TCS Daily


True Pragmatism Calls for Preparing U.S. for Space Conflicts

By James Pinkerton - August 6, 2001 12:00 AM

The New York Times Magazine has taken a look at missile defense. And guess what? The Times doesn't like what it sees.

The headline for the cover story in the August 5 issue alerts readers to "the coming space war." In addition, an upward-and-backward "crawl" of words-deliberately reminiscent of the text-explanation at the beginning of the first "Star Wars" movie from 1977-informs readers, "Very, very soon, in a galaxy not far away (in fact, our own), the U.S. military will begin a campaign to conquer space." Yikes!

The actual article inside, by Jack Hitt, a contributing writer to the magazine, is far more fair-minded than the cover--but that's not the same as being fair-minded. To be sure, Hitt did his homework, traveling to military space facilities in Maryland, New Mexico, and Colorado. And the author clearly understands the benefits of high-tech war fighting. He notes approvingly, for example, that precision-guided munitions have helped the U.S. fight at lower cost; whereas in World War II, it took 5,000 bombs to knock out the typical target, in Vietnam it took 500, and in the Persian Gulf, it took just 10. Looking to the future, Hitt sees the enormous power of a space arsenal, observing, "If a laser cannon were to be inserted in space, its potential would make a cruise missile look like a firecracker." Moreover, he quotes the Rumsfeld Commission on satellite warfare, which released its report in January 2001, warning, "Every medium-air, land and sea-has seen conflict. Reality indicates that space will be no different."

And yet still, a curious one-sidedness creeps into the piece; the tone suggests that the only space weaponization topic to be confronted is the need for restraining the gung-ho eagerness of the Pentagon. Having traveled into the heart of the U.S. space-military-industrial complex, Hitt seems acutely aware of the devastation that American space weapons could inflict, but not so aware of the damage that could be inflicted on the U.S. and its allies by such weapons in the hands of adversaries. Perhaps he would have felt differently if he had traveled to, say, China, and been permitted to see what's being planned and constructed there. And so while the author has some fun rattling off the titles of military planning documents with the years 2010, 2020, and 2025 in them, he might have also noted that the Japanese began thinking about war with the U.S. at the turn of the last century. By the time they actually attacked, on December 7, 1941, they were good and ready.

But in the meantime, Hitt does evince some bias, as when he refers to Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative as "a bluff" that "collapsed amid political ridicule." To be sure, SDI has had its ups and downs, as well as a name change or two, since 1983, but the basic idea of National Missile Defense has survived five presidential elections; indeed, in 2000, George W. Bush made NMD a major element of his victorious campaign.

In addition to dismissing missile defense, Hitt is also eager to bury other "milspace" programs, too. "Earlier this year," he writes, "the X-33, NASA's big experiment in flying into space, ended in failure." Failure? As if the prototype crashed or something? That's not the case. NASA cancelled the project-for reasons of cost; it was a judgment based on finances, not feasibility. Allowing for bumps along the way-it's not easy to build a plane that can fly to space and back-the X-33 is a valuable, even vital, project.

Indeed, the realization that the X-33 is a linchpin of space-based defense has led the Air Force to intervene on its behalf. The Washington Post reported on April 13 that Gen. Ralph Eberhart, commander of the military's Space Command, wrote to NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin, asking him to "keep the options open" on the X-33. In other words, the Air Force likes the X-33; the question is whether it can scramble the money together to keep the project aloft.

Interestingly, the defense experts cited by Hitt are mostly drawn from such left-of-center groups as the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Center for Defense Information-none of which are ideologically identified. It might be said that Hitt is merely quoting them to balance Pentagon officials, but he tips his hand when he identifies Michael Krepon, of the Stimson Center in Washington D.C., as a "pragmatist." The label "pragmatist" is much prized in journalism, since the presumption is that a pragmatist, unblinkered by ideology, will render the proper verdict based only on facts and merits. So it's always a word for readers to watch for, since many writers define "pragmatist" as "someone who agrees with me."

If so, then Hitt has found the correct pragmatist: one notably to the left on the space defense issue. As evidence, one might consider an article the same Michael Krepon wrote in the May/June 2001 issue of Foreign Affairs, entitled "Lost in Space: the Misguided Drive Toward Antisatellite Weapons." In that piece, Krepon takes the gloves off: "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." It's perhaps noteworthy that this article of Krepon's, clearly belying any neutralism on the topic, was not noted in the Times magazine.

But Hitt, dispensing with any reader-alerting prefacing, lets the "pragmatic" Krepon attack the idea of space defense and, for good measure, gives him further column-inches to defend the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty against its critics, who include, of course, Rumsfeld and Bush.

Yet Hitt's piece is no mere hit-piece. He understands the enormous gift of space-based technology, citing in particular the Global Positioning System, which was developed by the U.S. military. The same satellite-based GPS technology that guides "smart" weapons, Hitt observes, guides a host of civilian activities as well, from ship navigating to cell-phone 911-ing.

In that spirit, Hitt offers his suggestion for dealing with the prospect of space war. He wants the nations of the world, including the U.S., to forgo military space weaponization in favor of expanded military space surveillance. That is, a GPS-like eye-in-the-sky system could be created around the whole planet, so that nations would be able to observe what other nations are up to. Such a super-GPS approach is the alternative, he argues, to the "dark burden" of "a fresh and costly arms race."

Maybe. Hitt's suggestion is not a bad idea; it's an update of sorts on Dwight Eisenhower's "open skies" proposal of 1955, in which the 34th President suggested that the U.S. and the USSR open their airspace to each other's aircraft, in the name of confidence-building reconnaissance. Ike had the best of intentions-he, too, wanted to avoid "a fresh and costly arms race"-but the Soviets rejected the proposal, in part because they knew they would soon be rocketing Sputnik into orbit. Not only did they want to keep that launch a secret, but perhaps they also knew that someday orbiting satellites would trump spy planes.

If space is valuable strategic "terrain"-and Hitt concedes that it is-then other countries, including enemies of the U.S., will value it, too. And they won't necessarily agree to a supranational information-sharing regime--or abide by any agreement they sign on to. So no matter what else is done in the name of international cooperation, America, in the name of its own national security, needs its own space fist. It's sad, perhaps, that space conflict is inevitable, as the Rumsfeld Commission concluded in January. Reality is oftentimes not happy. But sad or happy, the true pragmatist must be prepared for any threat, from anywhere.

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