From its nerve center deep within hollowed-out Cheyenne
Mountain, Colo., North American Aerospace Defense Command stands guard over the
continent. It keeps constant watch for threats to the US and Canada from
intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles,
manned bombers, cruise missiles, and spacecraft.
By all accounts, NORAD has one vital part of this varied and
demanding mission firmly in hand. Cheyenne Mountain's Missile Warning Center is
said to be thoroughly capable of doing its life-or-death job—detecting,
tracking, and assessing the magnitude and targets of attacks from ICBMs and
But NORAD is less proficient on other fronts, through no
fault of its own. Its ability to detect threats other than ballistic missiles
in air and space is getting better, but is not always a sure thing.
This concerns NORAD's Commander in Chief, Air Force Gen.
John L. Piotrowski, who is also the CINC of the unified US Space Command, co-headquartered
with NORAD at Peterson AFB, Colo.
The Missile Warning Center, operated by US Space Command in
conjunction with NORAD, receives up-to-the-minute data on ballistic missile
launches around the world—up to 600 real-life launches every year. The
information comes from highly capable Defense Support Program (DSP) early
warning satellites in space and from far-flung, sky-watching Ballistic Missile
Early Warning System (BMEWS) radars and seaward-looking Pave Paws radars on
This information is fed into NORAD's command post inside
Cheyenne Mountain. NORAD's Air Defense Operations Center and US Space Command's
Space Defense Operations Center and Space Surveillance Center also serve the
central command post. But their information is less dependable.
NORAD's ability to detect bombers and cruise missiles
penetrating US and Canadian airspace is improving, but it is a long way from
perfect. The same is true of USSPACECOM's prowess at spotting and tracking the
7,000 objects now in orbit and new ones that show up there just about every day.
General Piotrowski makes no bones about such deficiencies.
"The biggest limiting factor in NORAD is surveillance," he declares.
"When aircraft shifted from high-altitude bombing to low-altitude
penetration, and then to cruise missiles as well, surveillance became the
weakest link in our chain.
"In fact, we don't have a surveillance system worthy of
As to US Space Command's responsibility for keeping track of
spacecraft, General Piotrowski asserts: "We are still tied to terrestrial
surveillance of space objects. It has been getting better, but it isn't good
enough. We have recognized that limitation for a long time."
To redress these surveillance shortcomings, General
Piotrowski has long advocated the deployment of sensor systems, such as radars,
in space. They would look up, down, and all around in a constant search for
hostile aircraft and cruise missiles traversing the atmosphere and for
satellites, including the antisatellite (ASAT) variety, that are up to no good
for the US in space.
There is growing evidence at the Pentagon and elsewhere in
political Washington that General Piotrowski's persistence in pushing for such
high-flying surveillance platforms is paying off—and that his warnings about
the staying power and the unrelenting nature of the Soviet strategic
threat—glasnost or no glasnost—are being heeded.
A year ago, for example, amid the initial agonies brought on
by the defense budget crunch, the development of a space-based system for
spotting bombers and cruise missiles on the fly was given little chance of
approval by the Defense Department, let alone by Congress. Now things are
looking up a bit for SBRs (space-based radars).
"The Pentagon is pretty well lined up in support of
designing a system [of SBRs], so the question has become one of getting the
money from Congress," General Piotrowski says.
Congress may not come through right away, but at least it
has begun taking the advantages of space-based surveillance into account. NORAD
has clout on Capitol Hill in such matters, and with good reason.
To Warn and Defend
The American-Canadian command, headquartered high on the
eastern edge of the Continental Divide, has a make-or-break mission as the
linchpin of the US strategy of nuclear deterrence and retaliation. NORAD is
responsible not only for warning of an air attack on North America, but also
for defending against it. The command does not have a comparable responsibility
for orchestrating a defense against ICBMs, for the simple reason that the US
has no defensive system for such purpose.
NORAD's ability to defend against manned and unmanned
aircraft has come a long way in this decade. The command now has at its
disposal state-of-the-art radars on land and in the air, in the form of
Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft. Also on call are modern
F-15 and F-16 fighter-interceptor aircraft operated by USAF's Tactical Air
Command, Air National Guard, and Alaskan Air Command and CF-18s flown by the
Those fighters make it possible to intercept enemy bombers
and cruise missiles more quickly and at much greater ranges than before.
