At Risk in Space

Sept. 1, 1987

This country’s position as the “world’s most ad­vanced military spacefaring power is at risk [mainly because the Soviet] military space force structure is larger,” Gen. John L. Piotrowski, Commander in Chief of US Space Command, told AFA’s national space sym­posium recently. In the event’s keynote address, he pointed out that the Soviets’ “readiness is higher, they are able to sustain the force, and—as proven by their exercises and responses to crises—they have better and more thorough integration into the operations of their terrestrial and maritime combatant commands.”

By way of an example, he said that during the Falklands conflict between Argentina and England, the Soviets beefed up their space capabilities by launching twenty-nine satellites in sixty-nine days, or about one satellite every two days. More recently, he recounted, the Soviets, following a launch failure, were able to orbit a replacement satellite on top of a new booster in just two weeks, a feat the US could not have duplicated even under the best of circumstances. As General Piotrowski put it, “They have got a lot in the barn.”

In that “barn,” the head of the US Space Command explained, are more than fifty different types of space systems carried by eight different, reliable types of boosters. Their launchpad turnaround times, he pointed out, “are measured in days or even hours, while ours are measured in months.” Given the Soviets’ broad infra­structure of launchpads—about twice the US total—comprehensive inventory of spacecraft and boosters—including a throw-weight advantage over the US of somewhere between 5:1 and 10:1—and a large and expe­rienced pool of highly trained handling and launch per­sonnel, General Piotrowski warned that “in a crisis the Soviets could significantly increase their launch rate while—with their operational antisatellite [ASAT] weapon—simultaneously reducing our own on-orbit forces.”

The USSR’s investment in a “full range of space con­trol antisatellite weaponry” has made it the only military power that can deny access to space to others, he em­phasized. The US, he stressed, urgently needs a “space control capability,” adding that the “cornerstone of that capability is an air-launched antisatellite system.” It is imperative, therefore, in terms of “both deterrence and warfighting that we resume developmental testing of our air-launched miniature antisatellite homing vehicle.” It would be a national tragedy of unforgivable proportion if “we rewarded Soviet aggression in space by withdrawal from that medium or answered with a terrestrial re­sponse that could escalate a conflict,” according to Gen­eral Piotrowski.

How the Current Dilemma Came About

The current dilemma, General Piotrowski suggested, is brought on by a somewhat cavalier attitude in the US “about the important contributions that space and space systems can make to the calculus of deterrence,” on the one hand, and by underestimating the operational strength of Soviet military space forces that originally “may have been grounded in technological weakness,” on the other. Elaborating on this tendency of under­estimating Soviet space prowess, he explained that what would be assessed as great strengths in the case of other countries, “we have attributed to weakness. Perhaps this view has emerged largely because we cannot swal­low [the notion] that the US—the nation that put men on the moon—is not taking the steps necessary to prevent another nation from becoming the world’s preeminent space power.”

Similarly, the head of the US Space Command said, there is the notion that “war in space is interesting, but not compelling” in the sense that the outcome of aggres­sion in space may lack the visibility and finality of ter­restrial combat. In reality, he pointed out, such Soviet spacecraft as radar, imagery, and electronic intelligence satellites are straightforward means for targeting US and allied maritime and terrestrial forces. Failure to provide the US national command authorities with the means to neutralize these Soviet space assets, he suggested, could be “very damaging.”

In their symposium presentations, Gen. Bernard P. Randolph, the new head of Air Force Systems Com­mand, and USAF’s Deputy Chief of Plans and Opera­tions, Lt. Gen. Harley A. Hughes, both strongly sec­onded the imperative of fielding US ASAT weapons. General Randolph pointed out that the targeting capabil­ities of Soviet radar and electronic ocean surveillance satellites are “frightening” with regard to US naval forces: “We need [an ASAT] response in kind.” Under certain scenarios, General Hughes added, the Soviets “can take out selected US satellites, and we can’t take out theirs. That’s a damned poor place for this country to be when we want to deter and keep the world free. . What Congress is doing [with regard to] ASAT makes no sense whatsoever.”

