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– Frank Klotz
former Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration
March 7, 2018
Rushing to Weaponize the Final Frontier

Theresa Hitchens

For nearly 40 years, there has been a gentlemen’s agreement among the world’s space-faring nations to refrain from putting weapons in space. This unspoken pact to protect space for “peaceful uses” has penetrated the international psyche so deeply that most countries, including the two Cold War rivals, have also refrained from developing weapons that could shoot down satellites from the ground, air, or sea.

That may well be about to change.

The United States, the number one space power, is on the verge of a set of decisions that could make it the first to place weapons in orbit. This would be a momentous move, holding the potential for a phase shift in global politics and international relations. It could well go down as one of the major historical events of the 21st century.

It is unclear, however, whether those in the military and the administration of President George W. Bush who are pushing for aggressive U.S. moves to develop and field anti-satellite and spaced-based weaponry have clearly and completely explored the far-reaching political, commercial, and national security ramifications such a move could have.

In the absence of such an in-depth, detailed, and public review—that is, including inputs from Congress, academia, and industry, and involving unclassified as well as classified assessments—of the enormous impact of creating a new battlefield in space, it would be a serious mistake for President Bush to allow the Pentagon’s space-warfare proponents to continue their march to orbit. There is too much at stake, for both the United States and the rest of the world.

A New Space Policy?

Although there has been a good deal of internal debate within the military, particularly the Air Force, about the issue of space-based weaponry, overall national security policy regarding space has changed little over the past several decades.

The National Space Policy document released by the White House in September 1996 provides the current national guidance. That document, and its interpretation by the Clinton administration, is consistent with U.S. policy ever since the original space race of the late 1950s and 1960s: continue the restraint against putting weapons in orbit, but allow the military to explore technologies and capabilities as both a deterrent and a hedge against potential developments by hostile countries.

This U.S. policy, although encouraging research and development, has amounted to a de facto prohibition on the deployment of space-based weapons. In fact, despite several eras of experimentation, both the United States and Russia have also rejected the deployment of ground-, sea-, and air-based anti-satellite weapons (ASATs). In other words, weaponization of space—whether through the introduction of orbiting weapons or through direct targeting of satellites—has been and continues to be taboo.

This restraint has occurred despite the fact that there are no international or bilateral treaties banning weapons in space, although there are several treaties limiting some space-based military activities. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty proscribes putting weapons of mass destruction into space or on the moon or other celestial bodies. The 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty also prohibited nuclear explosions in space. The 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty between the United States and Soviet Union forbids development, testing, or deployment of space-based missile defense systems and also forbids “tampering” with the other side’s “national technical means” (i.e., spy satellites).

None of these treaties outright ban space-based weapons or even ASATs aimed at satellites other than spy satellites. In fact, the U.S. government has never been willing to formally pledge a ban on weapons in space, much less on ASATs. Still, the dominant strain of political thought until recently has been that the benefits of being the first country to put weapons in space, or to build ASATs, would be outweighed by the costs (although it must be admitted that, with regard to ASATs, it has most often been the technical difficulties and the enormous monetary costs, rather than political costs, that have prevented more progress).

Considering the possible political, economic, and international security ramifications of potential warfare in space, it would be logical to conclude that any major change in U.S. space policy should be preceded by a wide-ranging, interagency review led by the National Security Council and including input from industry, Congress, and academics. Such a review would look seriously at the threat, both near- and long-term, as well as at how to prevent, deter, or counter any future threat using all the tools in the U.S. policy toolbox: diplomatic, economic, and military.

According to Pentagon officials, however, a U.S. policy change may be coming without benefit of an overarching national security review or evidence that a true integrated top-level strategy has been thought through.

Air Force Colonel Ronald Haeckel, J-5 vice director of plans for U.S. Space Command, said July 16 that U.S. Space Command does not currently have the green light to actually deploy weapons in space. “We don’t believe it is appropriate at this time to put weapons in space,” he told a conference sponsored by the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command in Huntsville, Alabama. However, Haeckel later said that Space Command is “expecting new guidance for space” from the Bush administration to replace the 1996 National Space Policy and that command officials are “anticipating new doctrine very shortly here.” Other military and Pentagon officials privately have echoed this expectation.

