Washington, D. C.—In Washington—where nearly everyone is focused on vulnerabilities to the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fury, Gorbachev’s cunning, and Gramm-Rudman’s axe—word that the US is also vulnerable in space caused scarcely a ripple.
Yet that was the message delivered by Gen. John L. Piotrowski, the Commander in Chief of United States Space Command (SPACECOM). His assessment was presumably authoritative and certainly unequivocal: “In a crisis or in a conflict with the Soviet Union, they could deeply wound our satellites, and we couldn’t get back in space quickly.”
General Piotrowski, the man who operates US warning, surveillance, and other satellites, offered up his grim conclusion not long ago in remarks to a group of Washington military writers.
There is room for experts to differ with this conclusion. However, a country dependent on spacefaring military systems can hardly ignore the facts he cited to underpin his argument. General Piotrowski’s key points were these:
• Moscow’s space offense is stronger than had been thought, posing threats that range from killer-satellites to lasers and Galosh interceptors.
• US defense is weaker than has been thought. Replacement efforts would be hampered by lack of on-orbit spares and standby boosters.
In sizing up the space balance, General Piotrowski emphasizes current Soviet ability to field a multiple-weapon, operational, antisatellite capability. The USSR’s robust system has three parts.
First: Moscow can look to its coorbital “killer-satellite,” a large device that, after launch, closes in to short range and explodes in a kind of suicide attack on its target. The last “seventeen or eighteen tests” of the ASAT’s SL-1 1 booster have been perfect, “which says that they can put this [ASAT] into the proper orbit [to hit] the victim.” It has potential to kill on first orbit, certainly on second. Probability of kill is “more than fifty percent.”
Second: High-power twin laser test systems at Sary Shagan “can kill up to low earth orbit, can wound up to about 1,200 kilometers, and can do in-band damage up to geosynchronous.” The term “in-band damage” means that a laser operating in the infrared band, for example, could damage IR sensors at the highest altitudes. What’s more, the lasers could damage satellites themselves in low earth orbit.
Third: There is “no question” that the Soviets, in a war, could blast low-earth-orbiting satellites that pass within range of five USSR Galosh interceptor test sites in Siberia. Nuclear-armed, exoatmospheric Galosh weapons are hooked to battle-management radar. US satellites, which pass over Sary Shagan, “are going to come within range.”
Compounding the threat of Soviet offensive systems, says General Piotrowski, is this nation’s inability to respond swiftly to an attack by launching replenishment satellites.
The US, the General explains, has become a victim of its success. Because of the high quality and reliability of US vehicles, the US never has had to develop the ability to “launch on demand,” as the Soviets must do with their short-lived satellites. The US has been able to relax in peacetime. This has led to serious shortcomings.
One problem is a lack of boosters. Even before the Challenger and Titan disasters of 1986, the US lacked a supply of boosters adequate for crisis needs. That weakness will remain even after those vehicles once again are operational. “If they attack our satellites,” says the General, “we would not be able to get satellites back in space quickly, even with a healthy Shuttle program and a healthy booster program.”
The US has not compensated for this weakness by lofting large numbers of orbiting “spares”—backup satellites that can be switched on to replace lost spacecraft. Such spares have been planned, but funded irregularly. It would take “weeks” to replace critical satellites.
In stark contrast, the USSR would come to any conflict with a large infrastructure and war reserve stocks. Moscow has “satellites in the warehouse and rocket boosters standing by ready to be launched.” Last year, of 600 world space and missile test launches, 500 were Soviet.
The current situation “just naturally evolved,” says the General. “The Soviets are the way they are because of technological weakness. They have built that into an operational strength. The fact that their satellites lasted only weeks required them to build twice as many launch pads, to have large numbers of rockets sitting there to be used, [and to construct] large numbers of satellites waiting there to be used.”
Making the Soviet stockpile even more impressive is the fact that the US has no operational ASAT capable of downing Soviet satellites in the first place. Congress has blocked testing of such a device.
