Space: 20 Years Out

Feb. 1, 2000

At US Space Command and Air Force Space Command, planners foresee a day when current military space systems–consisting of a fleet of satellites for communications, imaging, warning, and other support missions–will be augmented by a new generation of orbital vehicles and space weapons.

These space officials believe that, 20 or so years out, American space forces will be able to change the course of events on Earth in hours, minutes-even seconds. Being able to do so would require a whole new layer of space systems.

In the near term–during the next seven years or so–the focus will be on providing battlespace management to warfighters and improving present-day US superiority in information systems. Further out comes development of better sensors, improved launch vehicles, and space operations vehicles and space tugs.

Tight budgets could constrain space developments, but planning of new systems and concepts is under way at Colorado Springs, Colo., where US Space Command determines what the warfighter needs in space and Air Force Space Command does its best to acquire and deploy the capabilities. US Space Command encapsulates its planning for space in its Long Range Plan, while Air Force Space Command lays out its objectives in the Strategic Master Plan. Both plans are constantly reviewed and updated.

Military space programs receive $7.3 billion a year, said Brig. Gen. Russell J. Anarde, Air Force Space Command director of plans and programs, who added that Air Force Space Command gets the largest piece of the funding, more than 90 percent.

No nation has ever engaged in combat in space. However, all indications are that this kind of conflict eventually will occur, noted Gen. Richard B. Myers, head of US Space Command and soon to be Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Myers observed that space now is starting to resemble America’s old Wild West, becoming a lawless place with a gold rush mentality that might soon need a Judge Roy Bean to restore order. The US cannot afford to have only ad hoc responses when trouble comes to town, said Myers, who added, “We must establish some framework for space exploitation early, or risk … uncertainty.”

Some on Capitol Hill think the military isn’t moving fast enough. In a May 1999 report, the Senate Armed Services Committee charged, “For the most part, DoD tends to treat space as an information medium to support existing air, land, and sea forces, rather than the strategic high ground from which to project power. … The committee believes that the United States must begin to take steps to exploit more fully space as a natural power center.”

Threats From and In Space

The emerging space threat encompasses not only nations, which operate their own national space systems but subnational groups such as terrorist cells and criminal organizations. US adversaries can buy on the open market space capabilities that formerly were restricted to a few major powers.

“The US used to have an advantage [in space support] with respect to potential adversaries, but it is becoming diminished as the commercial market continues to grow,” said Air Force Lt. Col. Jeff Vance, US Space Command’s chief of integration. “Any nonspace actor who wants space capability can get it with a credit card over the Internet. Imagery, weather–those capabilities used to be limited to the major players. Our dominance in space is no longer a given.”

In response, Air Force Space Command’s Space Warfare Center at Schriever AFB, Colo., organized a Space Aggressor Team. The center’s aggressors aim to help offset space capabilities now accruing to the newcomers.

For example, the new Ikonos satellite, a commercial remote sensing spacecraft, can produce Earth images with resolution down to one meter, a clarity that would clearly be useful for military purposes. The aggressor team is showing allies how vulnerable they are to that particular eye in the sky and other open sources.

Obversely, US space authorities express concern at the ease with which an adversary could jam, disrupt, or diminish signals from friendly commercial satellites, through which pass much of today’s US and allied defense communications. This worry prompted the Space Warfare Center to seek ways that can be used in the future to counter third-party jamming of commercial satellites.

Space officials expect foes to make major efforts to neutralize the US edge. Myers anticipates that, in the future, an adversary will declare a space exclusion zone and try to keep US and other spacecraft out.

“Someone could disrupt spectrum, stand up electronic blockades through jamming or any number of other, nefarious measures to ensure their military and commercial advantage in an increasingly competitive environment,” Myers said.

Myers cited recent Russian attempts to sell devices that can jam a signal from a Navstar Global Positioning System satellite. He further pointed to festering national disputes over allocation of geostationary orbit slots, commercial fights about allocation of frequency, and the emergence of information warfare.

“The strategic logic of space power says that the greater our motivation to use space for military purposes, the greater must be the motivation of our foes to deny us the ability to use space,” write strategic affairs analysts Colin S. Gray and John B. Sheldon in a recent Airpower Journal article. “Space power and space warfare are coming. The only issues are how and when.”

Space Control Requirements

To combat these threats, the unified and service space commands want to build partnerships with other federal agencies, industry, and allies to strengthen the nation’s space control capabilities.

Congress in 1999 ordered the establishment of a space control program. Gen. Ralph E. Eberhart, the newly confirmed commander in chief, United States Space Command, recommended in Senate hearings in fall 1999 that money be spent on technology to address deficiencies in satellite vulnerability, protection methods, and capabilities such as low-power laser jammers.

US Space Command defines space control as “the ability to assure access to space, freedom of operations within the space medium, and an ability to deny others the use of space.” It is a condition that requires several capabilities.

