Washington, it appears, is becoming yet again a playground for the misinterpretation of history. Some elites are revisiting a bogeyman from the 1990s — “Space Pearl Harbor”. The tired expression is getting tossed around again in certain circles to argue for a retreat back to a defense posture an earlier generation created to oppose the formidable Soviet Union. Much like Chicken Little, who famously whips the farmyard into a mass panic while the cunning fox manipulates it for his own gain, such fearmongering can easily sidetrack rigorous national security planning and actually jeopardize the U.S. position in the next space race.
In the decades that followed World War II, a misguided lesson from Pearl Harbor emerged that America was simply not armed well enough to deter the Japanese from attacking Pearl Harbor. Yet the real lesson from that fateful day in 1941 was not that our Navy wasn’t big enough – it was that we didn’t have the resilience to respond quickly. Put simply, we were caught flat-footed with no measured options to respond, which only emboldened an empire-obsessed Japan.
The truth is that the sky is not falling today – but we do face a serious, existential space threat and it is increasing rapidly. Many are calling for Congress and the Pentagon to more tightly align their parochial interests to further militarize the space business with ever more expensive, bespoke death star satellites. Our answer to this century’s great power competition, however, cannot just simply be to double down and expand the legacy military industrial complex. To win this great power competition, we must pivot to leveraging the government’s tremendous buying power to lead and expand America’s commercial space sector.
Just as the world has become dependent on space systems for our way of life, the space domain is becoming increasingly congested and contested. Though well-intentioned, a charged narrative about a potential Pearl Harbor-esque event in space can easily morph into an oversimplified policy framework to justify expanded funding for last century’s solutions, to the detriment of a forward-looking commercial model. As the budget axe begins again to trim defense spending, we must not allow a regression back to the billion-dollar constellations of old. If we do, we will drain precious tax dollars, dwindle our resilience, and actually be less prepared when such a space Pearl Harbor event actually comes to pass.
The Next Generation Commercial Industry is The Key
The national policy discussion for the spacefaring 21st Century shouldn’t focus on how to prevent another Pearl Harbor, but rather focus on how the U.S. should prepare and lead by example to make an attack less likely. We must pursue a strategy that does less to heighten fear in other nations and more to ensure our national leadership has options beyond a nuclear strike to respond when such an attack occurs.
The answer, of course, is quite simple. America should lead with its values and greatest strengths, which aren’t only noble diplomacy or military might. Too often in the last 80 years when diplomacy has failed, we waged war, only to negotiate a withdrawal against a far less capable army. The key to space resilience is rooted in our founding principles of individual liberty and freedom, manifested economically in entrepreneurism and small business. Leveraging our commercial ingenuity and adaptability must be the way forward in planning for the next conflict when the sky really does fall, and America is again called to respond.
Learning from its own history, the United States should reevaluate the military industrial model leftover from the Cold War. Much of it is still very necessary for weapon systems and classified missions, but the industry complex that designs, produces, launches and operates satellites for the agencies of the government must be reevaluated, top to bottom.
The government’s acquisition strategies must be reinvented along two lines. First, it must promote a commercially competitive, market-based economy, not just the one created by the government to support last century’s security needs. Second, it must promote a hybrid resilience that will ensure a future president can lead the country through a Pearl Harbor moment with real options that won’t incur a premature Armageddon.
By doing so, the U.S. can lead the world by example and promote its values in this new frontier. By promoting a commercial marketplace, we tap into our greatest strength and take pressure off our national budget, already heavily strained by the pandemic and resulting recession. By leveraging this new economic sector instead of competing against it, we set the right example for other nations while generating revenue at home, something desperately needed to address more important things than propping up the economy of the past.
Unchecked hyperbole that warns “the sky is falling” creates a multitude of problems. It can certainly have political and policy utility when absolutely necessary, like when Winston Churchill delivered his famous Iron Curtain speech that pushed the West to confront an increasingly aggressive Soviet Union. There can be dramatic downsides, however, that can easily lead to panicked reactions, taking us backward instead of forward. The question isn’t what we can do to prevent a “space Pearl Harbor” from happening. Instead, our priority must be to shore up military and economic resilience to survive an attack and equip our president with immediate options so that when the sky actually does fall, America is ready.