Washington Watch: The New Space Plan

July 1, 1998

In recent reports, US military space planners have noted that 550 satellites today are in Earth orbit, performing numerous critical defense and civil functions. Nearly half of them belong to the US, and half of those are commercial. US space investment now exceeds $100 billion, and the stakes are about to go higher.

Expectations are that the US and the world’s other spacefaring nations, over the next five years, will pump another $500 billion into space. They will launch at least 1,000, and possibly 1,500, new satellites. Most will be commercial systems. Many will have military significance.

“We’ll see commercial use of space go out of sight,” said USAF’s Chief of Staff, Gen. Michael E. Ryan.

To support this gold rush in space, 1,100 firms worldwide are developing, manufacturing, and operating space systems. Space industries in the United States are growing at a blistering rate of 20 percent a year. Commercial space revenues exceed outlays on military space, which is still a growth area in defense.

The explosion in space has created a new dimension in national security planning. More and more, military and civilian tasks are migrating to space, where they can be performed faster, cheaper, and better. However, there is a down side. Warns US Space Command: “Our nation’s increasing dependence upon space capabilities … produces a related vulnerability that will not go unnoticed by adversaries.”

By that, Space Command means that a foe could deal the US economy or military forces a blow by interfering with vital space systems, which are essentially defenseless, or by making use of the systems himself to strengthen and sharpen his attacks.

Last May, the world got a startling glimpse of what space disruption might look like. The malfunctioning of a single commercial satellite parked 22,500 miles above Kansas caused the blackout of most of the nation’s 45 million personal pagers and wiped out the communications used by thousands of retailers and news organizations.

Hostile action did not cause the problem, but attacks that cause similar difficulties now seem virtually inevitable.

“Center of Gravity”

Such prospects cause deep concern for Gen. Howell M. Estes III, the commander in chief of US Space Command and commander, Air Force Space Command, Peterson AFB, Colo. He sums up matters in this way: “The time has come to address, among warfighters and national policy makers, the emergence of space as a center of gravity for DoD and the nation.”

He adds, “We must commit enough planning and resources to protect and enhance our access to, and use of, space.”

At Estes’ direction, USSPACECOM has produced a game plan aimed at doing just that. The so-called “Long Range Plan,” made public April 7, is the first of its kind for the command. It lays out a comprehensive set of roadmaps for constructing, by 2020, a robust space warfighting system able to protect US national and commercial interests and for exploiting space to the fullest.

The LRP maintains that the arena of space will become a “vital national interest” for the US–like Western Europe or the Persian Gulf–around 2005, when the next round of space expansion is completed. Potential enemies “clearly understand” that this will happen, the LRP states.

The plan goes on to identify warfighting capabilities, concepts of operations, organizations, and partnerships that will be needed to meet any potential challenge.

The operational missions of the joint-service US Space Command are performed largely by 14th Air Force, the Air Force component. The Air Force provides most of the money and force structure and launches and operates more than 90 percent of all Department of Defense space assets.

In its plan, US Space Command does not prescribe specific systems for 2020, only desired capabilities. However, planners refer to linchpin programs such as the Space-Based Infrared System, Milstar communications system, Global Positioning System, and the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle.

According to the LRP, future US spacepower will hinge on four operational concepts-space control, global engagement, full force integration, and global partnerships.

Nothing gets greater emphasis in the LRP than space control-that is, the ability of the US and its allies to reach space and operate there freely, while denying an adversary the ability to do the same thing.

Some refer to this condition as “space superiority.” Control of space is, in fact, “a complex mission that casts [the head of US Space Command] in a classic warfighter role,” according to the LRP.

Cheek by Jowl

The plan warns that, in decades ahead, foreign national military forces, paramilitary units, terrorists, and other potential adversaries will share the high ground of space with the United States and its allies. The US should expect to find “counterspace” weapons aimed against US systems and prepare accordingly.

The enemy’s hostile capabilities may include kinetic, electronic, nuclear, and directed-energy systems to negate US satellites. An enemy may also use deception and information operations.

In the face of this danger, US Space Command declared that it has five interrelated objectives to be met by 2020:

Assured access. This will require reliable, quick-turnaround launch systems, space operations vehicles, a global space traffic-control system, and a space-based relay network to provide access to any satellite, regardless of its position.

“A major thrust … is to lower launch costs,” said the plan. “This is the key to the affordable use of space. We must work this as a No. 1 priority.”

The goal is to lower the cost to put a satellite in low Earth orbit from thousands of dollars per pound to hundreds of dollars per pound by 2015.

