The Force and Space

Feb. 1, 2001

Gen. Michael E. Ryan, USAF Chief of Staff

The US Air Force has been a great steward of the nation’s military space capabilities during the last decade of budget and personnel drawdowns, in the view of Gen. Michael E. Ryan, USAF’s Chief of Staff.

He points out that funding for space programs has remained constant even as money for other categories has shrunk. USAF leaders have directed that space projects account for roughly 55 percent of the Air Force Science and Technology budget.

Every major space system has a planned replacement or upgrade over the next decade–something that is simply not true in the case of aircraft and other weapons.

The Air Force provides 90 percent of the people and 90 percent of the dollars for all US defense space activities, according to Ryan. And the Army and Navy, for the most part, like the job the Air Force is doing.

“We get a lot of applause from the other services for our handling of space,” Ryan told an Air Force Association National Symposium in Los Angeles on Nov. 17.

That, however, doesn’t seem to be enough. The current Congressionally mandated space commission review and this year’s Quadrennial Defense Review are providing forums for discussion of a wide range of issues that could affect the service’s role in space and what the nation’s future strategy for military space will be.

Among the issues: whether the Air Force should receive some specific legal mandate for space. The service in fact has no Title 10 space authority, a situation that in the past has led to some interesting Pentagon discussions as to what part of what kinds of capabilities to pursue.

“I think that’s one of the clarifications that should come out of this QDR,” said Ryan.

A second issue is how many organizations the Department of Defense needs in the space business. There might be some synergism in bringing the two existing space organizations–the Air Force space element and the National Reconnaissance Office–together.

“There are good and excellent capabilities in both organizations that I think if melded would bring this nation to an even further capability in the future,” said Ryan.

Third, there is funding. The question here is not just the overall amount but also who pays for what. Should other parts of the US defense community help pay for those systems, such as the Navstar Global Positioning System, that are driven by far greater requirements than those that emanate from the Air Force alone

Breaking out space into a separate space corps or force is not the way to go, said Ryan. The Air Force already has the capability and vision needed.

Secretary F. Whitten Peters

America’s pre-eminent position in space is not inevitable, added the Air Force’s civilian chief, who urged attendees to take a look at the great seafaring nations of the past. Portugal, Spain, England, and Holland at one point all ruled the waves. All lost their advantage over time.

“We need to be ever vigilant about what we are doing in space and how we are managing space for the future,” Secretary of the Air Force F. Whitten Peters told the AFA symposium.

For the Air Force itself, one of the most critical upcoming space challenges will be dealing with the impact of the space commission.

At the time of the symposium, no one could predict the outcome of the commission’s work. But Peters said he believes many solutions currently being offered to the commission are solutions in search of a problem.

The Air Force is doing a pretty good job of space stewardship within the bounds of its budget. “At the risk of confirming that I am a Luddite when it comes to space, let me say that I really do not understand what the big problem is that justifies a national commission,” said Peters.

“As I talk about the space commission, something else they could usefully do: Try to get Congress to try to look at space seriously and not through the eyes of ideologues, not through the eyes of people who think we should weaponize space immediately.”

The Air Force and the NRO-itself heavily staffed by the Air Force-together account for about 95 percent of US military people and dollars. Add NASA, with whom the Air Force has essential partnerships, and the figure is very close to 100 percent.

On Research and Development, the space partnership council is doing a good job coordinating Science and Technology expenditures across the spectrum of the federal government. On procurement and operations, space has increased as a proportion of the overall Air Force budget even as the total budget has declined 40 percent.

Many air assets, such as the RC-135 Rivet Joint signals-intelligence aircraft, do not have any replacement programs in the works. That’s generally not the case with space.

“In fact, our airborne assets will grow to an average age of over 30 years in 2020, whereas our space assets … will be kept relatively new and relatively robust in that same period of time,” said Peters.

The Air Force position going into the space commission process is relatively clear. The US needs some sort of national-level methodology or council to integrate everyone’s policy and budgets. Such efforts as the space-launch broad area review and the space range task force might be models. They have produced real results, said Peters.

“That is a real step forward and one I hope to see institutionalized,” he said.

The service may need more say in how its own space money is allocated. Air Force officials have recently been trying to quickly increase S&T spending on space. Just as quickly, Department of Defense­level officials have taken some of the money back and allocated it to turbine engine technology.

Improvements in turbine engines are certainly a worthy endeavor. But the future is in space, and the service might save much money down the line by figuring out how to lower space costs now.

“We have asked and said we ought to be the executive agent for space,” said Peters.

One proposed solution to solve the dollar problem is to create a new Major Force Program, or defense budget element, in much the same way that special operations forces received their own MFP in the 1980s. But in practice, said Peters, that has proved a mixed blessing in terms of budget coordination.

“Some years it is good, some years it is bad,” he said.

Establishing a new force, meanwhile, would be far from cost-free. Creation of a new headquarters operation would be expensive-the Air Force, for its part, has 2,631 individuals at its headquarters, stated Peters. And a new force would still have to adjudicate the conflicting space positions of OSD, the other services, and several civilian agencies.