Another requirement of major significance to US Space Command is a space-based surveillance system (SBSS), according to General Piotrowski. There is, he pointed out, a “clear need for surveillance of satellites in low-earth orbits, especially those that can maneuver behind the earth or over the Eurasian landmass. The current complement of GEODSS (ground-based elec­tro-optical deep-space surveillance) sites also needs fleshing out, he told the AFA meeting. On Diego Garcia, the new GEODSS site is a “welcome addition. We are also negotiating with the government of Portugal about a GEODSS site [in that country]. But what we really need is a wide-band space surveillance imaging radar to sur­vey the area between zero degrees and ninety degrees east longitude,” according to General Piotrowski.

While development of the so-called space operations planning center is on hold at this time—due in part to the lengthy standdown of the Space Shuttle—the need for such a facility remains clear, according to General Pi­otrowski. This requirement will become acute when the Shuttle resumes operations next year and will become even more pronounced if and when the next generation of manned spacecraft, the National Aerospace Plane (NASP), is fielded.

In the area of CONUS air defense—and as a part of AD! (Air Defense Initiative, the counterpart to SD! in the air-breathing regime)—the Air Force is exploring ways to upgrade the E-3A AWACS to boost the system’s depth and its ability to detect small radar cross section targets, according to General Piotrowski (who also serves as CINCNORAD). In addition, the Air Force is examining conceptual approaches to a “grandson of AWACS,” he told the AFA meeting. At the same time, efforts to develop and deploy space-based systems that can detect and pinpoint air-breathing threats ought to be accelerated, General Piotrowski said.

Maj. Gen. Eric B. Nelson, AFSC’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Systems, told the AFA meeting that an ironic anomaly marked SD! and AD!: “In the case of SD!, we have the sensors that can see the [ballistic] missiles, but [for the time being], we can’t intercept them. In the case of AD!, we mostly can’t see [the air-breathing threats], but we have the means [in technological] terms to inter­cept them.” As a result, SD! is focused on “engagement, while AD! is mainly keyed to surveillance and warning.” He seconded General Piotrowski’s call to improve the detection capabilities of AWACS as the first step under AD!, pointing out That “we haven’t made any major improvements of AWACS since we first fielded the sys­tem” in the last decade. Over the longer term, he suggested, consideration ought to be given to using NASP as a “fast AD! interceptor of cruise-missile carriers.”

Resurrecting the US Spacelaunch Posture

This country’s spacelaunch capability is “in tough shape. We are literally hanging on by our fingernails and nervous as heck about it,” General Randolph told the AFA symposium. But these consequences of the stand-down of the Shuttle and the Titan 34D expendable launch vehicle (ELY) are being corrected by a compre­hensive recovery program, he said. At present, the Air Force has twelve payloads “sitting on the ground that should be in space.” But launches of Titan 34D will resume this summer on the West Coast and this fall on the East Coast. “We are getting the launchpads ready to go [and] have developed launch procedures for the solid [rocket strap-ons] that are really fantastic,” the new AFSC Commander pointed out.

By June of next year, the new medium lift vehicle, the Delta II, will be ready for operational use, concurrent with the resumption of Space Shuttle operations. Short­ly thereafter—by October 1988—the Titan IV, an ELY with roughly the same payload capability as the Shuttle, will fly for the first time, General Randolph disclosed. In addition, the Air Force’s spacelaunch inventory in­cludes thirteen decommissioned Titan ICBMs that have been modified to serve as ELVs for weather satellites.

These venerable ICBMs, the AFSC Commander point­ed out, are “coming out of the hole in great shape,” with the result that additional Titans may be converted to an ELY configuration.

Based on studies over the past two years of long-term US space transportation requirements, the Pentagon and NASA have come up with a White House-endorsed roadmap that capitalizes on innovative technologies, General Randolph reported. At the core of this road-map, known as STAS (for space transportation architec­ture study), is ALS, the advanced launch system. The near-term objective for ALS centers on readily avail­able, proven technology involving a “core vehicle” built around the Space Shuttle’s main engine (SSME), possi­bly augmented by small strap-ons.

