Visualize Iraq—in space




Originally published in the Seattle Times

PRESIDENT 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 force-to-force combat.

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 or destroyed.

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 "Space Iraq."
Lawrence J. Korb, left, an assistant secretary of defense during the Reagan administration, is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a Washington, D.C., think tank focusing on progressive policy proposals. Peter Ogden, right, is coordinator of the center’s International Rights and Responsibilities program.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.


Lawrence J. Korb

Former Senior Fellow

Pete Ogden

Senior Fellow