“The complexity of adding another player really does not seem to me to be worth the cost,” said Peters.

The space commission isn’t the only space challenge now in front of the Air Force, of course.

Another hurdle is developing a truly seamless aerospace force. One issue here: making sure the officers and enlisted personnel of the future Air Force have a thorough grounding in air and space operations.

“We do have some very broad thinkers in the leadership of the Air Force, but these leaders were produced as much in spite of the personnel system as because of it,” said Peters.

Bandwidth is another looming problem. One major reason is that the commercial capabilities the Air Force once counted on to meet future bandwidth needs now appear unlikely to materialize. Private satellite systems such as Iridium have failed to take off, metaphorically speaking.

Yet Air Force projections for need are exploding. Operation Allied Force deployed only one-tenth the personnel sent overseas for Desert Storm, while its satellite communications bandwidth requirements were twice as large. This trend is sure to intensify as the Air Force continues to lighten its deployed footprint by using global communications to allow a greater portion of its force to remain at home.

“It seems to me that we are going to continue to work through this reachback concept for all its worth, and that is going to drive more bandwidth and ultimately more requirements for satellite communications,” said Peters.

The explosion in fiber communications has not helped. Increasingly, software manufacturers are designing systems that assume ubiquitous, virtually cost-free fiber bandwidth pipes. That is fine if you work in a downtown area in the US. But austere forward deployed military forces will still depend on narrower satellite communications channels.

“This is going to be a major problem for us because I think the software world is going one way, which we aren’t going to easily be able to go,” said Peters.

Gen. Ralph E. Eberhart, US and Air Force Space Commands

For the Air Force, the formation of the space commission has been an experience akin to a trip to the dentist. It is not something officials sought or looked forward to-but they may well be better off when it is over.

That, in any case, is the opinion of Gen. Ralph E. Eberhart, the commander in chief of NORAD and US Space Command and commander of Air Force Space Command. He told the AFA audience that, if someone had asked him early in 2000, he would have said he did not favor a space commission. Since then he has changed his mind.

The introspection forced by commission inquiries has been good for the Air Force, as well as the other services and the Department of Defense, according to Eberhart.

“I think it has helped us refocus, to chart the path ahead, and to truly realize what our destiny is in terms of an aerospace force,” said Eberhart.

The space commission has been one of the three most important tasks on Air Force Space Command’s agenda in recent months. The other two: space launch and the future of ICBMs.

On space launch, the service took its eye off the ball and had failures it should not have had in late 1999. AFSPC has since refocused-but as it moves from legacy systems to evolved expendable launch vehicles, it needs to go slowly and make sure that problems do not recur.

“We cannot afford to lose those systems and payloads,” said Eberhart.

ICBM modernization is currently on track for Minuteman III. It is pretty much on schedule and on cost through 2020. The path thereafter is not so clear. Options for a follow-on to the current Minuteman system remain undefined.

“Whether that is a new missile we drop in the current silos or whether that is a continued modification, [replacing] the guts of the III, I am not sure,” said Eberhart. “But I don’t envision a new basing mode.”

By contrast, when Eberhart puts on his NORAD hat, the first issue he worries about day in and day out is cruise missile defense.

Such an attack could become increasingly likely within the next decade. And unlike a ballistic missile attack, it will not come from a known direction. Nor will it leave a “return address,” as a ballistic missile flight path does.

“We just have to come to grips with what the threat is and how we counter that threat,” said Eberhart.

NORAD is also concerned about bringing its command-and-control system up to date. In this case, “up to date” may mean the late 1980s or 1990s.

NORAD today has some 25 computer systems, almost as many computer languages, and more than two million lines of software code to support. “When you talk about reliability, maintainability, affordability, and you talk about interoperability, it is a real challenge,” said Eberhart.

Air defense officials also struggle with relevance. The accusation that NORAD is a Cold War dinosaur is unfair, declared Eberhart. “Air sovereignty is important and will remain important in a nation whose armed forces have to be able to guarantee that regardless of threat,” he said.

US Space Command, for its part, is struggling with two new missions: military computer network defense and computer network attack. These tasks are not a natural fit with the organization’s other missions, but no other US armed force organization has more expertise pertaining to these subjects. “I don’t think [they] should go to an agency,” said Eberhart.

Cutting across all his jobs, Eberhart said missile warning remains job one day in and day out. That means, he believes, it is imperative that the Space Based Infrared System satellite program remain on track.

He also worries quite a bit about the continuation of integration of all the assets under his command with the warfighter systems that make use of them. After the experience of Desert Storm the charge was to find a better way to leverage space assets for the use of air, land, and sea warriors.

“I would offer to you that we ought to get a B-plus on that, if not an A-minus on that, this last decade,” said Eberhart.

Gen. Lester L. Lyles, Air Force Materiel Command

For all the Air Force and the nation have accomplished in space, it is still an area of operations that is in its infancy. The year 2003 will mark the centennial of flight, but Sputnik went up only in 1957 and the first US satellite, Explorer, in 1958.

“The question we have to ask ourselves is, Where will we be or where should we be in the 100th year of space activities for man?” said Gen. Lester L. Lyles, commander of Air Force Materiel Command, in his AFA presentation.