The initial version of ALS, he told the AFA meeting, is likely to be a “backoff position from the ultimate design that would have an orbital payload capability of between 150,000 and 160,000 pounds” and incorporate a reasonable degree of “reusability.” The first ALS vehi­cles, he suggested, would have payloads between cur­rent Shuttle levels—about 40,000 pounds—and the 150,000-pound range, he added. The ALS PRDA (Pro­gram Research and Development Announcement) is­sued by AFSC’s Space Division, he pointed out, nails down maximum “operational utility,” low cost, and high reliability as central design criteria for the system, but allows wide margins for innovation and creativity on the part of the candidate contractors. The Air Force does not want a design, however, that is “hand-built, that has to be massaged on the pad as we do right now. We want to be able to put [ALS] on the pad, put the payload on it, and launch.” The Air Force is willing to consider either Shuttle-derived or Titan-derived concepts, he stressed.

The mature versions of ALS, General Randolph un­derscored, will emphasize reusability of such compo­nents as liquid-fueled strap-ons. Some ALS vehicles will be tailored for unmanned cargo missions, while others may be manned. The AFSC Commander ex­plained that “high reliability” rather than hard-to-define man-rated design standards would be applied to the ALS program. ALS is also to work in concert with reusable orbital transfer vehicles featuring broad opera­tional flexibility, he added.

The Air Force’s current notion is that the strap-ons mounted on the sides of the SSME-powered core vehicle should use LOX (liquid oxygen)/hydrocarbon engines. These strap-ons would be dropped off before the vehicle itself gets into orbit, “turn around, and land. This may be an easy way to operate such a system.”

An ancillary but significant aspect of the launch re­covery program is concerted support of US commercial spacelaunch capabilities by the Pentagon, NASA, and the US Department of Transportation. The motivation behind this drive to bolster US commercial launch capa­bilities is to make “the whole business more active and robust” as well as to lower the cost of launch vehicles for both governmental and commercial users, according to General Randolph.

As a case in point, he noted that the Delta II program was structured in a manner that incorporated the de­sign’s suitability for commercial launch applications into the selection process: “We demanded that the con­tractors tell us how they would use the launchers for commercial ventures.” The only major remaining hurdle, General Randolph said, is the “insurance issue.

Our position is that we should assume responsibility for those things that we do to support commercial ventures, [such as] range activities, and that the commercial con­tractor should assume responsibility for what he does. As a result, some commercial launch [organizations] believe now that they can get the necessary insurance and plan to go forward.”

Toward More Launchpads

In line with making the US spacelaunch force more “robust” and diversified, the Air Force is also increasing the number of available launchpads. Current plans call for six pads on the East Coast and three active pads plus SLC-6 (the spacelaunch complex at Vandenberg AFB reserved for the Space Shuttle but kept dormant for the time being) on the West Coast, according to the AFSC Commander. Two of the West Coast pads will be tailored for Titan IV operations. The prospect of increased buy rates of Titan IV—possibly as many as six or more a year compared to the originally planned two a year—makes it necessary that more than one dedicated launchpad be available.

Lt. Gen. Aloysius Casey, Commander of AFSC’s Space Division, told the AFA meeting that the future of the SLC-6 is not clear: “We simply don’t know whether there will be launches of the Shuttle from [VAFB] and whether or not the facility should be converted to [use] by ALS.” General Casey acknowledged that the total number of ALS vehicles required probably won’t be known precisely until that program is further along. General Randolph pointed out that unless NASA is able to get funding for advanced Shuttle solid-rocket motors and thereby is able to boost the system’s payload capa­bility from 40,000 pounds to about 56,000 pounds, “we couldn’t use it for VAFB launches.”

Manned Military Space Operations

The space policy issued early this year by the Defense Department directs specific attention to the importance of examining the value of manned military space opera­tions, General Casey reported. While the Air Force has not pinpointed any specific requirement for manned military missions, AFSC’s Space Division, among oth­ers, will step up efforts to explore the potential utility of military men in space. Because NASA was assigned primary responsibility for the Space Shuttle, the Air Force paid little attention to manned missions, the Space Division Commander acknowledged: “We need to explore this [field] through experimentation, [even though] it is hard to cost-effectively justify manned mili­tary missions in space.”

