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Rumsfeld Commission Warns Against "Space Pearl Harbor"

The Rumsfeld commission has warned the US is becoming increasingly vulnerable with a growing need for communication satellites, Global Positioning System equipment, along with its fleet of critical spy satellites.
by Jean-Michel Stoullig
Washington (AFP) Jan. 11, 2001
Warning that the United States could face a "space Pearl Harbor," Defense Secretary-designate Donald Rumsfeld and a commission he formerly headed unveiled a report Thursday advocating tighter security for American space systems.

"If the US is to avoid a 'space Pearl Harbor,' it needs to take seriously the possibility of an attack on US space systems," said the commission, referring to the 1941 Japanese attack on US naval forces in Hawaii's Pearl Harbor.

"The US is more dependent on space than any other nation. Yet the threat to the US and its allies in and from space does not command the attention it merits," said the commission, made up of Republican and Democratic lawmakers and experts from the military and the private sector.

"Those hostile to the US can acquire on the global market the means to deny, disrupt or destroy US space systems by attacking satellites in space, communication links to and from the ground or ground stations that command the satellites and process their data," it added.

To thwart the threats from foreign nations or terrorists, the report called for a technological push and closer collaboration between the Pentagon and the intelligence community (particularly the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Reconnaissance Office, which manages US reconnaissance satellite systems).

Stopping short of suggesting a fifth military branch for space (along with the Army, Air Force, Navy and the Marine Corps), the commission, which is tasked with assessing US national security space management and organization, called for establishment of "an under-secretary of defense for space, intelligence and information."

It also said the defense secretary and the director of the CIA should meet regularly.

"We found that the US in general, the DOD (Department of Defense) and the intelligence community, in particular, are not very well arranged to meet the national security space needs of the 21st century," said retired admiral David Jeremiah.

Jeremiah took over the chairmanship of the commission from Rumsfeld last month when the latter was picked by President-elect George W. Bush as his nominee to head the Pentagon.

He said the country was becoming increasingly vulnerable as it faces growing needs for communication satellites for cell phones, Global Positioning System equipment, spying and ground infrastructure.

The report gave no price tag for new technological systems, but the cost of replacing obsolete military satellites over the next decade is estimated at 50 billion dollars.

It cited several examples of vulnerability to attacks. In 1998, 80 percent of US pagers broke down because of a problem with the Galaxy IV satellite. Early last year, the United States lost contact for three hours with several satellites because of computer problems at its ground stations.

"Increasingly, people like (suspected terrorist mastermind) Osama bin Laden may be able to acquire capabilities on satellites" and will be able to threaten US ground stations, Jeremiah added.

The commission said that while it appreciated "the sensitivity that surrounds the notion of weapons in space for offensive or defensive purposes," it believed the US president should "have an option to deploy weapons in space to deter threats to and, if necessary, defend against attacks on US interests."

The 1967 Outer Space Treaty bans nuclear arms or weapons of mass destruction in space but remains vague on weapons such as space lasers, according to Spurgeon Keeny, head of the Arms Control Association.

Rumsfeld, appearing at a Senate confirmation hearing here Thursday, voiced support for the proposed US national missile defense system, which faces opposition from Russia, China and some of Washington's allies.

"Space lasers (satellite killers) demand a lot of work, and the question is whether they are affordable," Jeremiah said.

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