The US will require a mix of reusable launch vehicles, expendable launch vehicles, space operations vehicles, and space tugs to deploy and sustain its space systems. Use of Atlas, Delta, and Titan launch vehicles will do for the near term.

US Space Command says that, in 2002, the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle will come on stream and start to reduce costs by up to 50 percent and lift medium-size payloads within 45 days. EELV heavy lift, with a response time of within 90 days, will come on line in 2003. The currently planned Space Operations Vehicle, formerly known as the Military Spaceplane, should begin to fly around 2012.

By 2006, commercial services will launch most of the Defense Department’s routine payloads, according to US Space Command.

Surveillance of space. US military forces, the LRP declares, will need to field systems to quickly track, identify, characterize, and catalog space objects with great precision. Now being sought are much more capable ground- and space-based sensors, which will provide detailed situational understanding of space in near real time.

Protection of critical space systems. US Space Command said American and allied spacecraft need to be adequately shielded from interference or attack. This will require warning of possible threats to US and allied space systems, instantaneous reports of possible attacks against satellites, cross-cueing with owners or operators or other satellites, and directing forces to respond to a threat.

Space systems must have onboard sensors to detect attacks and quickly report anomalies or suspicious events.

The core of the protection effort, according to the LRP, will be deployment of robust “battle managers” that receive, process, correlate, and distribute critical information reliably, unambiguously, and rapidly to various spacecraft.

According to Ryan, the Air Force is working on ways that would allow satellites to “actively defend” themselves when under attack, but much work remains to be done.

Prevention of unauthorized access to, and exploitation of, either US or allied space systems. The LRP maintains that enemies will try to make use of US systems. Prevention would deny, at least temporarily, an adversary’s ability to exploit US systems or allied space capabilities.

The main tools would be political, diplomatic, informational, or economic–all of which fall well short of using force. US Space Command’s main role will be to provide the command, control, and communication architecture necessary to detect and report any unauthorized use and to assess its impact.

Negation, or the direct disabling of an adversary’s space-related capabilities. Such action might range from conventional attacks on a vulnerable ground station, disruption or destruction of ground-to-space links, or a precision strike against a foe’s own satellites or those from which it receives data.

Commercial satellite companies already sell intelligence photos, communications, and weather data to national militaries. Minor military powers have access to information of striking military value. “The space ‘playing field’ is leveling rapidly,” said US Space Command.

Space-based jammers and lasers as well as high-power microwave weapons are among options US Space Command said are being considered for the task of degrading or killing a satellite, either temporarily or permanently.

Negation raises the prospect of weapons in space and so is politically sensitive. The LRP maintains that developments will follow an evolutionary path, giving everyone plenty of time to study the problem and reach workable solutions.

“Negation will evolve from current concepts, which emphasize terrestrial attacks on an adversary’s ground nodes, to a full range of flexible and discriminate techniques against the most appropriate node,” it said.

Negation will require a wide variety of weapons effects-ranging from temporary to permanent, from devastating to merely disruptive. That is because friends and foes may be using the same systems at the same time. The US will need to be able to discriminate in the level and type of attack it mounts so as to deny a foe the information without similarly denying an ally or friendly nation.

In any event, said the LRP, “The United States will need to develop national policies supporting space warfare, weapons development and employment, and rules of engagement.”

Strikes From Space

Space control isn’t the LRP’s only sensitive topic. In an equally controversial step, US Space Command has proposed that the US start preparing now to use space-based systems for direct military effect on Earth.

The LRP calls this operational concept “global engagement.”

Global engagement would require the United States to put together a far-reaching space-based surveillance capability that would give commanders “worldwide situational awareness.” Systems would also be produced for airtight ballistic missile defense and “a limited ability to apply force from space against high-value, time-sensitive targets,” according to the LRP.

US Space Command said any future missile defense would be based on ground-based interceptors, space operations vehicles, space-based platforms and lasers, and high-power microwaves.

The tools for applying force on Earth could spin off from such missile defense systems. Some planners envision precision strikes from spacecraft, though force-application missions might also be flown by “aerospace planes” that take off from Earth, enter space, and return to Earth.

Today, the region of space contains no such force-application assets. When and if they arrive, said the plan, they would provide the United States “effective forward presence in space” as forward basing of terrestrial forces decreases.

US Space Command planners are only too aware of the political sensitivity of this concept, often decried by arms controllers and other critics as “militarization of the heavens.”

In the LRP, space planners highlighted these words: “At present, the notion of weapons in space is not consistent with US National Policy.” They added that the document calls only for “planning for this possibility” so that the US will have a capability if needed.

