Deaf, Dumb, Blind, and Impotent in Space

U.S. Capitol at sunrise. William Beem /

The following article was originally published as the foreword to Space Threat Assessment 2019, a report assessing the counterspace capabilities from potential adversaries around the world. 

We are almost as dependent on satellites as we are on the sun itself. They are our “infrastructure of infrastructure,” enabling our television, internet, telecommunications, energy, trade, and financial networks to function. Who wouldn’t be lost without GPS, the free service we have given the world?

Satellites already crowd key orbits. And companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin are building cheaper, reusable rockets to add as many as 100 new satellites with every launch.

Every nation’s satellites face increasing threats, starting with killer debris in the vast supersonic junkyards circling the earth. Even a paint chip is lethal at 17,000 miles per hour. Fortunately, the U.S. Air Force tracks the larger threats and warns all spacefaring nations how to maneuver their satellites to safety. We provide free space traffic control to every nation.

Satellites are also vulnerable to a wide array of intentional threats, such as killer satellites. Other nations have learned how to attack the global commons of space. Our vulnerability is acute because our satellites are the juiciest targets. Cripple our satellites, and you cripple us. Satellites are not only our crown jewels but the crown itself—and we have no castle to protect them.

The United States may not even know who had attacked us in space, only that we were deaf, dumb, blind, and impotent.

The United States is not the leader in anti-satellite technology. We had naively hoped that our satellites were simply out of reach, too high to be attacked, or that other nations would not dare. As this report meticulously documents, other nations are developing, testing, and fielding a range of counterspace weapons that threaten to deprive us of the many economic and military advantages we derive from space.

The risk of a space Pearl Harbor is growing every day. Yet this war would not last for years. Rather, it would be over the day it started. Without our satellites, we would have a hard time regrouping and fighting back. We may not even know who had attacked us, only that we were deaf, dumb, blind, and impotent.

We have been officially warned of this danger since at least 2001 when the Rumsfeld Report was released, but the Pentagon has done very little to reduce this existential risk. The 2008 Allard Report even warned that “no one is in charge” of our space strategy. Sadly, this is still true.

This is the year of decision. The House of Representatives has overwhelmingly and on a bipartisan basis supported a new “Space Corps” for several years, and the president has recently demanded a “Space Force.” The Pentagon has responded with a proposal that assembles a Space Force that resembles the House’s Space Corps proposal. This year’s National Defense Authorization Act will decide the outcome.Aerospace