Bell at the White House

Feb. 1, 1999

Robert G. Bell often admires a dramatic White House photo of space shuttle Discovery blasting off and soaring heavenward with astronaut John Glenn on board. The special assistant to the President for national security affairs sees Discovery’s ascent as a vivid symbol of triumph in space-the antithesis of the haunting image of the 1986 explosion of Challenger.

“We’re so used to seeing that footage of the Challenger’s contrail, with the parts breaking off,” said Bell. “Perhaps this [image of Discovery] will help replace that.”

Bell, a former Air Force officer and a leading civilian defense analyst, has more than a sentimental interest in space, of course. He has begun casting his own gaze more and more toward the politically charged, technologically complex effort to defend the interests of the United States in space in coming years.

From his elegant suite in the Old Executive Office Building adjacent to the White House, Bell handles a variety of duties for the National Security Council. Military personnel policies, nominations, base closings, and weapon acquisition issues land on his desk. He manages nominations for the Medal of Honor.

Bell for years had monitored Iraqi compliance or noncompliance with UN­mandated inspections to thwart Saddam Hussein’s reconstitution of weapons of mass destruction and the missiles to deliver them. He tracks North Korea’s launches of its 3,300-mile-range Taepo Dong 2 missile. He works with Russia’s government to try to bring about ratification of the long-delayed START II agreement.

For Bell, though, the subject of space is big and getting bigger-especially when it comes to controversial issues of providing for protection of US interests in space and denying space access to adversaries. Both the White House and members of Congress look to Bell to serve as a pragmatic mediator on one of the most important, rapidly evolving national security challenges facing the nation.

Black and White

“The debates have become much more partisan, and the choices tend to be articulated in much more extreme black or white terms than I think the truth supports,” Bell said. “Usually the decisions are quite tough and there is merit on both sides. The challenge is to get it right in a way that balances competing interests.”

The challenges are all the greater because the stakes are so great.

The world’s spacefaring nations, led by the United States, are dispatching more and more commercial and military capabilities into orbit. Today, some 30 nations operate roughly 550 satellites in Earth orbit. Another 1,000 to 1,500 satellites-worth $500 billion-are expected to go into orbit over the next five years.

A space industry study anticipates that worldwide revenues from space will reach $121 billion by 2000-a 57 percent increase over the $77 billion reaped in 1996. Step-by-step construction of the multibillion dollar International Space Station will only underscore nations’ growing reliance on space.

The effort produces unquestioned benefits, but the benefits bring potential vulnerabilities. Millions of Americans witnessed the dependence and vulnerability firsthand on May 19, 1998, when a single Galaxy IV commercial communications satellite malfunctioned as it orbited 22,500 miles over Kansas. The mishap disrupted communications with 35 million personal pagers and thousands of enterprises for hours before ground stations overcame the internal technical problem.

The episode drove home a point articulated barely a month earlier by Air Force Gen. Howell M. Estes III, the commander in chief of US Space Command. In his landmark space development plan for US Space Command, Estes said that, by 2005, the United States will need to add “space” to a list of “vital national interests” alongside Europe, the Persian Gulf, and the like. “Our nation’s increasing dependence upon space capabilities … produces a related vulnerability that will not go unnoticed by adversaries,” Estes cautioned.

Yet critics contend that US preparations for defense of space have lagged. While the Clinton Administration is publicly committed to the concept of space control to enable the United States and its allies to reach space and operate freely there, the critics argue that in reality US military forces do not at this time have any recognizable capability to back up the concept.

“Clearly Established”

A number of policies, treaties, and agreements restrict military operations in space, and the military has no charter to conduct offensive operations, if necessary, in defense of space.

Bell disputes critics of the Administration that he serves. “The requirement for space control capabilities has been clearly established at the highest levels of the US government,” he told the Air Force Association’s National Convention last September. The Clinton Administration approved a national space policy in 1996 that commits the United States to maintaining American leadership in space, Bell emphasized.

