Space Comes Into Its Own

March 1, 1989

Washington, D. C.—Space is finally coming into its own in the Air Force. For the first time ever, it now has the status of a full-fledged mission and is no longer officially re­garded as merely “a place” for supporting strategic and tactical missions in the air.

The word from the top is that space operations are to be put on a par with air operations in Air Force planning, programming, and budgeting. This has not always been the case, to put it mildly, in a service long dominated by fighter and bomber pilots.

As Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Lar­ry D. Welch explained it to AIR FORCE Magazine: “Secretary Aldridge and I agreed that the Air Force was long overdue in considering space as a mission that contributes to virtually every other mission. It was time to in­tegrate space into everything we do. So the great drive now is to institu­tionalize space as a mission, not only in the Air Staff but in the MAJCOMs.”

Edward C. “Pete” Aldridge, Jr., was General Welch’s top-level teammate in scoring one for space. They coauthored a new statement of Air Force space policy that went out to the Air Staff, major commands, and special operating agencies last De­cember 2, just two weeks before Mr. Aldridge resigned as Secretary of the Air Force to become president of McDonnell Douglas Electronic Sys­tems Co., a newly established com­pany in McLean, Va.

The statement began: “We have re­cently completed an intensive review of the role of the Air Force in space. That review concluded that space op­erations can have a decisive influence on future terrestrial conflict. There­fore, we must make a corporate com­mitment to integrate spacepower throughout the full spectrum of Air Force capabilities.”

To those who may have assumed that the Air Force has always put a premium on space, given USAF’s ob­vious and increasing activity in that arena, all this may seem puzzling. But the fact is that the Air Force, contrary to outward appearances, has always been somewhat space-shy. Only grudgingly has USAF been willing to shell out for the increasingly sophisti­cated and costly space systems that can, if overbought, eat up a whole year’s hardware budget in no time.

Those systems are the communica­tions, early-warning, surveillance, re­connaissance, navigation, and weath­er satellites on which US strategic and tactical forces now intrinsically depend. They are the stuff of com­mand control communications and intelligence (C3I) and battle manage­ment, without which forces would be confused and firepower fragmented. But they are not the stuff of combat itself. They are bloodless and “don’t go bang,’ “as one space-systems ad­vocate expressed it in explaining their relative lack of appeal to Air Force leaders whose preferences run more to bombers, fighters, and missiles.

The big, burly booster rockets that hurl these systems into space on plumes of flame are certainly charis­matic. But they, too, have nothing to do with war itself and are throwaways. They are also terribly costly, and the Air Force has been forced by Con­gress to spend more on them than it wanted to in recent years to resusci­tate the US space program, which more than a few Air Force leaders came to regard as a pain in the neck.

The heart of the problem, however, has been the tentative nature of the Air Force’s approach to space. To mol­lify those who cry out against “militar­izing space,” the service has been at pains not to seem too warrior-like in that approach. This helps explain why USAF has heretofore insisted that space is a passive place, not an active mission, and why those who dis­agreed with that, including some gen­eral officers, urged USAF to stop re­garding the militarily appealing “high ground” above the atmosphere as an R&D arena and start treating it as an operational arena. One such officer was the late Gen. Jerome F. O’Malley, who expressed that view during a stint on the Air Staff as a three-star nearly a decade ago.

Over the years, as the gut questions about the Air Force’s identification with space have gone unresolved, the service has shown its ambivalence in the matter.

General Welch addresses this, say­ing: “For a lot of reasons, space has always been a matter of intense inter­est to the Air Force, but has always been held off-line. We’ve sort of had two staffs. One worked space and one worked everything else. There has been an ‘us versus them’ atmosphere, a division.

“So it is important to note that the Air Force has now institutionalized space.”

The space policy statement pro­mulgated by General Welch and Sec­retary Aldridge sets forth the follow­ing tenets:

• “Spacepower will be as decisive in future combat as airpower is to­day.”

• “We must be prepared for the evo­lution of spacepower from combat support to the full spectrum of mili­tary capabilities.”