General Piotrowski has a simple get-well program for the US, which he summarizes this way: “My hope would be that Congress would lift the moratorium (on testing the miniature homing vehicle ASAT). . . . We need to have increased on-orbit spares, we need to have spare boosters, and we need to be able to build the infrastructure that can support more rapid launch.”
Forty years ago, in his famous 1947 “X” article in Foreign Affairs, George F Kennan laid down the intellectual framework for the “containment” of Soviet expansionism. The principal aim of Western military and diplomatic moves, Mr. Kennan argued, should be to keep Soviet power bottled up within its borders long enough to let internal corrosion dull the regime’s aggressive edge.
Question: Can this approach be used against Khomeini’s Iran
A key Washington figure who thinks so is Rep. Les Aspin, the Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and one of the three or four Democrats who count on defense. Representative Aspin believes there is away to deal with Iran; he is proposing a novel, two-track approach. But many—on the right and left—are certain to be terrified by it.
The premise of the Aspin plan is that Washington today has “no coherent policy” in the Persian Gulf, but pursues half measures. “I think the focus ought to be on containment of Iran,” he declares. “The policy ought to be. . . to contain [Iran’s revolution] and let it mellow a little.”
How to proceed? One of the tracks, the Wisconsin Democrat makes clear, is military containment—the actual use of Western power against Iran to keep it in check. It is this that is sure to scandalize the political left.
To put it in bluntest terms, Representative Aspin would forcibly shut down Iran’s economy. The object would be to “go after the economic jugular of Iran—its capacity to export oil. It is hard currency from the sale of oil, he notes, that fuels Iranian arms purchases that enable it to prosecute the war with Iraq and to challenge Western ships.
The West’s capacity to squeeze Tehran’s economy, Representative As-pin goes on, “is our lever. The place where Iran really is vulnerable to pressure is in its economy. They rely very, very heavily on a very few places to export oil. . . . That is our ace in the hole.”
When Representative Aspin speaks of stopping Iran’s oil operations, he has something specific in mind: “I mean keeping it from getting out of Iran altogether.” This means naval blockade—an act of war. “Yeah. That’s right,” he replies, adding: “You’ve got to think down the line and say whether you’re willing to do that, and I think the answer ought to be ‘yes.’ It’s not the first move that you make, but that is the appropriate use of force.”
Either US warships or mines, he adds, could easily do the job of turning off the oil spigot.
Track No. 2 of the Aspin policy is certain to be distressing to the political right. It is that Washington must wrap its military assertiveness in the cocoon of a global political coalition arrayed against Iran. And, says he, Moscow has to be a part of it.
The notion of granting the Kremlin a role in the Persian Gulf is anathema to the Reagan Administration, which believes that only ill can come of it. After all, one of the purposes of Reagan decision to reflag Kuwaiti tankers was to keep Russia out. Even so, Representative Aspin maintains, military pressure will prove ineffective unless the world—including Moscow—is unified behind it.
In Representative Aspin’s words: “If you’re going to contain Iran on a long-term basis. . . how are you to ignore the Soviets? They are too big, too powerful, and too close to leave them out. . . . I don’t know how you can do it. You’ve got the Soviets right up against Iran, and the Soviets are going to be players.”
Why would the Kremlin bother to help? Self-interest, asserts Representative Aspin. “It might be in their interest to make sure the Iranian revolution doesn’t get out of hand.” He points out that millions of Muslims living within Soviet borders might not remain forever immune to the call of militant Islam just across the border.
The Democrat is clearly trying to spark a debate on what Washington’s long-term policy in the Gulf should be. He has no illusions about how difficult building a consensus will be, but he believes it is not realistic to expect escort operations to go on indefinitely. “What happens if this thing starts costing American lives, one or two at a time?” he asks. “They [Americans] are either going to want to knock the bejesus out of Iran, or they’re going to want to say, ‘To hell with it.’ And I can’t predict ahead of time which it will be.”
