Space—The Next 50 Years

Feb. 1, 2005

We look at space support like oxygen. If you have it, you take it for granted. If you don’t have it, it’s the only thing you want.”

So said James G. Roche, then Secretary of the Air Force, at the Air Force Association’s 2004 Los Angeles National Symposium, which commemorated the Air Force’s 50 years of involvement in military space and missile activities.

Speakers noted that the service has come a long, long way from the days when it was racing to counter the Soviets early in the Cold War. Space is no longer a mysterious entity whose value has to be sold to top Air Force and Pentagon officials.

Secretary James G. Roche

As Roche’s comment made plain, space systems are now so interwoven in US military operations that all forces might grind to a halt without them.

USAF puts the start of its space endeavor at July 1, 1954. On that date, Lt. Gen. Thomas S. Power, commander of Air Research and Development Command, ordered the establishment of Western Development Division (WDD), in Inglewood, Calif., under command of Brig. Gen. Bernard A. Schriever. WDD became the fountainhead of missile and, later, space systems.

Today, Air Force operations are on the verge of a grand transition, said Roche. Some old and tested systems will be left behind. For example, 2005 will bring the last launch of a Titan rocket after nearly 50 years of successful operations. The future will belong to systems such as Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles, intended to provide better and cheaper medium-to-heavy lift capacity.

Yet the progression in space systems over the last half-century has not been as dramatic as it has been in air systems, according to Roche. Satellites may be more complex, and electronic technology may be far beyond what was available in 1954, but the Air Force still relies on a few legacy launch systems and sites.

“You’ll find in many ways, we are doing business much the same way as we did 50 years ago,” said Roche.

The challenge will be to change the image of space resources as separate items far removed from Earth. They are as much Earth-bound capabilities as they are physical assets in space.

Thinking about them in this way means that the first question in space operations will not be what new technology we can develop. It will be: What do combatant commanders need that we can provide

As researchers work on very high altitude aerostats and unmanned aerial vehicles, the Air Force needs to consider how to bridge the gap between the atmosphere and space.

“The physical differences between space and atmosphere will always exist, but the operational distinction probably should disappear over time,” said Roche. “You’re just talking about altitude, after all.”

Gen. Lance W. Lord

Gen. Lance W. Lord, commander, Air Force Space Command, dedicated his remarks to the legendary space pioneer, Schriever. As the founding commander of the Air Force Western Development Division, later the Ballistic Missile Division, Schriever took the Thor ICBM from concept to deployment in four years, 1955 to 1959, while simultaneously working on Atlas, Titan, and Minuteman. At another point, he persevered with the nation’s first reconnaissance satellite program, despite the fact that it failed a dozen times before it launched a success.

“We can’t contemplate that now, a dozen failures. … We’re just not that tolerant any more,” said Lord.

Schriever may have been one-of-a-kind, but there are still great people pushing forward in his spirit. Capt. Jeremy Walker of the 2nd Space Operations Squadron, 50th Space Wing, at Schriever AFB, Colo., is one. Walker and his nine enlisted personnel were on alert, fine-tuning the GPS constellation throughout the November 2004 US offensive in Fallujah, Iraq—helping to make sure the marines who went house to house knew where they were.

Then there is SSgt. Dan Levy, who works on space superiority issues at the Space and Missile Systems Center, Los Angeles AFB, Calif. Deployed to Iraq to help train the Iraqi Army in intelligence information, Levy was riding the second-to-last vehicle in a convoy that was ambushed from behind. He and his fellow passengers dismounted, took up defensive fighting positions, destroyed the enemy, and got the convoy going on its way.

As a result, Levy was awarded the Bronze Star by an Army two-star. It was the first Bronze Star the general had ever given and it went to an Air Force NCO, Lord told AFA attendees.

The leadership of key people is helping the space acquisition system move forward, said Lord. Some may complain that most space systems are broken in the acquisition process, and indeed, some decisions made 10 to 15 years ago are today coming home to roost.

“But I’ll tell you that [Lt. Gen. Brian A. Arnold, SMC commander] and his team … are working hard together to make sure that those chickens don’t sit down too long, and we’re making chicken stew out of some of them,” said Lord.

Looking toward the future, the framework for the space business will be based on two words: space superiority. The US wants to make sure it protects the asymmetric advantage it has gained by dominating the space high ground.

Three items will underpin this superiority, said Lord. The first will be space situation awareness, the capability to monitor the medium and see and understand who’s out there.

“You don’t have to be a peer competitor of the United States to be involved in space operations and to have capabilities, so it’s something we really need to think about,” said Lord.

The second foundational item will be a defensive counterspace mind-set. Space operators cannot assume the medium they are working in is benign.

Lastly, offensive counterspace will be part of the effort. The Air Force now has a countercommunications capability that has reached IOC, with its point being to deny the use of space against US forces. (See “Toward Supremacy in Space,” January, p. 22.)

“That’s with a reversible effect. But make no mistake about it, if something happens and troops are getting killed because somebody’s trying to use space against us, we will do more than [apply] reversible effects,” said Lord.