Air Force Maj. Gen. Thomas S. Moorman, Jr., Director of Space and Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) pro­grams with the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, declares that the Air Force leadership has now “truly endorsed the heritage of space as a core Air Force mission—and this is a key difference between the blue-ribbon study [on space] and the stack of previous assessments conducted predominantly by space people.

“It is important to note that the blue-ribbon panel which supported the Chief consisted of not only space experts within the Air Force but also operators from our flying com­mands—SAC, TAC, and MAC. So the first principle of that panel—that ‘spacepower will be as decisive in fu­ture combat as airpower is today’—was a conclusion reached by air-power advocates and is, in my view, incredibly farsighted. It clearly will be the basis for some fundamental doc­trine and strategic studies over the next few years.”

Mr. Aldridge can take great credit for the corporate Air Force’s willing­ness to welcome space fully into the fold. Throughout his nearly eight years as Under Secretary and then Secretary of the Air Force, he acted and spoke out steadfastly in behalf of the service’s stewardship of space. He was also instrumental in the USAF-led military space program’s solid come­back from the Challenger disaster of January 1986 and the surrounding se­ries of accidents to unmanned space boosters and their vital payloads.

Mr. Aldridge saw space as the key to the Air Force’s future and was con­cerned about the staying power of the service’s commitment to it. He feared that USAF would back away from pro­gramming and funding vital space systems as defense budgets became tighter and tighter.

Last year, as Secretary of the Air Force, Mr. Aldridge assessed the sit­uation at one point as follows:

“The Air Force has had a thirty-year history of space leadership. But it’s not yet complete. Yes, we have a mas­sive space-launch complex system, a worldwide space-tracking network, a competent space acquisition agency, and an effective space operational component [Air Force Space Com­mand] in Colorado Springs.

“But what we have not had is an all-Air Force commitment to space just like we have for air superiority, airlift, air defense, and strategic bomber and missile missions.

“There has been an invisible barrier that has existed between the ‘them’ in the space community and the ‘us’ in the rest of the Air Force.”

Even as he spoke, Secretary Al­dridge had long since moved to do something about his concerns. In ear­ly 1987, he and General Welch agreed on the need to summon all Air Force four-stars to Washington for an ex­haustive briefing and brainstorming session on space. That meeting came to pass in April of the year, immediate­ly following the regularly scheduled Corona conference of four-star com­manders at Homestead AFB, Fla.

“At the end of the meeting,” Mr. Al­dridge now recalls, “we came to the conclusion that the Air Force didn’t have its act together about space. We decided we were not being aggressive about space, but that the other ser­vices were. So we agreed to take ac­tion.”

General Welch put together a team to determine (1) where the Air Force was going in space and (2) where it should be going in space and what it would need to do to get there. The first part was assigned to a steering group led by Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Monroe Hatch and made up of the Vice Commanders of all op­erational commands, along with Lt. Gen. Donald Kutyna, Commander of Air Force Space Command. The sec­ond part was assigned to a group of officers under the direction of Maj. Gen. Harold Todd, Commandant of the Air War College.

“The whole purpose,” recalls Mr. Aldridge, “was to determine the role of the Air Force in space and the role of space in the Air Force.”

One major conclusion of the study was that “the future of the Air Force is inextricably tied to space,” Mr. Al­dridge says. Another: “The Air Force should not be the exclusive agent for space activities. If others have mis­sions requiring satellites, they should be free to build them.

“But because the Air Force has such a tremendous space acquisition and launch infrastructure, it should be the service of preference in build­ing multimission, multiservice satel­lites, such as Milstar.”

As a result of the top-level analysis, the Air Force has moved to permeate its ranks with space experts. For­merly, officers graduating from USAF’s three-year-old undergraduate space training course at Lowry AFB, Colo., were assigned almost exclu­sively to Air Force Space Command. Now they are being dispersed throughout the staffs of all opera­tional commands.

Blue-suiters are being brought up to speed on space at the Pentagon, too. “The word around the Air Staff these days is, ‘You’d better know something about space,” notes Mr. Aldridge.

