War is coming to outer space, and the Pentagon warns it is not yet ready, following years of underinvesting while the military focused on a host of threats on Earth.
Russia and China are years ahead of the United States in developing the means to destroy or disable satellites that the U.S. military depends on for everything from gathering intelligence to guiding precision bombs, missiles and drones.
“We are now approaching a point where ‘Star Wars’ is not just a movie,” said Steve Isakowitz, CEO of The Aerospace Corp., a government-funded think tank that serves as the military’s leading adviser on space.
He said the U.S. can no longer afford to take its dominance for granted.
“That supremacy in space has enabled us to have the world’s greatest war-fighting capability … whether it is our soldiers on the field, our drones that fly overhead, our bombers that travel around the world, intelligence we collect,” he told POLITICO. “More and more every day, literally, we become more dependent on it.
“And our adversaries know that,” he added in an interview.
Americans’ fears of a possible Soviet military advantage helped inspire the first space race after the Sputnik launch in 1957, and former President Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” program in the 1980s sought to create a space-based shield against a nuclear missile attack. In recent decades, though, space has mostly been a realm for peaceful exploration and collaboration, typified by the Russian rockets that carry American astronauts to the International Space Station.
But the worry that cooperation could turn to confrontation has been in the background for years. A 2001 report issued by then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld warned that an attack on space systems during a conflict “should not be considered an improbable act.”
“If the U.S. is to avoid a ‘Space Pearl Harbor,’ it needs to take seriously the possibility of an attack on the U.S. space system,” the report said.
Some experts speculate that military leaders never followed through on the warnings, in part because the terrorist attacks later that year drew far more attention to what resulted in two ground wars in the Middle East.
One sign of the new urgency is President Donald Trump’s recent call for establishing a “space force” — a separate military branch responsible for ensuring American supremacy in space, a role now primarily played by the Air Force.