New Orbit for American Space Power

Feb. 1, 2004

No one doubts that America’s military space forces have awesome capabilities. They can spot a missile firing before the missile clears the launcher, beam an encyclopedia’s worth of data around the world in an instant, and guide weapons through windows without hitting the sash. Air Force space forces have put together a streak, as of last November, of 32 straight successful launches of payload-carrying rockets.

Given these circumstances, it is easy to forget it took a defeat to propel the United States to superiority in space, notes Gen. John P. Jumper, the Air Force Chief of Staff.

On Oct. 4, 1957, the West heard the beeps and squeaks emanating from the Sputnik satellite, signifying the Soviet Union had won the race to space. “This nation was shocked,” Jumper told an Air Force Association national symposium held Nov. 21 in Los Angeles. “We were behind”—and didn’t like it.

The US, of course, was not behind for long. In the 1960s, the American space program caught up with and then surpassed its Soviet counterpart. The US military space program produced a dazzling array of high-flying sensor, communication, and weather satellites, leaving its superpower rival in the dust. For most of the past 20 years, the US has stood virtually alone in space.

Now, however, the nation faces daunting new challenges, in the estimation of top military space officers and executives who spoke in Los Angeles.

They noted the growing need to deal with potential threats to US space assets; weaknesses that could undermine US space launch prowess; and organizational problems that thwart fullest exploitation of military space. Moreover, the Air Force has the need to develop new kinds of sensors as well as new kinds of space warriors.

In addition to Jumper, the speakers included Air Force Undersecretary Peter B. Teets, the Pentagon’s executive agent for space; Gen. Lance W. Lord, commander of Air Force Space Command; Gen. Gregory S. Martin, commander of Air Force Materiel Command; and Lt. Gen. Brian A. Arnold, commander of Air Force Space Command’s Space and Missile Systems Center.

Also taking part were George K. Muellner of Boeing, Carol A. Curry of Raytheon, Jeffrey D. Grant of Northrop Grumman, and G. Thomas Marsh of Lockheed Martin.

In Search of Space Control

There was universal agreement that space provides an asymmetric advantage for US forces, enabling them to perform combat feats that otherwise would be impossible. This has made space a US “center of gravity,” too, raising concern that it could also become a focus of attack.

“Space … is the center of gravity now,” said Lord of Air Force Space Command. “We must not let it become a vulnerability. Our future adversaries understand that we have this advantage, and I think they are trying to develop capabilities right now to thwart that.”

US officials have said over the years that such actions could include attacks on ground stations, use of “dazzling” lasers to blind US satellite sensors, computer network attacks, or even high-altitude bursts of nuclear weapons.

According to Lord, Space Command is working hard on space control—a euphemism for having the power to make unfettered use of space and, if necessary, deny use of it to others.

As a first step, the US is developing means for space surveillance and situational awareness in an effort to make sure that the US will understand what’s going on in space and be ready should some future adversary try to attack or constrain American capabilities.

War in space is generally seen as something for the far future. As several speakers made clear, however, war in space, in a way, has already begun. They noted that, in Operation Iraqi Freedom, the forces of Saddam Hussein attempted—unsuccessfully—to jam signals from Global Positioning System satellites, upon which US forces depended for navigation and targeting.

In the view of Lord, it is not a matter of whether this struggle will escalate, only when. “We’ve got to have the ways to detect things like that and other attempts to attack our asymmetric advantage,” said Lord.

Teets also called attention to the problem. He noted that Air Force Space Command had organized a “Space Control Summit” and that “the time has come, no doubt, for us to move out in a very serious way” to deal with the danger.

Space Dominance

“[The challenge is] to field the world’s greatest space force as well as air force,” said Teets, “and make certain that we defend and protect it and maintain space dominance the way we’ve maintained air dominance now for so many years.”

Lord pointed out that, since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, the US military has enjoyed a period of “unchallenged dominance” in military space. “Our jobs … would be much easier if we could expect this trend to continue,” said Lord, “but it won’t. We must protect this [space] advantage.”