Cold Storage for Dual Source
On another front—weapons procurement—it appears that an Aspin idea is headed for cold storage if not oblivion. It is the Democratic lawmaker’s call for the Air Force to consider dual-source production of the multibillion-dollar Advanced Technology Bomber (ATB), or, as it has now been officially designated, B-2.
In an amendment to the House DoD authorization bill passed last spring, Representative Aspin proposed such competition to hold down ATB costs.
There can now be little doubt that the Air Force will resist further efforts along this line. Talk to the Air Force Under Secretary, James McGovern, and you sense the service’s hostility to the idea. The ATB, or “Stealth” bomber, says Mr. McGovern, “ought not be competed” at the prime contractor level. And will not, he makes clear.
Why? “It’s 132 aircraft,” he explains. “It’s not like we’re building 1,300 F-15s. Just 132 aircraft is not a particularly attractive thing for some [second] prime to get involved in. There are not enough [airplanes] to go around.”
Bolstering the Air Force’s position, says Mr. McGovern, is the result of a still-secret study performed for the Air Force by the Rand Corp. over the past five months. The study, commissioned to analyze the subject of competition in the ATB program, finds there is no justification for instituting a second source.
Says Mr. McGovern: “Rand [analysts] unequivocally indicated that it was not a program that should be competed at the prime contractor level. . . . It is just not a very good fit in this program. The Rand study was very conclusive on that.”
Apart from economic considerations, opposition in the Air Force stems from the secretive nature of the project. The greater the number of persons working on the bomber, the reasoning goes, the higher the risk that classified data will leak. Already, thousands of persons are at work on the aircraft.
Certain to applaud the Air Force’s hardening position is Northrop Corp., the California firm selected several years ago as the prime contractor for the radar-evading bomber. Northrop is the sole contractor on the project and is loath to share it with others.
Representative Aspin himself has moderated his position in the face of USAF opposition. His committee, he says, was concerned that, without some form of competition, “the price of that ATB is going to take off. .. . We were a little worried that there was nothing holding down the price of the ATB.”
But “there were a lot of other ways to have competition,” says the Congressman, meaning multiple subcontractors and suppliers. “I think that if the Rand study says it’s not a good idea and [that] if it turns out not to be a good idea, we’re not locked into the proposition,” says Representative Aspin. “If somebody else has got a better way to hold down the cost and get a good product, okay.”
Mr. McGovern maintains that there is “a prudent and reasonable” amount of competition going on at the subcontractor level and at the level of supplier to the subcontractors. This, he says, will continue and perhaps even expand, if to do so proves worthwhile.
Whatever their differences on competition, both men agree that the cost of the ATB program is not “taking off.”
Mr. McGovern maintains flatly that the secret program is still within the ceiling of $36.6 billion set in 1981 for 132 airplanes.
Representative Aspin, who has had a look at the details of the program, claims there has been “a little cost growth” and a little slippage in the production schedule. “But nothing dramatic,” he says, “and nothing that you would say extends beyond the normal growing process.”
He adds that “the first flight test is probably going to be bumped back a couple of months, but nothing dramatic.” Revised date for the first ATB flight remains classified.
B-52s for Europe
Now that a Soviet-American treaty to eliminate theater nuclear missiles in Europe is a near certainty, the Pentagon is scrambling for ways to fill the gaping nuclear hole in NATO defenses.
One new idea calls for putting aging B-52 bombers at center stage in yet another role for the thirty-year-old airplane.
The plan was disclosed by Gen. John T. Chain, Commander in Chief of Strategic Air Command, to some defense writers. The General, who commands the US Air Force’s atomic striking arm, says the venerable bombers could be used in the European theater with telling effect.
Under General Chain’s scenario, SAC would save 160 G models of the B-52 to form a force of nonnuclear bombers. They would be based in the US and deployed to Europe for training or actual combat.
The G models, none of which is less than twenty-six years old, are destined to hit the boneyard at Davis-Monthan AFB, Ariz., in the 1990s, when they are to be replaced by the oncoming fleet of B-1 and Stealth bombers. General Chain’s blueprint would change that.
