The Observer is a student-run, daily print & online newspaper serving Notre Dame, Saint Mary's & Holy Cross. Learn about us.



The U.S. military’s Achilles heel

| Monday, September 23, 2019

A Harvard and MIT researcher calls it a “massive vulnerability” that still has “virtually no policy or oversight agency” to defend it. A member of the House Armed Services Committee says it’s an asset “we are almost as dependent on … as … the sun itself” but has “no castle to protect” it. If attacked, “the brain and nervous system” of our military would be “suppressed, if not shattered” entirely, says a defense expert at the Rand Corporation. We’d be rendered “deaf, dumb, blind and impotent”; we might not even know who the attacker was. Some high-profile defense officials in 2001 considered it “a top national security priority,” yet continued inaction and lack of leadership on the issue has left us lagging behind great power rivals like China and Russia. America’s military has been allowed to “[erode] to a dangerous degree,” and within it lurks a badly exposed, fatal Achilles heel: the precarious situation of U.S. satellites and space capabilities.

From navigation, intelligence and imagery to missile deployment and detection and communication, satellites are the cornerstone of every single operation our Armed Forces undertake — not to even mention that virtually the entire global economy would fall into limbo without GPS and satellite technology. As emerging rivals like China and Russia as well as Iran and North Korea — recognizing our acute dependence on space — rush to craft cheap asymmetric responses to our space technology, the U.S. runs the risk of having their most vital military and civilian asset increasingly become a collection of multibillion dollar “sitting duck[s].” 

By crippling America’s military might in such a way, America’s enemies, especially China, have found a strategy, along with more conventional military expansion, to shift the balance of power to such a degree that Beijing and even Moscow could finally deal America a “decisive military defeat” or prevent American action altogether in areas like the Senkaku Islands, South China Sea or Taiwan. Further, China — already America’s most formidable and aggressive threat — is undergoing rapid development of its space capabilities with the intent to one day establish unquestioned dominance in the final frontier.

It’s abundantly clear that China seeks to ultimately surpass the United States as the world’s leading superpower. The country has challenged freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, and Xi Jinping’s “China Dream” promises a “world-class” fighting force that can “fight and win wars” (can’t imagine against whom) by 2050. Even worse, its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative will shrewdly position Beijing — not New York — as the heart of global trade for generations to come, and its accumulation (through debt traps, state-controlled companies, etc.) of ports and bases from Belgium, Greece and Djibouti to Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Australia have vividly illustrated China’s ambitious steps to increasingly mold the international order in its image.

It’s precisely because of this grand strategy that China is “[expanding] by orders of magnitude” its capabilities and clout in space. For years China has understood that space will be a theater of war and perhaps the most pivotal one, making space dominance a necessity to victory on earth. While this may be alarming enough, Chinese strategists elaborate further, arguing that Beijing must become “the strongman of military space,” that space hegemony requires not just “ensuring one’s ability to fully use space” but also deliberately “limiting, weakening and destroying an adversary’s space forces” — notably that of the United States. They say this because they fully understand America’s great vulnerability in and ultimate dependence on satellites and know that “a decisive large-scale first strike” to neutralize U.S. space assets would make a Sino-American conflict (of any size) much more winnable.

And China is already swiftly working towards achieving its goals of establishing a formidable presence in space. Twelve years ago it successfully tested its first anti-satellite missile and four years ago it established its equivalent of a space force. Last January it became the first nation to land a spacecraft on the far side of the moon, and China has now become the world leader in launching satellites. In its “U.S.-China Military Scorecard,” the Rand Corporation discovered that China held an advantage over U.S. defenses in its “ability . . . to hold U.S. military or dual satellite capabilities at risk,” especially with regards to vital communication and imagery technology, which were deemed to be at “high risk.”

Beyond that, some believe China now has the ability to destroy a satellite “22,000 miles above Earth” (the furthest in the world), and Beijing remains committed to testing and developing more subtle means of counterspace warfare like jammers and cyber attacks, seen in assaults on NOAA in 2014, a “high-profile government” video chat in India in 2017 and two U.S. satellite companies, one a DoD contractor, just last year. And it doesn’t plan on slowing down any time soon. If any of this has worried you about America’s position in the world and the rapid ascent of its strongest adversary, it should.

We find ourselves again at a crossroads, a “Sputnik moment” where our actions and response today will affect the course of our history and our story, and as we approach this critical juncture, let us be certain of one thing: China does not stand for freedom. One only has to look at Xinjiang, Hong Kong and the South China Sea to understand what a world with China as the leading superpower might look like. It’s a world order that stands in stark contrast to the one led by America and the one that stands today. And the world stands brighter and more free today because America, despite all its flaws, leads. It’s our duty and obligation that we continue to do so.  

Ronald Reagan was right: “. . . war comes not when the forces of freedom are strong, but when they are weak. It is then that tyrants are tempted.” The threat facing us is all too real, and it’s time we as Americans understood that and its implications. To contain the rise of an aggressive and hegemony-seeking China, it’s essential that America rebuilds its military that has been decaying for years.

Our first priority must be to better equip our forces to defend our Achilles heel and our most prized strategic asset: our space technology and satellites. It’s time that Washington to finally take seriously what was said in 2001: our space technology is in danger and is a “top national [security] priority.” Nothing can be of higher importance than defending this technology, the foundation for all our military, against the growing capabilities of our most dangerous rivals. After all, we are only as strong as our weakest link. Even a Paris who knows his opponent’s weakness can bring down an Achilles.

Andrew Sveda is a freshman at Notre Dame from Pittsburgh intending to major in Political Science.  Besides politics, Andrew enjoys acting, playing the piano and tennis. He can be reached at [email protected] or @SvedaAndrew on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Tags: , , ,

About Andrew Sveda

Contact Andrew