Bush will soon announce whether the United States military is going to occupy
yet another region of the world, and, if anything, this new occupation will be
as costly and counterproductive as the one in Iraq.
The region under consideration poses no threat to the United States, but, by basing
weapons there, we risk enraging our allies and fanning the flames of anti-American
sentiment around the world.
Moreover, this projection of U.S. military force — which will cost many
hundreds of billions of dollars — is likely to be construed by rogue nations
and rising powers alike as further evidence that they need nuclear arsenals
of their own. And while its technological superiority will initially enable
the United States to control the territory without difficulty, to maintain control
it will be drawn into another asymmetrical war that will undermine its security.
The region? Outer space. The military occupation? The deployment of space-based
weapons, which Bush may authorize in a much-anticipated new presidential directive.
If the president does announce such a deployment, it would mark a radical shift
in U.S. security policy. Never before has a country attempted to dominate outer
space with military force. During the Cold War, both the Soviet Union and the
United States invested in the development of anti-satellite technology, yet
both countries determined that deploying these weapons was not in their respective
national interests. The space race has been on for half of a century, and still
the skies are weapon-free.
Nevertheless, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is determined to change
all of this. In 2001, he chaired a commission that warned of an impending "Space
Pearl Harbor" in which our space assets would be eliminated in an enemy
attack. In order to prevent this, the commission urged the United States to
pursue "the option to deploy weapons in space to deter threats and, if
necessary, defend against attacks on U.S. interests."
The reality, however, is that the deployment of space-based weapons would not
only undermine U.S. national security, but would be an enormous misallocation
of defense resources.
First, spaced-based weapons would not significantly expand U.S. military superiority.
Our conventional and nuclear weapons are already capable of destroying any of
the ground targets that space-based weapons could, and at a fraction of the
cost. For instance, existing intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) can
match the destructive force of the proposed "Rods from God" space-based
weapon. Richard Garwin, one of the chief nuclear scientists behind the development
of the H-bomb, has calculated that the cost of destroying a target with a space-based
laser would be almost twice that of doing so with an existing Tomahawk missile.
Second, space-based weapons will always be exceedingly vulnerable. Land-, sea-
and air-based forces can be repositioned, concealed or hardened to avoid being
destroyed, while space-based weapons are locked into predictable orbits, have
literally no place to hide, and are very delicate.
Third, non-space-based weapons have a distinct advantage when it comes to dictating
the timing of an attack. A space-based laser can strike only while it is passing
over enemy territory; thus, after the first orbit, an enemy would know precisely
when such an attack would be possible and when it would not.
Finally, deploying space-based weapons is an ineffective way of maintaining
the military advantage that the United States currently derives from its space
assets. Enemies will not allow themselves to be drawn into an expensive, high-tech
"space-based weapons race" that the United States would surely win;
rather, they will likely take a page out of the Iraqi insurgents' playbook and
fight with far more cost-effective, low-tech asymmetric tactics.
Such battles could be fought with two simple tools: nuclear-weaponized ICBMs
and space mines. A nuclear weapon is capable of wreaking havoc on all assets
in low Earth orbit by littering space with dangerous debris. It can also disrupt
satellite operations with its electromagnetic pulse and radiation. Space mines,
meanwhile, will be able to neutralize satellites in more distant orbits by simply
releasing pellet clouds into a flight path.
Instead of pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into a space-weapons program
that will not enhance existing U.S. assets (but which will provide yet another
incentive for the rest of the world to pursue and develop nuclear weapons),
Bush should learn from his experience with Iraq and invest in the U.S. military's
capacity to fight wars with countries that will not seek to engage us in direct
In terms of space policy, this requires increasing the military's capability
to collect and disseminate information and intelligence, as well as taking steps
to ensure that the advantages it currently accrues from its space assets are
not lost. To achieve this, the U.S. States should develop better surveillance
satellites that can operate from farther out, thus making them safe from an
enemy's ground-based nuclear attacks. We also should build an ample stockpile
of satellites with redundant capacities in case existing satellites are jammed
Among all of the lessons that the Bush administration should have learned from
its time in Iraq, however, none is more relevant to its space program than this:
Always have an exit strategy. In terms of space, this means that the United
States must invest in ground-, air- and sea-based communication networks that
will be far easier to defend than its inherently vulnerable space assets.
As Capt. David C. Hardesty of the Naval War College has correctly observed,
unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) have a distinct advantage over satellites in terms
of intelligence-gathering capacity during periods of conflict. U.S. air superiority
can allow UAVs to hover low to the ground for extended periods of time, whereas
a satellite's view will always be vulnerable to obstruction by weather patterns,
and objects under surveillance can be repositioned by the enemy as soon as the
satellite's orbit carries it out of range.
Rumsfeld's space commission advocates that we move toward weaponizing space
in order to prevent a "Space Pearl Harbor," but the truth is that
the costs and consequence of deploying such weapons would be far more like a