This essay is adapted from Winning Space: How America Remains a Superpower (Republic Book Publishers, 375 pages, $29.95) and originally appeared at American Greatness in the Weekend Long Reads section on October 16, 2020. This is the final chapter of Winning Space.
In the midnight hour of a cool New England night in April of the year 1775, Paul Revere, Samuel Prescott, and William Dawes— Revere’s Midnight Riders—rode out to warn the American colonists of an impending attack on colonial ammunition stores by the British Army. As the apocryphal tale goes, published decades later in 1863 by the great American writer Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Revere said to his friend:
If the British march by land or sea from the town to-night,
Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry arch of the North Church tower as a signal light,
—One if by land, and two if by sea;
And I on the opposite shore will be,
Ready to ride and spread the alarm
Through every Middlesex village and farm,
For the country folk to be up and to arm.’ [. . .]
So through the night rode Paul Revere;
And so through the night went his cry of alarm
To every Middlesex village and farm,
—A cry of defiance, and not fear,
A voice in the darkness, a knock at the door,
And a word that shall echo for evermore!
For, borne on the nightwind of the Past,
Through all our history, to the last,
In the hour of darkness and peril and need,
The people will waken and listen to hear
The hurrying hoof-beats of that steed,
And the midnight message of Paul Revere.
Of course, as the real history recounts, Paul Revere didn’t ride through the streets of Concord, Massachusetts, hollering a warning about the impending British attack. According to some sources, Revere never even made it to Concord (he did, however, warn the denizens of Lexington about the British attack). As Laurie L. Dove details, it was actually Samuel Prescott who made it to Concord, where “he warned its residents to protect the ammunition and weapons stored in a hidden depot near the town.”
Yet, the effect was the same: Revere and his fellow Midnight Riders, using intelligence and common sense, understood that the situation between the British forces that had occupied the colonies and American colonists was breaking down. The British leadership wanted the ongoing rebellion in the 13 colonies resolved. Revere and his compatriots also knew that the presence of the colonists’ ammunition stores was a strategic threat to the ongoing British attempt to pacify the unruly colonies. Eventually, the British would have to remove those ammunition stores to take control of the deteriorating situation there.
Rather than wait for impending doom, Revere, Prescott, and Dawes struck out in the cold night to warn their fellow colonists of what the British were secretly planning. They got ahead of the advancing British force by several hours. Although the men were detained by the British at one point, they were able to escape in the confusion of the British advance on Concord and Lexington after which Prescott got to Concord and successfully warned them of the British surprise attack.
The Midnight Riders in 1775 anticipated a grey rhino event and were able to help their countrymen avoid the stampede that night. Had the colonists not heeded Revere’s warnings, the American War for Independence would have gone very differently. For without those ammunition stockpiles, the colonists would have had little with which to defend themselves.
A similar situation exists for the United States in space today.
The military has a term, “left of boom,” which is used to describe that moment just before a bomb detonates. This is when “you still have time to prepare and avert a crisis. Right of boom, by contrast, includes the chaotic and deadly moments after the explosion or attack.”
Currently, America’s vaunted military might is a Potemkin village: it appears strong but it is, in fact, a brittle framework that relies almost entirely on satellites that increasingly are vulnerable to attack and disruption.
America’s enemies, notably China and Russia, have known about this vulnerability for at least a decade and carefully have tailored their forces to be able to knock America’s sensitive satellites out in a surprise space “Pearl Harbor” attack. If such an attack were to occur today, all America’s military could do would be to ride out being to the “right of boom”—a proposition that could very well allow either the attacking Chinese or the Russian forces to win a war against the United States Armed Forces.
When Donald Trump campaigned for president in 2016, he routinely told audiences that America’s enemies were smart and highly dangerous. Countries like autocratic Russia, seeking to gain territorial advantage over the United States in the European plain, know that they cannot engage in a fair fight against the United States and hope to win. What’s more, despite Russia’s immense nuclear arsenal, the Kremlin is not foolish enough to risk a wider nuclear exchange with the United States without first having debilitated America’s ability to respond to their next large-scale attack on Europe.
