The Fight for Space

Aug. 1, 2000

Does the US need a new armed service built expressly for military space operations? If not, then what about creating a new Space Corps, related to the Air Force as the Marine Corps is related to the Navy but without USMC’s independent status? Should the Pentagon give the military space establishment its own major force program, as it did with special operations forces

If things go as planned, a blue-ribbon federal commission in late 2000 will report back with answers to these and other questions.

There is no assurance that the Air Force and its supporters will like what the commission says. In fact, the opposite is more likely to be the case. The panel was the brainchild of Air Force critics in Congress who claim USAF leaders, being infatuated with fighters and bombers, have failed to make a strong effort to put weapons in space and establish physical dominance there.

Sen. Bob Smith (R-N.H.), one of the most vocal proponents of a more aggressive military posture in space, told a recent Washington symposium that he sees USAF as interested only in “supporting non-space forms of power projection” and that funding for programs geared to space control have been “paltry.” Smith said that, if the Air Force won’t “embrace space power,” then “Congress will have to drag them there kicking and screaming, if necessary.”

The critics–and commission members–should take a closer look.

They would find the Air Force is well along in developing systems to increase its access to orbit and broaden the range of tasks it can perform there. The service is generating doctrine-and technologies-for eventual use of weapons in space.

Tricky Endeavor

For the Air Force, this is a tricky endeavor, given that many of the weapons that might actually be deployed in space are prohibited by treaties to which Washington is a signatory. Others with high promise nevertheless are in their scientific infancy and not even close to being deployable.

Gen. Michael E. Ryan, USAF Chief of Staff, is on record as saying that the idea of a separate space force makes little sense at this particular time. He argues that USAF is doing everything its budget will allow to press forward on space technologies that offer the most payback to national strategy.

Without doubt, an increase in USAF’s budget would make additional funding available for military space research. Yet the creation of a separate service-and a new bureaucracy-would work at cross purposes with space development, said Ryan. It actually would drain funds away from new space initiatives, he asserted. A separate service, he said, is “at best … an inefficient way to use [defense] resources.”

As Ryan recently told Air Force Magazine, “You want us to do more in space? Give us more topline,” referring to the budget ceiling.

The 13-member study panel-officially, the Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organization-was instructed to look at the benefits of a separate space service or a space corps within USAF, creation of a new office of Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space, and a new apparatus for managing space affairs within the Pentagon.

The panel is chaired by Donald Rumsfeld, former Secretary of Defense (1975­77). Its military members are: Gen. Howell Estes III, USAF (Ret.), former commander in chief, US Space Command, and commander, Air Force Space Command; Gen. Ronald Fogleman, USAF (Ret.), former USAF Chief of Staff; Gen. Charles Horner, USAF (Ret.), former commander in chief, USSPACE, and commander, AFSPC; Adm. David Jeremiah, USN (Ret.), former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Gen. Thomas Moorman Jr., USAF (Ret.), former USAF vice chief of staff and commander, AFSPC; Gen. Glenn Otis, US Army (Ret.), former commanding general, US Army Training and Doctrine Command; and Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, US Army (Ret.), former commanding general, US Army Space and Strategic Defense Command.

The civilian members are: Duane Andrews, former deputy undersecretary of defense for command, control, communications, and intelligence; Robert Davis, former deputy undersecretary of defense for space; William Graham, former chairman of DoD’s Ballistic Missile Defense Advisory Committee; Douglas Necessary, former professional staff member, House Armed Services Committee; and Malcom Wallop (R-Wyo.), former United States Senator.

This year, the Air Force is devoting to space systems and activities nearly 8 percent of its budget ($84 billion in Fiscal 2000). Officials expect this percentage to hold through 2005, with annual outlays remaining at a roughly steady level. Space’s percentage share has remained constant since 1993, despite a 16 percent drop in the service’s overall budget during that period. Thus, military space has commanded an increasing share of the pie, relatively speaking.

The Air Force wants to do more. In April, the service unveiled a white paper, “The Aerospace Force,” which detailed how the service is moving to integrate surface, airborne, and spaceborne capabilities to achieve greater synergy between them and more effectiveness in combat. It described how USAF will move toward creating an aerospace culture and the elimination of the traditional barriers between air operators and space operators. USAF envisions the emergence of a new, seamless force, focused on effects rather than mechanisms used to obtain them.

Air Force preparation for future space war runs from investment in new technology-for spacecraft and launch systems-to teaching USAF and other service operators about existing space systems and the capabilities they offer for combat. New, mandatory courses on using space systems in combat operations, wargames featuring attacks on US space assets, and the creation of a Space Aggressor Squadron all are part of the effort.

