Donald Rumsfeld, Space Cowboy

Science, evolution, and politics explained.
May 16 2001 11:30 PM

Donald Rumsfeld, Space Cowboy

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The Pentagon, we learned last week, is making a major push to militarize outer space. And here's the shocker: This initiative emerges from a commission overseen by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld! Political pundits haven't been so surprised by the outcome of a major policy re-evaluation since A.D. 439, when a blue-ribbon commission appointed by Attila the Hun came out in favor of pillaging. (For the record: Rumsfeld insists that the initiative unveiled last week—a proposed revamping of the space-operations command structure—had "nothing to do" with the militarization of space. This is a.)

Robert Wright Robert Wright

Robert Wright is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. Follow him on Twitter.

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It's important to distinguish this initiative from Rumsfeld's other high-tech hobbyhorse, missile defense. Though shooting down missiles is one pastime Rumsfeld might like to see pursued in outer space, the more notable feature of the new space-weapons push will be its emphasis on blowing enemy satellites to smithereens. This accelerated development of anti-satellite weapons (ASATs) would rev up the currently languid ASAT arms race, making surveillance satellites in general more vulnerable to attack. And this, in turn, would threaten logic that has helped keep the world free of nuclear war for decades.

The logic I'm talking about was famously championed by no less an authority on war and peace, and no less a Republican, than Dwight Eisenhower. In 1955, Eisenhower made his "Open Skies" proposal, suggesting that the United States and the U.S.S.R. allow reconnaissance flights over their territory. After all, if you can see what your enemy is doing, then a) you'll be less likely to launch a defensive strike on the basis of faulty suspicions that your enemy is mustering a pre-emptive strike; and b) your enemy, aware that you're watching, will be less likely to launch an actual pre-emptive strike. The Soviet Union rejected Eisenhower's proposal, but shortly thereafter spy satellites came to serve this function.

One nice surprise of recent years is that this surveillance-based stability, which in Eisenhower's day required government action, may now grow via the private sector. In 1999, a company called Space Imaging launched the IKONOS satellite, inaugurating an age when high-resolution satellite images are available not just to superpower spies but also to paying customers, including nations that lack a big satellite program. ImageSat International has since followed suit. As more of these satellites get launched, more regions—such as the dicey India-Pakistan region—could in theory benefit from this new route to symmetrical transparency.

Whether omni-available satellite imagery will indeed be stabilizing is still, strictly speaking, a matter of conjecture. (I laid out the basic arguments in a 1999 New York Times Magazine piece  on this subject.) But most think-tank types I've talked to believe that it will, and many intelligence types who witnessed the benign effect of symmetrical surveillance during the Cold War agree. On balance, the coming "age of transparency," in which imaging satellites galore place the military behavior of all nations under close international scrutiny, should be good news.

Unless those satellites are themselves vulnerable to attack. If India and Pakistan, or India and China, are feeling reassured by their ongoing observation of one another, and then one of them is suddenly blinded, military leaders could get nervous and insecure, which is a bad state for nuclear-armed military leaders to be in. (And note that, even if the blinding is caused by a technical glitch, the generals will get especially panicky if their adversary is known to have anti-satellite weapons.) Hence the threat posed by the new ASAT race that Rumsfeld, if left to his own devices, will start. A world full of nuclear weapons and anti-satellite weapons is a world in which small conflicts and mishaps are more likely to yield apocalypse.

So, why would people like Rumsfeld and his space-weapons sidekick, Sen. Bob Smith of New Hampshire, want to start an ASAT race? My guess: because they are both throwbacks to an earlier technological era, when national interest less often overlapped with the global interest. An example of the kind of high-tech irony they don't easily wrap their minds around: It could be in America's national interest to constrain its own ability to blow away enemy satellites, if that helps constrain other nations.   

That prospect is only underscored by the current state of play in satellite technology. The United States has by far the world's biggest and most sophisticated infrastructure of high-resolution, real-time imaging satellites—the kind that are valuable in wartime. And, as John Pike, director of globalsecurity.org, has noted, our likely enemies have no such satellites—even if you add China to the lineup of "rogue states" usually trotted out to justify Pentagon boondoggles. (And if you imagine a future day when "rogue states" are buying high-resolution, real-time satellite images from a commercial vendor, it is to envision a scenario in which shooting down the commercial satellite would be a viable strategy.) As Pike says, "As long as we're the ones with the satellites to shoot at, we ought to tell people that shooting satellites is like sinking hospital ships: You don't do it."

If not starting a new arms race is a good idea, then wouldn't it be an even better idea to formally head one off—maybe even with a treaty? Since using that word in the Bush era is considered a sign of effeteness, let me add a few manly to-be-sures. 

1) To be sure, during the Cold War, both the United States and the Soviet Union developed and tested ASATs. (The U.S. version is a jet-fired missile that bulldozes the satellite, and the Russian approach involves launching a satellite that, after a few orbits, would cross paths with its target and explode.) But the current situation, in which a couple of big nations have ASATs, is much better, for the world and the United States, than having lots of nations possessing lots of kinds of ASATs—the nearly inevitable long-term result of a resurgent arms race. (And of course, the fact that America already has a weapon that can kill enemy surveillance satellites only accents the question of why Rumsfeld feels compelled to develop more such weapons.)

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