Before becoming President George W. Bush's surprise choice to run the Pentagon, Donald Rumsfeld chaired not one, but two, major advisory panels. Only the first of these commissions ever received much attention in the media, however. This owed, in part, to its dramatic warning: that the threat of a ballistic missile attack on the United States was "evolving more rapidly" than was previously thought by American intelligence. The commission's 1998 report, the conclusions of which caught many Americans by surprise, had powerful repercussions in Washington. And it was at least indirectly responsible for President Bill Clinton's decision to accelerate his missile defense plans.

The second Rumsfeld panel, known as the Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organization, released its report this January. So far, the document has received little attention. Its conclusions, however, are just as alarming as those of the first Rumsfeld report and could have an even greater impact. The study warns that the United States may someday soon face a "Space Pearl Harbor" -- that is, a devastating sneak attack against U.S. satellites orbiting the planet. The report warns that the United States is highly dependent on satellites, and that the means to disrupt or destroy its space systems have become readily accessible to countries or groups hostile to the United States. Space warfare, the commission argues, has become "a virtual certainty": "[W]e know from history that every medium -- air, land, and sea -- has seen conflict. Reality indicates that space will be no different." The report urges American leaders to reduce the country's vulnerability by developing "superior space capabilities," including the ability to "negate the hostile use of space against U.S. interests." This would require "power projection in, from, and through space" -- in other words, the development, testing, and deployment of antisatellite weapons (ASATS) based in space or on earth.

The report does not specify how exactly American superiority in space should be achieved. The details were left to the incoming president and the Pentagon, which Rumsfeld now heads. And President Bush has yet to tip his hand and show what steps he plans to take. But if Rumsfeld and Bush get serious about seizing the strategic high ground of space, the fallout from their decision will be severe. The repercussions will include new international competition to put weapons in space, further strains in alliance relations, closer strategic cooperation between Russia and China, deeper partisan division at home, weakened nonproliferation treaties, and, ironically, greater difficulties in developing one of the Bush administration's cherished goals -- missile defense. For these many reasons, the temptations to embark on a new, armed space race must be avoided.


The language and logic of the Rumsfeld space report evoke the worst periods of the Cold War, when fears of surprise attack were common and (as a result) calls for dominating space were often heard. Such sentiments were typified by then Senator (and aspiring presidential candidate) Lyndon Johnson when, after the launch of Sputnik in 1957, he declared that "out in space, there is the ultimate position -- from which total control of the earth may be exercised. ... [O]ur national goal and the goal of all free men must be to win and hold that position." During this period, U.S. Air Force policy was predicated on the assumption that "spacepower will be as decisive in future combat as airpower is today."

Despite their fears of losing the advantage in space, both the United States and the Soviet Union exercised great restraint in this realm. Both sides realized that they had more to lose than to gain from such competition. As tempting as it was to contemplate gaining a military edge in space, the risks of an extraterrestrial arms race were even greater.

Since Sputnik, space has been widely used for military purposes. Satellites offer photo reconnaissance, targeting, communications, weather forecasting, early warning, and other intelligence- and military-related services. But neither the Americans nor the Soviets ever deployed actual weapons in space. Nor did they attempt to shoot down enemy satellites.

In fact, when set against Cold War competition in other areas, the development of space warfare was pursued at a snail's pace. The United States and the Soviet Union tried to outdo each other by building better tanks, submarines, fighter aircraft, and missiles -- but not antisatellite weapons, which remained rudimentary. Although both countries periodically tested ASATS, their efforts were halfhearted and episodic. The United States ultimately deployed two antisatellite interceptors, which it maintained on Johnston Island in the Pacific from 1964 to 1975. These interceptors were offshoots of ballistic-missile-defense programs and used nuclear weapons to destroy their targets. This approach was risky, however; one test, using a 1.4-megaton nuclear warhead, inadvertently damaged three satellites and set off burglar alarms in Hawaii. The Soviets, similarly, flight-tested ASAT systems from 1968 to 1971 and from 1976 to 1982. But their projects were also small in scale. By the time the Cold War finally ended, the Soviet Union had carried out only 20 antisatellite tests, while the American total was just 33. By contrast, during the same era there were often dozens of missile tests each year.