Look Again

“The people who say we are not moving fast enough … just aren’t paying attention,” said Col. Robert E. Ryals, vice commander of Air Force Space Command’s Space Warfare Center.

Ryals said that the SWC, located at Schriever AFB, Colo., has been tasked with figuring out how best to get the Air Force’s substantial space capabilities into every aspect of terrestrial warfare, which he calls “bringing space to the fight.”

Doing that entails working with the Air Force Doctrine Center to plug space capabilities into procedures and plans where they may not have been considered before and obliging students at command schools to confront space-related combat issues in regular wargames.

“Right now, there isn’t a [concept of operations] for space,” said Lt. Col. David Tobin, who was head of the SWC commander’s action group. “There is a void in doctrine.”

Tobin asserted that one can find a strong parallel with the early days of military aviation.

“In World War I, the airplane was used mainly for observation and then, in a limited way, for fighting,” he said. “[For] World War II, it was fully developed as a weapon … because the Army had created the Air [Corps] Tactical School” to develop doctrine and ways of using the airplane in conjunction with other forces.

“A Decisive Force”

In the same way, Tobin said, space is now used chiefly for observation but “can become a decisive force” in future wars. He noted that Gen. Ralph E. Eberhart, commander in chief of US Space Command and commander of Air Force Space Command, recommended the formation of a Space Tactical School to develop space warfare concepts “and the Air Staff is looking at that.”

The SWC organized the Space Aggressor Squadron, whose job it is to play against the Air Force and other services in wargames such as Red Flag and to heighten both military and civilian awareness of the threat, according to Lt. Col. Timothy Marceau, the squadron commander. “We are joined at the hip,” he said, with the Air Force Information Warfare Center in San Antonio. Many types of information attacks involve space systems, and the two coordinate their activities.

Commercial space concerns, with many billions invested in telecommunications and other types of satellites, have been slow to recognize a threat, Marceau said. His unit’s job, in part, will be to educate them as to “what an attack looks like,” but part of their reluctance is due to their “fears of a new space arms race.”

Erecting defenses for satellites–even minimally, with shielding or armor–would add substantially to the cost of space systems, since launch costs are still in the $10,000 per pound range. The lack of any physical attacks so far has led industry to ignore a space threat for now because “there is no business case yet” to develop defenses, Marceau said.

Marceau pointed out that space operations require a ground station, a satellite, an uplink, and a downlink. Interfering with any link in this chain can deny an operator his access to space. At the moment, disrupting ground stations-through power outages or destruction-or uplinks-by localized jamming-are proving far cheaper and easier than interfering with satellites themselves.

Marceau’s squadron has developed inexpensive devices that can locally jam satellite signals. He has used them in exercises to deprive blue forces of some of their space capabilities during wargames.

The aggressor squadron educates decision-makers about other realities of the space age.

Marceau noted, for example, that commercial satellite imagery of 1-meter resolution can be ordered and received in under four hours by anyone with the money to pay for it. No longer is satellite reconnaissance available only to great powers. Given the information available on the Internet-in many cases, detailed, unclassified information about military systems-an adversary can learn “quite a bit about what he’s seeing” in a purchased image, Marceau pointed out.

Some companies plan to offer satellite imagery at a resolution of less than 1 meter, Ryals noted. Fast disappearing is the ability to build up a ground force capable of springing a surprise on the enemy.

The aggressors also develop charts showing when the fewest number of Global Positioning System satellites will be available for satellite-guided munitions to use against given targets. The fewer the satellites, the less precise the strike will be. These charts can help attack aircraft in planning their runs, but Marceau noted that adversaries “also have the ability to generate this kind of information,” so aircrews are forewarned that the best time to attack will be known to an enemy as well.

Another mission of the SWC is to help the Space Battlelab, also located at Schriever, in looking for innovative, cost-effective ways to get more uses out of existing assets or helping to streamline the ways space comes in when USAF goes to war. For example, the Air Force will soon be issuing aircrew survival radios equipped with GPS receivers to quicken the pace at which downed fliers can be located and recovered.

Of roughly 1,400 people that Air Force Space Command must provide to Aerospace Expeditionary Forces, 70 are space operators. Many of these will be in-place deployments, attached to an AEF but physically present in a space operating location. Additionally, all space organizations are training reserve augmentees in nearly all aspects of space operations, so that Air Force Reserve Command will be able to supply space specialists when they are called up.

Policy and Pieces

Ryals said the Air Force will have responsibility for achieving “space superiority, achieved through offensive and defensive counterspace operations,” much as air superiority is broken up into offensive and defensive counterair operations.

“The policy is in place, the concepts are in place,” he said. “The pieces are understood.”