The LRP said space operations vehicles and space-based platforms could support force application by offering increased responsiveness and versatility that will provide better coverage of targets. Somewhere in the period 2008­12, said the report, the US should be able to carry out much but not all of this mission, if current development programs stay on track.

The LRP maintains that everything would depend on having a high-quality, integrated system for surveillance of space, air, and surface areas, with the blending of systems for surveillance, warning, and command and control.

Data would move through automated battle managers that permit combatant commands to respond rapidly to threats such as the readying of ballistic missiles for launch.


Space planners believe that many surveillance capabilities currently delivered by surface and air platforms will migrate to space. One would be a system analogous to the AWACS for missile and air surveillance and another analogous to the Joint STARS for mobile and fixed surface targets.

The surveillance system would be expected to provide instantaneous target identification and characterization for 100 percent of a missile defense target set and a “finite” number of high interest targets for force application.

One space officer said that such advanced space systems will be able to detect the location of individual artillery flashes on Earth or an enemy fighter’s afterburner plumes.

Capabilities under development right now should support all of these missions by 2020, said the report.

Much less controversial are US Space Command’s final two operational concepts-what it calls “full force integration” and “global partnerships.”

Essentially, full force integration means the dispersion of space forces and information throughout the national military structure.

The LRP maintains that space-based systems for navigation, weather, meteorology, missile warning, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance, and communications have become so powerful that no operational commander would consider fighting without them. However, because each of these sectors evolved separately over many years, their management is spread among many agencies and this often inhibits their full use.

US Space Command prescribes educating soldiers, sailors, and airmen about space capabilities early in their careers. It wants to establish new policies and doctrines. Also pledged are more extensive exercises and modeling and simulation.

US Space Command even foresees something resembling the Civil Reserve Air Fleet for space so that it will be sure to have access to commercial services when needed.

The concept of global partnerships stems directly from the explosive growth of commercial and international space.

The idea, in brief, calls for the US military space establishment to join forces with many other federal agencies, commercial firms, and international concerns in order to augment the power and reduce the cost of military space capabilities.

Down to the Core

The Defense Department would identify and continue to provide for its core military space capabilities-for example, missile launch detection. However, it might well contract out much of the rest, such as navigation and weather reporting.

“GPS operations, traditionally considered a core military function, may be a worthy candidate for transition to commercial management,” US Space Command planners wrote.

The global partnerships plan, said the LRP, is based on simple fiscal realities-the Pentagon cannot afford to fund its out-year warfighting requirements, and the commercial space segment is booming.

The armed forces already make extensive use of commercial communications satellites. The military mapping community is the leading customer of the commercial Landsat remote sensing system.

Space planners suggest that the military space establishment might have to share some of its technologies and know-how as an inducement for full cooperation from the civilian and commercial communities, but there will be no letup in military space.

“Partnering doesn’t mean reduced vigilance for defense,” said the LRP. “It’s not a goal in itself, nor is it a naive attempt to provide peace and harmony by trading away our sophisticated technologies. Instead, it recognizes what the United States can gain by adding to our prowess in space.”

US Space Command’s plan does not enjoy universal support. Some Defense Department analysts are not convinced that the US will face a serious threat in space for quite a while. The assessment is echoed by a few private space commentators. They say the Soviet (now Russian) military space program may at one time have posed a potential threat but does not now do so.

Predictably, opponents of anti-satellite weapons argue that US interests in space would be best served by seeking to limit or block the development of anti-satellite weapons and maintaining space as a sanctuary free of weapons.

The Clinton Administration has given mixed signals. On one hand, space officers were heartened this January when President Clinton approved significant changes in the Unified Command Plan, giving the command high-level backing to plan for space control and global engagement operations.

On the other hand, the President used his line-item veto authority last fall to eliminate appropriations for three space programs that, pursued to their fullest, would add to US space control capabilities.

It will be a while before the US fully thrashes out such questions. For one thing, US Space Command doesn’t have authority to decide many issues critical to the success or failure of its preferred course. The LRP contains a section, called “Out of Our Lane,” listing 19 policies, treaties, and agreements that it said Washington needs to review and either alter or eliminate. These include the 1972 ABM Treaty and International Space Sovereignty Policy. “These concerns are urgent and critical,” said the LRP.

US Space Command did not estimate the cost of executing its Long Range Plan. However, Estes and other space officials state explicitly that the United States has no real alternative to moving out in space now, even if that requires taking funds from other more-traditional defense areas or coming up with creative ways to finance the effort.

The LRP declares, “Flourishing businesses and nations recognize basic realities, make the best choices, and find the resources.”