Watching the latest freshman class enter college this month, born after 9/11, should remind us all that an entire generation has now passed since Washington, D.C. and New York City were attacked. Every year, we memorialize the day with a moment of silence, thousands of American flags and an outpouring of national pride, grief and unity. The vicious attacks with little more than box cutters and four commercial jets would embroil us in a worldwide conflict, costing thousands of lives and trillions of dollars. For those of us who worked as senior government officials at the time, September 11 was a strategic surprise, an entry etched at the bottom of a list that goes back to the earliest days of recorded history. With each strategic surprise on that list, a nation is roiled and world history takes an unanticipated turn. Forever afterwards, historians and statesmen debate the cause and impact of each of these events in the context of the present. Why did this happen? And perhaps more importantly, how could we have been so vulnerable?
It is impossible to predict the future. But blindspots in defenses and preparing to fight the last battle instead of the next one, have always left nations more vulnerable to these types of surprise threats. Three generations before 9/11, a political leader by the name of André Maginot failed to anticipate the changes in the character of war to the peril of his nation and ultimately the rest of the world. Maginot is, of course, the infamous pre-war French War Minister, who proudly defended his eponymous Maginot Line, as an impenetrable line of fortifications and the cornerstone of his French defense strategy. He was certain that the Maginot Line would ensure France’s ability to fight and win a second world war. His hubris gave a false sense of security against the gathering German threat and led to the rapid capitulation of France and the entire southern continent in just six weeks.
Complacency is a large factor in our inability to defend against strategic surprises. The French put their faith in the “impenetrable” Maginot Line but didn’t anticipate advances in mechanized speed and Hitler’s blitzkrieg strategies to go around it, much as pre-war admirals could not conceive of unsinkable battleships being sunk with advancing airpower. Much like Maginot before the German defeat of Allied forces, our national security space enterprise today is largely designed to refight the Cold War and unresilient to any manner of strategic surprise. The architectures lack resiliency because of an insufficient and stagnant industrial base, as well as a general lack of adaptation to a rapidly evolving threat. Left unaddressed, our space economy and those dependent on it could be rendered wholly vulnerable to the next strategic surprise.
America’s vulnerability to strategic surprise is enabled by a status quo that is jealously guarded by its industrial complex and exacerbated by the political turmoil of our time. Remarkably similar to how the indestructible Maginot Line did little to protect Europe from the onslaught of Germany’s high-speed tanks and maneuver warfare, our current critical space infrastructure leaves us unprepared to defend against rapidly deployable small satellites with advanced cyber capabilities. Besides the small, agile and maneuverable on-orbit threats, we should also be addressing hypersonic threats which can only be seen and tracked from space. These new technologies of our adversaries pose significant threats to our monolithic critical constellations, our Maginot Line, with ground infrastructures over a decade behind in development and cyber-obsolete.
Today’s Maginot Line in space is expensive to maintain and vulnerable, referred to as “fat, juicy targets” by some military leaders. They were conceived during an earlier era with a benign, purely defensive mindset and cost overruns maintaining them consumes resources needed to address highly evolved threats. In private, off the record conversations, military space officials tell us that this is what keeps them up at night, even more than America’s declining readiness.
In an uncertain and ever-changing world, it is critical that we continue to seek leadership that prepares to fight against tomorrow’s threats, not to refight one from last century. Too often, our current national security debate gets distracted by political grandstanding and Hollywood comedy skits. We must return to productive national dialog when discussing our national defense and a potential groundwork for the U.S. Space Force so as to not lay vulnerable to the next generation’s 9/11. We could begin by listening more closely to those military leaders from every branch of service with decades of experience spent designing, launching and operating satellites. These military leaders are the best informed in the world, with a deep appreciation of not only our vulnerabilities but also our enemy’s ambitions. Our confidence would best placed in these leaders to decide where we need to invest and grow to be best prepared for the future. From Moses to Lincoln to Churchill, when a people’s confidence is well placed, they survive and the leaders are heralded for generations. When misplaced, inept leaders become clichés, infamous for their blunders, like Maginot or Chamberlin.
One certainty in this world is that change is inevitable—the very same change that made the Maginot Line obsolete and the European continent to be taken in weeks or for the World Trade Center to be reduced to a pile of rubble and live on as a national tragedy. The key is adaptability, flexibility and readiness. We can no longer afford to silence our best and brightest military service members or laugh along to out of touch and ill-advised Saturday night comedy. We have no choice but to see space as the newest domain for conflict and prosperity and plan accordingly. When the dust cleared and reality hit us on September 12, 2001, we were one day older but a generation wiser for having lived through the devastation of the day before. Hopefully, with open eyes and mindful leadership, we can abandon the arrogance of Maginot and begin to embrace America’s future beyond the traditional battlefield and prepare for the next strategic surprise.