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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
• 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
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
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
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?
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.
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.
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