Though the US has not deployed weapons, some technologies for acting against satellites are now at hand. These include dazzling lasers that can blind satellites, ground-based movable jammers, and explosive, hard kill anti-satellite devices for low earth orbit.

USAF also has the means to defend against most of these technologies or deny an enemy any access to space systems, Ryals said. An attack aircraft can destroy “the ground station, the uplink, or the downlink” or an electronic combat aircraft can jam the uplink or downlink.

“All you do is pick out the weakest node,” Ryals observed.

To date, no one has felt it necessary to physically damage a satellite itself. Because USAF and an enemy might well depend on the same specific commercial satellite, it prefers to block access to the satellite rather than damage the satellite itself.

At present, Ryals feels that developing a concept of operations and doctrine are the key.

“In the past, we got a new weapon and then figured out how to use it.” Now, he said, it is necessary to anticipate the weapons and figure out how to use them.

Ryals said he feels it is a misnomer to describe Desert Storm or Allied Force as the first space wars. Though there was substantial use of satellite information and communications in both conflicts, neither side in either conflict made a serious effort to disrupt the other’s access to space systems.

“The first space war hasn’t come yet,” he asserted.

Not all in the Air Force leadership believe that space should become a battleground. Some are set against further militarization of space, at least for now.

“Space is a safe haven for us at this point in time,” said one Air Staff official. “We have the upper hand. We have all our sensors, navigation, and [communications] platforms up there, and they work, and we have them in such depth that no one [else] can match it.” A highly visible move like the creation of a space force would, the official said, “give our adversaries ideas. It would lead to a new arms race. … We have the most to lose and the least to gain from making space a contested area of operations.”

Top Priority

Air Force Space Command’s top program is the Space Based Infrared System, according to Brig. Gen. Michael A. Hamel, AFSC’s director of requirements.

“SBIRS is clearly the No. 1 priority” for Eberhart, Hamel said. The SBIRS program will replace the 30-year-old Defense Support Program satellites that watch the Earth for the telltale heat signatures of ICBM launches. About 20 DSP satellites have been launched over the decades and only a few are left, Hamel said, making SBIRS crucial to maintaining nuclear deterrence. “We will be husbanding those very carefully,” Hamel said.

Besides giving warning of missile attack, the DSP satellites are also able to provide valuable intelligence on “any sort of infrared event” around the world, such as North Korean missile tests or even Scud missile launches during the Gulf War, Hamel noted.

The Air Force wants the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization to take over the SBIRS program, since it will play a key role in missile defense. Hamel said the Air Force would still operate and “execute the acquisition” of the system, but BMDO would pay for it.

Next in priority after SBIRS is a new slate of military communications satellites, Hamel said. Several years of work have gone into examining what the commercial market can provide, as well as an analysis of how much military communications must be secure and jam-proof.

Replacing the jam-resistant and highly secure Milstar system will be the Advanced Extremely High Frequency Satellite Communications System. This will carry Presidential message traffic, as well as communications to nuclear forces-communications that “we will never, ever allow to be provided by a commercial [venture],” Hamel said. The Advanced EHF will offer more bandwidth, demand for which has “grown enormously … from all the services.”

For the far more numerous, less crucial messages in which jam-resistance is less important, the US currently relies on the Defense Satellite Communications System. It, in turn, is to be replaced with the Advanced Wideband System.

“The demand for communications just grows exponentially, particularly with expeditionary forces and reachback,” which requires massive amounts of communications capacity, Hamel said. He noted that the bandwidth capacity supporting Allied Force in Kosovo was five times that used during the 1991 Gulf War.

All told, the Air Force is spending about $1.3 billion a year on military communications satellite modernization, Hamel reported.

“We are often criticized with not being committed to the space mission and not providing the right kind of resources to the warfighter,” Hamel noted. “This is the classic case. … The Air Force is just a small fraction of the use of satellite communications, but we’re spending over $1 billion a year to modernize.” Though providing a “five- to 20-fold increase” in the traffic its spacecraft will be able to carry, the Air Force “seldom gets any credit for this,” Hamel asserted.

Ryan recently said the Air Force will be seeking special consideration in the coming budget for the programs it operates as a service to all the armed forces as well as, in the case of the Global Positioning System, the world’s civilian population. GPS’s most precise location signals-previously reserved for the US military alone-were recently made fully available to all users.

A Space Command official said part of the reason the highest quality GPS signal was made available to all users was to discourage other countries-particularly European nations-from launching competing versions. While the US is making the GPS signal available to everyone, being the sole proprietor allows the US some control over its use in wartime, he noted.

