In November 1996, the Air Force brought forth, with considerable fanfare, a new vision statement. It said that “we are now transitioning from an air force into an air and space force on an evolutionary path to a space and air force.” Amazingly, this declaration aroused virtually no controversy or dissent. Almost everybody signed up to the new vision in routine fashion.
Beyond the exuberant basic proposition, though, few details were given. What did the vision really mean? For the past two years, the Air Force has been working behind the scenes to answer that question and figure out how to integrate air and space.
The vision statement depicted an “air and space” force giving way to a “space and air” force. The implication was that the rise of space power meant a corresponding decline in airpower.
Clearly, that is not the case. Airpower is becoming more important to military operations, not less so–and that is unlikely to change anytime soon. Airpower and space power are complementary rather than competitive. The sensible direction is to integrate them, not to pit one against the other.
Last year, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Michael E. Ryan said that “aerospace” was the term preferred over “air and space.” He told an Air Force Association symposium in Orlando that “because of our commitment to integrate all the elements of aerospace force, I am not satisfied that the only thing that holds air and space together is a conjunction.”
Even so, the old argument lives on about whether an “aerospace” regime actually exists, and if it is “seamless.” It is said, for example, that the physics of flying through the air and orbiting in space are entirely different. The point is mechanically correct, of course, but how relevant is it
More important, air and space share common operational characteristics that include elevation, perspective, speed, range, and freedom from the geographic constraints of the Earth’s surface. Within this realm, which Ryan calls “the vertical dimension,”military operations are blended and interdependent.
“A B-2 feeding target information from satellites to its precision weapons is conducting an aerospace operation,” says Dr. Rebecca Grant, who has studied aerospace integration for the Air Force. “Today, aerospace operations are carried out by vehicles optimized for air or space. Soon, technology may provide vehicles optimized for air and space, leading to a leap in effectiveness in aerospace operations.”
Resistance to aerospace integration has arisen on two fronts. Hard-core traditionalists do not recognize the importance of space power. They want to keep space–and the “space cadets”-in a secondary role. On the other hand are the space zealots, who would like to break free of the airmen and set up shop on their own. In both instances, however, these opinions appear to be distinctly in the minority.
The debate heated up in November when Sen. Bob Smith (R-N.H.) announced that if the Air Force does not “step up to the space power mission,” Congress may establish a space force as a separate service. Smith is chairman of the Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee.
Smith said the Air Force devotes its space budget to information and support capabilities rather than working on the delivery of force from space. The Air Force is not building “the material, cultural, and organizational foundations of a service dedicated to space power.” It must embrace space power by “shedding big chunks of today’s Air Force” to pay for tomorrow’s space force, he said.
Several points, all of them directly relevant to the aerospace integration issue, should be noted in response to Senator Smith. First, national policy precludes force application with weapons from space. Smith is on the right track in challenging that policy, but his disagreement should be directed at the White House, the Department of Defense, and Congress.
Second, all of the services depend on space, but even though the Air Force carries nearly the full load in the military space program–about 90 percent of the people, systems, and money–its relative share of the defense budget has not been adjusted to reflect that. Yet the perception persists that space power can be advanced only by further eviscerating Air Force airpower.
Third, Smith wants the Air Force to burn its other bridges and commit primarily to a mission that the Department of Defense, the Administration, and Congress have refused to give it. It would be at least as easy for Congress to assign the Air Force clear title to the space mission as it would be to create a new military service.
The last thing we need is another wedge between airpower and space power. In many areas–Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance being the leading example–it is already difficult to say where the air operation ends and the space operation begins. The dividing lines between airpower and space power will continue to blur in such missions as global power projection and long-range precision strike. It is inevitable that air superiority and space superiority will eventually merge.
If aerospace integration succeeds, it will overcome the fractionalization of air and space. As a paper circulating in the Pentagon last fall put it, the mission that the Air Force must now advocate and pursue is “command of the aerospace medium and operations in it, from treetop level to High Earth Orbit.”