Space Surveillance. Space Command wants to be able to monitor all vehicles as they move in and out of orbit. They plan to achieve this goal with a space-based ranging system, which is to become available in 2009.

Improved situational awareness means having an ability to determine the location of every orbiting satellite–whether dead or operational–and all pieces of debris.

The military also wants to know who controls each satellite and what it is doing in space. Just like in air combat, the space forces need to be able to tell “the good guys from the bad guys,” said Air Force Col. Robert Ryals, Space Warfare Center vice commander.

Today, US Space Command can track space objects with a diameter of at least 10 centimeters. The problem is about to expand greatly, however. Ryals said the new Low Earth Orbit satellite constellations being deployed by the commercial sector have hundreds of new satellites and greatly complicate efforts to achieve situational awareness in space.

Today, space surveillance is carried out largely by old radars and sensors based on Earth. Their usefulness will remain for a while, but the Air Force wants to move some surveillance systems into space itself, where they can get a clearer view of objects in High Earth Orbit.

Prevention. Another major thrust focuses on prevention of unauthorized access to and exploitation of US or allied space systems. US Space Command has concluded that enemies will try to make use of these systems either to acquire valuable data or insert bogus, misleading information. The concept of prevention entails denying an adversary this capability.

US Space Command’s primary mission would be to provide the command, control, and communication architecture necessary to detect and report any unauthorized use and to assess its impact. From that point, US tools for prevention would be political, diplomatic, informational, or economic.

Protection. The Air Force is planning new measures to protect its own systems from compromise or attack. Better warning of natural and man-made threats is desired as is a reporting system for attacks against US satellites.

Most US satellites lack basic self-defense measures. The spacecraft, by and large, can’t tell if they are tracked or targeted by ground radar or under attack from laser beams or other types of energy.

To counter that deficiency, the US is now starting to place sensors on satellites to detect attacks and report suspicious events to ground control. They could also provide targeting data for potential counterattack.

Negation. As the value of US space assets grows, so does pressure to be able to carry out negation, a relatively benign-sounding term that covers a controversial and wide-ranging set of capabilities to deflect, disrupt, damage, or destroy satellites of others, whether national or commercial.

Negation of an adversary satellite is not currently permitted under US policy. US Space Command would have to obtain National Command Authority approval before acting.

Technology and systems for negation are progressing along several fronts, and several ways to accomplish this objective are possible. Officials noted that there are numerous ways to blind or “dazzle” an imaging satellite or to interfere with the operation of the standard communications satellites. A laser on the ground or in space, for instance, can do the job.

There are other creative ways to interfere with an imager. One concept: deployment of a large, umbrella-like vehicle next to the satellite to block its view of Earth. Another: jam its data links and operating frequencies.

Ryals says building such offensive systems is fairly straightforward and simple, but the same cannot be said for other types of space hardware.

Development of a workable Space Based Laser, for example, will require years and billions of dollars, but it could be used in strategic and theater ballistic missile defense missions as well as for space control. The Pentagon has an SBL under development. It could be deployed to shoot down ballistic missiles but also could be used to attack targets in space or on Earth. The Space Based Laser isn’t due until 2020, at the earliest.

“Space Based Lasers are inherently flexible because they offer options for reversible and nonlethal effects,” reports the US Space Command Long Range Plan, which calls for an in-orbit SBL in about a decade.

High-power microwave weapons are another way to disrupt, degrade, and destroy satellite electronics.

Assessing the cost of developing a negation capability is difficult, said AFSPC’s Anarde. He said national policies and treaties must be taken into account. Nonetheless, space command officials believe commanders need to have options ranging from lethal to nonlethal, in case there is a reversal of US policy.

Said Myers: “We must be in a position to take appropriate self-defense measures, including force, if appropriate, to respond to infringement on our sovereign rights.” These measures would include, “if required, negation.”

Some are impatient to do more. Gray and Sheldon, for instance, argue, “The United States to date has deployed no-repeat, no-forces to effect many elements of the space-control mission. … Space control cannot be achieved strictly with conventional terrestrial forces, by electronic means, or by hopes and prayers. Space control, indeed space power, requires the deployment of dedicated space forces.”

Assured Access to Space

Control of space also depends to a great extent on swift and sure access from Earth.

In coming years, military space operations will move beyond today’s limited capability. The new era likely will feature spaceplanes, space tugs, and other new types of vehicles that, with or without pilots, will be able to perform more complex missions in orbit.

Near-term emphasis is on improving current Expendable Launch Vehicles and doing preliminary work that could lead to development of entirely new vehicles. DoD must rely on current Atlas, Delta, and Titan ELVs until around 2003, when the more-efficient Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle goes into operation.

“We’re working hard to make access to space less expensive,” observed Gene H. McCall, Air Force Space Command’s chief scientist. “It costs $10,000 per pound to put an object in Low Earth Orbit. We need to reduce that by a factor of 10 to 50 before space becomes an everyday commodity.”

