The Next Pearl Harbor… in Space

The next Pearl Harbor will be a quiet event. Silent, actually.

No screaming jets, no whistling bombs, no earthshaking explosions.

No fire, no smoke and not even any human casualties. Well… not at the outset.

Because the next “big” war will begin in the vacuum of space, most likely with attacks on American satellites.

Quickly, the U.S. military will be blinded. Communications will degrade to the level of the 1930s, if we are fortunate.

Deployed around the world, far-flung U.S. forces will be cut off, unable to navigate or coordinate counterstrikes except at isolated tactical levels.

At home, U.S. generals and admirals will dutifully brief elected and appointed political powers. They’ll say something like… “We can’t talk with anybody. They can’t talk with us. We’re blind and don’t really know what’s going on.”

It’ll be a complete mess out in the field. Major operations will be impossible to undertake.

Whoever is running the U.S. might conclude that the situation is untenable, if not hopeless.

And this next war might well be over in just a few hours, not long after it begins.

Yes, it’s that grim. Let’s dig into this…

On Sept. 11 I discussed the long-term “failure of imagination” of U.S. defense planners. That term came straight from the 9/11 Commission Report, a comprehensive investigation into what happened on that fateful day.

I wrote: “The people charged with protecting the country failed to ‘imagine’ that something like this [the 9/11 attacks] could occur. It’s an issue that has plagued the United States since before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941… and continues right through our current COVID-19 crisis.”

That is, in 1941 it was common knowledge that Japan possessed a powerful navy, complete with aircraft carriers, airplanes, pilots and weapons.

But American planners did not believe that Japan’s navy could transport those Japanese aircraft close enough to attack Hawaii. Or that Japan’s airplanes and weapons would be effective against America’s mighty fleet.

Obviously, people back then lived under a false sense of security.

Fast-forward 60 years to 2001. Of course, people were aware – “everybody knew,” so to speak – that bad guys sometimes hijacked airliners.

But no one in the U.S. defense complex thought that anyone, let alone a group of nonstate actors, would weaponize hijacked commercial airliners and attack targets in the middle of New York or hit the Pentagon.

Again, a false sense of security.

Now here we are in 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Collectively, we’re battling a submicroscopic virus. There’s no “kinetic” attack on the country or its people, as with bombs or hijacked airliners.

Still, one key issue of the pandemic is that America deindustrialized in many areas over the past 30 years. The country lost critical sectors that manufacture most of the medical equipment and pharmaceuticals that doctors and hospitals need just now.

American leadership knew about this as it was happening but did nothing along the way. We’ve discussed this before.

Looking back over several decades, it was just easier for the vast U.S. “health care” complex to buy what it needs from offshore manufacturers. Save a few bucks here and there. Who needs domestic industry when there’s globalization, right?

And now we scramble to buy and import medical devices and pharmaceuticals made in… China.

Once again, we’re witness to that characteristically American false sense of security: that it’s OK to rely on foreign sources for critical materials.

Americans seem “not to learn things too good,” to coin a phrase.

Americans, and especially their leadership and governing class, appear comfortable with the idea that the country is protected up, down and sideways, and everything is under control.

Happy and self-deluded, many Americans have placed their faith in what appears to be a well-oiled complex of social, economic and defense systems, all working together. Just throw money at problems and they’ll go away.

Or in the words of Alfred E. Neuman, of the old Mad magazine, “What, me worry?”


What could go wrong?

Things won’t fail… until they do.

It’s called “normalcy bias.” It happens when people underestimate the likelihood of a disaster and its effects. They downplay potential adverse effects.

Normalcy bias causes people not to adequately prepare for disasters, whether natural such as hurricanes or earthquakes, or man-made… like Pearl Harbor, 9/11 or COVID-19.

Along these lines, the next great American failure of imagination is already set up and primed to occur. In fact, it’s ready to happen right above our collective head.

That is, America’s greatest military weakness is not on the ground or at sea. It’s in orbit – many orbits – around the planet.