Evidence of this is perhaps most striking in the Pentagon shop of Lt. Gen. James McCarthy, Air Force Dep­uty Chief of Staff for Programs and Resources, who has set up a panel of officers to handle space just as other XO panels handle airlift or whatever.

At two Corona meetings of top Air Force commanders last year, space came in for special attention. Coordi­nation of space matters at the Pen­tagon is being refined. Space training courses are being expanded.

In short, says Mr. Aldridge: “Space is now incorporated in the organiza­tional structure of the Air Force.” He is persuaded that the barrier between the space community and the rest of the Air Force “has been eliminated.”

The new Air Force space policy di­vides USAF’s role in space into four parts, as follows:

• Space Control. This means ac­quiring and operating antisatellite (ASAT) capabilities, providing battle management and CI, and integrating and using ASAT and space surveil­lance systems.

• Force Application. Should the US political leadership ever decide to deploy an SDI-type ballistic missile defense (BMD) system, the Air Force would acquire and operate the sys­tem’s space-based segment and as­sets, see to its battle management and C, and integrate its forces.

This section of the policy statement also makes it clear that the Air Force intends to be in charge of any US war-fighting in or from space, saying: “The Air Force will acquire and oper­ate space-based weapons when they become a feasible and necessary ele­ment of our force structure.”

• Force Enhancement. USAF will continue to acquire and operate space-based systems for navigation, meteorology, tactical warning and at­tack assessment, nuclear detection, and multiservice and defense-wide communications.

This section says: “The Air Force will continue to support the multiser­vice approach to conducting space surveillance and providing mission-unique, space-based communica­tions. The Air Force will acquire and operate a space-based wide-area sur­veillance, tracking, and targeting ca­pability and will provide space-based means for space surveillance.”

• Space Support. “The Air Force will continue its long-standing role as the provider of launch and common-user, on-orbit support for the Depart­ment of Defense.”

The policy statement concludes: “Based on its heritage, expertise, and infrastructure, the Air Force remains uniquely capable of conducting De­partment of Defense space activities. Just as we have in the past been the major provider of air forces for this nation’s defense, the Air Force will in the future be the major provider of space forces for this nation’s defense. It is the responsibility of each Air Force member to make this goal a reality.”

Such assertive confirmation of the Air Force’s commitment to space should serve to quiet, at least for now, critics both outside and inside the service who have expressed doubts about that commitment in the past. Mr. Aldridge recalls that the Air Force was accused of not having charged ahead strongly enough at various times in support of such space sys­tems as its F-15 ASAT missiles, Global Positioning System (GPS) navigation satellites, Milstar communications satellites, and space-based radars.

The main reason for the criticism was the tendency of the Air Force to cut back or put off funding for all those space systems each year in es­tablishing overall procurement and development priorities. It was no se­cret that the soaring cost of the Milstar program—paid for by the Air Force but intended to be of enormous benefit to all the services—provoked considerable sentiment against it on the Air Staff. It was seen there as si­phoning off money that could be bet­ter spent on, say, F-15 fighter procure­ment.

This attitude made some top offi­cials in space and C3I circles in the Office of the Secretary of Defense rail in private against USAF. The OSD staff also came after the Air Force in 1987 for the service’s allegedly lukewarm support of the ASAT program.

In fact, the Air Force gave up on that program only after Congress repeat­edly refused to allow further testing of the ASAT in space. In an empty ges­ture, Congress then lifted the testing ban.

Now the ASAT matter is again on the agenda, but the Air Force is less intimately and immediately involved. OSD has set up a triservice program to devise a family of progressively more potent ASAT weapons. It has as­signed the Army to take the lead in building the first one—a ground-launched, and maybe ship-launched, missile like the one that the Army has already developed and partially test­ed, called ERIS (Exoatmospheric Re­entry-vehicle Interceptor Subsystem), in the SDI program for defense against ballistic missiles.