As he sees it, the bombers would be combined with new precision-guided munitions that can stand off up to 200 miles from a target and can hit it with pinpoint accuracy. That, combined with the B-52’s extremely long range, would give the US a potent weapon for striking Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces behind their front lines.
The older planes, acknowledges General Chain, do not have the avionics and countermeasures to penetrate heavily defended areas. But at low-level flight, they would still be able to reach into parts of Eastern Europe to attack Pact rear areas.
General Chain drew attention to the fact that the loss of the INF weapons would leave NATO facing the much larger conventional forces of the Warsaw Pact with no “equalizer” to fall back on. If the nuclear missiles are withdrawn from Europe, he said, the conventional forces of NATO would survive in combat only a few days before they would start to be overrun. He implied that the use of the B-52s in a conventional role would permit the allies to hold out longer.
The upgrade would cost about $3 billion over seven years. SAC does not have Pentagon approval to go ahead with the plan, but General Chain says the issue has been discussed in this year’s Pentagon budget deliberations. It is certain to be discussed again.
General Chain notes he was Chief of Staff at Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe before coming to SAC—a tour that brought him face to face with NATO’s weaknesses.
“I became quite aware of the lack of conventional capability in NATO,” he says. “[Former SACEUR] Gen. Bernard Rogers used to say he could fight for seven to ten days conventionally before he started to lose the war and would have to ask for release of theater nuclear weapons. Now enhancing the conventional arm is even more imperative.”
The older B-52s could carry twelve external standoff weapons and up to fifty-one gravity bombs. “So, you couple standoff munitions with the load-carrying capability of the B-52,” says General Chain, “and it becomes an awesome weapon system to contribute to the conventional defense.”
General Chain added that the B-52s would be compelled to fly the mission at night and at low altitude. He indicated that preparations for such flying have already begun.
“Deadly Losses” for NSA
The National Security Agency is the largest and most powerful American intelligence unit. It dwarfs the CIA in budget and influence. It has acres of computers, thousands of listening posts, and tens of thousands of workers. It is the most secretive. An old joke is that its acronym, NSA, stands for “Never Say Anything” or “No Such Agency.”
It was, therefore, an event in the capital when Lt. Gen. William Odom, NSA’s Director, stepped into public view for a rare talk with a few defense writers about intelligence and the Soviet Union.
General Odom expressed concern about the compromising of US intelligence sources and methods. Leaks, he says, are undermining this nation’s espionage prowess, and his agency has not been immune.
He claims that NSA—whose specialty is collecting signals intelligence—has suffered more damage in the last three or four years than at anytime since it was set up in 1952. “Just deadly losses,” says General Odom.
The General, a Sovietologist and former staff member of the National Security Council, believes that Washington policymakers are in danger of missing a major point about Soviet power in the 1980s.
The ups and downs of individual Soviet programs, says General Odom, are not terribly interesting. “The real big news in Soviet military affairs,” he maintains, “is a fundamental revision of their view of the nature of future war and the kind of doctrine and forces they need to fight it.”
The current Soviet view of war, in General Odom’s view, is that of a fairly lengthy conflict, with a very intense initial period, but one that might well avoid use of nuclear weapons altogether. It would be a global war, engaging all the major powers.
The Soviets, says General Odom, appear to realize that high technology, especially in warhead design for nonnuclear weapons, is having a greater impact in the nature of a future conflict than almost anything else going on—including development of nuclear arms. He points to a statement to that effect in 1984 by former Soviet Chief of the General Staff N. V. Ogarkov.
“Ogarkov’s statement in 1984 mentions a global war in which nuclear weapons are not even used because of the more effective new conventional weapons,” says the General. “That’s a fairly fundamental observation.”
General Odom’s implicit question: What will this new Soviet doctrine mean for an adversary, the US, that is still tied to a defense policy characterized by reliance on nuclear weapons and arms control for its basic security?