“If the US is to avoid a ‘space Pearl Harbor,’ it needs to take seriously the possibility of an attack on US space systems,” bellowed Donald H Rumsfeld in January 2001, the man who – for the second time in his career – had been tapped by a US president to become the secretary of defense.
From 1999-2000, Rumsfeld had led the Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management (aka the “Rumsfeld Commission”).
In the years leading up to his nomination as secretary of defense by George W Bush, the steely bureaucratic infighter, Rumsfeld, was convinced that America was too complacent after its Cold War victory and was ripe for another Pearl Harbor–type attack. It was his work on strategic warning and surprise that had, in part, attracted the attention of Bush.
For Rumsfeld, his concern was fixated on America’s critical, yet vulnerable satellite constellations. Rumsfeld believed that satellites, the backbone of the US military’s power projection – as well as an essential component of America’s dynamic, modern economy – were too tempting of targets to be ignored by America’s rivals.
Critics of Rumsfeld, who dislike him now because of his management of the Global War on Terrorism, miss the brilliance that he possessed: He could spot patterns and detect trends before many purported experts from either political party in Washington could.
Rumsfeld made his assessment that the United States was ripe for a surprise attack at a time when most members of the neoliberal and neoconservative (a movement of which Rumsfeld was not a member) elite in Washington believed that America had no serious challengers after the fall of the Soviet Union.
“Pearl Harbor,” Rumsfeld said in a famous interview with the documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, “was a failure of imagination. We didn’t know we didn’t know that [the Japanese] could do what they did the way they did it.”
Once confirmed as secretary of defense, Rumsfeld began a massive modernization campaign of the US Armed Forces. He rightly recognized that the future of war would be murky; it would not be fought with large armies in open battlefields on distant continents.
War would be ubiquitous; it would be fought both abroad and at home. It would be waged among and between populations. Conflict of the future would be decentralized, small; it would be network-centric. In this new way of war, speed would be essential. And the US military, still primed to fight the now defunct Soviet Union, was utterly unprepared for the new generation of warfare that would soon fall upon the unsuspecting superpower.
Since 2001, US Special Forces have become an essential component of America’s warfighting. The Special Forces are small enough to maintain stealth, potent enough to conduct missions of varying degrees of lethality anywhere in the world – repeatedly. Special Forces was one of the first areas of the military where Rumsfeld’s transformative program was felt.
Sadly, the tactical brilliance Rumsfeld exhibited with his reform of the Special Forces was not matched well with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Whereas Rumsfeld favored pared-down, fast-moving, light forces to smash enemy targets and return home quickly, Bush ultimately became bogged down in seemingly endless, unwinnable counterinsurgencies in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
While some of the details of Rumsfeld’s new way of war may have missed their mark in the Global War on Terror, his vision and his fears are still relevant today. Particularly regarding a “Space Pearl Harbor.” If such an attack was merely a “possibility” in 2001, it is a high probability today.
Both China and Russia have seeded critical orbits around the Earth over the past decade with co-orbital satellites capable of tailgating America’s sensitive satellite constellations which can, on command, latch on to American satellites and push them from their orbits – rendering US military forces on land, at sea, in the air, and in cyberspace deaf, dumb, and blind.
China has developed advanced lasers that can disable American satellites passing over the Indo-Pacific region. Further, China’s new modular space station has a massive grappling arm that, as James Dickinson, the head of US Space Command, fretted in May, could be used to attack American satellites. Russia has similar capabilities today.
What’s more, the nuclear-arming rogue states of North Korea and Iran are creating their own suite of unconventional military capabilities in space. Any one of these threats could conduct a Space Pearl Harbor that completely disables the American military on Earth.
Rumsfeld was warning about this threat 20 years ago. Since that time, the United States has only become more dependent on increasingly vulnerable satellite constellations, while the capabilities for rival states to target and destroy those important satellites has evolved.
Just as it was in the months and weeks leading up to September 11, 2001, the United States is faced with the prospect of a devastating surprise attack. It is unprepared. Washington’s leaders must heed Rumsfeld’s calls for a more robust US national-security space policy, one that not only protects existing satellite constellations but effectively deters rivals from even daring to attack those systems to begin with.
Thus far, even with the necessary creation of the US Space Force in 2019, America is woefully unprepared for the coming attack on its satellites. As Rumsfeld once said, “We are on notice, but we have not noticed.”
With all the obituaries being released honoring the controversial former secretary of defense who died on June 29 at 88, why not honor his service by heeding his warnings from 20 years ago: America’s space capabilities are insecure and American rivals are readying to attack them in order to achieve their strategic ambitions on Earth? Honor Rumsfeld by defending America’s satellites from attack.