Not only would the United States, NATO, and other allied European forces inevitably be overrun in this scenario, but the strategic position of the United States in the world would be destroyed. Think about it: U.S. foreign policy is predicated upon a web of globe-spanning, interlocking security alliances. The fact that NATO for years has been under increasing pressure from Russia and that the United States and its allies have failed to reinforce themselves under the pressure imposed by Moscow, has had a chilling effect on America’s global military alliances.
U.S. allies, such as Saudi Arabia and Japan, are looking to see what U.S. security guarantees are worth. This book is not about how the United States should change its overall foreign policy outlook. What I am endeavoring to do in this book is to show you how, under present conditions, the United States is slated to lose an engagement with a rival state because of its weakness in space. The goal of this book, then, is to show how a reorientation of America’s overall space policy—at the national security, economic, and scientific levels—will keep the United States to the “left of boom.” Naturally, the United States does not want to be to the “right of boom,” however it must do a better job of planning to survive a “right of boom” moment in the near term.
America’s institutions should be in the position of Paul Revere and his Midnight Riders in 1775, warning their countrymen of incoming danger, giving them time to prepare. American intelligence analysts instead are in a position similar to that of Army Air Corps Lieutenant Kermit Tyler. Tyler was a radar officer in training who had only been on duty for two weeks and who had found himself in the unenviable position of being the only officer on duty when the Opana radar station in Hawaii detected “something completely out of the ordinary” at 7:02 a.m. (Pacific time) on December 7, 1941. Lieutenant Tyler, unlike Paul Revere and his Midnight Riders 166 years before, “told [the two privates at Opana station] to forget about” the strange radar tracks they were monitoring. Despite having no experience in his position, Lieutenant Tyler, according to Roberta Wohlstetter, told the enlisted men at Opana that “what they were seeing were friendly craft, probably the flight of B-17s from the mainland that was due that morning and in fact arrived in the middle of Japanese attack [on Pearl Harbor].”
Wohlstetter concluded that had Hawaii’s various early warning radar stations been operating as they were supposed to do, staffed by at least one experienced officer during every rotation, the Opana station’s warning would have “provided a forty-five-minute warning to the Army, and perhaps a thirty-minute warning to the Navy.” Revere gave American forces just a few hours heads-up. Yet, in 1775 that was just enough time for American colonists to stand their ground against the British. In 1941, a forty-five-minute or thirty-minute warning about an impending attack might have potentially allowed for some defense to be taken against the Japanese attackers. Such a defensive posture might have then reduced the nearly catastrophic damage that was ultimately incurred by the United States military at the hands of the Japanese raiders.
Both Pearl Harbor and 9/11 were instances where the United States found itself to the “right of boom.” In the former case, America ultimately prevailed—but at great cost. In the case of the latter example, the United States has waged an otherwise ineffectual “Global War on Terror” that has entirely destabilized the “Greater Middle East,” while it simultaneously unduly distorted the political situation in the United States. In each instance, had the United States simply paid closer attention to intelligence signals it had already gleaned from its enemies, both Pearl Harbor and 9/11 could have been avoided or, at least, mitigated. Contrary to the popular opinion about how the United States manages to “dust itself off” after enduring a grey rhino event, the United States is not in a position today anywhere near what it was in during the Second World War.
After the Pearl Harbor Attacks
the United States had the infrastructure in place to respond to the Axis powers across the world. During the 1930s, the decade that preceded the breakout of World War II, the first wave of massive modern infrastructure was built throughout the country. Massive industrial centers in America could churn out the planes and weapons that were needed to fight the war.
