Leading the New Space Race

A rare confluence of events has conspired to make a national priority out of the Pentagon's deployment of advanced communications and surveillance systems in space. The way some defense experts see it, U.S. military control of such space-based systems will be as vital in the information age as U.S. shipyards and factories were in manufacturing the "arsenal of democracy."

At least, that was the conclusion reached earlier this year by the congressionally mandated U.S. Space Commission. As one example of the United States' growing dependence on space-based communications, the commission pointed to the rapid proliferation over the past decade of global positioning satellite systems for everything from advanced weapons and military aircraft to cars and recreational boats. The chairman of the commission was none other than Donald Rumsfeld, now the Defense Secretary. That puts Rumsfeld in the unique position of being able to push through the recommendations of his own recent commissions on space and missile defense, both of which argue for a far more aggressive exploitation of space. Any doubts that Rumsfeld would follow through on the commissions' recommendations were largely dispelled by a Pentagon briefing paper listing his top five priorities, which include modernizing command, control, communications and space capabilities; deploying a missile defense system; and transforming the military with new technologies-many of which use space-based electronics and communications systems.

That's good news for U.S. satellite makers. According to the Space Commission's report, the Defense Department and the CIA will need to replace virtually their entire inventories of satellites over the next decade or so, at an estimated cost of more than $60 billion. The top priority is the Space-Based Infra-Red System-Low (SBIRS-Low) program, which is designed to replace the Pentagon's aging constellation of satellites that give early warnings of missile launches worldwide. Congress appropriated $241 million for the SBIRS-Low program in fiscal 2001. Current plans call for launching a 24-satellite array beginning in 2006.

This year, Congress also has appropriated $412 million for upgrading the Boeing and Lockheed Martin Navstar global positioning satellite system, and $23 million for Lockheed Martin's Milstar secure military communications satellites. The space-based radar demonstration program, known as Discover II, is another favorite of Rumsfeld's commission, and remains the No. 1 technology investment priority of the U.S. Space Command.

If successful, these radars-in-orbit could provide an unprecedented, all-weather surveillance capability for U.S. military commanders around the globe. That would greatly improve their "situational awareness" of a battlefield by tracking both fixed and moving targets from space. Congress killed the program last year, but Rumsfeld wants to revive it.

The information that military commanders already gain from space continues to lift the "fog of war" to an unprecedented degree. During the 1999 air war over Kosovo, for example, U.S. commanders were able to transfer satellite surveillance and intelligence information directly into the cockpits of long-range bombers in the air, including information on threats, targets and positions of friendly aircraft. "Space-based capabilities are largely what distinguishes America as the sole remaining superpower," says John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a think tank in northern Virginia. "Although many potential adversaries have armies, navies and air forces, none approaches the U.S. military in their use of space for secure communications, surveillance, navigation, intelligence-gathering and missile warning."

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