Does America Rule the Vacuum?

The recent war in the sands of Mesopotamia (search) was won, in a sense, hundreds, even thousands of miles overhead.

Surveillance satellites provided valuable intelligence, in spectra both visible to human eyes and those only viewable by computers, in real time.

Communications satellites relayed that data to those who needed it, from generals and admirals in Doha, to special forces in the north, down to the lowest ranking soldiers who needed to know if the enemy was across the river, or around the corner, and how many there were, and where their comrades and reinforcements could be found.

Navigation satellites told our troops where they themselves were at all times.

This did more than shorten the war and thereby save the lives of both our and the enemy's troops. It also saved many civilian lives, by the precision with which targets could be taken out, injuring few bystanders. It saved (and continues to save) lives in other ways.

In wars past, power plants and lines, water treatment plants, dams and hospitals, might all have been destroyed, not because it was necessarily a war goal, but because our crude warfare techniques would have devastated the incidental with the targets. The precision allowed by our satellites spared critical non-targeted infrastructure, necessary to restore life-saving services and utilities quickly, relative to a more old-fashioned, conventional war.

It was the first total communications, digital war, and it couldn't have been won, or even fought remotely like it was, without billions of dollars worth of hardware in orbit, assembled painstakingly over the past several decades.

It's becoming clear that the new high ground of space is critical to America's ability to, for better or worse, project both force and humanity on terra firma. As Britannia once ruled the waves, if America is to maintain its own sense of security, and ability to prevail in future such conflicts, it must rule the void above, as some members of Congress recognize.

This is not as radical or unilateral a notion as it may sound.

After all, our nation currently rules the air and the sea, in the sense that if we apply our will to it, we can dominate any other nation on the planet in a battle in those environments. It doesn't mean that no one else is allowed to fly, or to ply the oceans--it simply means that if we, for whatever reason, decide that we must prevent them from doing so in a particular place and time, we have the ability to do that.

Whether or not that's a good or bad thing, for either America or the rest of the world, is an interesting discussion, but one for a different column. Regardless, it's currently reality. Now some are simply saying that we must extend the fact of that primacy above the atmosphere, where we are currently relatively impotent.

No one, with the possible exception of the Russians, has the actual ability to interfere with the missions of any of our satellites, particularly the high-altitude ones, short of launching a nuke into orbit and detonating it, which would result in massive and comprehensive damage from the electromagnetic impulse of the explosion, at least in low earth orbit, which is where many of our surveillance satellites reside. But if someone were to develop such an ability, we have absolutely no current capability to negate it.

Our space assets are almost totally defenseless, and we are relying on our potential adversaries' (temporary) weakness, rather than our own strength and technological prowess, to ensure their continued availability. Certainly, it's much easier (and within easy technical reach of many advanced nations) to come up with an offensive weapon against our satellites, than it is to defend them.

No doubt there are many who believe that we should rely on a "multi-lateral United Nations (search) transnational" defense force to ensure that no one should place weapons, or systems that can enhance or even, heaven forbid, enable weapons, in space, to protect it for the pristine purposes of science.

The reality is that space is a place, and this doesn't just apply to uses for entertainment and commerce, but military endeavors as well. Given the UN's track record in keeping weapons out of terrestrial areas, the notion that it should be in charge of maintaining a peaceful cosmos is laughable.

In some perfect, ideal existence, there would be a universal peace force that would patrol "greater metropolitan earth" to ensure that no rogue nation could get a march on innocent countries, disable their defenses, and bombard them from above of some terrestrial location. Sadly, that is not the existence in which we live. The U.S. isn't perfect, but it's probably the best we're going to do on the planet, absent a massive global educational initiative.

This may sound arrogant, and perhaps it is, but if there is going to be a superpower, even a hyperpower on earth, what would you choose it to be? A nation founded on at least the principles of accountability and balance of power between the rulers and the ruled, or an entity on the bank of the East River of New York, consisting mainly of the votes of a number of satrapies and kleptocracies that perversely demand the rights of democracy, which they deny their own people?

Again, our nation is not perfect, but it has at least the mechanisms in place to achieve such a state, or at least approach it. "Britannia rules the waves" was not perfection, but in many ways it advanced civilization for a century or two. We will continue to improve on the American experiment, but while we're doing so, we could do a lot worse than to bask in the benefits of a "Pax Americana Cosmos" as we continue to work out the bugs. The world has to ask itself: Would we prefer the domination of space by people whose credo is death and destruction of anyone who believes not in Wahabbism (search), or those who are pluralistic and tolerant of other religions that are tolerant themselves?

Perhaps the choice isn't that stark, but given the current state of the world, it's incumbent on those who think otherwise at this point to make their case.

Rand Simberg is a recovering aerospace engineer and a consultant in space commercialization, space tourism and Internet security. He offers occasionally biting commentary about infinity and beyond at his Web log, Transterrestrial Musings.

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