“Central to this leadership role is ensuring our ability to exploit space and, if required, to prevent adversaries from using space for purposes hostile to American national security interests,” Bell added. “Our space policy requirements include deterring threats to our interests in space and defeating hostile efforts against US space assets, if deterrence fails. We believe we have programs and capabilities in place or under development to support these policy objectives.”

For much of the past two years, however, White House officials and key Republicans in Congress have struggled over the entwined issues of space control and space-based missile defense. The effort to forge a consensus for US defenses in space already has spanned a generation-dating back to the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 1972 and the subsequent political furor over President Ronald Reagan’s ambitious Strategic Defense Initiative. Some liken the effort to the years after World War II when it took painful trial and error before the Truman Administration and Republican Congress settled on a policy of containment to check Soviet expansion.

Bell concedes that it has been a tough balancing act for Clinton officials to, on one hand, allay Congressional concerns over White House priorities with fresh initiatives to protect US interests in space while, on the other hand, reassure the Kremlin that the United States is not taking steps to prepare for pre-emptive attacks with space-based systems.

For example, the Administration throughout 1997 negotiated an agreement with Russia that cleared the way for US testing of theater missile defenses in ways both sides agreed would not run afoul of the 1972 ABM Treaty. The two sides signed a formal accord in September 1997 specifying details of a so-called “demarcation” agreement. It set out specific ways in which the two sides could differentiate between theater and national missile defense activities.

Then, within weeks, Russian leader Boris Yeltsin greatly complicated Clinton’s dealings with Congress by proposing a change in US­Russian relations that would go to the heart of the space control issue. Yeltsin called on Clinton to commit the United States in a follow-up agreement to a formal ban on Anti-Satellite weapons.

Though Clinton had made an earlier commitment to develop viable options for space control, defense-minded Republicans in Congress suspected that he might prove vulnerable to Kremlin appeals and renege on his commitment.


Republican lawmakers quickly spied what they viewed as solid evidence of backtracking by Clinton. They saw Clinton use his line-item veto to eliminate Fiscal 1998 funding for three space control­related programs of great importance to them. Clinton struck out $37.5 million earmarked to develop and demonstrate feasibility of a defensive, ground-based Kinetic Energy Anti-Satellite (KE-ASAT) weapon system. He cut $30 million for the Clementine 2 program to track and intercept asteroids. Finally, he vetoed $10 million for the study of a spaceplane being developed by the Air Force.

The Clinton Administration expressed confidence that the United States could defeat any adversary’s use of satellites during a conflict through US dominance of electronic warfare to interfere with the adversary’s communications with its satellites.

“We need to not be victim to ‘old think,’ ” said Bell. “The old think Cold War mentality was that we envisioned space control as ASAT, and we equated ASAT with a dedicated system that went up and destroyed something.” Bell emphasized that “revolutionary advances in technology, particularly in the area of information operations, are so phenomenal that … we just need to widen our horizon” beyond reliance on ASAT systems to protect US interests in space.

In a speech to the United States Space Foundation last year, Bell stated, “There are a range of alternatives being explored or under consideration … and that are fielded and available, including options for destroying or jamming the links between an adversary’s satellite and the Earth. If we were in classified session I could say more, but I can’t.”

However, Clinton’s use of the veto to target space-oriented technology fanned GOP concerns that the President was backing away from commitments to pursue technology development to give the United States the option of developing weapons capable of controlling the high ground of space.

As Frank J. Gaffney Jr., an ardent Administration critic and head of the conservative Center for Security Policy, put it: “The White House has showcased its belief that arms control agreements can protect American spacecraft.”