The United States was not indebted at the massive levels it is currently, meaning it was well-positioned to benefit from the wartime and postwar boom in productivity. Plus, the entire culture was fundamentally different. American companies happily gave themselves over to patriotic pursuits to assist the war effort, rather than seeking the craven pursuit of global, quarterly profits, as many major corporations do today under the shareholder model of capitalism.
In those years twelve percent of the country’s population joined the armed forces with intentions to fight the Axis powers to the finish. Today, less than 1 percent of the nation’s population serves. Plus, unlike the culture during World War II, today’s culture is not built on unity and a shared love of Western culture. It is the shallow product of decades of cultural Marxism meant to hollow out and replace Western culture with Marxist thought and dialectic. Moreover, decades of deindustrialization have ensured that the United States will be hard-pressed to withstand the kind of assault that large countries, like Russia or China, would force America to endure in war.
The myth of America’s “come-from-behind” victory over the Axis powers had to do with latent industrial production becoming realized over the course of the war. It also happened thanks to distance from the war zones allowing for America’s industrial and economic base to be unaffected by the fighting. What’s more, Americans of yesteryear were a much sterner and more united people, taking the fight to those who had attacked the United States. Those Americans were also willing to bear much heavier costs and burdens than their children and children’s children appear to be.
Presently, the Pentagon fears that it will not be able to indigenously produce enough weapons and materiel in the event of an outbreak of a prolonged struggle with either Russia or China.Meanwhile, the world has been made much smaller due to globalization, advanced technology, and open borders. We have been linked together by a web of advanced technologies that have not only made the United States dependent on sensitive technologies but have also restricted America’s ability to protect itself. And because the United States has sent many capabilities overseas, the U.S. military has to rely on a variety of foreign vendors—including some in China—to supply it with much-needed equipment.
Should disaster strike, such as a Chinese or Russian surprise attack on sensitive American satellites in orbit—a space Pearl Harbor attack—being on the “right of boom” could mean the end of the United States’ role as a global superpower. Perhaps that is something you support. I certainly have issues with the way the United States conducts itself internationally. But such changes to U.S. foreign and national security policies should be in accordance with the will and desires of the American people. Those changes should not occur because the nation is being held at proverbial gunpoint by autocracies, such as Russia or China.
Space is a domain where all manner of advanced technologies are taken to their limits and where new innovations are crafted. These innovations have grave strategic and economic implications. Other countries, as you have seen, are happily developing their own space capabilities in order to disproportionately benefit from those newfound abilities. Meanwhile, America’s position continues to falter. And its weakening position invites challenge.
The objective for U.S. policymakers regarding space should be threefold: first, to ensure that the United States suffers no major disruption in satellite functions due to foreign attack or meddling. Second, that the United States develops the technology and organization needed to protect itself against the continuing threat posed to the homeland by nuclear-arming rogue states, like North Korea and Iran. Third, the United States must create policies that will encourage the private economic development of space—all before an American rival can exploit the precious assets of space. Whoever gets to space first not only wins, but they also get to write the real rules and codes for conduct in this amazing new domain.
Some theorists like to study the strategic implications of America’s flailing space policy by applying stilted labels. As has been noted, there are four major military theories regarding the strategic use of space. The first is the sanctuary view, which sees space as a weapons-free domain and, therefore, posits that we should also limit economic development of space. Much of the utopianism regarding space comes from this outlook. Then, there is the survivability school, which basically tries to figure out how to make current U.S. satellites more survivable in a contested time, but also how to make American systems less dependent on these vulnerable satellites. From there, the space superiority or space control model bills itself as a defensive military space policy built off the concepts of deterrence and balance of power. Lastly, the space dominance theory is built on the controversial aspects of hegemony, preemption, and, when necessary, unilateralism. I also tend to throw in the concept of compellence with space dominance.
Thomas C. Schelling coined the term compellence, and he differentiated it from the more commonly understood strategic term of “deterrence” by describing compellence as “a direct action that persuades an opponent to give up something that is desired.” Deterrence, on the other hand, “is designed to discourage an opponent from action by threatening punishment.”
