“If the U.S. is to avoid a ‘Space Pearl Harbor,’ it needs to take seriously the possibility of an attack on U.S. space systems.”
This was the dramatic warning issued just before the inauguration of a Republican administration, but not the current one. The Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organization issued its call nearly 18 years ago, in January of 2001. Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld led the commission, which warned the nation’s leaders that the American military was heavily dependent on satellites and other space assets, that this dependence was growing, and that it was a serious vulnerability.
While we were battling low-tech insurgents and terrorists, Russia, China and others actively developed systems aimed at disabling or destroying the space capabilities that are so critical to American military superiority. This Achilles heel has been glaringly obvious for a long time.
What have we done about it? Not enough. The Trump administration and some in Congress deserve credit for recognizing this and seeking solutions. The president first directed the Department of Defense to establish a new unified combatant command for space. This makes sense. Then, it was reported that the administration will also submit a proposal to Congress to create a new military service — the Space Force. This makes less sense.
A better approach would be to give the new multi-service command special authorities. And while organizational change can help, fully addressing the problem will require a comprehensive approach.
Some point out that the Air Force has not given space enough attention and effort. It’s true but exactly why is a matter of dispute. It may be due to lack of sufficient funding, or maybe it was the excessive focus on the wars in the greater Middle East, or maybe it was because the space mission does not fit the Air Force’s culture and image. Poetically enough, the Air Force itself began inside the Army, and its independence resulted from a sense that their mission could not be left to ground-pounding soldiers who did not prioritize the air mission.
But that was the 1940s. We have learned a few things since then. In the 1980s, many worried that the military services did not give sufficient attention to special operations forces. Then, as now, analysts mooted the idea of a new military service.
But instead, the Nunn-Cohen Act of 1987 directed the Defense Department to establish a unified combatant command for special operations, much like the space command the administration has just announced. But Special Operations Command, known as SOCOM, was unique from the start: The law gave it budget and acquisition authority. Normally, the military services recruit, train and equip forces, and the unified commanders “employ” them. But SOCOM’s authorities allowed it to do both.
Although a new space force will face opposition in Congress, requesting SOCOM-like authorities for the new space command might be more palatable. It might also cost less in new bureaucratic structures and is less likely to provoke unproductive competition for resources among the military services. The SOCOM example suggests that this formula can work.
Of course, both of these options assume that organizational change is the answer. But enhancing the nation’s military space capabilities will require a variety of other measures.
The Trump administration will establish a Space Development Agency for rapid procurement of new capabilities, which could help. But we will have to address the full space “eco-system” to effect change, including promoting space innovation by funding educational initiatives and external research, reprioritizing the activities of internal research agencies, developing new operational concepts, devising ways to mitigate the loss of space assets, and recruiting new kinds of civilian and military personnel, among other things.
Donald Trump’s attention to the issue is a good first step. What seems clear is that we cannot afford to dither for another two decades. The nation’s adversaries are moving quickly to blunt American military superiority, and our space assets are tempting targets. Rumsfeld could be forgiven for saying he told us so, or in his words, this a “known known!”
Celeste Ward Gventer is the associate director of the Clements Center for National Security at The University of Texas at Austin and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense.