Space Command: Setting the Course for the Future

Aug. 1, 1982
On June 21, 1982, the Air Force announced the planned formation of a special command broadly responsible for all military space activities. The new Space Command will be formed on September 1, 1982. Headquarters will be in Colorado Springs, Colo. Space Command will be built around the existing Aerospace Defense Center staff. According to then-Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Lew Allen, Jr., Space Command is to become a unified command within about a year.

Creation of Space Command will consolidate USAF operational space activities, provide a link between the space-related research and development process and operational users, and retain North American Aerospace Defense Command authority and responsibilities as currently organized, according to General Allen. Approximately 200 manpower authorizations will be transferred from Offutt AFB, Neb., to Colorado Springs to augment space personnel in the Aerospace Defense Center.

In a separate but related action, the Air Force also announced a decision to create within Air Force Systems Command (AFSC) a Space Technology Center at Kirtland AFB, N.M., during the first half of FY ’83.

Under the realignment, three AFSC laboratories—the Air Force Geophysics Laboratory (Hanscom AFB, Mass.), the Air Force Rocket Propulsion Laboratory (Edwards AFB, Calif.), and the Air Force Weapons Laboratory (Kirtland AFB, N.M.)—will report to the Space Technology Center Commander, under the AFSC Space Division Commander, rather than to the Director of Laboratories at Hq. AFSC, Andrews AFB, Md. The laboratories will remain at their present locations.

The new Center will focus on the major scientific disciplines for launch vehicle and spacecraft technology. It will emphasize space technology to develop qualitatively superior space systems as the Air Force moves into the twenty-first century.

Coordinating the Space Effort

Formation of the new command at this time is consonant with the Administration’s—especially Secretary of the Air Force Verne Orr’s—views that space is emerging as a fourth medium for military operations of various kinds, coequal with and as important as land, sea, and air. The decision to set up the new command clearly represents a logical extension of a series of recent actions by the White House, Congress, the Defense Department, and the Air Force that underscore the importance of a coordinated military space effort. Of special importance is the fact that the Air Force is to be designated as the DoD Executive Agent in space.

Other recent measures that helped set the stage for a dedicated space command include:

• Formation and coordination by DoD of a Space Operations Committee, chaired by the Secretary of the Air Force, to deal with all space operations issues within the Department of Defense.

• Elevation of CINCNORAD to a four-star level in line with his broadening responsibilities for space, missiles, and aircraft defense.

• Separation of the space and ballistic missile activities within the old Space and Missile Systems Organization (SAMSO) and the formation of a separate Space Division.

• Establishment of a Deputy Commander for Space Operations within the new Space Division.

• Construction of an Air Force Consolidated Space Operations Center (CSOC) near the existing NORAD complex. This facility will bring together Air Force space and launch operations.

• Formation of a Directorate for Space Operations within the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff/Plans and Operations to complement relevant R&D activities.

• Establishment of a General Officer Space Operations Steering Committee (SOSC) with responsibility for reviewing space policy, space operations, and space-related activities.

• Establishment of the Air Force Manned Space Flight Support Group at the Johnson Space Center to develop the expertise necessary to transition to the Shuttle and to serve as the initial cadre at the new CSOC facility.

• Establishment of a course in space operations at the Air Force Institute of Technology to train officers for future management roles in space.

• Providing NASA with a select group of Air Force people to serve as astronauts and formation of a joint program with NASA for training spaceflight engineers.

The Deputy Chiefs of Staff for Research, Development and Acquisition, (DCS/RD&A), Lt. Gen. Kelly Burke; Assistant DCS/RD&A Maj. Gen. Jasper Welch; and their special assistant, Col. Augie Caponecchi, in concert with other experts, recently completed a unique stem-to-stern analysis of the Air Force’s changing role in space. The central conclusion is that space, in military terms, is big, important business, and getting more so.

The Air Force currently spends more than $7.2 billion a year on space programs, or about nine percent of its total budget. Since the Air force placed its first primitive satellite—known as SCORE for Signal Communications by Orbital Relay Equipment—into orbit on December 18, 1958, USAF’s space budget has grown in real terms, on the average, by some seven percent a year.

As General Welch points out, the progress of the Air Force’s space program over the intervening twenty-three years “has been truly outstanding.” The latest DSCS (Defense Satellite Communications System) III spacecraft to be launched next month is a far cry from the heavy and clumsy SCORE “Sputnik catch-up” satellite that beamed President Eisenhower’s prerecorded Christmas message around the world during its twelve-day life span.

DSCS III features 108 wideband transmission links, provides access to 132 ships and other terminal locations, offers 536 channels for mobile ground force use, as well as highly secure, jam-resistant communications for the strategic bomber forces. Moreover, this versatile satellite is highly resistant to the effects of nuclear detonations in space and has a calculated life span of at least ten years.

