As the administration of President George W. Bush enters its second term, it is apparent that the space warriors inside the Pentagon believe they will now have a relatively free hand to implement their long-desired strategy for space warfare.
Policy directives and doctrinal papers have been written, and research and development programs are being quickened. Air Force space officials are more boldly pronouncing in official documents their intention to achieve “space dominance” on tomorrow’s battlefields with an array of futuristic space weaponry.
Indeed, Air Force space officials also have increasingly been taking their arguments to the street, campaigning in public speeches and media interviews to sell lawmakers and the public on the need for a space warfare strategy that includes both defensive and offensive capabilities.
The case being argued by space weapon enthusiasts goes like this: U.S. space assets are vulnerable, potential adversaries have woken up to this fact, therefore, actual threats (enemy systems to attack our satellites based on newly available technologies) will inevitably emerge — thus, U.S. space weapons are required to counter those threats.
And true to salesmen everywhere, the pitch is often served with a generous helping of hyperbole.
However, there comes a time — such as when a candidate is actually elected — when it is dangerous to fail to see through one’s own PR. Proponents of space weapons are in danger of being blinded by their own hype.
A recent case in point: Maj. Gen. (select) Daniel Darnell, head of the Air Force Space Command’s Space Warfare Center, was quoted in the January 2005 issue of Air Force Magazine as exhorting all satellite operators to not only beware potential attacks, but to assume — as a first-case rather than worst-case scenario — that any disruption of a space system is potentially the result of an attack.
The first response when something goes wrong, said Darnell, should be “think possible attack.”
Even if one gives the general the benefit of the doubt as simply playing the campaign game, such a pronouncement is not only based on false premises, but also highly dangerous. Especially if operators really believe it.
Careful probing of even the most ardent space weapon proponents reveals that no one seriously believes major threats to on-orbit systems exist today.
While Air Force space officials are inordinately (and somewhat disingenuously) fond of pointing to attempts by Iraqi forces to jam the Global Positioning System during the 2003 Gulf War as part of their space-warfare-is-inevitable argument, it is important to recognize that those incidents involved ground-based jammers aimed at ground-based receivers, not any direct attack against on-orbit assets themselves.
Indeed, there is no country, not even the United States, that currently has a working anti-satellite system in its arsenal. Direct threats to space assets are possible in the mid- to long term, but do not exist today (outside of the remote chance of someone launching a nuke into space, a threat that has existed since the dawn of the ballistic missile).
More worrisome is the fact, subsequently admitted in the Air Force Magazine article, that the Air Force does not have the capability at this time to ascertain on the spot whether any disruption of satellite operations is due to a malfunction, such as faulty software or space weather, or the result of some sort of deliberate interference or attack. Some problems can be pinpointed over time, but not always with complete certainty.
Taking Darnell’s logic at face value, however, these facts don’t matter. Any problems encountered by a satellite should be treated as a possible attack — an attack that under current Air Force doctrine would be considered an act of war subject to military response. In other words, we will shoot back. But at whom or what? The satellite that happens to be nearest the disabled one? The “rogue state” du jour?
The wholesale adoption by the Air Force of such trigger-happy thinking would obviously be a recipe for disaster, raising the likelihood of the United States launching an accidental war. Furthermore, one can be doubly sure that if the United States has expensive space weapons on orbit, trigger fingers will be even itchier due to concerns about losing those assets before they can be used.
The upshot will be a “shoot first and let God sort ’em out” strategy that will no doubt backfire on U.S. security sooner or later. Suffice it to say, there will be a price to pay the first time a U.S. anti-satellite weapon shoots down an innocent Chinese communications satellite because a crucial widget on a U.S. satellite conked out due to faulty manufacturing processes.
It is precisely this kind of dangerous illogic that will reign supreme if the Air Force fails to distinguish between its campaign rhetoric on space weapons and the hard facts of today’s space security situation.
It is critical in developing any future national security strategy and in making subsequent military force structure decisions to differentiate between reality and potentiality; not only to be able to set out priorities for action but also to discern what types of tools — diplomatic, military and economic — might best address the varying situation over time.
Crisis response planning is, of course, only prudent and fully within the job description of the U.S. Air Force. But such planning needs to be made on a sound basis of factual information, rather than implausible worst-case assumptions.
It is time for Air Force leaders to step back, stop chanting the space campaign slogans, and start parsing their future strategy toward ensuring security of critical space assets with a clear, sober eye. The high stakes require in-depth analysis and objective judgment that can only be clouded by a “Chicken Little” mentality.
Theresa Hitchens is vice president and director of the Space Security Project, at the Center for Defense Information, a nonpartisan think tank based in Washington.