Routine military satellite launch operations will rely more and more on the commercial sector and commercial spaceports. By around 2012, extremely large military satellites, such as the Space Based Radar and Space Based Laser, will require heavy lift launchers.

A Space Operations Vehicle (a concept that superseded the earlier proposed military spaceplane) could enter flight operations around 2012.

Possibly available several years sooner would be a Space Maneuver Vehicle, able to recover sensitive assets in orbit. Space Maneuver Vehicles are in the prototyping stage now. SMV models will undergo two to three years of aerodynamic testing before the concept will be ready to advance. Congress has, however, authorized $25 million for an SMV program this year, with money to acquire a flight-test article.

For more sophisticated space operations, a space tug would bring the ability to refuel or repair satellites in orbit, saving money. “We spend so much to put things into space, and when they run out of fuel, they’re dead,” McCall said. “If we develop a capability to service them, it will require a redesign of the satellites as well.”

If the military adopts microsatellites–another concept in the demonstration stage–the Space Maneuver Vehicle would be used to replenish a constellation of a half dozen of the tiny satellites within 12 hours.

Force Application From Space

Future military space requirements are closely linked to missile defense programs, since US Space Command is responsible for planning and developing requirements to support the engagement of forces against a ballistic missile attack on the US homeland.

Many of the same tasks for missile defense are key to the concept of force application from space.

Current US policy does not permit warmaking with space systems, but US Space Command’s plan maintains the NCA may need to have at its disposal “a means of engagement … to neutralize threats without widespread destruction.”

It goes on to say, “The ability to apply force from space may employ orbital systems or ground-based systems.”

No serious development of space weapons could take place without a firm public consensus supporting it. Space Command’s operational concept provides a plan to provide alternatives to civilian leaders in case of a policy change.

The command seeks to revolutionize the necessary “high ground” capabilities with more dramatic capability than military aircraft did when they changed the nature of operations decades ago. By 2020, the global engagement concept would provide worldwide situational awareness, an integrated worldwide umbrella missile defense, and a limited ability to apply force from space against high-value, time-sensitive targets.

The Long Range Plan advocates building coalition support for space-based defensive systems and 21st century treaties. “If successful, this construct will allow us to deploy potent defensive systems, but the source of the threat will remain. The next step is deploying systems for force application that add to collective security by strongly deterring rogue states,” the plan says.

Computer Network Warfare

Last October, US Space Command was given the mission of the Joint Task Force-Computer Defense Network, established in recent years as the focal point for defense of the Department of Defense computer networks and systems.

The task force monitors incidents and potential threats and coordinates agencies across DoD to act to stop or contain damage and restore normal computer operations. It gets intrusion data from sources across DoD and from non-DoD agencies, fuses it, and adds information about ongoing operational missions plus intelligence and technical data to give a big picture synopsis of the incident.

Maj. Michael Birmingham, a US Space Command spokesman, said a whole range of intrusions, from mischief to sophisticated attempts to hack into the networks, has been seen. The computer defense task force gets 80 to 100 alerts each day. Of those, about eight to 10 provoke genuine concern. Only about 10 per week lead to investigations.

The command has identified the need for 100 more personnel to plan and manage network attack missions, and these new workers could be added in late 2000. As Myers said, “We believe it’s only a matter of time before they [cyber intruders] successfully penetrate the thick walls surrounding our secure systems.”

US Space Command has also been given responsibility for the supersecret Computer Network Attack mission–initial standup is slated for October of this year.

Allied Space Force

US Space Command’s commander in chief, Gen. Richard B. Myers, appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Oct. 27 and gave this report on the space contribution to Kosovo operations.

“In Kosovo, I think we took space support to the warfighter to a new height. In Desert Storm, you know, there were some complaints that some of the space assets didn’t play, as well as they should have, down to the operational and tactical level, and I think we corrected a lot of that in Kosovo.

“Some of the areas that space played, of course, were in communications, satellite communications to link the theater with [US European Command], and then back here to the United States. Of course, the Global Positioning System played a very large role, because we finally had weapon systems that could take advantage of the [GPS] timing signals for accurate weapons delivery through all types of weather. So, those are two types.

“The other one, … besides the intelligence assets that are on orbit that provided intelligence to the warfighter, would be our Defense Support Program satellite, the satellite that was designed initially back in the ’60s and ’70s to pick up ICBM launches from Russia. That same system was used for battlespace characterization.

“What I mean by that, it was used to pick up events on the battlefield that created an infrared signature-a significant infrared signature-such as bombs going off and secondary explosions and so forth. And we tied the operators of that system directly to the Combined Air Operations Center in Vicenza [Italy] in support of that operation.

“So, those are a few of the ways. I think we have a long way to go to in space support to the warfighter, but we are progressing down that road, I think, fairly rapidly to integrate space into how the warfighter plans his campaigns.”

Theresa Foley, a freelance writer living in Florida, is a former editor of Space News. Her most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “The Battle for Bandwidth,” appeared in the October 1999 issue.