In addition to its use in fixing location, GPS satellite signals are used as baseline universal clocks on the Internet and can also be used to detect electromagnetic pulse and X-ray emissions.

“There’s an unlimited demand for … bandwidth,” Hamel said, mainly because “it’s free.” The other military services only have to “demand that more gets provided, and they don’t have to pay for it.” The other services should be subject to some sort of limits that would oblige them to design their ground systems more efficiently, so that “users have to make choices about just how much bandwidth they really do need.”

He said the availability of satellites to carry message traffic is analogous to the problem of airlift-there’s only so much to go around. As with airlift, officials must make choices about the priority of traffic, since carrying capacity is limited.

All of the new satellites must get to space, and the new Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program has been a success “beyond our wildest imagination,” Hamel asserted. EELV is a cost-sharing program in which contractors and the Air Force each put up money to develop medium and heavy launch vehicles that would capture the latest technologies and efficiencies. Originally intended to yield a single contractor that would sell launch services to the US government, the EELV program has carried two contractors–Boeing and Lockheed Martin–into a competitive arrangement. This helps lower launch costs but was made possible by the “sudden explosion in demand for launch services” in the mid-1990s, Hamel reported. There was enough commercial business, he said, for both companies to make money even by splitting the Air Force work.

Under a deal with NASA struck in the early 1990s, the Air Force took on the job of developing the next generation of expendable launch vehicles while NASA would try to develop the next round of reusable vehicles. The reusables proved “a lot more difficult to engineer into a system” than anticipated, Hamel said; NASA’s X-33 program has suffered a number of setbacks.

With NASA, USAF has been examining a Space Maneuver Vehicle that could serve as a partially reusable system. The SMV, which could ride to orbit on an X-33-style vehicle or an expendable booster, could deploy small satellites, conduct repairs of other satellites, inspect a foreign spacecraft, or perform other missions and return to Earth to be used again. Glide tests of a Boeing vehicle have already been conducted.

A Bridge Too Far

“Maybe single stage to orbit is a bridge too far” at this time, Hamel said. The SMV would represent a half step, combining reusable elements with expendable elements.

As with the EELV, the Air Force and NASA may seek a cost-sharing arrangement with industry to develop the SMV, since USAF “doesn’t have the money or the charter to go this alone,” Hamel noted.

Also among the top programs in Space Command is the Discoverer II project, a joint Air Force, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and National Reconnaissance Office effort to develop a space-based radar for detecting ground moving targets, as well as obtaining radar imagery and precise target location.

The program is charged with determining whether such a system is “feasible, affordable, and militarily useful,” Hamel noted. “It is extremely important to us,” considering that it could lead to a fleet of satellites providing Joint STARS-like intelligence pervasively and worldwide.

Hamel also argued that the system would have a powerful deterrent effect, if successful.

“The … potential of an adversary knowing that at any instant in time there is a US satellite overhead that could be observing what’s going on … will have dramatic impacts on awareness and deterrence.” Moreover, such a system would save the effort of having to deploy radar aircraft like Joint STARS to a theater at all. He called the concept the embodiment of the notion of “light, lean, and lethal.”

However, ground-based research is not sufficient to move the concept along, Hamel claimed. “We can’t just do this as a paper model. We have to get some hands-on experience” to demonstrate the feasibility of such a system, he said.

What Hamel described as the “most technologically challenging concept” on the roster of space projects is the Space Based Laser. This system would involve a large space platform with a laser capable of destroying ballistic missiles in flight, and possibly generating enough power to also destroy aircraft or other thin-skinned targets.

An integrated flight experiment that would marry a laser with a power source and tracking system is anticipated for launch in the “2011, 2012 time period,” Hamel said. An all-up system capable of conducting combat operations would not be available until several years later, though, since an operational system would “have to have orders of magnitude better capability.”

Work is progressing by a team including Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and TRW. All three are considered to have important and unique expertise in various aspects of the system, and the focus at first will be to have “the best flight experiment” possible.

If the concept proves out, the three would bid individually for the development phase.

“The Air Force really believes that this is a critical missile defense capability for the future,” Hamel said of the SBL.

One senior Air Force official said the corporate view of the service leadership is that a separate space corps or service may be necessary at some point in the future, but it is a fairly distant future. “In 50 years or so, when our physical presence in space is much greater, that may come to pass,” he said.

Ryals, however, noted that the Air Force’s immediate task should be truly achieving air and space integration. It will have happened, he said, when “we no longer have a Space Warfare Center, just a Warfare Center. And it won’t be Air Combat Command, it will simply be Combat Command.”

Space, he said, will for at least a decade be “the enabler of everything else we do down here. … It’s not time for Buck Rogers yet.”