Crossroads in Space

March 1, 2001

A Congressionally chartered commission warned in January that the United States is an “attractive candidate for a Space Pearl Harbor.”

Last summer, Chinese military strategists said it would be easier to attack US satellites than our aircraft and tanks. Others have made the same observation.

Our economy and national security strategy are increasingly dependent on space. Intelligence and communications from space are at the heart of our global military advantage.

US space systems are already vulnerable to disruption and destruction, and the risk is rising.

The commission-chaired by Donald H. Rumsfeld, who has since become Secretary of Defense–said the defense of space should be “high among the nation’s priorities.” In the present scheme of things, it is not.

At the White House, space is an additional duty for a lieutenant colonel on the National Security Council staff. Congress scatters responsibility for national security space across six committees, each with its own agenda. At the Pentagon, space is several layers down the organizational chart.

Conflict in space is a “virtual certainty,” the commission said. It is a question of when, not if, it will happen.

The technology for weapons in space is no longer remote. Retired Gen. Ronald R. Fogleman, one of the commissioners and a former Air Force Chief of Staff, predicts that by 2020, directed energy weapons will be the centerpiece of the US military arsenal.

National space policy should ensure that we have the option to deploy weapons in space to deter threats and defend against attacks on US interests, the commission said.

Contrary to popular belief, there is no international prohibition on placing or using weapons in space, although various treaties ban weapons of mass destruction. It is important, the commission said, that we do not negotiate away the current provisions of the Outer Space Treaty, which allows for self-defense, including “anticipatory self-defense,” in space.

The commission said greater investment is required, especially in research and development, but its focus was on organization. The commissioners believed the organizational problems must be resolved before addressing the budgetary and programmatic issues.

They called for top-to-bottom changes, from the White House on down, including a new and closer relationship between the Department of Defense and the Intelligence Community. Space would get more visibility and priority at every level.

We are at a crossroads on national security space policy. As commissioner Fogleman said in a presentation on Capitol Hill, “Doing nothing is not an option.”

The recommendations are expected to gain their best traction in the Pentagon, where chairman Rumsfeld is in a position to accept his own proposals.

At the military operational level, much of the implementing centers on the Air Force, which funds and supports about 90 percent of the military space program, even though it gets the same share of defense budget it did 40 years ago, when the space program was in its infancy.

The Rumsfeld commission was the legislative brainchild of Sen. Bob Smith (R-N.H.), who previously had called for the Air Force to shed “big chunks of today’s Air Force” to pay for tomorrow’s space force. Otherwise, he said, Congress might create a separate service for space.

The commissioners said the idea of an independent space service has not yet reached “critical mass,” but they clearly leaned in that direction as the long-term solution.

The Air Force last year codified its concept of “aerospace integration” in a new vision statement, which supplanted a 1996 concept of “an air and space force on an evolutionary path to a space and air force.” The Air Force has argued that air and space are a continuous medium and that it will be to the detriment of both if they are treated as separate military regimes.

The Space Commission view is, at best, an awkward fit with the aerospace integration concept. Fogleman said the Air Force is “downplaying the uniqueness of the space dimension.” He compared it to Army thinking that held airpower down in the 1920s and 1930s.

The commission said Congress should formally give the Air Force the mission-denied to it several times in the past-to organize, train, and equip forces for operations in space, and that the Department of Defense should designate the Air Force as its executive agent for space.

On the other hand, the commission said the Air Force has not yet fostered a space culture. The top space jobs are filled by pilots. There is a widespread belief that the Air Force regards space as a supporting capability for air operations.

To the extent the commission’s recommendations become policy, the Air Force is on notice. It has a limited time-somewhere between five and 10 years, probably- to make its case that the space mission belongs in the Air Force.

The Air Force’s critics have a responsibility, too. Airpower is the first weapon in the nation’s lineup. “Big chunks” of it are not expendable. Will critics help the Air Force maintain airpower while it builds space power, or will the two be treated as competitive

There is no doubt that in years to come, more of the nation’s interests and defense capabilities will lie in space.

It would be best if we can meet that calling with an integrated aerospace force, incorporating the cultures of airpower and space power and taking advantage of the inherent strength that each of them gains from the other.