We Must Work to Prevent a ‘Space Pearl Harbor’

Twenty years ago, a congressionally mandated commission warned of a “Space Pearl Harbor” if the United States did not act urgently to protect its assets orbiting above the Earth. Despite this warning, Washington failed to take sufficient steps. Too many Americans assumed the United States would enjoy unchallenged access to the ultimate high ground indefinitely.

Not surprisingly, America’s great power competitors are unwilling to accept American supremacy in space. Since the commission’s January 2001 report, Russia and China have worked overtime to develop the means to deprive the U.S. military of its comparative advantage in space, developing capabilities that could disable or destroy American satellites. Both governments understood that the U.S. military increasingly relies on space: Satellites provide navigation, communication, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities vital to a variety of missions including missile defense.

Based on the efforts of Moscow and Beijing, the Department of Defense can no longer confidently assume that it would have reliable access to space assets in a great power conflict. In fact, just two months ago, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sounded the same alarm. “The next Pearl Harbor could happen in space,” he cautioned.

What is the goal of America’s adversaries? According to academics associated with the People’s Liberation Army, China could use anti-satellite (ASAT) capabilities to “blind and deafen the enemy,” depriving the U.S. military of key space-based capabilities. That would be a boon for authoritarian aggressors and a disaster for American national security and the warfighters who keep us safe.

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