The Rise of Space

Aug. 1, 1997

The coming shift in emphasis to a “space and air force,” touted in USAF’s long-range planning, isn’t a matter of changing philosophy or pioneering spirit but a practical recognition of risk, efficiency, commercial trends, and the fact that space will inevitably become a battle arena, according to Air Force Gen. Howell M. Estes III.

“Global Engagement,” USAF’s vision paper, says the service is “transitioning from an air force into an air and space force on an evolutionary path to a space and air force.”

“A tremendous amount of our economic strength is migrating to space,” said Estes, who serves as commander in chief of US Space Command and NORAD and commander of Air Force Space Command. Within a decade, he went on, government agencies and private concerns are “going to put 1,800 satellites into orbit,” valued at a trillion dollars or more.

Dependence on these satellites, according to the General, will be akin to US dependence on foreign oil and will represent a target too tempting to an enemy.

“We ought to recognize that as a country,” Estes asserted, “so it doesn’t come as a surprise” when an enemy attempts to attack US space assets. When the attack comes, he added, “we as a nation are going to protect” the investment. One of the main reasons for having a military is to “make damn sure that economic investment survives.”

In an interview with Air Force Magazine, Estes described the likely path toward the future space and air force, the enabling systems and philosophies that will make it possible, and the evolutionary problems that already are apparent.

The transition to the space and air force of the future is not going to be a sudden, jolting shift, Estes said–though he acknowledged there are some in the Air Force who believe it ought to be.

Within USAF, “you find those that think all this talk about space is interesting but a little bit irrelevant because they’re dealing with real systems and problems today,” Estes noted. “And then there are those on the other side . . . who want a revolution to take place, who think it’s ‘doable’ today.”

This Is It

The advocates of the “space revolution,” he observed, argue that, in an era of limited resources, now is the time to make the change because the world threat is so low. Their view, as Estes paraphrased it, is, “If we’re ever going to do this thing, now is the time.”

He prefers to navigate a course between the two paths, not because he is “a middle-of-the-roader” but because of his belief that an overly aggressive push would result in unfulfillable promises and because the slow-and-steady approach is “why we’ve gotten where we are today so quickly in space.”

At the same time, “technology is moving very fast in space, and part of this is because of the commercial investment.” USAF must keep up, he insisted.

Indeed, on its own, the Air Force won’t be able to afford the technological steps necessary to become the space power Estes feels is necessary. It will have to take on industry partners for some technologies, while others will be purchased or leased.

Buying off-the-shelf has become a real possibility because “people in industry now have seen that there’s a lot of money to be made” in space systems, “especially in some of the more modern technologies–communications, information flow, and things of that kind.” Commercial progress in space systems “is far outstripping anything that we’re doing in the military.”

However, Estes thinks it’s more likely that there will be “sharing in the development cost between government and industry.”

Estes said that he is working to create that partnership with a new openness toward industry, seeking commercial input in Air Force ideas and in building simple, personal trust with industry leaders. He bemoaned the “adversarial relationship” that has sometimes plagued USAF in its business relations and the government-imposed rules which “made their life pretty difficult” and got in the way of a healthy partnership.

Most of the problems are “bureaucratic,” Estes said, “which is one of the reasons I think it’s not too hard to change.”

He has promised that as soon as a definitive plan for the military space program is set, he will brief it to industry leaders, because “we’ve got to get [their] commitment behind this thing.”

Profound Effects

The commercial investment in space is set for a major expansion, Estes said, with private enterprise offering services of all types, from Internet links to terrestrial imagery to telephone service for the two-thirds of the world which doesn’t yet have it. These businesses will have “profound consequences” for the world economy.

The Global Positioning System, for example, is already an $8 billion market and holds out the prospect for becoming the “international standard for air navigation,” Estes asserted.

The General noted that the Air Force has mounted an aggressive effort to find out how it can comply with President Clinton’s order that the best GPS signal be made freely available by 2005. At present, only the US military has access to the best signal, while the rest of the world can receive “selective availability,” which is of less accuracy.

The Air Force has until 2000 “to sort this out,” Estes reported. If it has not done so by then, the service can get one-year extensions until 2005, when the most-accurate signal will be available to anyone “whether we’ve solved this or not.”

The GPS issue is a sensitive one because it is known that China, among other nations, is designing munitions that can use GPS for targeting. Estes said the Air Force is looking at various approaches to defeat such table-turning efforts. These include encryption and “skewing the signal . . . in a given region” if the US military is engaged in combat there.

However, Estes is enthusiastic about the prospect that GPS could be the cornerstone of a worldwide surveillance system that could monitor and track all air traffic on Earth. Such a system will become increasingly desirable because “in the next 10 years, we’re basically going to double the number of commercial airliners in the air. . . . The skies are getting pretty crowded, and so how . . . are you going to have a system that keeps these airplanes all deconflicted?”