The evolution from short-lived experiments in space of marginal military value (phase I of USAF’s space effort) to devices offering a high degree of utility (phase II0 and finally to the current phase III that is marked by systems that not only are of pivotal, military importance, but are long-lived and highly efficient—and therefore offer levels of cost-effectiveness and operational economy unthinkable and unattainable previously—germinates a doctrinal revolution. As both the US and the USSR become dependent on space systems in a categoric sense for essential communications, surveillance, targeting, navigation, weather prediction, intelligence, verification, and warning functions, space, at least under wartime conditions, ceases to be a sanctuary.

Growth of Soviet Space Efforts

As the Air Force analysis brings out, the pervasive military importance of space is being exploited by the Soviets at a dizzying rate. The tempo of the Soviet military space effort denotes “aggressive expansion,” entailing a program “significantly greater than that of the US,” according to General Welch. Over the past ten years the Soviets have averaged more than seventy-five launches a year, or four to five times the number of US launches; moreover, they have placed an aggregate of 660,000 pounds into orbit, or about ten times what the US lofted into space during the same period.

Some seventy percent of all Soviet space activity is purely military, with an additional fifteen percent sharing a dual role with the nonmilitary sector—leaving only fifteen percent of their space activity as purely civil or scientific in nature.

The Soviets possess a range of booster systems and have the means to replenish or fortify their space assets on short notice. In addition, they maintain a massive overlapping and redundant ground control network.

Also, the Soviets have exhibited particular interest in manned systems. Their large Salyut-6 manned space station is in its fifth year of operation. They recently placed into orbit Salyut-7, which is apparently intended to replace or supplement Salyut-6 with a system resembling NASA’s Skylab. Additionally, they have in development a new and more powerful launch vehicle, similar to NASA’s Saturn V, that will have the capability of putting much larger manned space stations into orbit.

Perhaps most troubling has been the Soviet drive to steal a march on the US in the space weapons area. Although the US has no operational antisatellite capability, the Soviets have deployed and are repeatedly testing a space weapon, the ASAT, whose sole purpose is to deny this country use of space. There is evidence that they are deeply involved in the development and testing of an improved ASAT.

Lastly, the Soviets, since the 1950s, have devoted substantial resources to high technology developments applicable to directed energy weapons that could eventually prove to have high military value in space. As a result, the Soviets can be expected to score steady gains in the reliability, sophistication, and operational capability of their space systems and their space weapons.

Stepping Up the Technology Program

The US response to the growing Soviet space threat, the Air Staff analysis suggests, should center on technological advances, especially as they relate to the Space Transportation System, or “Shuttle,” as well as other such high-payoff areas as Very Large Scale Integration (VLSI) circuitry. In anticipation of the Space Shuttle’s seminal influence on military space utilization, the Air Force is already committed to the construction of a Consolidated Space Operations Center.

Scheduled to become operational in Colorado Springs, Colo., by 1986, CSOC will provide on-orbit command and control of satellites as well as operational control of the Shuttle. Linked to the Aerospace Defense Command’s facilities in the Cheyenne Mountain complex, CSOC thus leads to a comprehensive and integrated operational space command and control capability. The prospect of longer lived satellites, an operationally mature Shuttle, the Vandenberg AFB launch facility, CSOC, and the opportunity for on-orbit service, repair, modification, and augmentation of satellites places the Air Force’s approach to space in a state of evolution, according to the RD&A analysis.

The next logical step in this evolution could be a manned space station assembled in orbit. NASA is evaluating such a development, but so far has not been given specific commitments by the White House for budgetary reasons. In addition to providing a permanent human presence in space, such a station could serve both as a scientific laboratory and as a space operations facility for assembling, resupplying, and servicing satellites and for launching spacecraft to higher orbit, according to the Air Staff analysis.

Additionally, the Shuttle could be used during the construction phase to carry men and building materials into orbit and during the operational phase to reman and restock the station periodically.

In this context, General Welch suggests that “we as a nation should go ahead with procurement of the fifth Shuttle Orbiter and … we should study the possibility of a new, more capable Block II Shuttle.” At the same time, given the critical importance of military space critical importance of military space requirements, there appears to be a categoric need to back up the current Shuttle with Expendable Launch Vehicles until the Shuttle has matured into a “high-confidence” system. The Air Force, therefore, will continue to acquire some Titan III 34D and Atlas boosters, at least through 1984. In addition, there appears to be a clear requirement for special launch vehicles for limited contingency war missions, even after the Shuttle becomes fully operational. Key here is the reconstitution of critical space systems following hostile attacks, which would require rapid launch by survivably based boosters, possibly specially configured MX missiles.