US officials are casting a wary eye on China, which on Oct. 15 became only the third nation (after the United States and what was once the Soviet Union) to put a man in space. Moreover, recent government studies have reported evidence of an active Chinese space warfare effort.

According to Lord, the recent Chinese success “should give us cause to really be concerned” that China “will seek to work against or maybe thwart” America’s asymmetric advantage.

“They are going to be a substantial competitor in there,” said Lord. “So we had better get ready. They represent a potential threat for us, and we’ve got to get ahead of that.”

Arnold, the head of Space and Missile Systems Center, summed up the new calculus: Space is an American center of gravity, and “enemies come after centers of gravity.”

“We know what you can’t do if you don’t have air superiority,” explained Lord. “Space is no different. Space superiority is also our mandate.”

Thin Launch Capabilities

As the symposium speakers told it, the task of assuring the nation’s access to space shapes up as another major challenge.

The Air Force’s space launch situation presents something of a paradox. The service’s systems continue to succeed and expand the nation’s overall military capabilities in space. At the same time, there are worries about systemic weaknesses that could undermine future space efforts.

As Teets put it, “I am sincerely concerned about the fragility of our ability to put these vitally important assets into space as we go downstream.”

Space launch has come a long way over the past four decades. As Jumper pointed out, early launch operations suffered more than their share of failures and disasters. It was not until about 1968, he said, that the US reached an 85 percent launch reliability rate.

In the past two years, the Air Force has put 12 satellites into space, Teets told the AFA symposium. They include the final two Milstar satellites, which provide secure communications, and two more GPS IIR satellites. In September, a Titan IVB booster lifted a classified National Reconnaissance Office satellite into orbit. According to Teets, this spacecraft was “probably the largest, heaviest, most energetic satellite our national program has ever launched.”

Moreover, the Air Force has recently demonstrated the new launch capabilities of the Delta and Atlas family of so-called Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles, said Teets.

Despite this, Teets said he was worried about the nation’s space launch future. Now, only three Titan IV boosters remain, and all are scheduled to lift extremely important payloads. Those last three Titan launchers will carry what Teets called “three of the most important satellites our nation has ever developed.”

When those have left the pad, a family of launchers that has served the nation well for 40 years will be no more.

Arnold said, “We are in very delicate situations every time we launch. … Every launch is a national treasure.” He added that, while the Air Force has had 32 straight launch successes, “you are only as good as your last launch.”

At times in the not-too-distant past, added Teets, problems cropped up because there has been too much emphasis on meeting cost and schedule demands and too little on ensuring quality. “A satellite that is launched on time on a rocket that ends up in the drink doesn’t do any of us any favors,” said Teets.

Moreover, according to Teets, the launch business has proved to be a difficult and volatile one for contractors. In the early 1990s, the commercial communications satellite market was strong and looked to stay that way for a long time. The bottom has fallen out of demand for commercial satellites, yet the EELVs were procured and the development program funded at a time when this private market was booming.

Beyond EELV

The confluence of economic factors makes it certain that the cost of launch will go up, said Teets.

Teets believes the military has no option but to make do with the interim fleets of EELVs until the Pentagon has the money and technology to produce something radically new and better.

“I am a strong believer that we need, as a country, to be investing in and finding a way to a next generation of launch capability,” said Teets, “but I would simply say that it is going to be many years before that next generation … comes along.”

Teets added that, in pursuit of this goal, USAF must maintain close and active ties with NASA, which faces a crisis in access to space. The Air Force undersecretary said he’d had several meetings with Sean O’Keefe, NASA director, to explore ways to cooperate in meeting the common launch challenge.

Meanwhile, Jumper is anxious to see near-term improvements in other areas. One example: launch responsiveness.

“We talk about … reliable space launch all the time,” said Jumper. “Why don’t we combine the terms of reliable space launch and rapid space launch? Why don’t we aim that at the warfighter—integrate it with the national systems but have a capability to rapidly launch things into space, things like micro-sats, that can focus on an area for a short period of time, be a part of the network instantly, and be responsive” to troops on the ground

Closing Gaps in Integration

In the early 1990s, USAF fought what was, by common agreement, the first true space war—Operation Desert Storm. On the day it was begun—Jan. 17, 1991—the US had 18 GPS satellites in space. It had enough communications bandwidth to deal with the data demands of the time. And national satellite capability was beginning to directly aid combat operators.

