Slipping in Space

Oct. 1, 1993

The Senate, searching for cost savings last July, told the Pentagon to investigate using foreign launch vehicles to put national security payloads into space. That struck a discordant note for the armed forces, who have come to depend on space systems to an extent few commanders would have imagined as recently as five years ago.

Strike aircraft in the Persian Gulf War took advantage of weather satellite data to press the attack through gaps in cloud formations. Surveillance satellites provided information on the enemy and warning of Scud missile attacks. Eventually some 4,500 terminals in the war zone were keyed to Navstar navigation satellites. Meal trucks used signals from space to find and feed front-line units. Satellites carried eighty percent of the communications for land, sea, and air forces. And that, it seems, is just the beginning.

The new prophets of space are a couple of thirty-third-degree fighter pilots named McPeak and Horner. “If American military history ended today, airpower would be seen as our distinctive contribution, but I’m convinced that tomorrow we will judge a nation’s power status by its relative position in space,” says Gen. Merrill A. McPeak, Air Force Chief of Staff. “I believe that space is on the way to being the new centerpiece of our strategic leverage.” Gen. Charles A. Horner says he knew almost nothing about space when be became air boss in the Gulf War. He was converted as well as instructed by that experience, and he now spreads the word with great credibility as commander in chief of US Space Command.

As the Senate’s message indicated, though, the United States–and the US armed forces–have problems looming in space. “We are not the only nation learning lessons from Desert Storm,” General Horner says. “Other countries are no longer content to stand on the sidelines and admire our military prowess in space.”

Today, the United States launches only twenty-seven percent of the free world’s satellites, down from eighty-five percent in the not-too-distant past. By the turn of the century, more than twenty nations will have spacebased intelligence and targeting capabilities. Earlier this year, a panel reporting to the National Science Foundation and NASA said the US lead has been lost in many critical satellite technologies and that other nations will soon begin moving ahead in the market.

Foreign launchers lift payloads for about half the cost of US launchers, which are obsolete and inefficient. In the 1970s, we committed ourselves almost exclusively to the space shuttle and did not resume work on modern launcher alternatives in earnest until after the Challenger disaster in 1986. The first big proposal, called the National Launch System, foundered. The next one, a modular family of “Spacelifter” vehicles, is stalled by lack of support.

Current military space launch is not operationally responsive. Given some luck and by pulling out all the stops, Space Command might get a high-priority satellite up on a month’s notice, but the typical waiting time is closer to four months. Because of such delays and other factors, the Joint Military Net Assessment declares launch capability no better than “marginally sufficient.” General Horner sees little relief until we stop treating every launch as a custom event. We do not assemble unique components and build a new aircraft each time we want to fly one, he says, and it’s time to move away from one-of-a-kind satellites toward packages that can be launched with minimal modification on standard boosters.

In May, the Department of Defense declared “the end of the Star Wars era” and terminated the Strategic Defense Initiative. Residual elements continue as the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, a scaled-down operation that focuses on the proliferating theater missile threat. That is a very hard job for existing satellite systems, which were not designed to detect dimmer, short-burning theater missiles. Nor do they have the capability to cue ground defenses. Replacement systems are a high priority for Space Command, but funding may not be available.

Almost two dozen nations have missile capabilities or are close to acquiring them. For the moment, most of these missiles are limited to theater range, but intercontinental weapons will not be far behind. It is starkly conceivable that a rising number of them could threaten North America in the next ten years. The Central Intelligence Agency predicts it will not be long before several Third World nations have ICBMs.

Ironically, just as the armed forces are recognizing the value of space to military operations, the nation’s attention to space is scattered and unfocused. The direction, aside from economizing, is uncertain. The National Space Council has been downgraded. The Administration wants to shift space assets and funding from the military to civilian programs. There is no real sense of urgency about tackling the problems of space launch, missile defense, or reconnaissance capabilities.

By General McPeak’s figuring, military space operations today are at about the same stage that airpower was at the end of World War I. We have just begun to discern the possibilities. It’s understood that these are difficult times, but this is not a front on which we can back away.