Follow-on Upper Stage Vehicle

A second issue related to the Shuttle involves selection of a follow-on upper stage vehicle that can deliver payloads into high-energy orbits—such as required by a variety of defense and other national security spacecraft—after being placed in low earth orbit by the Shuttle.

The Air Force, as part of the Defense Department’s contribution to the Space Transportation System, is building the Inertial Upper Stage (IUS) to meet DoD and NASA requirements. The Administration, after several reviews, has rejected sole source procurement of the Centaur in favor of competitive development of a Higher Energy Upper Stage (HEUS) as the follow-on to the IUS. The Congress, however, appears to be on the verge of directing the Administration to proceed with a “sole-source” program confined to Centaur.

The IUS, assuming normal evolutionary improvements, is expected to meet all foreseeable defense needs at least until the late 1980s. DoD, however, anticipates major growth in military spacecraft, primarily to meet increased survivability requirements, in the late 1980s and beyond. Although the Centaur has more than twice the payload lift capability of the IUS, it is not otherwise well suited for defense missions. The number and variety of USAF’s missions place severe demands on the upper stage, and extensive modifications would be needed to make Centaur usable, according to General Welch. Further, all of the national security spacecraft modifications would be required to make them compatible with Centaur.

The bottom line, therefore, would be large hidden costs to DoD if congressional direction to have NASA build the Centaur is not reversed. These costs range between $400 million and $800 million for Centaur and DoD spacecraft modifications—over and above the NASA development costs for Centaur, according to the Air Staff analysis.

The Air Force, according to General Welch, has “what we consider to be a better plan—we prefer to proceed with the joint Air Force/NASA development of a new HEUS.” The HEUS will be designed to meet both Air Force and NASA requirements, and timed to allow transition of national security spacecraft with minimum effect on cost and schedule. Further, General Welch pointed out, “we believe we can structure a program using preplanned product improvement [P3I] concepts; this could enable the HEUS to grow logically to meet NASA Orbital Transfer Vehicle requirements and thus completely avoid a second major development program. We have already directed the Air Force Systems Command to begin concept work on the HEUS, and NASA is participating actively in that process.”

Setting the Course for the Future

Aggressive Soviet space efforts, combined with widening technological opportunities in the area of space weaponry and space warfare, suggest that military contests in space are a real possibility. The concomitant problem confronting the Air Force is charting a course that steers its space program in a way that avoids the escalation of war into another medium for as long as possible, yet prepares for the inevitability—given the dynamics of technology and the lessons of military history—of weapons going into space. These divergent objectives obviously militate against the US tolerating for long dangerous asymmetries in space, epitomized by the troublesome and growing Soviet ASAT capabilities.

Yet there is concern in the Air Force, the Defense Department, and other agencies that the zest for correcting this dangerous deficiency might lead to an overreaction, especially if the Soviets succeed in putting a first generation laser weapon in space within the next five years. As General Welch warns, “such a weapon would have much greater political than military value. In fact I would expect its military effectiveness to be marginal.” The Soviets already have placed a laser system in orbit that US intelligence describes as a rangefinder system of less than startling competence.

The US, the Air Staff analysis points out, must not allow an impending Soviet space laser extravaganza to “dictate the pace of the course we have set for ourselves.” As General Welch, who over the past two decades has been intimately involved with USAF’s laser program, stresses, “I firmly believe we should proceed with prudent and measured speed down the general path we are on, meaning a balanced program consisting of near-term efforts directed at a more conventional ASAT vehicle to be launched from a high-speed fighter and longer term efforts on a range of other promising possibilities.”

ASAT Flight Test Near

As he points out, the Air Force is firmly committed to develop, test, and deploy an air-launched ASAT capability. “The program was recently reviewed by both the Air Force and OSD and found to be in excellent health [and] received strong support,” according to General Welch. Additional funding to reduce technical risks and to expand the flight test program has been included in this year’s budget and should permit a first flight test of ASAT in the very near future.

In addition, the Air Force, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and the Army have been working since September 1981 to develop a joint program to resolve known uncertainties associated with the feasibility and utility of space-based laser weapons.

But as the Air Staff analysis points out, “unfortunately, our efforts to date have resulted in a lack of unanimity within the technical community about the full capabilities of the space-based laser.” It is imperative, therefore, that the risks and uncertainties be identified and resolved before a national commitment is made, in the Pentagon’s view.

DARPA’s triad of laser programs—currently in limbo because of congressional wrangling over whether long-wave length systems should be scrapped in favor of new, largely untried short-wave length approaches—is designed to do precisely that. The first program, ALPHA, consists of a large chemical laser development program. The second program is TALON GOLD, and consists of a laser acquisition, precision pointing, and tracking project. The third program is LODE—Large Optics Demonstration Experiment.

