- - Thursday, September 10, 2020

Nineteen years after a handful of al Qaeda terrorists hijacked four commercial airliners and converted them into cruise missiles, it seems hard to imagine a world in which that catastrophic event had not happened.  

But 9/11 was not a fait accompli. It was entirely avoidable. Our enemies told us what they wanted to do — and why. Few dared to listen until after Sept. 11, 2001.

As various investigations have proven, America’s elephantine national security bureaucracy was aware of key players and aspects of what Osama bin Laden routinely referred to as the “Planes Operation.” Sadly, bureaucratic stakeholders in America’s national security apparatus did not share their knowledge about the attack with each other in time to disrupt that terrible attack. “Failure to imagine” was the buzzword that the 9/11 Commission threw around during its postmortem of those awful terrorist attacks on the United States. More importantly, though, it was a failure to communicate and coordinate a preventative plan that allowed for 9/11 to occur.

America’s Islamist enemies in al Qaeda, though, had been explicit in their intentions to attack the United States for geopolitical reasons: bin Laden and his advisers believed landing a knockout blow to the United States would prove that the seemingly invincible Americans could bleed — and that bin Laden’s army of the faithful could make them bleed. Through that realization, al Qaeda’s leaders reasoned, their co-religionists throughout the Greater Middle East would overthrow the mostly secular, U.S.-supported autocrats and replace the existing political order throughout the region with a new pan-Islamic caliphate. 

American leaders simply assumed bin Laden’s rhetoric was all bluster from a small group of psychopaths living in caves in isolated Afghanistan. Ideology, cunning leadership and belief on the part of America’s enemies coupled with American indifference and arrogance toward al Qaeda, paved the road to 9/11. 



Just as with al Qaeda and 9/11, America’s enemies today have made plain their intention to attack us. Both China and Russia oppose the global political order as it exists and want desperately to change that order to better benefit them. Russia wants greater control over Eastern Europe and China wants to dominate southeast Asia.

In order to accomplish these objectives, either Beijing or Moscow must knock out America’s overwhelming conventional military power. While that may seem impossible, it is not — anymore than it was impossible for a handful of al Qaeda terrorists to commandeer four airliners, kill 3,000 Americans and change the course of U.S. foreign policy and Middle Eastern history forever. 

The Russians have deployed tiny co-orbital satellites into Earth orbit. These small “space stalkers” are prowlers meant to hunt the lumbering, highly sensitive (and poorly defended) American satellites and push key early missile warning, communications and surveillance satellites out of their orbits. This, in turn, would ensure U.S. forces would be discombobulated and unable to mount an effective defense against a Russian attack in Eastern Europe. 

Similarly, China has developed a robust antisatellite (ASAT) weapons capability that can track and shoot down satellites from their orbit. Further, Beijing has invested heavily in lasers that can temporarily blind — dazzle — U.S. satellites in orbit, so as to weaken the U.S. military charged with defending Taiwan. American policymakers are aware of these threats. Until the Trump administration, though, little was done to address these rising threats. Now, America is coming from behind and it is not yet clear that Washington fully grasps the risk of either Russia or China’s military space programs to its own satellite constellations.

But Beijing and Moscow, like al Qaeda before them, have been clear about their intentions: They will remake the world according to their own desires and push aside any country that threatens their plans. Both Russia and China have invested in unconventional warfare; they use terrorism, lawfare, information war, cyberattack and espionage to sap the U.S. military’s overriding strength. Add counterspace warfare to that repertoire and Moscow and Beijing have potent methods for defeating the American juggernaut.

Either Russia or China could launch a sustained assault on the United States and its allies in cyberspace; they could wage unremitting information war upon the American people to influence and confuse them; as this occurred third parties hired by either China or Russia could launch terrorist attacks on the United States or on American assets globally. These asymmetrical attacks would keep the U.S. military off-balance. Finally, an attack on America’s satellites would leave U.S. forces vulnerable to defeat on land, at sea, in the air or in cyberspace. Either China or Russia’s larger forces could swamp whatever paltry U.S. forces were poised to rebuff their attacks — leading to a strategic defeat of the United States.

All of this can be avoided if we listen to our enemies and take them seriously. It remains to be seen if we’ve learned anything from 9/11.

• Brandon J. Weichert is the author of the forthcoming book “Winning Space: How America Remains A Superpower” (Republic Book Publishers) and can be followed via Twitter @WeTheBrandon.

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