January 11, 2001
Dependence On Satellites Makes U.S. Vulnerable
By Andrea Stone, USA Today
WASHINGTON - The U.S. military won the Cold War and the standoff in the Persian Gulf thanks to superior forces on the ground, in the air and at sea. But there is a potential battlefield where the nation remains highly vulnerable: space.
Building on the first "space-based" war, the Persian Gulf conflict, U.S. troops in Kosovo leaned heavily on satellites for intelligence, missile warning, communication, weather, navigation and precision-guided munitions.
"Many people feel the military has no business in space. Of course, the military is there, in spades," former U.S. Space Command chief Charles Horner said at a recent Heritage Foundation forum. "Our military forces are so dependent on space that it's created a vulnerability for us. ... We may be faced with a Pearl Harbor in space."
At the same time, civilians have become increasingly dependent on commercial satellites for TV, Internet, satellite phones, pagers - even this copy of USA TODAY.
When a commercial satellite began rotating out of control in May 1998, nearly 90% of the USA's 45 million pagers went dead for nearly a day until controllers could fix a broken computer processor.
It was the worst failure in space communication history, and it offered a glimpse of what an intentional attack on a U.S. satellite might do.
The issue of space defense is linked with another top issue: national missile defense. Donald Rumsfeld, President-elect Bush's choice for Defense secretary, chaired high-level commissions on both. His space panel reports its findings today.
In 1998, the Rumsfeld commission on missile defense warned that North Korea, Iraq and other rogue nations were much closer to deploying ballistic missiles than intelligence agencies had predicted. Its report persuaded a skeptical President Clinton to propose building land-based missile interceptors. A final decision on deployment has been deferred.
Bush favors a more expansive system with space-based interceptors in addition to ones launched from ground silos and ships. Experts say the technology designed to stop a ballistic missile can be modified to attack a satellite.
"National missile defense will be a wedge that will accelerate the militarization of space," warns Bruce Blair, president of the Center for Defense Information.
Since the end of the Cold War, when Russia sharply scaled back its space program, the United States has been unchallenged in space. It controls 80% of all military satellites . No other nation is as dependent on satellites to provide reconnaissance, inform troops or guide weapons.
A growing fleet of commercial satellites enables a vast array of technologies that are inextricably entwined with the nation's economic well-being. And other nations such as China, Russia, Japan and India are launching their own military reconnaissance satellites.
According to the U.S. Space Command, the United States has slightly more than 300 active satellites. Of those, 60% are commercial, 20% are military and 20% belong to civilian government agencies.
There are about 750 active military, commercial and civilian satellites worldwide.
With a limited number of radio frequency bands, orbital slots have become hot "real estate." How hot? In 1997, an Indonesian company allegedly jammed a communication satellite launched by the tiny Pacific nation of Tonga, which was vying for the same geosynchronous spot over Asia. That dispute affected TV transmissions.
Another dispute could have put U.S. troops in harm's way. During the Gulf War, the United States persuaded a French satellite imaging company not to sell photos that may have shown allied troop positions to Iraq.
In that case, U.S. persuasion prevailed.
"But if they don't abide, do you shoot their satellites down?" asks David Wright of the Union of Concerned Scientists. And what if, next time, the snooping satellite doesn't belong to a friendly country? Or another nation or terrorist group tries to disable an American satellite?
Despite such threats, some say that the United States would set a dangerous precedent if it becomes the first to put weapons in space.
"If you live in a glass house, you shouldn't be organizing rock-throwing contests," says John Pike, head of GlobalSecurity.org, a defense research group. "It should be unthinkable, regarded as abnormal and abhorrent, that someone would attack a satellite."
Contributing: Dan Vergano.