The big problem, according to Jumper, was the existence of “stovepipes” and “tribes.” In Jumper’s parlance, a stovepipe is an organizational structure in which information flows only vertically within an agency or unit. A tribe is a collection of individuals who show primary loyalty to their own organization, rather than to the larger mission of winning a war.

Jumper points out that GPS signals were available, but only five percent of the Air Force’s aircraft were equipped to use it. There were no GPS-guided bombs. Moreover, different types of communications ground sets couldn’t talk to each other. “We had four types of weather satellite receivers, again not compatible with one another,” said Jumper. “We still had our intelligence process pretty much on strategic timelines, not often [helpful] to the tactical user.”

Fast forward to the early 2000s. The entire Air Force, down to the lowest warfighter, had begun to learn that space is critical to everything the service does. The technologies used in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom in Iraq took decades to emerge, but they are now all in service of the person on the front lines.

To help airmen make the necessary intellectual leap—bringing space into integration with other force elements—the Air Force is writing concepts of operations that describe how to fight, how to work with other services, and how to integrate manned and unmanned platforms and space capabilities.

These concepts of operations center on effects, not platforms. In Jumper’s view, the fighter on the ground doesn’t necessarily need help from any particular system. He needs there to be a particular explosion at a particular place at a particular time.

“We don’t win wars in airplanes or in ships or in tanks by themselves or with a satellite by itself,” said the Chief of Staff. “We win wars by our power to bring these things together. The magic and the miracle is in the integration—not in the platform. … Why don’t we put the emphasis on integration platforms, not by pedigree but by utility, so that satellites can talk seamlessly to other platforms on land, air, sea, manned or unmanned?”

New Tools

Horizontal integration is the key. According to Martin, commander of Air Force Materiel Command, data must flow into data banks on which many different users can draw.

Intelligence analysts need to use and see the same data that warfighters are using, said Martin. It might also require new tools—models based on knowledge of typical enemy activities.

All this would be designed to understand the nature of the enemy and the environment the enemy is operating in and likely movements. For example, a Scud missile on a road next to a cliff, with a lake on the other side, can only move in certain directions. The type of road will determine speed, as will current and recent weather conditions.

“You can find out whether you are going to find those guys in the mud or not, whether they are going to be able to move at 20 knots or five knots,” said Martin.

The way information is displayed will also be important. Martin said AFMC is trying to produce battlespace awareness at a touch of a computer screen. Having to look at 21 screens won’t do; warriors should be able to look in one place and get what they need.

The end result will be the ability to take action in time to get the job done.

“When it comes to that cursor on the target and taking action, if you think back to 1947, when we broke the sound barrier, what we are after in this business now is to break the time barrier,” said Martin.

Teets believes that the Air Force is also making some progress in breaking down barriers the intelligence community has set up between itself and military operators. However, he added, “it is still more stovepiped than it should be. One of my real challenges … is to build ways to get that intelligence information to warfighters in near real time.”

New and Better Sensors

The Air Force is similarly engaged in a broad effort to make its space sensors more responsive and useful.

According to Martin, one of the most difficult tasks facing US aerospace scientists is finding a more effective method of locating concealed targets. “We are working on that with multi- and hyperspectral sensors,” said Martin. “We’re working on that with fusion devices. We are working on that with digital communications. But deep down inside, there are places people hide things and we can’t find them.”

Tracking mobile targets remains a tough task, as well. Such targets could potentially be of great significance—think of a Scud missile with a biological or chemical weapon warhead—and must be located quickly. Typically there is only a narrow window of opportunity between their appearance and use.

Sensor persistence is a concept that might help in both these cases, said Martin. The idea is to provide near-full-time coverage of an area of interest with a degree of precision and resolution that is of use to warfighters. However, he added, “sensor persistence” does not necessarily mean “stagnant system.”