Clinton’s vetoes drew a powerful response. In January 1998, 43 retired senior military leaders sent Clinton an open letter that expressed their deepening concern about the course of events regarding space. Signatories included Gen. Thomas S. Moorman Jr., former Air Force vice chief of staff; Air Force Gens. Charles A. Horner and John L. Piotrowski, former commanders in chief, US Space Command; Gen. Russell E. Dougherty, former commander of Strategic Air Command; Air Force Gen. John A. Shaud, former chief of staff, Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe; Air Force Lt. Gen. James A. Abrahamson, former director of the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization; and Army Lt. Gen. Malcolm R. O’Neill, former director of the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization.

These military leaders warned that few challenges posed “a greater danger to our future security posture than that of adversaries seeking to make hostile use of space or to deny us the ability to dominate that theater of operations.” Operation Desert Storm showed the stakes with space control, they said, adding: “What was true in 1991 will be even more so in the years ahead.”

Concerns mounted on Capitol Hill as Clinton headed to a Moscow summit with Yeltsin in September 1998 amid reports that the US was prepared to finalize a secretly negotiated deal with Russia that would ban anti-satellite weapons.

Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen attempted to reassure lawmakers.

“Our approach does not constrain the US right to counter [threatening] space systems that are being used for purposes hostile to US national security interests,” Cohen declared. “Our intention is that these discussions [with Russian officials] not lead to arrangements that would impede US capabilities we determine are necessary for space control.”

“Ground Truth”

The reported deal never materialized. But the claim of a secret deal only lent new impetus to the dispute between Democrats and Republicans over US preparedness in space. Both the White House and Republicans in Congress turned to Bell, a veteran defense analyst with a penchant for finding what he likes to call “ground truth” in any policy dispute.

Bell helped forge a compromise over US spending on space control to allay Congressional concerns. The deal led to passage of the most recent piece of defense legislation. The White House promised to “examine potential space control­related research, development, and acquisition options.”

For their part, Republican lawmakers agreed to give the Clinton Administration more leeway in pursuing this goal. Congress called for the Administration to submit a blueprint to Congressional defense committees early this year.

Moreover, Congress ordered the Pentagon to “obligate promptly” the contested $37.5 million in funds for a KE­ASAT weapon, but it gave the Pentagon leeway to apply the funds to “other space control­development activities” if warranted. The compromise called for spending $10 million on development of the microsatellite technology within the Clementine 2 program without supporting the certain defense facets of the program that had alarmed the White House. Finally, House­Senate conferees agreed not to authorize an increase in funds for development of the spaceplane in Fiscal 1999 but agreed to apply the $10 million in Fiscal 1998 funds to help underwrite the program.

“To me this was a success story,” said Bell. “It suggests, I hope, that we have moved past suspicion and distrust to a point where we’ve all sat down and calmly and very clearly agreed on a solution.”

The outcome was the kind of compromise that Bell has fashioned throughout his career. The son of a highly decorated World War II combat pilot, the 51-year-old native of Birmingham, Ala., graduated with honors in 1969 from the US Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo. A year later, Bell took a master’s degree in international security studies from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. Bell then served mainly in communications assignments, before he resigned his commission in 1975.

He immediately launched a second career, becoming a defense analyst with the Congressional Research Service in the Library of Congress. Then Bell in 1979 won a temporary assignment at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, where he served as staff director of the military committee of the North Atlantic Assembly. Cold War tensions were high; Soviet forces had invaded Afghanistan, and Moscow was installing mobile SS-20 missiles aimed at Western Europe. The NATO Allies were laying groundwork to deploy mobile Pershing 2 intermediate-range ballistic missiles and ground-launched cruise missiles in West Germany, Italy, Holland, and the United Kingdom.


When he returned to Washington, Bell briefly resumed his duties with the CRS but soon joined the staff of Sen. Charles H. Percy (R-Ill.), who at the time served as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. For years, Bell was Percy’s top aide for issues of defense and arms control. When Percy lost his seat to Democrat Paul Simon in 1984, Bell joined the staff of Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), a post he held for eight years. In that post, he helped Nunn write the Missile Defense Act of 1991, which called for erecting a national missile defense by 1996.

