“Our goal is to build a military flying machine that will be able to take off from a military airfield, insert itself into the upper reaches of the atmosphere and the lower regions of space, and go around the planet in ninety minutes. We’re not looking for a cargo machine. We’re looking for a killer Air Force weapon system that can go out and get the enemy.”
In those words, Stanley A. Tremaine, Deputy for Development Planning at Air Force Systems Command’s Aeronautical Systems Division (ASD), describes the Transatmospheric Vehicle (TAV) that USAF may well have available for space, strategic, and tactical combat missions before the end of this century.
In concert with aerospace contractors, Mr. Tremaine’s shop at Wright-Patterson AFT, Ohio, has determined, he says, that “the TAV is feasible.” Now, he says, “we’re getting into a much deeper study of its configuration, possible missions, logistics, and supportability.”
A contract for the TAV Phase Two investigative study of such elements was scheduled to be awarded as this issue of Air Force Magazine went to press. ASD sent out its Requests for Proposals (RFPs) last March. Clearly, the TAV has transcended the pipe-dream stage.
Whatever its technological makeup, the TAV’s potential combat attributes already seem clear enough. It is shaping up as a revolutionary multirole weapon system. Its proponents see it as operating in lower space and in the upper atmosphere — perhaps interchangeably on the fly — and as capable of directing non-nuclear firepower at targets both strategic and tactical.
“Wouldn’t it be great,” postulates Mr. Tremaine, “if the Soviet Union suddenly found itself faced with the US Air Force having a machine that could operate on its own, totally free from counteraction, capable of rapidly delivering weapons anywhere on the globe?”
Impetus for TAV
USAF is far from deciding which missions would be suitable for the TAV or, indeed, whether it will need, or will be able to afford, the spacecraft-aircraft. It is still studying a number of “advanced aerospace vehicle” concepts, including the TAV. But it began taking he TAV idea more seriously, and talking more openly about it, following two main events.
One was President Reagan’s so-called “Star Wars” speech of March 23, 1983. In it, the President stated his goal of a non-nuclear defense against ballistic missiles — a defense that would need to exploit space. This has evolved into the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) technology development and integration program in which the TAV could someday play a major role.
The other, at least as important spur to TAV planning was the first-ever “US Air Force Space Plan” promulgated last year. It divides military space missions into “support” and — more notably — “combat” categories. In its newly enunciated emphasis on developing space-combat doctrine and weapons, Space Plan puts USAF’s official stamp on the longtime go-for-space pleadings of many of the service’s senior officers and civilian leaders.
For example, Gen. Robert T. Marsh, Commander of AFSC, had long asserted that USAF “should move into warfighting capabilities in space — that is, ground-to-space, space-to-space, and space-to-ground capabilities.”
For example, Gen. Robert T. Marsh, Commander of AFSC, had long asserted that USAF “should move into warfighting capabilities.”
Space Plan lays the doctrinal groundwork for all that. In its acknowledgment of USAF’s need to be able to fight not only in but from space, it goes well beyond the 1982 long-range planning document, “Air Force 2000.” The new Space Plan (in its unclassified version) has this to say:
“To prevail in theater conflict, the Air Force must seize the initiative and quickly achieve both air and space superiority.
“Air Superiority will require the capability to effectively attack and neutralize enemy airfields, destroy aircraft before they can employ their weapons, and destroy surface-to-air weapons.
“Space superiority is required to ensure that our space-based assets are available to support theater forces. Superiority in space will require a robust force structure and the capability to destroy hostile space systems.”
Military superiority in space, in protection of force-enhancing satellites, is becoming ever more essential — in fact, downright mandatory — for the US. All manner of US satellites now do much more than enhance the effectiveness of US air wings, fleets, and divisions; those satellites have become those forces’ sine qua non. As Chief of Naval Operations Adm. James D. Watkins put it: “Satellites make fleets out of ships.”
The usefulness of space assets in support of military forces is far greater than we envisioned it would be ten years ago,” declares Under Secretary of the Air Force Edward C. (Pete) Aldridge, Jr., the air Force Secretariat’s top official for space.
“We did not anticipate the number of communications satellites we would have and the degree to which we would depend on them,” Secretary Aldridge continues. “Nor did we anticipate how extensively we would be utilizing space for targeting, command and control, navigation, and photo reconnaissance in support of arms control.”
Especially noteworthy among new, highly sophisticated systems now being tied out in space are the DSCS III communications satellites and the Navstar Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites. The real eye-popper is yet to come — the constellation of Milstar multipurpose satellites that, says Secretary Aldridge, “will essentially be the military command and control system for all the services.”
Secretary Aldridge expresses concern that public attention to future weapons in space may detract from “an appreciation of the contribution and importance of the space systems we are now operating, as well as those we are acquiring for future operations.
“Almost all our space budget for the next decade will be dedicated to improving the kind of missions we do right now,” the Under Secretary adds. “If and when we ever decide to pursue a TAV, it would not be able to operate without the communications, targeting, and weather support supplied by the less-glamorous space systems.”
Safeguarding Space Systems
Protecting such space assets and many others on benign but classified missions against the amply demonstrated Soviet antisatellite (ASAT) capability is the goal of USAF’s ASAT program. Arms-control developments or political pressures may slow or undo that program. From philosophical and national security standpoints, however, the safeguarding of US satellites seems to have widespread acceptance as a justifiable, solely defensive measure.
There is a big difference, however, between using force only to protect space assets and applying force from space to shoot down bombers or ballistic missiles and even to shoot up runways and armor. This distinction is drawn — and thus inferentially underscored — in USAF’s Space Plan.
It subdivides its candidly outlines “combat” category into tow parts: “space control” and “force application.” As defined by Maj. Gen. Neil Beer, Space Command’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Plans: “Space control is synonymous with space superiority.” Under this heading fall such strictly defensive weapons as USAF’s F-15-launched, rocket-boosted, heat-seeking Miniature Vehicle (MV) ASAT weapon, now in the very early testing phase, and whatever directed-energy or other ASAT devices may ensue from AFSC-Space Command technology programs.
Force application is something else again, something far more portentous. Whereas space control means “counterspace operations” and “space interdiction,” as state in USAF’s Space Plan, force application means “ballistic missile defense” and — strikingly — “space-to-earth weapons.” And that, in turn, strongly implies future strategic and tactical missions from space.
“Let me add a word of caution.” Says Secretary Aldridge. “There are lots of implications here, in putting vehicles into space that can attack targets on the ground, that we haven’t thought through as part of national policy and national security objectives.”
Despite all such caveats, the TAV’s potential as an enforcer in and from lower space cannot be ignored by USAF, and isn’t. The TAV is no mere technological toy being tinkered with by ASD alone. As Space Command’s chief planner, General Beer has been an active participant in the TAV’s embryonic evolution. The Strategic air Command, too, has become very interested in it.
The TAV Phase I concept definition study was done for ASD by Battelle Memorial Institute in consultation with aerospace contractors Boeing, General Dynamics, Lockheed, McDonnell Douglas, and Rockwell. Each of the aerospace companies is expected to become involved in the TAV Phase II study as well, and each has its own ideas about what the TAV should look like and do.
Prior to the onset of the TAV concept program, Boeing had proposed a horizontal-takeoff spacecraft called the Reusable Aerospace Vehicle (RASV) and an Air-Launched Sortie Vehicle that would be launched from atop one of the company’s 747 jumbojets. Both concepts were breeding grounds for TAV technologies.
“We’re looking at several classes of vehicles,” says Mr. Tremaine. “Basically, we want something that would fly off of a military airfield. One idea would be to run it along the ground and launch it off of some sort of surface-action machine.”
Mr. Tremaine claims that the TAV will represent “no breakthroughs in physics.” Its propulsion system will embody technologies “pretty much the same as we have now.” Its aerodynamics technology will be much advanced, however, and it will mark “a revolution in structural materials,” Mr. Tremaine asserts.
McDonnell Douglas spells out the main elements of its TAV as “the aerodynamics of a slender cone, a propulsion system with the abilities of both an air-breathing jet engine and a rocket motor, and a fuel of liquid hydrogen and oxygen.”
“The hydrogen and oxygen fuel is an attractive option for power to enable our version of the TAV to go in and out of the atmosphere,” explains Paul A. Czysz, McDonnell Douglas’s TAV program manager. Adds his deputy, Art Robertson: “It [the TAV] may need to take off, streak directly to a 100,000- to 500,000-foot flight path, and then descend into the atmosphere to fly more or less like a conventional aircraft — but at higher speeds.”
In order to withstand the extreme heat that would build up on a hypersonic reentering TAV, McDonnell Douglas plans to use a metal radiator shield to reflect it, and is considering the use of heat pipes as well. It would put such pipes in sections of the TAV that are most susceptible to thermal effects. The pipes would “carry the heat to other areas, where it would dissipate,” says Mr. Czysz.
The TAV’s gross takeoff weight, allowing for an exceptionally heavy fuel load, is expected to approach or exceed one million pounds. At this juncture, no one can say just how big the TAV will be. Whatever it dimensions, it could serve as a bomber or a fighter. But many other missions beckon as well.
Capabilities and Missions
An obvious one is reconnaissance on demand. In keeping with this, Lockheed, which has investigated hydrogen-powered aircraft for many years, developed its TAV concept as a follow-on to its SR-71 Blackbird, which already flirts with the exoatmosphere.
The Lockheed “Skunk Works” TAV program manager, Melvin “Gene” Salvay, says that while the Lockheed spacecraft-aircraft is “primarily engineered for high-altitude weapons deployment,” it also could be “effectively used on reconnaissance missions or as a supersonic or subsonic cargo carrier.”
Smaller than a C-5, the Lockheed vehicle would be 205 feet long and sixty feet high, with a wingspan of ninety-five feet. The company claims it would be able to carry payloads of up to 20,000 pounds in its cargo bay and fly at speeds of up to Mach 30 in a circular path around the earth at an altitude of 100 miles.
On a suborbital ballistic trajectory reaching a maximum altitude of 300,000 feet, the TAV could arrive in New York twelve minutes after takeoff from Los Angeles, the company predicts. Moreover, it says, a nonstop flight from New York to Sydney, Australia, reaching a maximum altitude of 375,000 feet, would take no more than half an hour. Subsonic flights at 40,000 feet would also be possible.
Lockheed sees its TAV as operated by a crew of two in “an ultramodern cockpit featuring extensive use of CRT displays.
“Designed to function under current logistics practices of the Strategic Air Command and the Space Command, the Transatmospheric Vehicle could be developed in time for operations in the 1990s,” the company claims.
Two great attractions of the TAV are its prospectively very quick takeoff time (maybe five minutes from the word go) and its presumptively unprecedented ability to execute “aerodynamic orbital plane changing” in the upper atmosphere or lower space.
Existing spacecraft — satellites and the Shuttle Orbiter — cannot manage such a maneuver because they are constrained by limitations of thrust and aerodynamics. Early versions of the TAV may not be able to do it either. For openers, the TAV is being conceived as capable of traversing the globe in a suborbital trajectory. But TAV enthusiasts already have their sights trained on possible variants that would be capable of some very fancy space-flight featuring drastic “orbital transfer” alterations of flight paths and inclinations. Those variants would be capable of maneuvering much more freely in the transatmosphere than any space system now in being.
Doing What the Linebacker Does
McDonnell Douglas’s Czysz disclaims any nuclear-attack notions or intentions for the TAV. “With it,” he says, “we would be able to go completely conventional. We could do what every linebacker does: Sack the quarterback without destroying him — hit his throwing arm in many different ways.”
Which ways? For example, by embedding needle-like kinetic projectiles into enemy tracking and fir-control radars, thus overwhelming their antennae, or by pranging titanium spikes into runways, along which no aircraft could thenceforth take off or land.
“We could avoid annihilating things — simply cause them not to function,” Mr. Czysz declares. “We would deny the enemy the ability to launch an attack.”
Kinetic-energy weapons, such as railguns, do indeed seem to be on their way. In congressional testimony earlier this year, Dr. Richard D. DeLauer, Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, said that space-based kinetic-energy weapons could be used against Soviet ICBMs during their boost and midcourse stages.
As part of its five-year, $26 billion SDI technology program, the Defense Department plans to flight-test “a number of kinetic-energy weapons designs,” Dr. DeLauer testified. The development of such weapons will receive about $5.5 billion over the net five years — roughly the same funding that the development of directed-energy weapons, such as lasers, will receive.
Lasers too could wind up in the TAV’s weapons bay. But USAF officials refuse to speculate on this, or on most other aspects of the TAV.
“We’re only in the exploration phase,” says Brig. Gen. Robert D. Eaglet, AFSC’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Plans and Programs. “We’re looking at missions we might want to do with it in the future, as well as new, unprecedented missions it might make possible. We’ll probably be in position around next April to know enough about it to drop it, go low level, or get serious and go into more detailed considerations.”
General Eaglet concedes that “a lot will depend on affordability.” Right now, he says, the TAV “appears to be too expensive for production during this decade, or to the middle of the next.”
Adds Secretary Aldridge: “I’m cautiously optimistic about the technologies of the TAV. I clearly support the technologists’ way of thinking about it. But we don’t want to proceed too rapidly with something we might not be able to use or afford.”
This raises a question that may well bedevil USAF, and indeed the nation, in the years immediately ahead: Are space defense and offense becoming so vital to national security as to demand top funding priority? Even at the risk of skimping on funding for tried-and-true terrestrial systems?
The affordability question is even broader than that. It may also entail tough choices of pace by USAF among nonspace systems, such as fighters, bombers, ICBMs, and air-lifters.
Lessons learned about technologies and their integration in the Advanced Tactical Fighter (ATF) program would undoubtedly pay off in the development of the TAV. Moreover, many USAF officials believe that slighting the development of the ATF or dragging feet on the TAV will lead to disaster in the face of the growing Soviet technological and numerical threats in space and in all other combat arenas.
The harsh fact is that space may soon become the last, best place for the US to establish and maintain combat superiority — and for that, it will need combat machines that can traverse the transatmosphere.
In this vein, some officials now believe that a manned, highly maneuverable spacecraft-aircraft such as the TAV would give the US offensive and defensive capabilities in the twenty-first century, maybe sooner, that familiar bombers, fighters, and missiles will not be able to match. They see the TAV, or something like it, as the nonpareil ABM and ASAT weapon in years to come.
This raises still another question of growing concern to the Air Force: Will DoD’s SDI program, as it picks up steam, co-opt such programs as ASAT and, later possibly, the TAV that USAF must control in order to perform the extraterrestrial missions it has now set forth for itself?
That question also extends to many other USAF space development programs, including the hardening of materials against lasers and bringing on the Advanced Warning System satellites to supplant existing early-warning satellites.
Even though the SDI program is now headed by USAF Lt. Gen. James Abrahamson, formerly Deputy Administrator of NASA and head of its Space Shuttle program, USAF seems increasingly wary of SDI encroachment, the General’s blue suit notwithstanding.
“The SDI people are looking for zingers — projects that catch the public eye,” says one high-ranking Air Force officer, “and we have some. If we don’t watch it, ASAT, for example, could wind up piggybacking on SDI.”
The other side of the coin is that the SDI program’s solid backing by the White House and apparently growing support in Congress (presuming it continues) could actually add impetus to Air Force Programs folded into it.
The Soviet Space Threat
Amid all the shaking down of US plans for space, one thing is abundantly clear: The Soviet threat in that medium is all too real and forbidding.
In his report to Congress last April justifying continued testing of USAF’s F-15 ASAT weapon and arguing against immediate negotiations for an ASAT treaty, President Reagan spelled out that Soviet threat.
His report reaffirmed that the Soviets have an operational ASAT system that could be used any time, quick off the mark, against low-or-biting US satellites. Moreover, it said, the Soviets are testing land-based lasers of probable ASAT capability, and could also use, as ASATs, their nuclear-armed Galosh ABM interceptors now emplaced around Moscow. They also could bring electronic warfare to bear against US space systems, and are believed to be developing a high-altitude orbital interceptor, said the report.
“There is no doubt that the Soviets have the technology for high-orbit ASATs,” declares Maj. Gen. J. H. Storrie, the boss of USAF’s Space Directorate under the Deputy Chief of Staff for Plans and Operations at the Pentagon. Rhetorically, General Storrie asks: “What would our reaction be if the Soviets decided to use one [an ASAT weapon]?”
The Soviet threat goes way beyond ASATs. Its dimensions are starkly summed up in the 1984 edition of the DoD document, Soviet Military Power, as follows:
“A major Soviet objective is to expand warfighting capability in space and achieve a measure of superiority in that arena…. It is clear the Soviets are striving to integrate their space systems with the rest of their Armed Forces to ensure superior military capabilities in all arenas.”
The threat is also spelled out in the “Military Posture” statement for FY 1985 that the US Joint Chiefs of Staff presented to Congress early this year. Noting that the Soviets’ annual space budget growth rate of fifteen percent has exceeded the growth rate of their overall military budget, the report goes on to say:
“Most of their space effort is purely military, with much of the remainder being joint civil-military programs. The Soviets have developed a substantial logistical base, which includes active launchpads, mission control sites, and space support ships.
“The Soviets also have a significant production capability and a large inventory of satellites and launch vehicles, which provide them with a capability to place large numbers of satellites in orbit quickly.
“This capability has allowed the Soviets to sustain an average annual launch rate of more than 100 satellites during the past few years. Part of the difference in launch rates between the United States and the Soviet Union can be explained by the longer average lifetime of US satellites. In recent years, however, the Soviets have made significant technical advances in their satellite programs.
“The USSR has achieved a two-to-one advantage over the United States in manned space days…. The soviets have already demonstrated a number of the capabilities needed to support a manned space station.
“Research and development, reconnaissance, operation of weapons and sensors, and other military missions could be performed from such stations.
“The introduction of a Soviet reusable, manned orbital ferry is expected by the late 1980s.”
In stark contrast, the US launched only nine military satellites last year, is only now beginning to plan for a purely civilian-manned space station, and is fast becoming overly dependent on the Shuttle Orbiters as its means of launching military satellites. The Pentagon’s production base for satellite-launching rockets will disappear next year unless their funding is resumed. Such a loss, Secretary Aldridge flatly predicts, would be “disastrous” for the military space program.
There are, however, heartening signs. USAF’s Logistics Command is beginning to work with Space Command and AFSC in devising space-support architecture and techniques. More broadly, all USAF commands with a vested interest in space have begun pulling together, as General Eaglet puts it, “quite well.”
“The military exploitation of space has gained broad acceptance, and we are no longer reluctant to exploit it,” General Eaglet declares. Adds General Storrie: “We are moving out in this place called space.”
General Storrie’s Space Directorate at the Pentagon is destined for extinction, as originally planned. The process began with the formation of USAF’s Space Command in 1982 and of the Naval Space Command last year. Now, with an eye to a Unified Space Command involving all the services, the Joint Chiefs of Staff have set up the Joint Planning Staff for Space at the Pentagon under USAF Maj. Gen. Thomas Brandt, formerly Space Command’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence. That staff, says General Storrie, “makes up the core of the [coming] unified command, which will put my shop out of business.”
The job of the Joint Planning Staff for Space is a big one. As enunciated by USAF, it involves:
n Analyzing the responsiveness of space systems to the National Command Authorities (NCA) and the JCS, and mission support to the unified and specified commands.
n Recommending assignments of operational commands for Department of Defense space systems and forces.
n Coordinating the development of plans and memoranda of understanding for space systems supporting joint operations as directed by the JCS.
n Taking part in reviews of the CONPLANS and OPLANS of commanders in chief that are supported by DoD space operations.
n Developing and coordinating joint space policy, strategy, mission areas, and doctrine.
n Coordinating the development of DoD space systems to preclude their duplication and to make sure they are interoperable.
n Factoring space into JCS exercises.
Separate Space Service?
Looking beyond the Unified Space Command, now taken as a given, some officers in all the services and at least a few officials at the DoD and White House levels foresee the creation of a fourth branch of the military: a US Space Force.
“It is a very good possibility,” asserts General Eaglet. “In fact, it’s a likelihood. Space is a medium, just like air, sea, and land, and there are a lot of things different about space. So why not a separate force for it?”
General Eaglet and most other like-minded officers doubt, however, that the Space Force idea will build up “any serious momentum,” as he puts it, “within the next ten years.” Some, however, see it coming sooner.
For example, one Administration official involved in planning for force application from space believes that “the SDI program could be the catalyst for the Space Force as a means of bringing together all the R&/d elements [of the program] and getting a handle on the production and deployment of [its] systems.”
For the moment, it seems sufficient that the Air Force has come to grips with exploiting space as a combat medium. Space Command, asserts General Beer, is “on the rise — we have great support and the right people in the right place, and we are excited.”
It is, however, crunch time. “Where we will be in space twenty years from now will be dictated by the decisions made and the actions taken in the next one to five years,” General Storrie declares.
This assessment is especially pertinent to decisions and actions on how, and with what, to apply force in and from space. “Ten years in the future, I would think that our space menu for force application will be as filled out as our other mission categories are now,” General Eaglet predicts.
A lot may be riding on whether that menu contains a maneuverable, manned weapon system such as the Transatmospheric Vehicle.
Read the day's top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
Daily Report: Read the day's top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
Tweets by @AirForceMag