Right now, space dominance is impossible, if only because America’s capabilities in space have deteriorated too far to allow for such a strategy to be believably employed. But should the reinvigoration occur over the next several years, space dominance will become a fait accompli. We can hope that by the mid-2020s, and assuredly by the dawn of the 2030s, America would be able to employ the space dominance model with vigor. Conceptually, a compellent model, as opposed to a deterrent model, in space would allow for the United States to dictate the terms of each engagement in the cosmos. Such a model would also allow for U.S. policymakers to force its rivals to abandon their own quests for regional (and, in the case of China, global) dominance in favor of the American-dominated world order that has persisted since the fall of the Soviet Union.
In my opinion, none of these strategic doctrines are mutually exclusive. I mentioned at the start of this book that, rather than existing as competing ideas, with the exception of the sanctuary model, these ideas—survivability, space control/superiority, and space dominance—should be viewed as inhabiting a spectrum. Each feeds into, and undergirds, the others. Starting at survivability, the military should progress to space control/superiority. Once its satellite constellations have been secured and it has kept American rivals in space at bay, the United States must then look at getting ahead of its rivals in space yet again.
Remember, modern combat is predicated on being faster than your rivals. American forces require access to space to function properly and operate quickly. American enemies are working hard to deny U.S. forces this capability in the near term, should a major geopolitical crisis erupt. Given that the United States will remain far more dependent on space systems for its most basic military and civilian functions, there is no way that a space control/superiority concept will sustain the United States over the long run. Instead, U.S. policymakers should plan eventually to shift from the deterrent and defensive-minded space control/superiority model to the more hegemonic outlook of space dominance. Embracing a space dominance strategy will allow for the United States to remain faster than its rivals.
The Space Force: An Idea for Winning the Future—Today
The United States Space Force logo.
The 45th President of the United States, Donald J. Trump, with the first head of the United States Space Force, General Jay Raymond, and former U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper celebrating the creation of the Space Force.
The current U.S. Space Force camouflage uniform. Rather than being totally unique from its Air Force parent, it is merely a slight variation of the Air Force camouflage uniform.
President Donald Trump and his supporters have advocated for an independent, sixth branch of the United States Armed Forces dedicated solely to space. Some in Congress, Republicans and Democrats alike, have challenged the need for an independent space force. Yet, the track record is clear: under the current parameters, the Air Force has “gotten in its own way” when handling military space issues. Plus, while we should encourage greater decentralized networks as a way of surviving future attacks and for streamlining efficiency in the modern threat environment, too much decentralization is just as ineffective as too much centralization. During budget crunches, the Air Force has been known to pilfer funds meant to maintain America’s already-exposed satellite constellations to pay for other “mission priorities,” like keeping the overpriced F-35 program going, according to Representative Mike Rogers (R-Ala.). While the United States could once afford to wait for a space force to come into fruition “naturally,” as the vulnerability phase of the 2020s approaches, this is simply impossible. Thankfully, a small space force has officially been created under the Department of the Air Force as of December 2019.
We should be grateful that the Air Force officers currently assembled by the Trump Administration to help shepherd the U.S. Space Force into existence are clearly dedicated to the cause of creating a new service with a unique identity. Of course, the bigger question must be: What happens once the pro-space force president, Donald J. Trump, is no longer in the White House? What happens to the space force once a president who is less supportive of its mission comes along and encourages elements opposed to the space force within the Department of the Air Force to descend upon the space force’s resources like vultures descending upon the carcass of a lion in the African bush?
The false cries of terror about the purported wastefulness of an independent space force have resounded not only throughout the sacred halls of Congress, but also in the sterile offices of the Pentagon’s leadership.