The current turmoil over the direction, feasibility, and utility of space-based laser weapons has triggered significant organizational adjustments to focus management attention on DoD space technology development, Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Richard D. DeLauer has designated Dr. Robert S. Cooper, Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research and Technology and the new Director of DARPA, as the focal point for space activity within the DoD R&D community. Further, Maj. Gen. Donald Lamberson, USAF, who has years of unique experience in directing high energy laser technology, was recently named Assistant for Directed Energy Programs and reports directly to Dr. Cooper. Finally, the Air Force established a space laser program management office at AFSC’s Space Division in Los Angeles, Calif.

The Air Staff analysis concludes that, in the laser weapons program, “we are making progress and our current funding levels are about right. We simply must not allow ourselves to be hurried as we enter the technology confirmation period confronting us.”

Survivability and Endurance

Another cardinal requirement that is related to ASAT centers on the survivability and endurance of space-related assets. As military dependence on these systems continues to grow, so do concerns over their survivability and endurance.

Space systems generally consist of three principal elements: ground control and terminal facilities, a launcher replenishment component, and the satellites themselves. Theoretically, a determined foe could destroy single components within an element of a particular space-based system in a rather straightforward manner, just as any individual tank, ship, or aircraft could be destroyed if sufficient resources are applied.

Conversely, when the problem is looked at comprehensively, it becomes clear that the complexity of trying to reduce or eliminate the performance of an entire space system—which very likely includes at least minimal survivability measures, multiple satellites on orbit, and inherent component redundancies—is enormous. As a corollary, putting a modern space-based system out of commission, at the very least, appears to be extremely costly, difficult, and would take a lot of time to accomplish. The latter trait would provide a considerable amount of valuable warning information for the defender to initiate appropriate recovery or retaliatory measures.

As a result, General Welch suggests that “our systems as they exist today are survivable, but future systems can and should be made even more survivable on a selective basis.” With space systems’ survivability and enhanced surveillance and command capabilities singled out as key elements in the Administration’s strategic modernization program, the Air Force is devoting some eighteen percent of the FY ’83 space hardware budget for survivability; this is scheduled to increase to thirty percent by 1987.

Planned new capabilities, in addition to the DSCS III improved communications system, include: The Navstar Global Positioning System (GPS), which offers significantly enhanced navigation and weapon system targeting capabilities; IONDS (Integrated Operational NUDET Detection System), which makes it possible to pinpoint the location of nuclear weapon explosions; and MILSTAR, which enhances communications capability in a nuclear environment while reducing susceptibility to jamming. Finally, the Air Force is improving the responsiveness of the space system command and control network by removing critical single nodes, procuring back-up satellites, providing mobile ground terminals, and reducing dependence on overseas ground stations.

The central element of USAF’s efforts in this area, according to the Air Staff analysis, “is to develop space systems and a support structure that are reliable and efficient in peacetime and are more survivable in conflict, thus increasing the confidence of our operational commanders in their continued availability and permitting them to place greater reliance on their use.”

The Defense Department and the Air Force, in concert with a government-wide review of America’s space policy under the aegis of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, are drafting a coherent guide for the future military use of space. Of obvious and overriding importance to the Pentagon are the criteria for acquiring and operating the launch vehicles required to ensure reliable access to space, as well as the doctrines and means for maintaining free access to space over the long pull.

The Air Force’s short-term goals that ensue from this postulate, as the Air Staff analysis spells out, are fairly clear cut: “First, we recognize that change is inevitable due to the military and economic advantages of space surveillance, communication, and navigation, and that therefore we need to expand our military capabilities in space.

“Second, we believe it is imperative that the US have confident and free access to space in order to exploit its unique military potential.

“Third, we consider it essential that we pursue a vigorous R&D program to ensure the availability of adequate options to ensure our ability to meet our inherent right of self-defense. That is, we must posture ourselves to assure continued and full access to space in the interests of national security.”

The outlook over the longer term, by contrast, is hazy owing to various imponderable factors. Fundamental are the pace of technological progress, the nature and capacity of future launch vehicles, the survivability of military space-related assets, and the control and use of national space assets—military and civilian—in time of crisis.

As the Air Force stands at the crossroads of formulating its doctrinal and organizational approach to the high ground of space over the decades ahead, it is fitting to evoke Theodore von Karman’s sage recommendation to General “Hap” Arnold in 1944:

“The men in charge of the future Air Force should always remember that problems never have final or universal solutions, and only a constant inquisitive attitude toward science and a ceaseless and swift adaptation to new developments can maintain the security of this nation. …”

The Air Force’s formation of a space command would seem to fit this prescription acutely.