The Greatest Threat to America's Military? A 'Pearl Harbor' In Space.

PACIFIC OCEAN (Feb 20, 2008) At a single modified tactical Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) launches from the U.S. Navy AEGIS cruiser USS Lake Erie (CG 70), successfully impacting a non-functioning National Reconnaissance Office satellite approximately 247 kilom
July 6, 2018 Topic: Security Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: Pearl HarborSpaceDonald TrumpWarMilitary

The Greatest Threat to America's Military? A 'Pearl Harbor' In Space.

Preventing a space Pearl Harbor is a prerequisite for the space force decision.


On June 18, President Trump directed the Pentagon to create a Space Force. But only Congress has the authority to reorganize or create a military service. The Space Force decision will be made after deliberations by the Pentagon, Congress and other stakeholders separately and jointly.

This monumental reorganization of the military space enterprise would begin to yield benefits in the 2040s. That would be fine, as good things are worth the wait, provided no seriously bad event happens before then. Unfortunately, the threat of a space Pearl Harbor will emerge stealthily in the early 2020s in the guise of dual-use spacecraft for which we are ill-prepared. If we do not deter this devastating threat of the 2020s, the well-intentioned Space Force of the 2040s would be too little too late.  


The hectic deliberations on the Space Force must first consider the far more urgent peril of a space Pearl Harbor. The strategies we utilize to deter and counter this emerging threat will form a solid foundation upon which the United States can decide how and when to create a Space Force to best keep peace in space for the 2030s and beyond.

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Ever since the Rumsfeld Commission sounded the alarm of a space Pearl Harbor in 2001, many have cried wolf with similar concerns. What makes the emerging threat a real concern this time around is a combination of the requirement of specialized dual-use spacecraft for peaceful purposes and the lack of space arms control. By the early 2020s, China will deploy these worker-bee spacecraft to clean up space debris and service existing satellites. The U.S., Russia, and the European Union will do the same in a similar timeframe. Since a worker bee can grab hold of space debris or a satellite for service, it can certainly grab hold of a U.S. satellite with a stronger force to destroy it. A worker bee is a slow flyer and would take days or even months to move from some far away orbits to within its robotic arm’s reach in order to attack a satellite. However, there is currently no international agreement to block worker bees from sidling up to our satellites or negate their anti-satellite potency in order to prevent attack on our targeted satellites. If we did, we would be condemned as the aggressor, one who denies another country’s satellites freedom of passage or harms them. China or Russia could deploy an outsized fleet of, say, fifty to one hundred worker bees in peacetime with some stationed at such close distance that they can further move, within days or even far less, into even closer tailgating or stalking positions. Once they are at these positions, they can, upon command and at a moment’s notice, attack our satellites from such close proximity that we will have no time to mount a defense, a situation that can facilitate a space Pearl Harbor to destroy an intolerable number of our critical satellites near-simultaneously.

Credit for the most convincing arguments for the creation of a Space Force goes to Douglas Loverro, not just because he said that “space is too critical for the nation’s defense not to have an organization that speaks for its importance, defends it against all comers, and jealously advocates for new missions and new responsibilities”, but also because his insider experience while serving as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, Space Policy during 2013–2017 adds authenticity and seriousness to the problems he pointed out about status quo. Rick Fisher, a senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center and one of the leading experts on weaponry and military threats in space said that “Trump is doing a very good thing [in creating a Space Force],” and that “in 25 years Americans will be very grateful that we have a Space Force.” Even an ardent proponent predicts a timeline of twenty-five years to see significant benefits, and I do not know of any space analyst or officer that expects the Space Force to yield benefits, including better deterrence or defense against space threats, within the first fifteen years, including 2020s. Therefore, proactively addressing our vulnerabilities in the 2020s must be part of the Space Force deliberation.

Just a week before President Trump made the Space Force announcement, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson met with the service’s senior commanders and concluded that “this will happen, but now is not the time.” She certainly did not rule out a future Space Force separated from the Air Force just as the Air Force became independent from the Army in 1947. The creation of a Space Force is not a matter of whether but a matter of when, but this military space service reorganization is not meant to handle the 2020s’ threats better than the status quo. At present, not enough is being done in preparation to counter these near-future dangers. We must explicitly recognize the looming threat of a space Pearl Harbor and add its prevention into the Space Force deliberations. The following four actions are ready to be taken now to start the process of countering the 2020s’ threats and those beyond.   

First, based on a resolution adopted on December 24. 2017, the United Nations General Assembly will establish another Group of Government Experts (GGE) on space to “consider and make recommendations on substantial elements of an international legally binding instrument on the prevention of an arms race in outer space, including, inter alia, on the prevention of the placement of weapons in outer space.” The experts from up to twenty-five member states will begin discussions and negotiations this fall, and the preparatory meetings have already begun. 

This emerging reality that worker-bee spacecraft can be readily re-tasked to attack satellites should finally allow the United States to design a useful and verifiable space arms control agreement or treaty. On the contrary, the United States has refused to make any arms control proposal, leaving GGE with no choice but to use as a starting point the obsolete Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space proposed by Russia and China. The United States also is not sending anyone to the preparatory meetings. The United States should immediately participate in the remaining preparatory meetings as well as all GGE discussions and negotiations.  

Second, President Trump unveiled the America First National Space Strategy on 23 March saying, “if deterrence fails,” we will “counter threats.” This means we have the right to exercise self-defense when the threat is imminent but before the attack has occurred. Countering threats is a potential game changer in that it differs from the self-defense doctrines of the Obama administration and its predecessors; however, its significance was little noticed. The United States should clarify the new doctrine openly and announce a rule such as the following two-part rule:

-Prohibit satellites, regardless of aggressive or peaceful purposes, from positioning too close to more than an agreed threshold number of another country’s satellites.

-Authorize preemptive self-defense as a last resort countermeasure if a potential adversary’s satellites violate the threshold distance and number.

This rule should form the core of a space arms control proposal that the United States introduces to the above GGE and in other forums. The immediate effect would be to soften the international, as well as the domestic, misconception that the United States is advocating a space arms race and against any kind of space arms control.  

Third, the United States should build on the aforementioned core for a proposed space arms control treaty for the international community to consider. My paper offers many space arms control provisions and measures for the United States and others to choose from in order to deal with the space Pearl Harbor and other threats in 2020s and beyond. The truth of the matter is that the right space arms control agreements, like nuclear arms control agreements in strengthening our nuclear force and deterrence, would make our Space Force more affordable and effective.

Fourth, the United States has long faced a dilemma: it needs space weapons to defend its satellites but it does not want to be the first to place weapons in space. Now, the United States can resolve its dilemma by simply using worker-bee spacecraft or something similar in lethality and range as guardian angels of our satellites. We should develop, build and deploy these defensive spacecraft commensurate with the space Pearl Harbor threat and other threats.

Since the dawn of the space age six decades ago, we have been nearsighted in not seeing currently emerging threats to our satellites. Now we are focused on the creation of a Space Force, which promises to be an efficient and important arm of the military in the 2040s and beyond. Let us not be farsighted in looking only into the far future with a blind spot that obscures present day emerging threats. We must see what lies right before us and further down the road and prepare ourselves to keep peace in space at all times--now and in the future.