Over the last few weeks, sequestration has gone from a mildly funny word used to describe an esoteric political strategy to a looming crisis for the U.S. national security community. U.S. national security space activities have not been spared their share of the sequestration pain. However, some of the specific cutbacks recently announced by the Air Force as a result of sequestration do reveal a chasm between the political priorities of both Congress and the U.S. military on national security space and the realities of real-world challenges the U.S. faces every day.
Slides presented to Congress in early February on the impact of sequestration contained a single bullet announcing that various ground radar sites for missile warning and space surveillance would be reduced from 24 hours of operations to eight hours of operations, and listed an “impact on missile defense” as a result. Further details released in mid-February indicate that the radars impacted by these cutbacks include the Perimeter Acquisition Radar System (PARCS) in North Dakota, the Cobra Dane radar in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska (also known as Shemya) and the multistation Air Force Space Surveillance System (AFSS) located across the southern United States.
On its face this is an extremely worrying development for the U.S. military’s ability to provide space situational awareness, a key element of space security and sustainability. Taken together, PARCS and the AFSS are responsible for more than half of all of the observations collected on objects in orbit around the Earth by the Air Force’s Space Surveillance Network. While Cobra Dane does not have nearly the same throughput, it is one of the most sensitive radars in the network and best able to track the several thousand pieces of small space debris in low Earth orbit. Cutting back operations at these three sensors to eight hours a day will degrade the ability of the U.S. military to maintain an accurate catalog of space objects in low Earth orbit, which is the primary data source for all satellite operators in the world. This will complicate efforts to provide warning to avoid collisions between small space debris and valuable satellites in that region, including both national security satellites and the $150 billion international space station.
What is perhaps more worrying about this announcement is the way in which the Air Force chose to communicate the impact of these cutbacks to Congress. The initial slides presented in early February only mention an impact to missile defense, when in reality there would be little to no impact on missile defense. Of the three sensors, only Cobra Dane plays any role in the missile defense network, and only in a very limited manner in the case of specific trajectories. Moreover, the probability of the U.S. needing to defend itself against a ballistic missile attack in the next few months is zero, while the need to track objects in orbit and screen for potential collisions exists every day.
Why then would the Air Force choose to highlight a nonexistent consequence to communicate the impact of sequestration? The answer is politics. Space situational awareness, space debris and collisions in space don’t engender the same sort of passion as missile defense from conservative members of the Republican Party, the likely main audience the Pentagon is trying to reach in its briefings. Whether because of its purported critical role in U.S. national security or because of the ideological attraction of its supposed ability to enable American unilateralism, missile defense remains a politically potent issue with key members of Congress.
Politics can also be seen in the choice of these three specific radars for cutbacks. Of the more than a dozen ground-based radars that are part of the Space Surveillance Network and likely eligible for cutbacks in operations, the vast majority are located on the periphery of the U.S. and in the territory of key allies and used primarily for missile warning duties. These radars contribute far less data to the Space Surveillance Network and don’t have any specialized capabilities for space situational awareness, thus cutbacks at any of them would have much less operational impact on space situational awareness. However, such cutbacks would mean the potential for gaps in missile warning coverage, and the Pentagon has likely deemed the potential political fallout from such missile warning gaps as a bigger liability than that from real-world degradation of space situational awareness. This is despite the fact that no ballistic missile has ever been fired at the United States in anger, and that other systems for detecting threatening missile launches exist around the world.
These radar cutbacks illustrate two important lessons with respect to national security and space. First, there can be no doubt that sequestration is at heart a political issue, and the decisions being made by all sides are due to political calculus and not with respect to real-world impacts or national security. Second, despite the recent events of multiple Chinese anti-satellite tests, two satellites colliding in orbit, and a growing reliance on space in all aspects of our daily lives, space situational awareness and space security are still far less important of a political issue than missile warning or missile defense.
Thus, the takeaway for the space security community from sequestration, aside from the continued dominance of politics, is that the political leadership and policymakers are still focused on the challenges of the Cold War and divorced from today’s realities. As a community, this indicates just how steep a hill we have yet to climb in making our case for why today’s challenges for continuing to be able to use space for all the benefits it provides deserve political priority and committed resources.
Brian Weeden is technical adviser for the Secure World Foundation.