Such a policy shift already is being foreshadowed by a flurry of public statements by Pentagon and military officials about the impending need for protecting U.S. assets in space and about the inevitable requirement for war-fighting in space.

The January 2001 report of the Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organization, originally chaired by current Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, stated: “The Commissioners believe the U.S. government should vigorously pursue the capabilities called for in the National Space Policy to ensure that the president will have the option to deploy weapons in space to deter threats to, and, if necessary, defend against attacks on U.S. interests.”

General Ralph E. Eberhart, commander-in-chief of U.S. Space Command, told reporters in Colorado Springs August 1 that the Pentagon’s nearly finished Quadrennial Defense Review will put a new and strong emphasis on space, calling it a “very strong signal” about the administration’s intentions. General Michael Ryan, Air Force chief of staff, told reporters in Washington the same day that the military sooner or later would need to be able to “take things out in orbit.”

Further, on August 24, the Bush administration announced the appointment of Air Force General Richard B. Myers, former head of U.S. Space Command, as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Myers, like Rumsfeld himself, has been an aggressive proponent of space defense and has consistently been sympathetic to pursuing weapons in space.

There are two major factors now driving the momentum for a possible policy change.

Space Control

There is increasing agitation within the military and among a growing cadre of policy-makers about the reliance of the U.S. military and the civil economy on space-based assets and the vulnerability of those assets to potential enemy attack.

For example, the Space Commission report, one of the seminal documents driving Bush administration thinking on the nature of the space threat, warns about the possibility of a “Space Pearl Harbor.” Noting that the United States is more dependent on space than any other nation, the Space Commission report states:

Assuring the security of space capabilities becomes more challenging as technology proliferates and access to it by potentially hostile entities becomes easier. The loss of space systems that support military operations or collect intelligence would dramatically affect the way U.S. forces could fight, likely raising the cost in lives and property and making the outcome less sure. U.S. space systems, including the ground, communication and space segments need to be defended to ensure their survivability.

This growing threat perception has led to moves by all three services to explore more aggressively what is known as “space control,” defined by the military as the ability to “assure freedom of action in space and deny same” to the enemy.

Colonel Haeckel explained July 16 that there not only is a need to protect U.S. assets in space, but also a critical requirement to “negate the ability for adversaries to exploit their space forces.” The reason, according to Haeckel and other military officials, is that allowing enemies to use space freely could diminish the edge U.S. forces now have on the ground through the exploitation of space-based assets, such as imagery, communications, and precision targeting. Haeckel noted that negation does not only mean blowing a satellite out of the sky (in fact, that might be the wrong choice, considering the possible effects of an explosion and debris on nearby satellites) but also could include taking out the ground segment or jamming the link between the ground-based receivers and the space segment.
U.S. Space Command nonetheless is tasked to plan for “force application from space”—a mission Haeckel characterized as one of hedging against potential future need. In fact, such “hedge” planning is underway in earnest by the Air Force, Army, and Navy components of Space Command. The prevailing military wisdom is that “conflict in space is inevitable” and cannot be avoided.1

The Army, however, is the only service now overtly charged with demonstrating a space-based anti-satellite weapon, the Kinetic Energy Anti-Satellite program. Launched in 1990 with a contract to Boeing, the idea is to use a kinetic-energy kill vehicle to hit an enemy satellite and destroy it. The current program is limited to the development of three flight-test ASATs, which will be put “on the shelf” but which could be launched within a year.

There is also at least one other major potential ASAT weapon system under development: the ground-based Mid-Infrared Advanced Chemical Laser (MIRACL), originally developed for President Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” missile defense program. In addition, the Pentagon has been developing other ground-based laser systems designed primarily for other uses that could have ASAT capability.

Missile Defense

The second factor driving U.S. political-military thinking about weaponizing space is the push, being accelerated by the Bush administration, to develop missile defenses, including possible space-based weapon systems. The Pentagon’s just-revised missile defense plans now include at least two space-based systems for development between 2010 and 2015. Although it is unclear if these plans have been deliberately structured to serve as the proverbial foot in the door to the weaponization of space, their implementation would have that effect. In other words, a decision to move forward with space-based missile defense systems would overturn the current policy of restraint—with or without an overt move to rewrite the National Space Policy.

The Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO) is reviving the Reagan-era concept of Brilliant Pebbles—orbiting, kinetic kill vehicles designed to knock out enemy ICBMs in their boost phase. Robert Snyder, BMDO executive director, told reporters at the Huntsville conference July 17 that the Pentagon hopes to have a new concept for space-based kinetic kill vehicles developed by 2002 and to conduct a “limited experiment” of the concept in space sometime in the 2005-2006 time frame. Such orbiting vehicles, if proven feasible, obviously could be augmented for use against other objects in space, such as satellites.

Research on the Space Based Laser has been ongoing for some time, but technical successes in development of the laser beam technology have made Air Force and BMDO officials more bullish about the program in recent years. The first test of a prototype is currently slated for 2012. In addition, the Air Force now openly is discussing other missions for the system beyond missile defense. According to a July 18 briefing at the Huntsville conference by Colonel William N. McCasland, system program director for the Space Based Laser, such missions could include

  • “defense/offensive counter space operations” (i.e., anti-satellite missions);
  • “deny access to space” (for example, knocking out enemy launchers as they blast off);
  • “deny flow of information to/from satellite” (perhaps using low-power beams to disrupt rather than destroy a satellite);
  • “defense/offensive counter-air operations”; and
  • knocking out high-altitude aircraft, cruise missiles, or unmanned aerial vehicles.

The Threat

Although current Pentagon planning is driven by the perception of an urgent, emerging threat, there is some reason to question whether such a threat assessment is justified and whether the magnitude of the threat requires a near-term change to today’s space policy. Leaving aside the question of the ballistic missile threat—as that is a major debate in its own right and Pentagon missile defense plans contain a number of non-space-based options for addressing it—it is unclear what threat to U.S. space assets exists today or will exist in the near and medium term.

The members of the Space Commission and other proponents of weaponizing space often cite as an indicator of the threat trend the fact that there are more and more countries, now 50-plus, with space capabilities. Available technologies, from imaging to telecommunications to tracking and signals intelligence, are progressing rapidly; and many are available on the commercial marketplace. The Space Commission report also includes extensive analysis of the possible vulnerabilities of U.S. space assets, especially commercial satellites and communications grids: “The reality is that there are many extant capabilities to deny, disrupt or physically destroy space systems and the ground facilities that use and control them.”
However, vulnerabilities do not necessarily result in threats, and the actual case for a near-term threat is weak. There is little hard evidence that any other country or hostile non-state actor possesses the technology, or the intention, to seriously threaten U.S. military or commercial operations in space using space-based weapons. In fact, there are extremely few details to be found (at least in the public domain) regarding countries and programs of concern or time frames for hostile developments.

Several countries have the capability to launch a nuclear weapon into space and disrupt satellite activity on a grand scale, but this is not a new threat (and it is prohibited by the Limited Test Ban Treaty). Nor is there reason to believe that any government would risk doing so knowing that the U.S. response might well be a nuclear attack on its own nation.

Recently, there have been a handful of Chinese press reports about China’s military researching microsatellites (weighing less than 100 kilograms) or nanosatellites (weighing less than 10 kilograms) to attack U.S. satellites in space in a future war, but evidence of actual progress is scant. Russia also has long explored anti-satellite technology, but there is little reason to believe that Moscow has changed its policy against deploying such weapons, especially given the current cash-starved state of the Russian space program.

Proponents of weaponizing space vaguely cite the threat as emerging in the 2020 time frame or beyond, and even the Space Commission report puts the possible development of hostile anti-satellite systems at decades away.

There is also the question of intent. It is not obvious that any nation has any intention, or even incentive, to launch a war in space. Instead, most countries, including China and Russia, have been urging a global ban on weapons in space. In fact, a U.S. move to put offensive weapons in space could have the perverse effect of creating a threat because other countries would feel compelled to follow suit.2

Furthermore, space warfare proponents are making a significant leap in logic when they argue that space-based weapons are, or will soon be, required to protect the ability of the United States to operate freely in space. Currently, the simplest ways to attack satellites and satellite-based systems involve ground-based operations against ground facilities, such as disruption of computerized downlinks.