Such a question gained importance when Air Force One, with President Clinton on board, had to be routed out of the way of an oncoming UPS cargo plane over the mid­Atlantic Ocean on May 27. The two airplanes passed within a few thousand feet of each other.

“If you could have a spacebased system that ties into GPS and ties into a surveillance system, you could not only keep track of everything that’s moving around the surface of the Earth, but in fact you could identify precisely where it is and use GPS for navigational aid to do landings,” Estes said.

Besides the “tremendous commercial application,” such a system “certainly has military application,” he added.

Estes has gone on the road talking to civilian groups about the ways that space systems affect their daily lives–systems, such as GPS and earth resources satellites, weather systems, and electronic banking–which they tend to take for granted. Estes promotes the idea that these pillars of daily life are worth protecting.

The debate over whether space-based systems or unmanned aerial vehicles are best for military surveillance is a hollow one, Estes said, observing that “We’re going to have to have both.” In peacetime, when threats are low, expensive, long-lived satellites with the ability to watch large swaths of the Earth “make sense,” while in a tactical situation, cheap, highly targetable, and quickly responsive UAVs might make “more sense.”

However, the UAV lesson can be applied to satellites, too, and Estes would consider developing “tactical satellites” that can be quickly launched to look at a point of immediate interest and rapidly “fill the gap” if another satellite is blinded, destroyed, or otherwise neutralized. Similarly, a constellation of cheap satellites might do the same job, “so if you lose one, it doesn’t make any difference to you.”

Getting Up There

The “cheapsat” idea quickly leads, though, to the toughest nut to crack: quick, cheap access to space.

“We’re trying to find ways to get something up there quickly, with . . . rapid relaunch capability,” Estes explained. So far, neither expendable rockets or reusable ones have done the trick, though “a reusable platform is a heck of a lot more attractive . . . just because of the cost.”

Air Force Space Command is working on a requirement for a spaceplane, which Estes said was to be completed this summer, though he is willing to extend the deadline until the fall.

“I want a quality product. I want something that makes sense,” he said, noting that “some folks with awfully good intentions and with some awfully healthy and fertile minds are thinking of spaceplanes doing lots of things.”

In the Air Force’s “New World Vistas” technology forecast, space-planes were mentioned as doing everything from refueling on-orbit satellites to inserting special operations forces teams into far distant areas on Earth.

“We have to be very careful to be credible,” Estes said of the space-plane. He has already quashed some ideas because they were too ambitious.

“I’ve said, ‘This just isn’t going to sell,’ ” because the proposers were “trying to do too much right off the bat. You’re not going to have a full-up spaceplane–doing all the things you think it might do–the first one out of the chute.”

He prefers, instead, to take an incremental approach, where each step has a clearly defined “military utility,” and each is an improvement on the last. Pursuing a highly aggressive course will lead to a situation in which “the spaceplane will suffer” from the same criticisms leveled at the idea of a spacebased radar: “too hard, too much money, too little utility, technologically not possible.”

While he believes it’s necessary to have people thinking “way out,” he’s concerned about getting “a little too far out in front.”

Right now, the space commands are focused on intelligence, communications, navigation, ballistic missile warning, and weather. These are missions that are largely understood throughout the Air Force–collectively referred to as “space support to the warfighter”–and they also represent the bulk of what the senior USAF leadership is talking about when they say missions will be “migrating” to space. More and more of the terrestrial, or even airborne, versions of these missions will come to reside on space platforms.

As Estes said, though, the dependence on these systems will be high, and that will require a mission now called “space control.”

Asked to define space control, Estes offered an analogy. “If I said ‘control of the air’ . . . you’d know exactly what I was talking about. [It means] I want to maintain superiority, . . . operate freely, and deny that to the enemy. Just translate those words up into space.”

He hastened to point out that space control is not synonymous with information operations. Some confuse the two because “if we were trying to limit somebody’s ability to use what’s in space, it would be to limit information, so that’s why they think it’s the same. There is an overlap between the two, but as the space-control mission evolves . . . those two circles are going to start separating.”

He defined space control as surveillance, deterrence, protection, and negation. Protection can mean anything from hardening–expensive to do–to the cheapsat concept. Surveillance means being able to see and track what’s in space, and negation can take many forms. Ironically most of the “negation” concepts are terrestrial in nature.

Antisatellite Warfare

Estes pointed out that the Army has long been working on an anti-satellite capability, a program that’s “very well known.” Lasers also offer an option for antisatellite warfare, known as “blinding.”

Then there is jamming. He noted that Indonesia is jamming a Hong Kong­emplaced satellite Indonesia feels has been wrongfully put in its own geosynchronous “slot,” demonstrating that such forms of space warfare are already being practiced.