When he was secretary of defense, James Mattis did not overtly support the creation of an independent space force. Like Representative Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas), who told me in 2019 that he did not favor the creation of a Space Force because he feared excessive bureaucracy, Mattis believed that the creation of a new military branch would be wasteful and, inexplicably, that it would weaken America’s defensive readiness. Of course, the claims of Representative Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) and other supporters of a space force have proven that, at times, the Air Force has not truly supported its space components. Also, with so many other hands in the space pie, crafting a concise and decisive national security space strategy has proven difficult.
Think about it: not only does the United States Air Force have a say in America’s global military space operations, but so too do the navy and army. Then, there is the Missile Defense Agency that was birthed from President Reagan’s SDI and continues working on ways to protect the United States from ballistic missile attack. The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) also has a role in space. And as the civilian space sector increases its operations in space, soon the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will have a role to play in space traffic management. As will the Department of Commerce, under the Trump administration’s secretary of commerce, Wilbur Ross, who wants to develop an office dedicated to the commercialization of space. So, while opponents of a space force are right to worry about wasteful spending, creating a real branch of the military with the heft that comes along with being an independent force, would allow for U.S. leaders to cut through the clutter.
Still, understanding and preparing for the days when space becomes a warfighting domain itself is critical for the United States going forward. Staying to the “left of boom” is the only thing that will prevent a strategic catastrophe from befalling the United States in the 2020s, which undoubtedly will be the most crucial decade for the United States in the first half of the 21st century. For now, opponents of the space force have successfully argued that any new force should be subordinated to the Department of the Air Force. This was the same tactic that opponents of an independent air force once employed. Ultimately, though, as the technology progressed and the threat posed to the United States by the Soviet Union in the atomic age progressed, leaving the nation’s air capabilities under the imprimatur of the army was understood to be an insufficient response to the threat the country faced.
Inevitably, the risks in space will become so profound that the space force will have to be cleaved away from the Department of the Air Force for it to be truly effective. In the meantime, the members of the new space force will have to be imbued with a culture of innovation and independence from the start. Just as the United States Marine Corps is technically part of the Department of the Navy, yet marine officers employ army ranks as opposed to naval ranks, so too will the space force have to utilize naval ranks rather than the air force’s ranking system, which it imported from the army.
The reason is simple: it will help to foster a separate service culture, even if the space force is part of the Department of the Air Force.
After all, the air force presently views space as a mere auxiliary to their wider mission of air dominance.
While space certainly plays a role—a crucial one, at that—the air force has been slow to recognize this fact and likely will be unable to recognize this reality, given their institutional biases and because space will always be ancillary to the strategic domain of air in the eyes of many air force leaders. Instead, the embrace of a naval ranking system will help to imbue the future space troopers of the space force with a strong sense of unique identity. This, in turn, will allow space force strategists to envision strategies based on space being viewed as more than a mere auxiliary component to the other strategic domains. In fact, space is very similar to the ocean environment that the U.S. Navy operates in, so it will be key for future space troopers to comprehend the cultural similarities they share with their navy siblings even more so than they do with their air force parents.
In the future, space force missions will include everything from surveillance and reconnaissance, to maintaining logistical supply lines, to conducting orbital strikes on rogue states and terrorists. And as space mining and tourism intensifies, a space force inevitably would be charged with providing protection for these civilian functions as they transit through the critical domain of space. After all, the flag and trade often march hand in hand into new virgin lands. All of this will be placed on one part of the air force, and it will be too much for what is set to be the smallest service of the United States military.
This is why, inevitably, the space force will morph into its own department, just as the army, navy, and air force have today. Plus, the space force may need to incorporate America’s cyber warriors who, until recent days, often have been given the budgetary and policy short shrift.Further, with the renewed threats that U.S. forces face on the electromagnetic (EM) spectrum, it might be necessary to fuse an EM defense corps into the space force, since the space force will already be the most technologically sophisticated part of the U.S. military. By that point, then, the Pentagon will have no choice but to genuinely reorganize in order to create that fully independent Department of the Space Force for which President Trump has been calling.