It is true that the incidences of computer hacking against U.S. military, financial, and industrial networks continues to rise and that several countries including China are known to be exploring information warfare capabilities. Many countries already have developed military electronic jamming systems. Hacking and jamming are the least expensive options for anyone interested in disrupting space-based networks, precisely because they do not require putting anything into orbit.

Although there is reason for concern about the potential for information warfare including attacks on space-based assets, there is little reason to believe that the answer is to put weapons in space. Rather, what is needed most urgently in the near term is to find ways to prevent computer network intrusion; to ensure redundant capabilities both at the system and subsystem level, including the ability to rapidly replace satellites on orbit; and to harden electronic components on particularly important satellites.
Obviously, it is impossible to completely assess a threat to U.S. national security without the benefit of classified data. Nonetheless, threat assessment is not the only necessary input to the creation of national security policy. Even if an urgent threat to U.S. space operations could be proven, an assessment of the pros and cons of the United States becoming the first country to put weapons in space would still be necessary.

There are at least two major risks that require fuller exploration: the potential for starting an arms race in space that does both military and political damage to the United States; and the possibility that bringing warfare to space might have negative consequences for the U.S. space and telecommunications industry, which now dominates the world marketplace.

A New Space Race?

China and Russia long have been worried about possible U.S. breakout on space-based weaponry. In fact, officials from both countries have expressed concern that the U.S. missile defense program is aimed not at what Moscow and Beijing see as a non-credible threat from rogue-nation ballistic missiles, but rather at launching a long-term U.S. effort to dominate space. Indeed, Chinese and Russian fears regarding the real motives behind the U.S. push for missile defense seem to be legitimized by the latest details to come from the Bush team on its new program plans.

Chinese objections to U.S. missile defenses stem not only from Beijing’s concern about the impact on its small nuclear arsenal but also from the economic consequences of opening the door to weapons in space. China is a developing space power, which sees access to space as necessary to future economic growth. Chinese leaders are concerned about the possibility that the United States might be able to deny them such access, and see a U.S. missile defense program as a backdoor effort to gain such a capability.
China also is a key proponent of negotiations at the UN Conference on Disarmament to expand the 1967 Outer Space Treaty to ban all types of weapons. The effort to start talks known as PAROS, for “prevention of an arms race in outer space,” has been stalled due in large part to the objection of the United States. For example, in November 2000 the United States was one of three countries (the others were Israel and Micronesia) to refuse to vote for a UN resolution citing the need for steps to prevent the arming of space. At the May session of the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, Chinese Ambassador Hu Xiaodi said negotiations on a treaty are a “pressing task” because of U.S. missile defense and “space control” plans, and he presented a working paper detailing the elements of a possible treaty.

Russia, on the other hand, is an established space power and itself has long dabbled (as has the U.S. military) in ASAT technology. Moscow’s key worry about a U.S. strategic missile defense is that it could eventually undercut Russia’s own nuclear deterrent, but Russian officials also have long expressed concern that any system could easily be expanded into space and thus present a much wider threat to Russia’s freedom of action on the world stage. Russia, too, has been a proponent of PAROS and has been active in Geneva in trying to overcome the stalemate in the talks by pushing for the establishment of an ad hoc negotiating structure as a first step.

Given the tremendous military advantage that weapons in space could provide, there is reason for Moscow and Beijing (and perhaps even U.S. friends and allies) to be concerned about U.S. plans. The U.S. Space Commission report itself inadvertently fans such fears: “It is…possible to project power through and from space in response to events anywhere in the world. Having this capability would give the United States a much stronger deterrent and, in a conflict, an extraordinary military advantage.”
Obviously, neither Russia nor China is going to sit idly by while the United States becomes a space hegemon. Space weapons have inherent offensive and first-strike capabilities and would demand a military and political response from those nations who consider themselves either rivals or balancers of the United States. Of course, any Chinese move to put weapons in space would trigger regional rival India to consider the same, while a Russian move might spur on others in Europe. It is quite easy to imagine the course of a new arms race in space that would be nearly as destabilizing as the atomic weapons race proved to be.