Information warfare could play a role, as well, because “if you can get into somebody’s computer, . . . which prevents them from doing something in space, that’s part of space control,” Estes said.

Finally, there is interdiction.

“If you can take out a ground station, that’s space control,” Estes asserted. “You’ve denied the enemy access to space, and you didn’t even have to go to space to do it.”

Having an antisatellite capability that’s down-to-earth is important, Estes said, because he predicts “great trouble, politically, with putting weapons in space. And probably . . . it shouldn’t be an easy decision.”

But just as armies were developed to protect landlines of communication, navies to protect sea lines, and air forces to protect air routes, “the same thing is going to happen in space,” Estes maintained. “There are going to be threats to our national security as we put things in space, . . . and we may find the only way to protect ourselves–the best way to protect ourselves–is to go to space to do it.”

Likewise, despite treaties governing the emplacement of spacebased antiballistic missile systems, Estes feels that circumstances may change.

The treaties are “OK today,” said Estes, “but I’ll tell you, if those ballistic missiles threaten this country, and we find” that spacebased weapons are the best means to defend against them, “I’m sure the issue’s going to be revisited.” If space offers “the best way” to defend the nation, “I think that we will make that decision,” Estes said. “We’re not going to leave our citizenry unprotected.”

He winced at the idea of a threat to use ballistic missiles against the US and having no means to stop them. The American public, he said, assumes that such systems exist because “they saw it in the Gulf” and logically assumes that with the passage of six years, the US has an even better system now.

“I wish we did,” Estes said. The decision to develop and deploy such capabilities, he observed, is “going to rest on decisions made by our civilian leadership.”

Piggybacking on commercial endeavors in space may not always work, Estes noted. For example, he finds it hard to see an immediate commercial benefit to putting people in space, which in turn affects the feasibility of the spaceplane.

“One of the technologies we’ve got to work on if we’re going to make manned spaceflight in a spaceplane reasonable is getting down the cost of keeping man in space. It’s very expensive to do that.” Reusability of a spaceplane is a key to making it work, he thinks.

“I just can’t imagine that we’re not going to have military people in space at some point,” he said, since they would be valuable in refueling satellites and in running surveillance equipment.

“Satellites normally don’t quit on us,” he noted. “We bring them [down] because we’re out of gas.”

Estes said the top programs for US and Air Force Space Commands and NORAD are, in this order:

EELV: Lockheed Martin and Mc-Donnell Douglas have matching Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle contracts to develop a medium and heavy booster for lofting USAF and other military satellites. “We’ll try to launch the first medium EELV in about the year 2002 and probably 2003, 2004 try to do the heavy,” Estes said. He noted that the EELV is a classic example of commercial technologies leading the military in space.

“EELV is going to fly commercially before we ever fly it in the military,” he said. “There is a big need for access to space. . . . [T]he two competing companies are going to develop their own versions of this, regardless of whether they win the military contract, because there’s a commercial application. . . . I don’t know if they have a heavy contract yet, but they sure do have mediums. And you may see those launches as early as the year 2000.” He believes that both competitors will provide a system with at least a 50 percent cost advantage over current launch vehicles.

SBIRS: There are two Spacebased Infrared System platforms: SBIRS “high” and SBIRS “low.” The high system, under development by Lock-heed Martin, replaces the aging Defense Support Program satellites, which detect missile launches by the heat of their plumes. SBIRS high will “give us great improvement in capability over DSP, in terms of critical things: the launch point, the impact point, and the azimuth,” which are critical to a future ballistic missile defense system.

SBIRS low has “great support in Congress,” Estes said. While the high system tracks heat, the low system will be able to track the cold reentry vehicle when it separates from the booster, “which will give us even a further refinement . . . to very precise levels, launch point and impact point.” The system is “key to our ability to cue a system [for] active defense: missile defense, theater systems, or national defense.”

MILSATCOM: “We’re in the process right now of refining the requirements to identify the priority of requirements that we could fit within the dollars we think are going to be available . . . for the next level of MILSATCOM [Military Satellite Communications],” Estes said.

“The real debate is over how much we’re going to buy vs. how much we’re going to lease from commercial,” he added. The requirements are tricky because large savings could accrue from using commercial satellites for peacetime operations, but an all-military system would be preferable if the US were suddenly involved in one or two major theater wars.

Estes was asked why, when the Air Force leadership last fall elected to shift emphasis toward the “space and air force,” that the name of the service was not changed to “Aerospace Force” or something similar.

He replied that, for now, “it was a bridge too far” and that the service must first flesh out what it really means to place the emphasis on space after 50 years of having it on “air.”

However, he said that “there will come a time, I think, when you may see the word ‘space’ in our title. And there may be a time when there is nothing but ‘space’ in our title.”