Another component of the U.S. Armed Forces that is often overlooked for space operations is the Special Operations Command (SOCOM).
Very often, when one thinks of special forces operators, images like that of the Bin Laden raid in 2011 come to mind. Unassuming, bearded men in camo is another image many Americans have. To America’s terrorist enemies, these forces are the equivalent of the grim reaper. In fact, U.S. Special Forces are more than modern-day Spartan warriors. They are technological marvels. Special forces operators are among the best-trained troops in the world. These fighters are sent into the toughest terrain and they are asked either to hunt down, capture, or kill elusive enemies such as Bin Laden or to help train troops in foreign countries. For these silent professionals technology has become the critical force multiplier, as it has for all of America’s military—though perhaps more intensely for these small teams of elite forces.
When 9/11 happened, the U.S. Department of Defense was left scrambling for their maps of Afghanistan. The Pentagon wasn’t ready for the kind of war that U.S. leaders required them to fight. The Defense Department effectively was caught flat-footed. In the vacuum created by the Pentagon’s lack of preparation for a potential campaign in landlocked Afghanistan, Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet stepped forward with a plan to deploy dozens of CIA paramilitary officers virtually overnight into Afghanistan. These small units would stir the shit-pot against al-Qaeda and the Taliban, which had offered bin Laden safe haven in that ancient land.
This left former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in a proverbial lurch: he wanted his people—the military—who were charged with both defending and avenging the United States against foreign attack, to take the lead. Since the conventional forces were not prepared for an invasion of Afghanistan, Rumsfeld ordered U.S. Special Forces into Afghanistan to support CIA’s efforts there.
One of the first major decisions that Rumsfeld made at the Department of Defense was to reform special forces. Despite his controversial tenure as secretary of defense, Rumsfeld got space and special forces right. Rumsfeld believed that special forces needed to be nimbler. Special forces needed to become a high-tech, though small, cadre of elite warriors to wage 21st century warfare upon America’s decentralized enemies spread throughout the world.
Rumsfeld reportedly was upset with the U.S. Central Command’s inability to “find and target top [al-Qaeda] leaders,” according to a 2002 CNN report from Barbara Starr. Thanks to the institutional reforms that had occurred under the rubric of Rumsfeld’s controversial “Revolution in Military Affairs” (RMA), the Pentagon’s leaders crafted “a phased plan that [involved] the use of special operations forces for months in highly covert missions, all outside the regular scope of military or law enforcement operations.” In fact, as history played out, the Pentagon has used special forces continuously across the world to combat perceived, developing, and unconventional threats. It all started, though, with Rumsfeld’s historic decision to put “Special Operations, instead of the US Central Command, in charge of [counterterrorism] efforts.”
The famous images of American Special Forces operators riding on horseback, flanked by countless Afghan forces, as they rode into battle against al-Qaeda and Taliban forces, was the apotheosis of America’s satellite dependency. The United States essentially invaded Afghanistan following 9/11 with a handful of CIA and special forces operators. CIA operatives were deployed from Russian military helicopters flying in from neighboring central Asian states, with literal backpacks full of cash, to buy the loyalties of local Afghans in the push to punish al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Meanwhile, U.S. Special Forces deployed from airplanes or helicopters and enmeshed themselves with local fighters. With small arms and satellite communications, these very small U.S. forces were able to inflict maximum harm on their more numerous Taliban and al-Qaeda adversaries. The combination of American satellite interlinks, allowing for copious and precise air strikes, coupled with the will of the Afghan Northern Alliance forces, routed the Taliban and busted al-Qaeda apart in Afghanistan (at least for a time).
From 2001 to the spring of 2002, these were high points of America’s initial foray into Afghanistan. The outsized initial victories of these small American forces were entirely made possible by satellites overhead. If either the Taliban or al-Qaeda had the ability to interfere with U.S. satellite constellations, then those early days in Afghanistan might well have been the quagmire that Afghanistan ultimately became after 2002.