ASAT advocates expect better for­tune on Capitol Hill this time around. To carry the day, they are counting on a multiservice lobbying effort, which was lacking before, to convince the lawmakers that the Soviet space threat grows more ominous even as US space assets become ever more costly, more vital to national security, and more in need of an ASAT weapon to protect them against attack. In any case, some space buffs at the Pen­tagon hopefully suspect that con­gressional resistance to ASAT weap­ons as potentially destabilizing has been worn down and that anti-ASAT solons will find the ERIS-type ASAT more familiar, and less threatening, than they did its fighter-launched forerunner.

The Navy will lobby for an ASAT, but is not all that wild about the Army’s kingpin status in the program. The Navy had laid claim to become the lead service on grounds that it has the greatest need for such a weapon—to shoot down, if war comes, the ubiq­uitous Soviet radar ocean reconnais­sance satellites (RORSATs) and elec­tronic ocean reconnaissance satel­lites (EORSAT5) that orbit over the seas like clockwork to keep track of US warships for targeting purposes. Lately, some of those spy satellites have been launched into much higher orbits, and so have some other types of Soviet satellites.

So it may be just as well that the US fighter-launched ASAT weapon has given way to one described by former Defense Secretary Frank C. Carlucci, just before he left office last January, as capable of ‘reaching higher al­titudes” within “shorter response times.”

The Air Force seemed unruffled by the Defense Acquisition Board’s tap­ping of the Army. USAF has no objec­tion to either of the other services building an ASAT weapon. As General Welch explains: “I think we’ll have a proper division of labor on ASATs. The Army has long-standing interest in land-based systems for defending CONUS. In any event, the command and control of all ASAT systems will still fall to the Air Force.”

The Air Force reserves the right to be in charge of all ASAT mission plan­ning, launching, and battle manage­ment, no matter which service builds the weapon itself. Its stance toward the Army, in the words of one USAF officer, is: “If they want to build a bul­let, fine. But fire it? No.”

This is said to have nothing to do with service parochialism, but rather with the reality that the Air Force al­ready operates the satellites and other systems that would be essential to ASAT battle management and com­mand and control. Moreover, claims USAF, it would naturally fall to North American Aerospace Defense Com­mand (NORAD) and Air Force Space Command as a component of US Space Command to do the surveillance, tracking, and post-attack as­sessment that an ASAT force would require as combat support.

Laser weapons may someday emerge as ASATs. The Air Force and the Navy are developing such di­rected-energy weapons in the new tri­service ASAT program. Work on lasers powerful enough to be lethal weapons has been a major thrust of the SDI program and may yet bear fruit in a missile-defense system. But many defense aficionados, such as former Defense Secretary Harold Brown, have long claimed that the high-energy laser would first find a home in the military as an ASAT weap­on. It is feared that the Soviet Union, which has long possessed a fairly primitive but nonetheless opera­tionally ready, hit-to-kill ASAT, now has lasers that can range far higher.

As part of the US ASAT program, USAF plans to upgrade and expand its space-surveillance systems and its means of identifying and targeting hostile spacecraft. It will set up a new program office, says General Moor­man, “to apply our years of expertise in meeting the challenges of surveil­lance, battle management, C, and systems integration.”

He adds: “I believe that, this time, the renewed activities to develop an operational ASAT capability will be fruitful. I base my optimism on the fact that we not only have broad DoD inter­est in doing so, based on a clear rec­ognition of the Soviet space threat, but also a strong operational pull from USCINCSPACE.”

General Moorman’s reference was to Air Force Gen. John L. Piotrowski, Commander in Chief of the unified US Space Command. As “the CINC who will operate an ASAT system,” Gener­al Piotrowski “has had a significant impact on DoD and the Congress with his persuasive advocacy and compel­ling rationale for building one,” Gen­eral Moorman declares.

It is doubtful that anyone hails the Air Force’s embrace of space more heartily than does General Piotrow­ski. He has been saying all along that spacepower will be as critical to the success of future military operations as seapower and airpower are today.

General Piotrowski has long em­phasized that “space is a joint arena, and the systems that operate there serve all our warfighting command­ers.”

He also has long contended that, as he once put it, “space is central to the future of the United States Air Force.” Now it is clear that the Air Force as a whole has come to agree.