Bell earned a reputation on Capitol Hill for being a can-do, nonideological analyst able to bridge partisan differences. President Clinton’s first national security advisor, Anthony Lake, invited Bell to join the Administration in January 1993 as the head of defense policy and arms control issues on the National Security Council.

“By the time I got to the White House, I’d had 14 or 15 years of trying to approach defense policy without making it political,” Bell said.

Bell said the Clinton Administration and the GOP-led Congress have been able to strike compromises on space control by cutting through the rhetoric and distrust. “A lot of the near hysteria about the President’s line-item vetoes was being driven by this [press] accusation that we had a secret plan to negotiate an ASAT treaty with the Russians,” Bell recalled. “It was the dog that didn’t bite at the summit. It didn’t happen.”

The compromise over space control was reflected in the budget decisions made by Clinton in the late fall of 1998 for Fiscal 2000 budget, which will go into effect this Oct. 1. The President approved funds to “carry forward the master plan that was sketched out in [a] classified report to Congress,” Bell said.

“We’re not negligent in any way in terms of what I call a robust enhanced technology exploration. We’re doing a lot of work looking into these technologies.”

No Alternative

The Persian Gulf War underscored the undisputed need to pursue space control, Bell emphasized, given the heavy space dependence of US military forces in that conflict.

“We don’t have the option of turning the clock back and going off and negotiating some arms control treaty with Russia that prohibits the development testing or deployment of space control capabilities,” Bell said. “We’ve got to have them.”

Bell noted that Clinton has stipulated in his annual renditions of US national security strategy that the US remains “committed to maintaining our leadership in space” with “development of the full range of space-based capabilities” to enable the United States to “deter threats to our interests in space, and if deterrence fails, [to] defeat hostile efforts against US access to and use of space.” It remains to be seen whether continued US assurances will ease Russian fears as the White House works with Congress on the next phase of space defense development.

“I can’t claim that our efforts have removed all of their concerns,” Bell said. “That, I think, is a discussion that will go on.”

To Control Space

The following comes from Air Force Doctrine Document 2-2, “Space Operations,” released Aug. 23, 1998.

Space control is the means by which space superiority is gained and maintained to assure friendly forces can use the space environment while denying its use to the enemy. To accomplish this, space forces must survey space, protect the ability to use space, prevent adversaries from exploiting US or allied space services, and negate the ability for adversaries to exploit their space forces.

Counterspace is the mission carried out to achieve space control objectives by gaining and maintaining control of activities conducted in or through the space environment. Counterspace involves activities conducted by land, sea, air, space, information, and/or special operations forces. Counterspace includes offensive and defensive operations.

Offensive counterspace operations destroy or neutralize an adversary’s space systems or the information they provide at a time and place of our choosing through attacks on the space, terrestrial, or link elements of space systems. The principal means of conducting offensive counterspace operations is through the use of terrestrial-based forces such as air attacks against space system ground nodes or supporting infrastructure.

As the use of and investment in space increases, protecting resources is critical. Because such protection introduces the possibility of Earth-to-space, space-to-space, and space-to-Earth operations, it is in the national interest to be prepared to develop the capability to support multipurpose operations in the space medium and employ such systems as national policy dictates.

Offensive counterspace operations use lethal or nonlethal means to achieve five major purposes: deception, disruption, denial, degradation, and destruction of space assets or capabilities. …

Defensive counterspace operations consist of active and passive actions to protect US space-related capabilities from enemy attack or interference. …

Contributing Capabilities. Three capabilities are critical to the successful conduct of offensive and defensive counterspace operations: surveillance and reconnaissance of space, ballistic missile warnings, and understanding how the space environment may affect systems operating through or in space.

Stewart M. Powell, White House correspondent for Hearst Newspapers, has covered national and international affairs in the United States and overseas since 1970. His last article for Air Force Magazine, “Reading, Writing, and Aerospace,” appeared in the January 1999 issue.