Rather than elevate the Cold War competition into space, Washington and Moscow agreed to both tacit and formal constraints on extraterrestrial military activities. These agreements included the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which bans the placement of weapons of mass destruction in space or on celestial bodies, and the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which prohibits interference with monitoring satellites. The Carter administration tried to expand these formal rules by proposing a total ban on antisatellite weapons in 1978, but the effort ultimately failed due to problems in defining the scope of the ban and in deciding how to verify compliance. Indeed, a complete ban on antisatellite capabilities was not practical then and would not be now, since it would bar all globe-spanning ballistic missiles, all high-altitude missile defenses, and even the space shuttle -- since these technologies are all capable of damaging satellites in addition to performing their intended tasks. A more narrow treaty might be feasible, one that bans only systems specifically designed to destroy satellites. But verifying that no new ASAT weapons are being produced would be difficult, as would be ensuring the destruction of hidden models.


Another reason that an arms race in space never broke out was that during the Cold War, every U.S. administration decided to do no more than hedge against Soviet antisatellite programs -- doing the minimum, that is, to protect U.S. assets without ratcheting up the competition. Every administration save one, that is. The exception to this "hedge, but not lead" policy was President Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), a plan to use space-based weapons to fulfill Reagan's vision of making nuclear weapons "impotent and obsolete." But SDI was never deployed. And despite the Great Communicator's best efforts, domestic and foreign antipathy toward putting weapons in space or ASATS on the ground remained intense. The opposition was so great, in fact, that SDI's proponents rarely publicly defended the program in straightforward and simple terms -- that is, as a way to achieve security through extraterrestrial dominance. Instead, the Reagan administration was forced to argue, implausibly, that SDI would facilitate a cooperative transition in U.S.-Soviet relations. Advocates of missile defense argued that their proposed program would be both effective against and nonthreatening to the Soviets -- a wildly unlikely prospect.

The Kremlin's concerns about SDI were compounded by the Reagan administration's pursuit of antisatellite weapons and its rejection of ASAT negotiations. The Reagan team argued that advanced antisatellite weapons were needed to redress an imbalance in ASAT technology favoring the Kremlin, to deter Soviet attacks, and to counter threats posed by other Soviet space systems. The Democratic-controlled Congress pushed back, however, passing amendments requiring ASAT negotiations and preventing flight tests. As a result, despite all the rhetoric, the Reagan administration's efforts to build or deploy new antisatellite weapons were blocked.


Whether they were ultimately sound or not, Reagan-era rationales for pursuing antisatellite weapons no longer apply. Today Russia's underfunded space programs are but a pale shadow of Soviet efforts. And the Kremlin has even more incentive to avoid an arms race in space than it did during the 1980s, the era of SDI.

The new Bush administration, for its part, also has powerful incentives to avoid developing ASATS. These include the obvious goal of preventing an arms race in space, as well as protecting Bush's high-priority plans for missile defense. Put simply, missile defense systems cannot function properly unless the space-based surveillance systems on which they depend are inviolable -- that is, free from the threat of being tampered with or destroyed. Ensuring the effectiveness of missile defense systems therefore requires not testing or deploying antisatellite technology.

Alternatively, the Bush administration could seek to protect its missile defenses by utterly dominating space in the ways suggested by the Rumsfeld report. This would require the large-scale installation of ASATS and other offensive and defensive measures. Hostile states would be expected to take countermeasures, of course, but these could quickly be nullified, the report implies, by superior U.S. technology.

If the Bush administration does decide to pursue space weapons -- whether to seize the strategic high ground, to protect its missile defenses, or both -- it can expect American allies, already uncomfortable with missile defenses, to go their separate ways. Meanwhile, rather than cede the field to Washington, Moscow and Beijing will no doubt respond with their own ASAT programs, hoping to blind U.S. satellites and negate American missile defenses in the cheapest possible fashion. Closer strategic cooperation between Russia and China will also be assured. Furthermore, the pursuit of space weapons by Washington will accelerate the demise of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties, which will then weaken nonproliferation accords.

Even if Washington decides not to put weapons in space, Moscow and Beijing might still pursue antisatellite technologies. Although neither Russia nor China can compete effectively with the United States in conventional or nuclear weapons or in missile defenses, either country could respond "asymmetrically" to American superiority by damaging U.S. satellites. The Pentagon defines asymmetrical warfare as "countering an adversary's strengths by focusing on its weaknesses." Asymmetrical warfare allows a weaker opponent to level the playing field by unorthodox means. Antisatellite programs are a good example of asymmetrical warfare: they are less expensive and technically challenging than engaging in conventional or missile-defense arms races but allow a weaker opponent to gain an edge (at least temporarily) over a stronger one.

Given U.S. military predominance, it will be difficult to dissuade Russia and China from developing ASATS. But it will be well worth the effort to try, and it can be accomplished only if the United States does not take the lead in pursuing ASATS. Indeed, the Bush administration must exercise restraint if ASAT competition -- with its adverse effects on U.S. national security, alliance ties, treaties, and missile defenses -- is to be avoided.