The major risk is that a new strategic-level arms race would have negative consequences for U.S. security in the long run that would outweigh the short-term advantage of being the first with space-based weapons. Not only would there be direct economic costs to keeping ahead of opponents intent on matching U.S. space-weapon capabilities, but there would also be indirect costs to countering other military, political, and economic challenges likely to be presented by those countries or international actors that could not afford to be participants in the race itself.

As Karl Mueller, an analyst at the School of Advanced Airpower Studies at Maxwell Air Force Base, writes, “The United States would not be able to maintain unchallenged hegemony in the weaponization of space, and while a space-weapons race would threaten international stability, it would be even more dangerous to U.S. security and relative power projection capability, due to other states’ significant ability and probably inclination to balance symmetrically and asymmetrically against ascendant U.S. power.”3

U.S. weaponization of space could actually undercut the military advantages the United States now possesses by provoking other nations to counter U.S. dominance of space—either asymmetrically (through terrorism, for example) or directly (through targeting U.S. space weapons and other space-based assets.)4 Up to now, no country has concluded that it has sufficient reason to take on the costs of challenging the U.S. lead in space, and so the United States has been able to use space to its military and commercial advantage with relative freedom. Space-based weapons might alter that calculation.

Marketplace Ramifications

Besides the potential for undercutting, rather than strengthening, current U.S. military dominance, there also is reason to be concerned about the possibility that moves toward weaponizing space could damage the competitiveness of the U.S. space industry, which currently dominates the international marketplace and therefore bolsters U.S. economic and military power.

Whereas military officials often refer to space as a domain for action, like air or sea, space also is a market sector, and unlike many other sectors, it is growing at a phenomenal pace. The commercial space and telecommunications sector is also arguably the most globalized of today’s economic sectors. Not only is the customer base international, commercial space market activities are characterized by multinational alliances among companies and consortia, including joint government programs.

Whereas space used to be available only to the most developed nations, there are more than 1,100 companies in 53 countries now exploiting space.5 According to data from the Washington-based Satellite Industry Association, worldwide revenue for the satellite industry was $61.4 billion in 1999 and $81.1 billion in 2000. In 1999, the U.S. portion of satellite industry revenue equaled $31.9 billion, and, importantly, exports accounted for half or more of U.S. industry revenues.

Financial projections make clear that the market—from space launch to satellite manufacturing to the telecommunications packages to satellite services—is exploding around the world. Although U.S. firms remain firmly in the lead, the booming market has also meant a boom in competition that has been made sharper by actions the U.S. government has taken in the name of national security.

Satellite manufacturers are concerned about the effects of U.S. regulatory requirements and export controls on their bottom line. For example, in 1998 licensing of satellite exports was switched from the Commerce Department to the State Department and are now handled in a similar manner to export controls because of national security concerns, particularly about technology leakage to China. The Satellite Industry Association released statistics in February showing that U.S. market share for geostationary communications satellites dropped from its 10-year average of about 75 percent to 45 percent during 2000, and it blamed the regulatory switch to State and the subsequent slowing of the export licensing process for the problem.

U.S. industry officials also worry when they hear the Pentagon talk about the need to deny “enemies” access to space assets. The U.S. Army is perhaps the most highly vocal of the services about the increasing availability of space-based assets (such as high-speed communications, navigation capabilities, and, perhaps most importantly, commercial imagery) that could empower an enemy and make U.S. ground operations abroad much more difficult. Army officials repeatedly claim that the famous “left hook” maneuver in Operation Desert Storm could not have succeeded if Saddam Hussein had possessed the imagery available on the commercial market today. The fear is that the advantages that the Army now has on the ground due to its access to space-based assets would be undercut by allowing adversaries similar access to space during hostilities.

“The idea of being able to control what people are seeing is going to be an issue for the Army,” Lieutenant General Joseph M. Cosumano Jr., commander of U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command, told reporters in Huntsville July 18. When asked how the Army could do that, considering that imagery is being provided by commercial companies, Cosumano said that “there is going to be a lot of discussion of policy” as “some of these assets belong to U.S. companies and they don’t feel too good about the idea that we might shoot them out of the sky.”

Even the mere whisper that the U.S. government might shut off foreign customers or shoot down commercial satellites providing services abroad causes U.S. industrialists to shiver because it feeds the notion brewing in many other countries that they must create independent space industries to avoid relying on U.S. companies and capabilities.

