Imagining World War III 

Local authors rock officialdom with novels about terrorist attacks on satellites

If you want to get the government's attention, don't write a well-documented, thoroughly researched news article. Instead, write a well-documented, thoroughly researched novel.

That's what two local space and aviation experts did, and it blew the Pentagon and Capitol Hill away.

Bill Scott, former bureau chief for Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine, and Michael Coumatos, a former Navy pilot and wargaming expert, found themselves in demand after their Space Wars: The First Six Hours of World War III came out two years ago. An account of what might happen if the nation's satellites went kaput, the book became required reading for some of the nation's warfighters, intelligence experts and congressional staffers.

A congressional panel called in Scott to talk about China's space program. The CIA hired Scott and Coumatos to analyze space scenarios out to 2025. The book also became required reading for senior military leaders at the Air University at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama, Scott says, and at the National Reconnaissance Office, which designs, builds and flies the nation's most secret satellites.

Now, Space Wars, re-released in paperback last year and soon to be released in trade paperback, is being made into a major motion picture. Scott and Coumatos are helping with the screenplay.

So what comes next? A story like this begs for a sequel.

Exposed assets

Counterspace: The Next Hours of World War III was released earlier this month, and picks up where the first book left off. It explores the tricky relationships between users and owners of civilian and military satellites and how China figures into the mix.

Both stories have Springs ties. Scenes in Space Wars are set at Peterson and Schriever Air Force bases, where officials try to figure out and respond to enemy attacks on satellites that control everything from eavesdropping on terrorists' phone calls to pumping gas. Key to the second book are the Springs-based Space Foundation and the "space schoolhouse," the National Security Space Institute at Woodmen Road and Interstate 25, which have expertise in both military and commercial space assets.

To understand how Scott and Coumatos pull it off, it helps to know their backgrounds.

Coumatos, a New York City native who's lived in Manitou Springs since 1995, is a former Navy test pilot who ran search-and-rescue missions on a Seasprite helicopter during the Vietnam War, was captain of a ship and directed wargaming for military and government agencies, as well as corporations, such as Michelin and Amoco Oil. Now a consultant, he's an expert on China's military capabilities, U.S. interagency friction and its impact on national security, and wargaming, a strategy to assess and make decisions when confronted with "alternate futures."

The books, he said, were a chance to "add to the chorus" of concerns that the nation isn't going far enough to protect its space assets.

Scott, a longtime Colorado Springs resident who grew up in eastern Colorado, was an Air Force and civilian flight test engineer for 12 years. Then, as an editor and writer for Aviation Week for 22 years, he wrote on avionics, engineering, space capabilities and the aerospace industry's shortage of well-trained and educated talent. He also wrote repeatedly about the rickety condition — many are beyond their designed life expectancy — and vulnerability of the nation's satellite systems.

Each time a new four-star commander rotated through at Air Force Space Command, NORAD and U.S. Space Command, Scott says, "They were all telling the same thing: The U.S. is highly dependent on satellites, military and commercial. If we lose them, we're in deep trouble.

"It's like pouring molasses on society. Everything slows down. It quickly takes us from the 21st century back to the Vietnam era in navigation, communications, missile warning, weather.

"I wrote the same story four times over eight years," Scott says. Those warnings, though, fell on deaf ears in Congress and at the Pentagon.

Big screen, big power

After Scott and Coumatos retired several years ago, they joined with a third writer and agent, William Birnes, and talked about crafting a nonfiction book addressing the issue. Their publisher loved the concept, but wanted to make it fiction instead.

Scott says he shouldn't have been surprised by the power of entertainment to shape policy, pointing to On the Beach (1959) and Dr. Strangelove (1964) as movies that served as a wake-up call about the horrors of nuclear war. And then there's The China Syndrome (1979), coincidentally released three weeks before the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor incident: "As a result of that conjunction," Scott says, "it killed the nuclear power industry, and 30 years later, it hasn't recovered."

John Pike, a national security expert with globalsecurity.org, isn't surprised the first book got a lot of attention.

"If you want to educate officials on national security issues, write a novel," he says, citing Tom Clancy's works. But Pike is skeptical of the premise of Space Wars and Counterspace, saying satellites aren't very vulnerable or in jeopardy of going on the blink, and an enemy attack on them is unlikely.

"That's why it's called fiction," Pike says.

However, the Government Accountability Office in 2002 warned that "because the federal government relies on commercial satellites, security threats leading to their disruption or loss would put government functions ... at significant risk."

Ret. Gen. Howell Estes of Colorado Springs, former commander of U.S. Space Command, Air Force Space Command and NORAD, says satellites are, indeed, at risk. "There's nothing to protect them," Estes says of satellites. "The simplest astronomers can look at them through a telescope. Since they fly a very predictable path and at a certain speed, it's not hard to find them. That's what makes them vulnerable. They're pretty fragile systems."

He says a simple laser could cause significant damage, and the Chinese proved their shootdown capability in January 2008 when they took out one of their own. Estes, who retired in 1998, notes the U.S. has no policy about what to do if a key set of satellites would be sabotaged or if they simply broke down.

Space Wars, he says, is a realistic account of what might happen.

"He's done his homework," he says referring to Scott.

Beyond entertainment, Scott and Coumatos hope the books trigger efforts to better shield satellites from attack, or to at least prepare a Plan B before the country is hit with a space version of Katrina or Pearl Harbor.

Says Scott: "We're living with hope as a strategy."


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