Since advanced missile defenses (of the kind the Bush team proposes) could be used to shoot down satellites and not just missiles, avoiding the weaponization of space while pursuing missile defense will not be easy. Much depends on the type of missile defense the Bush administration ultimately chooses to pursue. If the system it decides on includes weapons in space, as the Rumsfeld report recommends, a cascade of negative repercussions will follow. Moscow and Beijing will view an aggressive U.S. missile defense program as an attempt to both negate their own nuclear deterrents and render their satellites blind. If, however, U.S. missile defenses are designed to counter proliferation only and do not include weapons in space, Chinese and Russian fears could be assuaged.


The Rumsfeld commission argues that the United States needs weapons for space warfare because it is now both more vulnerable in and more dependent on space. The first assertion may be debatable, but the second is incontrovertible. America today depends on its satellites as never before. The U.S. Space Command estimates that by 2010, some 2,000 operating satellites will orbit the earth, compared to roughly 600 today. Much of this growth will be tied to civilian and commercial applications, especially those in communications-related sectors. Since 1996, revenues from commercial space ventures have exceeded government space expenditures, and this differential continues to widen. The U.S. Space Command figures that by 2003, the Global Positioning System alone will have generated $16 billion per year in revenues. Space policy expert James Oberg estimates that last year, space-technology industries realized $125 billion in profits. By 2005, global telecommunications revenues could reach $1.2 trillion, and by 2010, the cumulative U.S. investment in space could well reach $500 billion to $600 billion -- equaling the value of all current U.S. investments in Europe.

With the global economy so intimately tied to assets in space, space-warfare initiatives by the Bush administration could also create havoc with satellite-dependent commerce. The extent of damage that the loss of a key satellite could cause was suggested by the failure of a Galaxy IV satellite in May 1998. When the computer controlling the satellite broke down, 80 percent of U.S. pagers -- affecting 37 million users -- went dead. Some radio and television stations were knocked off the air, while gas stations and retail stores found themselves unable to verify credit card transactions. The Rumsfeld commission cites this event as a harbinger of America's future vulnerability in space to malefactors and hence as another reason to implement its recommendations. But the best way to protect U.S. satellites and U.S. commerce would be to head off such warfare in space before it ever got started, rather than to lead the charge. Washington can avoid an arms race in space by keeping national missile defenses limited and focused on troubled regions where missile threats abound. But because even properly configured missile defenses would have residual ASAT capabilities, the United States must now pursue new initiatives against space warfare. Treaties on ASATS could take a long time to negotiate and would still leave many issues unresolved. In the short run, informal agreements to ban all weapons in space and to bar the testing and deployment of "dedicated" ASATS would be reassuring, verifiable -- and very much in the national interest.

Establishing "rules of the road" for activities in space is therefore now essential. Fortunately, a model exists: extant agreements that prevent dangerous practices at sea. A U.S.-Soviet accord, negotiated in 1972 after a series of provocative naval incidents, has been widely replicated by other navies. These "IncSea" agreements are designed to prevent collisions, dangerous maneuvers or simulated attacks, blinding the bridges of naval vessels with lasers, and other reckless acts at sea. They work well and could be made to apply in space. Such rules, moreover, will be increasingly necessary as missile defense programs mature. The "IncSea" agreements were negotiated by senior military officers and were never codified as treaties, but they are still enormously useful. New accords to avoid incidents in space could take the form of executive agreements between national authorities -- again avoiding the cumbersome treaty process.

As the Rumsfeld report signifies, pressure is now mounting on the Bush administration to reassess U.S. space policy. Washington must choose one of two paths: dominance, which means putting more and better weapons in space or on earth than anyone else can afford, or reassurance. Because of the threat of asymmetrical warfare, dominance would be very hard to achieve and would have many adverse effects. The best way to protect space commerce and U.S. national security, therefore, is to avoid ASATS and weapons in space in the first place.

An arms race in space was avoided during the Cold War due in part to the assumption that the Kremlin would compete with and nullify American moves. Now the sole remaining superpower may be tempted to slough off treaty constraints and to seek protection through unilateral initiatives. If this strategy is pursued, it will no doubt be couched in flexible and reassuring language. But U.S. allies and potential adversaries will see it as something else: the hubris of imperial overstretch. And they will react accordingly.

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  • Michael Krepon is President Emeritus of the Henry L. Stimson Center and Co-Editor of Global Confidence Building: New Tools for Troubled Regions.
  • More By Michael Krepon