Politics & Policy

Victory from Space

GPS satellite in orbit (Image: Boeing)
In 20th-century wars, the key was air power. In 21st-century wars, it will be space power.

America faces a national-security crisis. For the first time in seven decades, there is a real threat of a large-scale conventional war with a major power, and our situation is not good.

Eastern and Central Europe are now so weakly defended as to virtually invite invasion. The United States has failed to act in accord with its treaty commitment to protect the territorial integrity of Ukraine, and, despite verbal assurances to the contrary, the Obama administration has made it clear that it will not deploy troops in a way that would commit us to act in defense of the Baltic States or Poland. Under Chancellors Schröder and Merkel, Germany has reduced its army from twelve divisions to three, and, given the wobbly nature of its government, it can hardly be expected to ask these to fight. The last few thousand British troops are in the process of being withdrawn from the continent, and the Obama administration has already evacuated all U.S. tanks from Germany, leaving behind a remnant of 30,000 troops. This force might be useful for supporting raids against the likes of ISIS and Boko Haram, but not much else. We have strong air forces in Europe, but would we engage them when victory is so doubtful, and withdrawal is much the easier option? America still has a powerful nuclear force, but we are not going to nuclear war to defend Lithuania. Deterrence is dead. As matters stand, the only serious and committed ground force that stands between Russia and the Rhine is the Polish Army. It’s not enough.

How can we restore the balance, creating a sufficiently powerful conventional force to deter aggression? It won’t be by matching the Russians tank for tank, division for division, replacement for replacement. Rather, we must seek to totally outgun the Russian military by obtaining a radical technological advantage. This can be done, by achieving space supremacy.

To grasp the importance of space power, some historical perspective is required. Wars are fought for control of territory. Yet for thousands of years, victory on land has frequently been determined by dominance at sea. In the 20th century, victory on both land and sea almost invariably went to the power that controlled the air. In the 21st century, victory on land, on sea, and in the air will go to the power that controls space.

The critical military importance of space has been obscured by the fact that, for as long as the U.S. has had space assets, all our wars have been fought against minor powers that we could have defeated without them. Desert Storm has been called the first space war, because the allied forces made extensive use of the Global Positioning System (GPS). However, if we had had no such technology at our disposal, the end result would have been just the same. This has given some the impression that space forces are just a frill added on to real military power — a useful and convenient frill, perhaps, but a frill nevertheless.

But consider how history might have changed had the Axis powers of World War II possessed reconnaissance satellites — merely one of today’s many space-based assets — without the Allies’ having a matching capability. In that case, the Battle of the Atlantic would have gone to the U-boats, as they would have had infallible intelligence on the location of every convoy. Cut off from oil and other supplies, Britain would have fallen. On the Eastern front, every Soviet tank concentration would have been spotted in advance and wiped out by German air power, as would any surviving British ships or tanks in the Mediterranean and North Africa. In the Pacific, the battle of Midway would have gone very much the other way, as the Japanese would not have wasted their first deadly airstrike on the unsinkable island, but sunk the American carriers instead. With these gone, the remaining cruisers and destroyers in Admiral Fletcher’s fleet would have lacked air cover, and every one of them would then have been hunted down and sunk by unopposed and omniscient Japanese air power. With the same certain fate awaiting any American ship that dared venture forth from the West Coast, Hawaii, Australia, and New Zealand would then have fallen, and eventually China and India as well. With a monopoly of just one element of space power, the Axis would have won the war.

But modern space power involves far more than just reconnaissance satellites. The use of space-based GPS can endow munitions with 100 times greater accuracy, while space-based communications provide an unmatched capability of command and control of forces. Knock out the enemy’s reconnaissance satellites, and he is effectively blind. Knock out his comsats, and he is deaf. Knock out his navsats, and he loses his aim. In any serious future conventional conflict, even between opponents as mismatched as Japan was against the United States — or Poland (with 1,000 tanks) is currently against Russia (with 12,000) — it is space power that will prove decisive.

The defense not only of Europe, but of the entire free world, hangs upon this matter. For the past 70 years, U.S. Navy carrier task forces have controlled the world’s oceans, first making and then keeping the Pax Americana  which has done so much to secure and advance the human condition over the postwar period. But should there ever be another major conflict, an adversary possessing the ability to locate and target those carriers from space would be able to wipe them out with the push of a button. For this reason, it is imperative that the United States possess space capabilities that are so robust as to assure not only our own ability to operate in and through space, but also our ability to comprehensively deny this power to others.

Space superiority means having better space assets than an enemy. Space supremacy means being able to assert a complete monopoly of such capabilities. The latter is what we must have. If we can gain space supremacy, then the capability of any American ally relative to an enemy without space assets can be multiplied by orders of magnitude and, with the support of the similarly multiplied striking power of our own land- and sea-based air and missile forces, be made so formidable as to render any conventional attack unthinkable. On the other hand, should we fail to do so, we will remain so vulnerable as to increasingly invite aggression by ever more emboldened revanchist powers.

This battle for space supremacy is one we can win. Neither Russia nor China, nor any other potential adversary, can match us in this area if we put our mind to it. We can and must develop ever more advanced satellite systems, anti-satellite systems, and truly robust space launch and logistics capabilities. Then the next time an aggressor commits an act of war against us or a country we are pledged to defend, instead of impotently threatening to limit his tourist visas, we can respond by taking out his satellites — knocking his lights out, as it were — thereby effectively informing him in advance the certainty of defeat should he persist.

If we desire peace on Earth, we need to prepare for war in space.

— Robert Zubrin is president of Pioneer Energy, a senior fellow with the Center for Security Policy, and the author of Energy Victory. The paperback edition of his latest book, Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism, was recently published by Encounter Books.

 

Robert Zubrin, an aerospace engineer, is the founder of the Mars Society and the president of Pioneer Astronautics. His latest book is The Case for Space: How the Revolution in Spaceflight Opens Up a Future of Limitless Possibility.

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