Lt. Gen. Brian A. Arnold

Lt. Gen. Brian A. Arnold, commander, SMC, reminisced a bit about the history of US military space programs. Western Development Division first set up shop in a little schoolhouse in Inglewood in the summer of 1954, he said. After a short while, the program’s budget began to drift downward, but then the Russians launched Sputnik in 1957, and back up it went.

“I was told by some of the graybeards that, ‘geez, you know, we used to launch a lot more.’ Well you did, but they didn’t last as long; and secondly you had a lot more failures,” said Arnold.

Many of today’s satellites are lasting 10 and upward of 15 years, the head of SMC pointed out. For instance, GPS-IIR 13, launched Nov. 6, replaced a satellite that was put up in 1992.

Satellite durability is just one of many successes in US space development. Another is the reliability and readiness of the nation’s ICBMs, even as they undergo major modifications.

Today’s Minuteman IIIs maintain “about a 99 to 100 percent alert rate every single day for all 500 of those ICBMs on alert,” said Arnold.

Boosters used to lift satellites into space have been showing tremendous reliability, as well. As of mid-December, the Air Force was approaching 39 successful launches in a row.

Typically, the service used to launch a rocket only once out of every 10 attempts. The Air Force has shifted its focus to successful launches rather than making a schedule. That new focus has saved four missions.

So to those who complain that space systems are broken and acquisition is in trouble, Arnold has one thing to say: Look up. The Defense Support Program warning satellite constellation is the healthiest the US has ever seen. With 30 operational GPS satellites, the Air Force has reached the limit of its ground control systems capability.

“So when we put the next one up, we’re going to have to de-orbit one or put it in silent mode and put it off to the side or something because we only fly 30,” said Arnold. “That is the best we have ever had.”

Space and Missile Systems Center still faces challenges, of course. Among them is the pace of acquisition, which has never been greater. In 1992, the Air Force was developing 16 major space programs; today it is working on 32. It is doing so with one-third fewer active duty personnel, following a decade of turmoil caused by various acquisition reform efforts.

Overall, the budget has grown from about $3.5 billion in 1992 to a projected $10.5 billion for 2008.

That’s a “remarkable ramp” while downsizing the number of people, “so we really need to keep our eye on the bubble,” said Arnold.

Space development is different from aircraft development, after all. For one thing, it requires much more money up front, early in a program’s life cycle—70 percent, as opposed to 27 to 30 percent for air. There is less margin for development error. There are no taxiing tests, and you can’t fly a booster around the airfield and land it if a warning light goes on. The first time the Air Force sends a satellite up, it’s generally an operational satellite.

Lastly, the Air Force buys space systems in small numbers. If there’s a cost overrun, USAF can’t just shrink the size of the program.

“We don’t have that ability, so we have to absorb that shock, if you will,” said Arnold.

Gen. Thomas S. Moorman Jr.

Gen. Thomas S. Moorman Jr., USAF (Ret.), a vice president with Booz Allen Hamilton and former AFSPC commander, said that these are unique and exciting times to be in the space business. The reason: Virtually every US military space system is in the process of being replaced.

Aircraft modernization has taken place by decades, with the fighter force renewed in the 1970s, bombers in the 1980s, and transports in the 1990s.

“In contrast, the entire [space] inventory is being changed out,” said Moorman.

The bad news is that, at the same time, the space acquisition system is strained. Among its recent challenges have been requirements creep, underbudgeting, cost-centric decisions, and an erosion in the experience level of management.

“All those have worked together to create some acquisition problems,” said Moorman.

In addition, the sheer pace of change may be outrunning available funds. The budget is not likely to grow over the next decade, said Moorman.

“What that means to me is perhaps some phasing, perhaps some tough choices,” he said.

At the same time, the US military is dependent on space as never before, and that reliance is not just for current operations. The Army and Navy (as well as the Air Force) are proceeding with major force and equipment development plans that assume the existence of certain space capabilities.

“The bandwidth demands for these systems in the future … are beyond belief,” said Moorman. “What they’re assuming is that we will come through with laser [communications], and we will come through on a certain timeline. That’s real dependency.”

Space itself is becoming more interdependent, in the sense that all its sectors—military, intelligence, civil, commercial—are increasingly intertwined. Communications is only the most obvious example. Some 70 percent of Administration communications for Iraqi Freedom go through commercial lease lines, for instance. GPS has become a kind of global utility, crucial not only to national security but to transportation, safety, and economic growth as well.

“It seems clear to me that the management of GPS … needs to evolve,” said Moorman.

Considering President Bush’s vision of a return to space exploration, launch interdependence is likely to be a hot issue in coming years. Moorman insisted that the US needs a consolidated vision for access to space—it can’t afford the four space sectors bumping up against each other with separate plans.

On surveillance, the military and intelligence sectors need to look past traditional roles and missions and figure out what’s best for all concerned. One thing they may determine is that space based radar should be a top priority.

“I think [space based radar] is going to be like air-conditioning. We’re going to wonder why we never had it before, and it will fundamentally change the way we do modern war,” said Moorman.