Afghanistan taught U.S. policymakers that special forces could be used when in a strategic tight spot. American leaders built out from this model, and eventually SOCOM became one of the central pieces in U.S. national security policy. The persistent use of special forces globally as the tip of America’s spear necessitated technological changes.
Beginning in 2013, SOCOM invested in cubesats to enhance their capabilities. Special forces have been on hunter-killer/capture missions since the days when Rumsfeld commissioned SOCOM to track down those high-ranking leaders of al-Qaeda whom CIA and other intelligence agencies had not been able to find. To assist U.S. Special Forces operators, SOCOM invested in “tags,” which are pieces of tracking technology used to “clandestinely mark [special forces’] prey.” These tiny beacons are placed throughout the world by special forces. The beacons have an array of capabilities, like employing infrared flashes to signal their location, while still others are covertly hidden within commercial electronics, such as cell phones or key fobs. Some beacons are affixed to cars or people—all of which transmit the whereabouts of the unsuspecting target to U.S. Special Forces by relaying the data via satellites. To maintain—and enhance—this critical capability, U.S. Special Forces decided to invest in a cluster of eight cubesats to cover “areas of the world where the satellite coverage is thin, and there aren’t enough cell towers to provide an alternative.” The eight cubesats were launched atop one of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets. Those eight cubesats remained in orbit for three years.
Similarly, SOCOM relies more heavily on satellite communications than most of the other branches. With its forces deployed into the most dangerous parts of the world on top-secret missions that could decide the fate of their countrymen, SOCOM needs real-time communications. The capabilities of America’s small and nimble special forces are greatly amplified by satellites. Should a Russian or Chinese counterspace attack occur on the satellite networks that special forces use, catastrophe would ensue as U.S. Special Forces would be unable to operate effectively.
Given their use of space assets, SOCOM invariably will have a role to play in the strategic domain of space, regardless of whatever the future of the space force may be. The objectives of special forces will not involve either space control/superiority or the space dominance theories of military space power. For SOCOM to be effective, they must bear in mind that their needs are far more tactical than those of other parts of the military that use space. Constant contact with distant enemies is a special forces specialty.
The school of space power theory that SOCOM must embrace is the survivability school. SOCOM appears to have gotten this concept right off the bat. In keeping with Thomas D. Taverney’s ideas of mixed constellations, “the Pentagon is looking to make its communications systems more resilient against interference or hostile jamming. One way to do that is to allow users of satellite communications to roam across commercial and military networks so if one system is disrupted, they can switch to a different provider.” Along with Kratos Defense & Security Solutions, the air force conducted a test wherein they used a Special Operations Forces Deployable Node and made it compatible with an SES commercial satellite network. The result of the successful experiment “is that the military does not need to buy brand new terminals to get roaming services. With minor updates to legacy terminals, the military can get access to multiple satellites and services, including the Time Division Multiple Access (TDMA) and Frequency Multiple Access (FDMA) networks.”
SOCOM should look to firms developing more advanced and cheap cubesats, such as Israel’s NSLComms. With their successful tests of an expandable antenna aboard a small satellite, NSLComm’s technology could provide SOCOM with greater capabilities in a crisis. To avoid having to rely on costlier, larger communications satellites placed in geosynchronous orbit that will be required to last for eight, perhaps even 15 years—increasing the costs significantly—NSLComm’s “solution was to develop a new kind of antenna that can deploy on its own, without the help of any additional heavy machinery, and that can extend to the sizes needed to provide truly high-throughput connectivity on a satellite that’s small and much easier to launch, providing about 100 times faster connectivity than the fastest nano-satellites in the same size class today at about one-tenth the launch cost.”
