future where it loses space superiority not because of enemy space weapons, but simply because it didn’t deploy the necessary basic space capabilities that others have.

A U.S. push to develop space weapons is highly unlikely in the foreseeable future. But America’s increasingly incapable security space infrastructure is a far worse threat to global security than any purported space weapons program–in the United States or elsewhere.

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