Because the next Pearl Harbor will be an attack on America’s vast constellation of satellites.

Let’s back up and set the stage…

On Oct. 4, 1957 the Soviet Union launched the world’s first artificial satellite, called Sputnik 1. It orbited the globe for a while, emitting a simple radio beep. After a few weeks, its battery power ran out and the satellite died. After a few months it dropped from orbit and burned up in the atmosphere.

Sputnik 1 lived a short life, but it inaugurated an entirely new era of international competition, the “Space Race.” And since 1957 more than 40 nations have launched over 8,900 satellites into orbit.

Allowing for satellites that fell back to Earth over time, about 5,000 satellites remain in orbit, although many are past their operational life and now dormant.

Currently, the vast majority of working satellites are American, over 1,900.

Operational Soviet/Russian satellites come in second place in terms of numbers, over 1,500.

And don’t neglect China, with over 390 operational satellites in orbit.

And what do these satellites do? Quite a bit… from communications to weather-watching, monitoring oceans and fisheries, mapping resources, assisting with global positioning (aka GPS) and much more.

A vast number of U.S. satellites (and Russian, Chinese and more) are military oriented.

On the U.S. side, you’re probably most familiar with GPS, which is at root a military system.

But there’s a civilian side to GPS as well, which is why your smartphone can steer you around town. Indeed, GPS is so widely available that it enables hikers to traverse near-trackless backwoods areas, while high above it helps airliners navigate across the world.

Primarily, though, GPS is there for its military angle. For example, GPS is why U.S. airplanes can drop bombs and score a hit within about eight inches of where they are aimed.

Beyond GPS, many other orbiting birds are the proverbial U.S. “spy satellites.” Think in terms of overhead imagery or electronic monitoring.

Other U.S. satellites watch for nothing but heat signatures, evidence of rocket launches or highly energetic explosions… like a nuclear blast.

And many U.S. satellites are nothing but big, flying boxes full of relay systems for encrypted military communications. It’s called “bandwidth,” which enables vast amounts of data to relay around the globe.

For example, consider those U.S. drones that you hear about flying hither and yon across Central Asia, the Middle East, Africa, etc…

Often as not, the “pilot” of that drone is sitting in a trailer in Nevada or southeast Virginia.

Sure, there’s a team overseas, in the field to maintain the drone, fuel it up, arm it, etc. But the mission-tasking, flying and direct control – even weapon release – happen back in the U.S.

It’s all enabled by massive uplinks-downlinks via the satellite constellation. Data move back and forth, literally around the world at the speed of light.

Or consider Navy vessels at sea. We’re long past the days of a ship captain sailing over the horizon and being out of touch with commanders ashore.

Anymore, pretty much every Navy ship bigger than a tugboat has onboard systems that enable wideband communication with whomever has the codes. From aircraft carriers to humble fleet oilers, everyone is tied into the Pentagon, if not the White House.

It’s all built on and around satellites, and this is just a bare-bones outline. There’s much more.

Meanwhile, it’s common knowledge that the U.S. has launched all manner of military-related satellites with a wide array of missions. Satellites are critical, to the point of being a “strategic” element of U.S. defense.

Everyone who cares to know about U.S. satellites knows about them, including potential foreign adversaries.

And let’s not kid ourselves… These potential adversaries are smart people who have devoted extensive resources to countering the American strategic advantage in space.

In a sense, it gets back to that earlier mention of the international “Space Race.” Nations are competing in space… And militarily, space is “high ground.”

But now we’ve reached a point where other nations have developed technology to neutralize U.S. satellites. Which is the setup for a future “Pearl Harbor in space.”

In general, there are many scenarios for killing satellites.

The U.S., Russia, China and even India have developed surface- and air-launched missiles that can fly into orbit and smash into somebody else’s satellite. “Crude but effective,” as Mr. Spock used to say on Star Trek.

