When the Empire of Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, they did so with unconventional tactics: sailing their fleet of aircraft carriers undetected from Japan across the Pacific Ocean and surprising the Americans on the distant Hawaiian Islands.
Innovation and gumption among Japan’s naval strategists helped to create one of America’s greatest strategic disasters. Japan wanted to knock out the American bases on Hawaii and deprive the U.S. military of power projection into what Tokyo considered to be its sphere of influence — the Indo-Pacific.
Today, the United States is set to endure yet another humiliating attack on the scale of Pearl Harbor unless it makes fundamental changes to its national defense strategy. This time, however, the attack will occur in the cold darkness of space.
The U.S. military is the only truly global military. It can deploy forces from anywhere in the world to any hotspot quickly. A globe-spanning web of logistical supply chains, communications networks and other infrastructure undergird America’s global expeditionary force. Modern warfare requires militaries to be faster than those of their rivals. The United States has outperformed rival militaries, in part, because of its technological superiority.
Satellite communications, surveillance and early missile-warning constellations are the basis of this technological supremacy. But without those satellites floating high above the Earth, the U.S. military deployed to distant lands in Asia or Eastern Europe would find itself outnumbered by its foes and likely overwhelmed.
American rivals understand this and have worked hard to deprive the U.S. military of its global dominance. Just as the Japanese sought to deny the U.S. military of its power projection capabilities from Hawaii, so too do China and Russia endeavor to deprive the United States of its access to space. Despite their importance to the U.S. military, though, most of the country’s satellites are far too vulnerable to attack.
The Russians and Chinese both have developed small, stealthy satellites — nicknamed “space stalkers” — that can tailgate larger American satellites, like those belonging to the Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) or the Multi User Objective System (MUOS) constellations, and push them out of orbit. Since these American satellites are very expensive, replacing them is a laborious process. The speedy American way of war can, therefore, be slowed down if the U.S. military lost its satellites. Should that happen, the militaries of either Russia or China could gain key advantages over the U.S. forces they would encounter.
Russia has designs to reclaim vast swathes of Eastern Europe, if given the strategic opportunity and China yearns to hoist its flag above Taiwan. In both instances, it is expected that the U.S. military will play a major role in rebuffing either Russia or China in their ambitions.
But without the capabilities that a handful of satellites offer the Americans, it is unlikely that Western forces would be successful in defending either Eastern Europe or Taiwan from aggression. And once China or Russia achieved their strategic objectives with Taiwan or Eastern Europe, respectively, neither power would simply stand down. They would instead consolidate their power and then look farther beyond those areas, pressing endlessly against American power elsewhere.
To avoid a space Pearl Harbor from happening, the newly formed U.S. Space Force must launch space stalkers of its own. The American space stalkers would be formed into battle groups that would guard America’s sensitive military satellites in geosynchronous orbit from Chinese or Russian attack. America’s rivals are looking for cheap and easy ways to knock out the U.S. military’s many advantages so they can achieve ambitious strategic objectives on Earth.
Space Force must make satellite defense its priority, to ensure that neither China nor Russia are tempted to pluck what they think is America’s low-hanging fruit in space.
If only the Americans had taken the Japanese threat to Pearl Harbor more seriously, the worst aspects of the Second World War could have been avoided. Washington must learn the lessons of history and apply them today in space before it is too late.
• Brandon J. Weichert is the author of the forthcoming book, “Winning Space: How America Remains a Superpower” from Republic Book Publishers available for pre-order on Amazon today. He can be followed via Twitter @WeTheBrandon.