Turning to manned spaceflight in general, General Casey termed the recent Soviet decision to undertake manned exploration of Mars an “exciting thing. I would like to see US manned missions to Mars.” He added, however, that such a mission would require extremely large boosters, probably well above the thrust levels of Saturn V, the workhorse of the Apollo program. The new “Energyia” Soviet space booster, he suggested, probably won’t be adequate for manned missions with­out orbital staging.

Among the major space systems under development by AFSC’s Space Division, the Navstar Global Position­ing System (GPS) performs the “most elemental military requirement—knowing where you are,” the Space Divi­sion Commander explained. When fully operational in the early 1990s, GPS will open a new era in “three-dimensional information, including altitude, time, ground, position, and velocity,” permitting, for in­stance, blind bombing at night with “dumb bombs” that come within ten to twenty feet of the target center.

Specific benefits flowing from the operational GPS system, General Casey explained, also entail “secure, accurate navigation for submarines, enhanced aerial re­fueling capabilities under all weather conditions, im­proved search and rescue, better target acquisition, and more effective ordnance drop in the proximity of friend­ly forces without visual contact.” So far, fifty-two manu­facturers are developing GPS user equipment, with the ground hardware ranging in size from “a large backpack to [a] pack of cigarettes.”

The current average unit cost of $70,000 for the user equipment is expected to come down to about $45,000 per copy in the early 1990s, according to General Casey. The antijam element of the equipment accounts for about eighty percent of the total cost for the military units. Asked about the survivability of the system, he suggested that an adversary would have great difficulty in “taking down all those satellites in a short time.” GPS, he stressed, is “inherently survivable.”

SDI Anchored in Innovation

The Strategic Defense Initiative, SDIO Director Lt. Gen. James A. Abrahamson told the AFA meeting, is “the largest single research undertaking under one um­brella” ever tackled by the US. No other project has “ever been as challenging and comprehensive.” The core challenge, he explained, is that “we have to bring forward ten to twelve major development programs all at the same time” and make them dovetail: “This requires new ways of contracting and managing.” As a result, he defined the SD! problem as “not a technological prob­lem, but one of understanding.” While suggesting that there are no “showstoppers,” he conceded that “there are tough bureaucratic problems,” including formidable “infrastructure and industrial hurdles. . . . We must do things faster, cheaper, and more boldly.”

General Hughes termed SDI “the perfect countervail­ing strategy to the Soviet ballistic missile force that they have invested in” so lavishly in order to “intimidate the rest of the world.” The long-term potential of SDI, how­ever, must not lead to near-term neglect of the strategic triad and the “way we deter the Soviets” by traditional strategic offensive capabilities. The notion that a full-blown SDI capability is so close to realization that tradi­tional deterrence can be dispensed with, he said, is “hogwash.”

In fact, he pointed out, “the most dangerous. . . time that we will encounter over the next twenty years will be the period [when] we begin to put the [space-based] defense in orbit [until] it becomes effective.” During that period, the triad must be both maintained and modern­ized. Also, both the strategic and the conventional forces must be modernized during this transition period because “we need to continue to deter. We have got to have SDI. It is doable. It has got to come in its own time, and it . . . has to be funded independently of other” essential deterrence requirements.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Hughes pointed out, are “working very hard” on defining a set of tasks to be accomplished by SDI’s so-called Phase I so that it is “militarily significant.” The basic criterion, he added, is “cost-effectiveness at the margin,” meaning “that it [must cost] the Soviets more to try and defeat it than it costs us to put it into orbit.”

He added that—probably by the end of this year—the Joint Chiefs of Staff will have specified the “command that is going to be responsible for the integration and operation of SDI.” This integration will also include existing US military space systems. The US Space Command, therefore, is a strong candidate for SDI op­erations, he suggested.