Gen. Lester L. Lyles

Gen. Lester L. Lyles, USAF (Ret.), briefed conference attendees on the work of the Presidential Commission on Implementation of US Space Exploration Policy, on which he served. President Bush appointed the panel to take a new look at the future of the US and civil space. Their vision was outlined by Bush in a speech at NASA headquarters in January 2004: to go back to the moon and to go Mars and beyond.

“The President pulled together a commission as a way of trying to address a viable implementation strategy for doing that,” said Lyles.

The panel’s work and its recommendations were shaped by the Defense Department and by the Air Force in particular. While the connection between returning to the moon and supporting troops in Fallujah may not be obvious now, it will become more so in the future, as the commonality between the sectors becomes more apparent, said Lyles.

“This is a national objective. … It is a national vision that many, many other agencies need to be a part of,” he said.

That degree of effort was the No. 1 recommendation the panel gave President Bush when it sat down with him last July. It also urged reinvigoration of the Space Council and an overhaul in NASA culture.

“They have to reach out more to the private sector, both for involvement in technology and development, but also bringing some resources to help achieve the objectives of what is necessary for this and anything else in space in the future,” said Lyles.

Furthermore, NASA should restructure its centers to more closely resemble federally funded research and development centers and seriously consider embracing the management process that the Air Force and the rest of the Defense Department use for space programs.

“System of systems approaches, systems engineering robustness, systems integration, bringing on lead systems integrators, spiral development—all of the things that we are practicing and using so very well in DOD space and DOD programs in general—are the kind of things that we have recommended that NASA fully embrace,” said Lyles.

NASA is already adopting some positive management practices. The agency is trying to develop its own professional space cadre, much as Air Force Space Command and the other services have been doing. The Navy has loaned NASA two of its senior personnel for two years to help manage this new activity. Lyles recommended that the Air Force consider a similar arrangement, where it would loan space personnel to NASA and, in turn, take NASA personnel into the USAF space community as another means to develop professionals in space.

“I’d love to see the Air Force consider something like that also,” said Lyles.

Martin’s Dictum: Be Fast. Stay Connected.

Gen. Gregory S. Martin, commander, Air Force Materiel Command, noted that the entire Air Force acquisition process—not just space programs or air programs—is under significant scrutiny due to the problems involving the tanker lease deal with Boeing.

That’s just one of the challenges today’s midlevel personnel will face as their careers progress over the next 10 to 15 years, said the AFMC chief. Another will be threat projection. Today, global terrorism and small unit insurgency are planners’ focuses, but the US military cannot lose sight of the fact that it must protect the nation against an array of possible foes.

“We don’t know in 10, 15, 20 years that we won’t be dealing with a coalition of forces that for one reason or another has decided to align itself against the United States, that with the transferability of technology, that they won’t find some sort of asymmetric advantage, some niche, that could cause us difficulty,” said Martin.

In terms of precision power projection, there are a number of things that the Air Force today doesn’t do as well as it would like. These include constant battlespace surveillance, tracking of mobile targets, and the ability to react quickly once mobile targets are spotted.

Martin cited a real world example: At one point during the combat operations that preceded the fall of Baghdad, US intelligence thought they had good indications that Saddam Hussein was conducting some sort of meeting in a restaurant. From the time a B-1 received orders to target the area, to the time the restaurant was destroyed, was only 11 minutes.

The problem was that it took 35 minutes for the intelligence to travel up through the chain of command and the order to fire to travel back down. Total elapsed time from tip to bomb release was 46 minutes. The real target, Saddam himself, got away.

“We have to get that knowledge up the channel to the decision-makers quickly. We have to be able to then make that decision and execute it very quickly. So that’s kind of what we’re focused on,” said Martin.

Among the capabilities AFMC is looking at to solve this problem is something that might be called always-on surveillance. This would be a system of systems, perhaps connecting Predators, Global Hawks, Joint STARS aircraft, and satellites that could hand the job of surveillance back and forth, depending on availability and the hostility of the environment.

“We have to have systems that can basically be connected and be over a place forever so that we can stare and understand the nature of that battlespace,” said Martin.

Then the information gathered would have to be compiled and presented with unprecedented battlespace digitalization. In this regard, the military could learn a thing or two from the entertainment industry about human-friendly displays.

Instead of symbols—Martin called them “stickology”—modern 3-D screens ought to be able to show colored MiG-25s or F-15s or whatever so that the average decision-maker could quickly understand the battlespace picture.

“We really have to think carefully about how to present it so that humans can make decisions. … We haven’t done that as well as we should have, because in the end what’s happening is we’re presenting huge amounts of information in the old way,” said Martin.

All this needs to be done at unprecedented speed—and followed by immediate action. If the environment is not too dangerous, that might mean a Predator can spot a target, relay information, get a decision, and fire a Hellfire, all in a minute or less. If it’s a hostile environment, maybe the answer is hypersonics. Or perhaps it is directed energy, or space-based kinetic weapons.

“I’m not sure what the right answer is, but we have to pursue all of them because we’re not sure exactly which one will pay off the fastest,” said Martin.

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, “Airpower and the ‘Long War,’ ” co-authored with John A. Tirpak, appeared in the November 2004 issue.