In the months before he became secretary of defense in 2001, Donald Rumsfeld headed a review commission that warned that the United States could suffer “a space Pearl Harbor.”
In fact, we’re not only vulnerable to a surprise of Pearl Harbor proportions, there also is no question that if the U.S. suffered a successful military assault on its space-based assets that both the military and economic consequences would be severe.
The Bush administration has taken a number of steps to lessen the likelihood of such a catastrophe. It issued policy declarations in the 2001 Quadrennial Defense Review and the 2005 National Defense Strategy as well as military doctrinal guidelines issued by the Joint Staff in 2002 and the Air Force in 2004. All argue that the United States’ ability to operate in space is essential to national security and that a variety of capabilities must be maintained to preserve access to space. This effort should culminate in the near future with U.S. President George W. Bush issuing a new space policy directive that builds on one signed by President Clinton in 1996.
Given that the Bush directive probably will say much of what the Clinton directive did — that, regarding national security requirements, “the United States will develop, operate and maintain space control capabilities to ensure freedom of action in space and, if directed, deny such freedom of action to adversaries” — the Bush directive should end the debate.
But it won’t. In fact, the debate has just begun, since arms-control groups have placed preventing the “weaponization of space” near the top of their agendas. Such groups have long supported a treaty proposed by China and Russia at the United Nations Conference on Disarmament to ban the deployment of weapons in space.
These groups launched their first legislative bid July 20 when Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), offered an amendment to the Foreign Affairs Authorization Bill requiring President Bush to enter into negotiations on the kind of treaty proposed by the Chinese and Russians. Although the amendment was rejected, 302-124, its supporters have not retreated and, in fact, can be counted on to offer similar amendments in the future.
The anti-weaponization crowd puts forth a series of weak arguments. For instance, they:
– Assert that space is not now weaponized. When the most powerful weapon ever — the nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile — travels through space for a majority of its flight time, one can’t claim that space is not weaponized. The United States also deploys a wide variety of weapons systems components in space that detect military targets and direct munitions against those targets.
– Posit a false choice between a policy of space dominance or reassurance. These groups argue that the United States can either reassure other states regarding its policies toward space or pursue space dominance. This ignores the obvious third option — reassurance through dominance, which is precisely the U.S. policy on the high seas.
– Mislabel space as a sanctuary and inviolable. These groups seek to define space as some sort of sanctuary. In reality, space is a place, and our military must treat it as part of the geographic reality that all militaries have had to account for since the dawn of civilization.
– Charge the Bush administration with being an aggressor in space. Those seeking to “prohibit the weaponization of space” try to paint the United States as the initiator of a pending “arms race in space.” Actually, the Bush administration wants to dissuade other states from engaging in such a race by convincing them it is a race they cannot win.
– Simply assume that the United States will be capable of responding effectively to an attack on its space-based assets. These groups blithely assert that the United States will be able to respond effectively to any attempted attack on its space-based assets regardless of their own relentless attempts to curtail the very programs that would allow the U.S. military to respond effectively. These include anti-satellite weapons, space-based missile defense interceptors and certain kinds of fighter spacecraft.
The weakness of the case of arms-control advocates does not clinch the debate over U.S. security policy in space. Opponents of the Bush administration’s policy will fight and fight hard. Don’t be surprised if sophistry or outright demagoguery enter the argument.
Those who seek to prevent the “space Pearl Harbor” the Rumsfeld Commission warned of in 2001 have the facts on their side. But they will have to marshal them effectively to prevail. The nation’s security hangs in the balance.
Baker Spring is senior analyst at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org), a Washington-based research institute. He specializes in missile defense and space weaponization issues.