“You can have it with something that is there all the time, or you can have it with lots of things that are coming over the spot of the Earth you are interested in and communicating and coordinating with one another,” said Martin.

The system will have to be responsive. It will have to get up on line quickly and provide enough information so decisions can be made. It will have to be predictive, in terms of identifying objects of interest, understanding what they are, and making a reasonable assumption about their future courses of action.

Integrated sensors will be one key to developing that capability. Ideally sensors could cue each other automatically—getting different looks from different angles, say.

“At that point, you get a triangulation and give yourself something of significance, and now you present a color on the screen of the object you are looking for that tells you something about it,” said Martin.

Poster Child for Sensors

Martin added, “You have to have integrated sensors. … Today, what we have is an amazing technical capability but stovepiped in systems that, if you get all 21 tubes in the room, and you can scan them fast, and you have a great brain, you can put together a coherent picture.” Most of the time, that is not the case, though.

In the sensor world, the Air Force is putting emphasis on space-based radar. SBR, in fact, could become the poster child of horizontal integration development.

The Air Force is grinding away on a concept of operations for space radar, and officials say they will get it right, with major implications for combat operations. “The same radar wave front that is collected for intelligence information can be vitally important to the warfighter,” said Teets.

In response to a questioner, Teets said the first launch of an SBR payload will come in 2012, with the full constellation going operational in 2016. The actual shape of the constellation is in some flux, however. Teets said it could comprise a mix of medium Earth orbit satellites with low Earth orbit satellites, or only LEO satellites.

“We are going to be evaluating that over the course of the next year, year-and-a-half,” said Teets.

Developing Space Warriors

For all of the understandable emphasis on exotic hardware, America’s space power also relies heavily on trained personnel. In recent months, the successes of Operation Iraqi Freedom were made possible by both satellites and forward-based space warriors, Lord told the AFA audience.

“We had 1,200 people from Air Force Space Command deployed,” said Lord. “About 700 of them were deployed into Southwest Asia in support of operations, and many of them were working right there, shoulder to shoulder with their air colleagues, integrating air and space to achieve the combat effects.”

Jumper told attendees that space warriors played a key role in the airdrop of the Army’s 173rd Airborne Brigade into northern Iraq, one of the largest such operations in years.

“The mission was … close to being scrapped because of weather,” said Jumper. However, he said, an Air Force weather specialist, Capt. John Roberts, studied detailed data from weather satellites, saw that there was enough of a break in the weather to get this mission going, and argued that the mission should go on as planned. It did, with great success.

Jumper was asked whether Air Force space specialists could look forward some day to leadership positions in the Air Force.

“If you go around and you look at a combined air operations center in combat or any of the reachback centers around the world, what you see is a bunch of space warriors,” said Jumper. “We’ve got space warriors integrated all over our Air Force now and we couldn’t do without them.”

Jumper went on, “The opportunities are here now. With our new program of force development, we are making sure that our space warriors get the opportunities they need to continue to progress in the warrior fields.”

Lord said that Space Command has taken lessons from air and missile organizations and emphasized discipline and structured operations and sound technical data. Responsibility has been pushed deep down into the ranks.

“Military space today is an integrated team of officers, enlisted people, and professionals,” said Lord.

Lord added that he feels the next big breakthrough in the space business will not be technical. It will be human.

“It is about how we unleash the rich human potential we have in this business, to do what the Chief asked us to do, which is to horizontally integrate air and space … to build combat effects,” said Lord.

In this respect, Lord added, “it is critical that we work … [to] create a cadre of space warriors who are equally skilled in operational art and technical expertise.

Our military space operations must be powered by a team of professionals that understand the business. I think that is something our Chief has recognized, too, as he looks at building professionals from the ground up—across our Air Force, not only officers but enlisted and civilian professionals. It is an absolute imperative for us to develop our personnel.”

Robert S. Dudney is editor in chief of Air Force Magazine. Peter Grier, a Washington editor for the Christian Science Monitor, is a longtime defense correspondent and a contributing editor to Air Force Magazine. His most recent article, “The Viper Revolution,” appeared in the January issue.