Less crudely, Russia and China have extensive programs involving ground-based radio jammers, laser beams and even high-powered microwaves. Using massive amounts of energy stored in capacitors, these systems can “zap” American satellites orbiting overhead, blinding the optics and/or damaging electronics.

Russia (and likely China) have also developed – and launched – “stalking” satellites. These devices fly into orbit and trail behind known U.S. satellites at some distance. The stalkers just orbit and wait, following the American bird, doing nothing for years on end (so far).

Let’s be clear on this… Those stalker-birds are already up there.1

At some point, somewhere, ground control could send a signal. Thruster systems on the satellite would kick in to move that stalker toward its U.S. target. The result might be a “kinetic event” such as a blast or collision. Or perhaps a massive electronic burst that jams the satellite or kills the electronics.

Which brings us back to that Pearl Harbor in space scenario…

It’s much like how U.S. intelligence services knew that Japan had a navy, aircraft carriers, airplanes, etc.

We already know that Russia and China have robust space programs, well funded and staffed with armies of smart people.

Indeed, we track progress with ground-based Russian and Chinese programs like lasers and high-powered microwaves. And we certainly keep track of other countries’ space launches and satellites.

But there’s precious little discussion on the U.S. side about what might happen in, say, a 12-hour period as literally dozens of critical satellites simply go offline, either destroyed kinetically or with fried electronics or signal-jammed into uselessness.2

No more GPS. No more bandwidth. No significant communications, aside from perhaps high-frequency (HF) radio bouncing off the ionosphere, as in the 1930s.

U.S. forces across the world would find themselves cut off, isolated, out of touch with higher headquarters… and awaiting whatever comes next.

What I just outlined is an extreme scenario, for sure. Hyper-negative… Worst-case thinking.

And of course, there’s the issue of “who” would start that war? Who wants to fight the United States? Does Russia? Or China?

As Carl von Clausewitz noted long ago, “No one starts a war – or rather, no one in his sense ought to do so – without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by the war and how he intends to conduct it.”

But look at Clausewitz this way… Whoever attacks the U.S. – gives us that pearl Harbor in space – will have thought about it deeply. And they will be looking for a quick knockout.

Nobody – not Russia or China – would want to get into a long war with the U.S., although it’s equally the case that the U.S. cannot afford a long war, in any sense of the word. The U.S. lacks much of the industrial base to wage a long war, as we’ve seen in previous articles.

A modern war involving the U.S. fighting a peer competitor would burn down the arsenal in a short time. American reserve stocks of missiles, torpedoes, bombs and more would quickly deplete.

All this while the other side shoots back. And hypersonic weapons have made modern war quite a losing proposition for the U.S.

And no one wants to risk a nuclear war. Because pretty much all war game scenarios quickly escalate to levels of general exchanges that wipe things out in an apocalyptic manner.

The takeaway from all this gets back to that long-term American failure of imagination. The normalcy bias… the idea that it’s all under control and we don’t have to think hard, stay paranoid and invest in new ideas to remain safely ahead.

Over many decades, the U.S. built out its satellite constellation and came to rely on it for running a global-scale “defense” enterprise.

And now it’s all at risk… block obsolescence, in a sense. A Pearl Harbor in space could bring it all to a crashing halt in a matter of hours.

The answer isn’t more of the same… more money, more technology, more whatever…

The answer is better leadership in high places: people who understand problems and who can see and react to what’s staring them right in the face. People with imagination.

On that note, I rest my case.

That’s all for now… Thank you for subscribing and reading.

Best wishes,

Byron King

Byron King
Managing Editor, Whiskey & Gunpowder

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1 MIT Technology Review. Feb. 2020: “Russian Satellite Is Probably Stalking U.S. Satellite.”

2 Ref: One breath of fresh air is a recent book  by Brandon Weichert (2020), Winning Space; How America Remains a Superpower.

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Byron King

A Harvard-trained geologist and former aide to the United States Chief of Naval Operations, Byron King is our resident gold and mining expert, and we are proud to have him on board as the managing editor of Whiskey & Gunpowder.

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