There are three categories of technologies that the Air Force knows it needs to continue working on, said the AFMC head. They are evolutionary technologies, revolutionary technologies, and commercially led technologies.

Among the evolutionary technologies are vehicle structures using composites and alloys like aluminum lithium, lighter active vibration suppression systems, innovative power storage systems to replace chemical batteries, and very high rate long distance optical communications.

Among the revolutionary technologies in the service’s sights are high-energy density chemical propellants. “We are going to be depending on chemical propellants for a long time, and those of you who have space launch backgrounds like I do know that the specific impulses we are operating at are not near what we need,” said Lyles.

Engines and thermal protection systems need higher temperature materials. The Air Force needs higher performance maneuvering systems and technologies for greater generation of power, particularly in space, at the level of hundreds of kilowatts.

“If we are going to operate things like the Space Based Laser, we cannot afford to have to continuously go up to refuel it,” said Lyles.

Small launch systems such as the Pegasus are examples of commercial technology development that offer military potential. Others include high data rate communications systems and better image processing and coding.

“We know that commercial technologies are being applied in this area and we need [industry] to continue doing that so we can partner,” said Lyles.

Leveraging existing processes and partnerships-those with other players in military and civil space, as well as industry-could be a major way for the Air Force to get to where it needs to go with space technology. In fact, one of the suggestions service leaders have made to the space commission is the establishment of a long-term space technology strategy.

“We can actually take advantage of that and develop a national long-range technological roadmap for space . . . to ensure that somebody somewhere is working on one part of these revolutionary, evolutionary, and commercial technologies to take us forward to the future,” said Lyles.

The Air Force itself has now held two annual S&T summits. These meetings bring together the Secretary, the Chief, and all the four-stars, among others, to review all service S&T efforts.

Lyles is also proposing the establishment of mini­S&T summits devoted exclusively to space technology. These would include active participation from the NRO, NASA, and industry.

“I think we can benefit by bringing us all together and [looking] at a detailed assessment of space technologies in all those sectors and [making] sure again that we are working towards trying to fill all the gaps,” said the AFMC commander.

Gen. Richard B. Myers, Joint Chiefs of Staff Vice Chairman

As the US defense infrastructure aims toward the future, a persistent Cold War mind-set continues to slow its progress.

That is the conclusion of Gen. Richard B. Myers, the JCS vice chairman. This problem is particularly evident in three areas, he says: information security, technology, and processes.

During the long struggle with the Soviet Union the US developed a downright Byzantine information security structure, Myers told AFA. At the time it seemed the right thing to do. The more we knew about them and the less they knew about us, the better.

“Today we are faced with a somewhat different dynamic,” said Myers. “Knowledge superiority is still power, but it is no longer an end itself.”

Today anyone with a modem and credit card can buy the kind of satellite imagery the US military used to carry around in locked briefcases. Winning in the modern fast-paced, flexible battlespace depends on what conclusions are drawn from information as much as the information itself.

“You win in today’s battlespace through decision superiority,” said Myers.

As a result, lower-level troops and officers today need to be able to make quick calls that once might have been the purview of higher-ups. They need all the data available to make tactical decisions that in essence carry strategic implications.

“I am not advocating that we do away with all our efforts to protect information, … but I am suggesting that we take a look at what drives us to keep certain kinds of information classified at a particular level or compartment it into stovepipes,” said Myers.

This close-hold attitude toward data can also affect technology development. When he began his current job, Myers told his staff that he wanted everything on his desktop computer, from e-mail to contact lists to certain reference files and Internet access, transferred to a Palm Pilot or similar handheld system. The initial reaction? A good idea, but it can’t be done. Some information was coming from classified files that needed to be tightly guarded-even though Myers really only wanted the unclassified part of those files.

So the vice chief found a young Air Force lieutenant who wrote a simple program that extracted and verified the unclassified portions of the data at issue whenever the Palm Pilot was updated.

“It is almost as if we are reluctant to fully exploit the advantages of what modern technology brings us, out of fear that it will upset the relative stability of the system we built to fight the Cold War,” said Myers.

The satellite launch business may suffer this problem. Despite much effort, military space remains tied to big satellites and a slow launch schedule. The service has made little progress toward true launch-on-demand capability.

That has not translated into military weakness-yet. But at some point in the future the US will face a situation “in which our ability to launch space control satellites, microsats or space maneuver vehicles on demand will be key to the decision superiority we need to gain full spectrum dominance,” said Myers.

This does not mean that an entrenched bureaucracy will inevitably foil technological progress. In Joint Vision 2010 the US military has a good roadmap in place for ensuring that it prevails in tomorrow’s battlespace.

“The Air Force has done a pretty good job of putting their vision statement right in sync with that,” said Myers. “We can achieve that vision if we cast off the bureaucratic weight that impedes our progress.”

Peter Grier, a Washington editor for the Christian Science Monitor, is a longtime defense correspondent and regular contributor to Air Force Magazine. His most recent article, “A Heads-Up From Whit Peters,” appeared in the November 2000 issue.