Some international customers and countries already are questioning the reliability of U.S. suppliers (and government-supplied products). After the change in export-licensing authority, the half-German firm Daimler-Chrysler Aerospace announced it would no longer purchase U.S.-made satellite components. In addition, the European Union nations are pursuing their own version of the U.S. Global Positioning System navigation satellite network in part due to fears that future access might be denied or downgraded by the U.S. military.

The challenges the U.S. satellite industry is already facing because of national security concerns would be magnified dramatically if the United States moved to make space a legitimate battlefield. Up to now, the threat that commercial satellites could become direct wartime casualties has been negligible. But an aggressive U.S. pursuit of ASATs would likely encourage others to do the same, thus potentially raising the threat to U.S. satellites. Space industry executives do not relish the prospect that other countries would be given the incentive to target U.S. commercial satellites and their operations, which right now have few protective capabilities (electronic hardening, for example, has been considered too expensive, considering the lack of an in-space threat).

The health of the U.S. commercial space and telecommunications industry is not an unimportant question to national security writ large. The information technology revolution enabled by space-based communications, and the Internet, are critical to the U.S. economy. This requires hard decisions to be made between traditional national security needs and those of industry.

For example, the wireless communications industry already is in a spat with the Defense Department about access to a portion of the radio spectrum that industry argues is essential to allow high-speed Internet access over cellular phones. That portion of the spectrum (1755-1850 megahertz) is now denied to U.S. commercial users because it is the spectrum band of choice for military (and other government) communications, as well as precision targeting. At the same time, the disputed spectrum band is being used by many other countries for commercial wireless communications, raising the possibility that a continued U.S. policy of denial, although perhaps making near-term military sense, will inhibit the ability of U.S. firms to compete abroad.

Despite the likelihood that such disagreements will multiply as the information revolution continues to pick up speed, the health of the U.S. commercial space and telecommunications industry is also important to the Pentagon itself. The Department of Defense now uses commercial satellite systems to cover about 60 percent of its satellite communications needs, and that dependence is growing.6

This trend toward increased military use of commercial assets is unlikely to be reversed anytime soon, in part due to the high costs of building and operating military-dedicated satellites. Thus, there are and will remain significant benefits to the military of an open space and telecommunications market in which U.S. companies are major players. That fact must be weighed into any consideration of whether the weaponization of space—whether through the deployment of weapons in space or through a policy of aggressive targeting of satellites—makes good policy.


Besides the threat of a new arms race and the potential for undercutting U.S. industry, there are a number of other serious issues surrounding the question of whether the United States should deploy weapons in space. For example, there is the question of whether the U.S. government is willing or able to take on the long-term budgetary investment required to sustain military operations in and from space.

It is therefore crucial that before any change to today’s policy of restraint takes place—whether by the incremental introduction of capabilities under the guise of missile defense or simple research or by a rewrite to the National Space Policy—the U.S. government must undertake a sweeping and deep review of the possible consequences and alternatives. In the absence of a broader review of the complex issues involved, a major shift would be a mistake. The short-term military advantages of being the first to put weapons in space, however dramatic, must be weighed against the long-term military, political, and economic costs.

Given the Bush administration’s missile defense plans, it is imperative that a serious space policy review take place as soon as possible. An integrated, strategic concept must come before any decisions about individual weapons programs are made. Too much is at stake in terms of national security—military, political, and economic—to allow an anarchic rush to the final frontier.

1. See, for example, John E. Hyten, “A Sea of Peace or a Theater of War: Dealing with the Inevitable Conflict in Space,” ACDIS Occasional Paper, April 2000.
2. Lieutenant Colonel Bruce M. DeBlois, “Space Sanctuary: A Viable National Strategy,” Airpower Journal, Winter 1998.
3. Karl Mueller, “Space Weapons and U.S. Security: The Dangers of Fortifying the High Frontier,” prepared for the 1998 Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, Boston, MA.
4. DeBlois, “A Sea of Peace.”
5. Hyten, “Space Security.”
6. Linda L. Haller and Melvin S. Sakazaki, “Commercial Space and United States National Security,” background paper prepared for the U.S. Space Commission, January 2001.

Theresa Hitchens is senior adviser at the Center for Defense Information.