The company plans on launching 30 satellites by 2021 and hundreds by 2023. These tiny marvels will transform the civilian communications business. NSLComm intends ultimately “to offer a ‘private constellation’ offering, where, for example, a cruise ship operator could build, launch, and operate its own network constellation for its customers at minimal cost.”Just imagine SOCOM embracing this model and this technology. Not only could they make their vital communications and command capabilities more survivable in the inevitable satellite war, but these tiny satellites might allow for SOCOM to offer last-ditch augmentation to other U.S. military forces harmed by any attack on America’s satellite constellations.
In keeping with the covert nature of special forces, and their interest in developing cube satellites, it might be time for this clandestine force to develop “space stalkers” of their own. Presently, the United States operates in a legal grey zone when it comes to military operations in space. We are bound by the principles found within the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, yet American rivals don’t play by these rules. As the United States refuses to decide whether weaponization of space should occur or not (of course, it already is occurring), American rivals are placing dual-use systems in orbit.
The Chinese are developing their space laser, supposedly to help in clearing orbital debris, and the Russians have already placed co-orbital satellites supposedly meant to repair their communications satellites should anything happen to these systems while in orbit. Of course, these space stalkers and Chinese lasers could just as easily be used to attack American satellites, in a space version of Pearl Harbor. Until an actual space warfare doctrine can be developed by the U.S. Space Force, then SOCOM might be able to fill in the gap during the next decade of vulnerability.
SOCOM could easily spend a small amount of money to develop and deploy rudimentary space stalkers. These covert devices, controlled from MacDill Air Force Base in Florida, could be maneuvered to tailgate behind sensitive satellites belonging to American rivals and could be used in the same manner that Russia and China plan to use space stalkers. They could be used either to collect surveillance or to destroy the systems of our enemies.
In 2017, U.S. Air Force General David Goldfein declared that “special operators” would “be able to strike anywhere in the globe within minutes” from military space stations in low-Earth orbit. SOCOM should immediately begin quietly partnering with Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic to gain access to a military version of the company’s suborbital plane.
The reason behind Richard Branson’s obsession with suborbital spaceflight has to do, as always, with the cost of rocket fuel. Branson has correctly observed that “most rocket fuel costs are from the surface to 50,000 feet because that is where the air is the thickest.” Yet, if Virgin Galactic could take people to 50,000 feet and launch into space from there, the costs drop precipitously. As Goldfein speculated, “The question [for the Pentagon] is, what does it mean if I take seven special operators, put them on [a sub-orbital spaceplane] and then can get to any place on the planet in less than an hour?”
SOCOM will play a crucial role for supporting overall U.S. military capabilities. What’s more, given SOCOM’s small and nimble nature, as the bureaucratic battle over space force rages throughout the 2020s—in other words, when American satellite constellations will be their most vulnerable—a special forces satellite capability might prove decisive in helping to mitigate the damage of a space Pearl Harbor. Special forces embody what Winston Churchill called the “guerilla idea: guile combined with courage and imagination.” Basically, “leverage is the essence of special warfare—leverage usually obtained by careful planning, extraordinary risks, and exceptional temperaments.”
This is the sort of mentality that would prove decisive for SOCOM being a pioneer in limited, though essential, space warfare concepts. Yet, for all of the help that SOCOM may provide the wider military in space, as Derek Leebaert assesses in his work on special forces, no amount of guile and imagination can make up for policy failures. For 20 years, the United States has engaged in a series of policy failures in space that weakened our presence there and inspired rivals to challenge us in this dangerous domain. A total reassessment of American policy in space will be required to stave off the disaster that is coming.
The United States must reinvigorate itself in the high-tech and space sectors. It must not allow its own internal contradictions and short-sightedness to fog its strategic view of the world. The United States must dominate the high ground of space and never let it go. If it does lose its perch in the heavens, its crash to Earth will be catastrophic for its overall power. An independent space force committed to a doctrine of space dominance and an unapologetic private sector development of space will be key if America is to avoid the fate of so many other great powers that took their great power status for granted.