Spaceflight Now: Breaking News

Report recommends stronger U.S. defense role in space

Posted: January 12, 2001

  DSP art
An artist's concept of a Defense Support Program early-warning missile detection satellite. Photo: USAF
Calling space a "top national security priority," an independent commission chaired by the nation's next Secretary of Defense concluded in a report released Thursday that the United States military needs to take a more active and better focused role in Earth orbit.

The report by the Commission to Assess United States National Security, Space Management and Organization, established by Congress and led by Secretary of Defense-designee Donald Rumsfeld, recommended wide-reaching changes in the military and other branches of government to better focus on space-related national security issues but stopped short of calling for an independent "Space Force" branch of the military.

The commission identified three central tenets of American space policy: promoting the peaceful use of space; using space to promote the nation's military, diplomatic, and economic initiatives; and defending national space assets from attack as well as preventing aggressors from using space to attack national interests. Rather than outline specific programs in those three areas, the commission instead looked at how the government can better support those concepts in general.

The report noted that the United States in general, and the military in particular, has grown increasingly dependent on space-based resources, ranging from communications and navigation to reconnaissance and eavesdropping. However, that dependence could become a vulnerability if an aggressor took action against spacecraft, potentially giving them the upper hand in a future conflict. The report concluded that the government has yet to take that threat seriously enough.

Illustration of the Pentagon's Milstar communications satellite. Photo: Lockheed Martin
"If the U.S. is to avoid a 'Space Pearl Harbor' it needs to take seriously the possibility of an attack on U.S. space systems," the commission wrote. The growing dependencies and vulnerabilities "demand that U.S. national space interests be recognized as a top national security priority."

However, the commission found that the government, particularly the Defense Department and the intelligence community, "is not yet arranged or focused to meet the national security needs of the 21st century." Much of the report focused on changes in various branches of the government that the commission felt were needed to make them more responsive to space policy issues.

The commission's recommended changes start at the top. "There is no single individual other than the President who can provide the leadership, direction, and oversight of national security space policy that is needed," it stated. Under current space policy enacted in 1996 by President Clinton, though, executive oversight of space policy is split unwieldy between the National Science and Technology Council and the National Security Council, an arrangement that "has not, does not, and cannot provide the focused attention to space matters that is needed."

Instead, the commission recommends that the President should consider "establishing space as a top national security priority." It also recommends the creation of a Presidential Space Advisory Group that would advise the President on space policy issues in much the same way the former National Space Council did under several previous administrations.

The report also called for reforms within the structures of the National Security Council, intelligence agencies, and the Defense Department, including the creation of a new Undersecretary of Defense position responsible for space, intelligence, and information. The commission recommended increased support for research into "leap ahead" technologies that support space interests and closer cooperation with the private sector and civilian government agencies.

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An artist's concept of a Global Positioning System satellite orbiting Earth. Photo: Lockheed Martin
The commission did stop short of recommending the establishment of a "Space Force", a new independent branch of the military that would focus solely on space. The commission instead said changes within the Air Force to better align its resources towards space operations, although they did not rule out the eventual formation of a "Space Corps" within the Air Force that could be the nucleus of an eventual independent force. Some outside experts and members of Congress, including Sen. Bob Smith (R-N.H.), had lobbied for the formation of a Space Force, arguing it was a better way to meet the nation's military space needs than to extend the mission of the Air Force.

Congress established the 13-member commission, composed of former military officers, government officials, and businessmen, under a provision in a defense authorization bill passed in 1999. While similar independent commissions have had mixed results, at best, in the past, this commission is given a better chance at success as its former chairman, Donald Rumsfeld, has been nominated by President-elect George W. Bush to be the nation's next defense secretary. Rumsfeld stepped down from the commission on December 28, the day he was nominated by Bush, but by then the commission had completed the bulk of its work.

Rumsfeld briefly mentioned space policy on Thursday in another setting. "We must develop the capabilities to defend against missiles, terrorism and newer threats against our space assets and information systems," he said during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Rumsfeld, who also served as defense secretary a quarter-century ago in the Ford Administration, is expected to easily win confirmation by the full Senate by the end of next week.

The full text of the commission's report was made available Thursday on a new web site,, that was established as part of an effort to facilitate better communication among various space-related government offices.