The problem is that NORAD's modern, electronically
manipulated radars, many of which have yet to be installed, may not be up to
the job of spotting the attackers in time to mount an effective defense against
This is why General Piotrowski hammers away at persuading
the powers that be to approve a space-based surveillance system. It presumably
would be capable of spotting, right after takeoff, enemy bombers carrying
cruise missiles for standoff launching and other bombers bent on penetrating
continental airspace with gravity bombs and short-range attack missiles.
The radars or infrared sensors in space would spot and keep
track of the enemy aircraft throughout their flights, espy cruise missile
submarines heading out to sea, and take note of cruise missiles almost as soon
as they were launched.
Land-based and airborne surveillance systems are much better
and more reliable than they used to be, but they can do none of the above.
Long- and Short-Range
Radar coverage of routes through Arctic airspace into the
northern reaches of North America now falls to NORAD's new North Warning
System. When fully installed in a few more years, NWS will have replaced the
1950s-vintage Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line, a 3,000-mile network of radars
trained on the Arctic Circle from Alaska to Greenland. The NWS will be made up
of fifteen long-range radars-eleven in Canada and four in Alaska-and
thirty-nine short-range radars, including three in Alaska and the rest in
Teamed with the NWS in scanning the sky everywhere else
around the compass will be four mammoth over-the-horizon backscatter (OTH-B)
radars now in various stages of development and deployment. They are designed
to detect air threats at all altitudes out to 1,800 nautical miles from the
eastern, southern, and western extremities of the North American mainland.
The first OTH-B radar is in place in Maine. Three others, to
complete the circumferential coverage of the continent, are expected to be
fully in place by the mid-1990s. If plans pan out, this network will be
augmented by a relocatable over-the-horizon radar (ROTHR) being developed by
the Navy for initial deployment on Amchitka in the Aleutian Islands.
Testing of the first OTH-B radar, now fully operational, has
concentrated on cruise missile detection, with mixed results.
The Soviets now operate two long-range cruise missile
systems: the AS-15, a bomber-launched, low-altitude weapon, and the SS-N-21, a
missile that is small enough to be launched from the standard torpedo tube of
an attack-class submarine. A larger cruise missile, the SSNX-24, a variant of
the AS-15, is being developed specifically for Soviet Yankee-class cruise
The AS-15 and SS-NX-24 cruise missiles are believed to have
a range of at least 1,800 miles. This would make it possible for Soviet bombers
and submarines to launch them in a standoff posture, safely beyond the
surveillance range of US OTH-B radars.
The cruise missiles can be carried by any of the 300 Soviet
aircraft—subsonic Bear-H turboprop bombers and supersonic Blackjack jet
bombers—that are capable of reaching targets in North America with gravity
bombs and short-range attack missiles.
General Piotrowski acknowledges that the mere existence of
the OTH-B radars may make the Soviets think twice about attacking North America
through the air.
"Our analysis shows that even under the worst
conditions for detecting cruise missiles, the likelihood of OTH-B's detecting
at least one out often of them is high enough that the Soviets probably
couldn't count on bringing off a surprise attack."
He also notes, however, that the OTH-B radars are themselves
vulnerable. "If a [Soviet] missile laydown comes first, those radars more
than likely will be gone," the General declares.
"So we need a more survivable surveillance system, a
system based in space. Just as AWACS is more survivable than ground radar,
space radar is far more survivable than AWACS."
More Efficient from
Until recently, General Piotrowski made a point of saying
that space-based surveillance systems would complement OTH-B, North Warning,
and AWACS radars. Now he believes that "we might be able to do away
with" those land-based and airborne radar systems once surveillance is
established from space and they have served their purpose.
He maintains that a great deal of money would be saved and
that the efficiency and breadth of surveillance would be greatly increased. "If
we tried to maintain a twenty-four-hour-a-day surveillance of the Persian Gulf,
we would need ten AWACS airplanes, some tankers, and very large crews for
maintenance and so forth. We could do that job easily with a space system, at
much lower cost, and with only about twenty-five people.
"In fact, we would be able to cover roughly one third
of the globe continuously with a space-based surveillance system for only two thirds
of the total cost of AWACS. So from all standpoints—capability, survivability, O&M
[operation & maintenance], and manpower—it's clear that we should be in
General Piotrowski cites other operational advantages as
well for space-based surveillance. He claims, for example, that it would enable
US airlifters to steer clear of danger from enemy warships armed with
antiaircraft guns or missiles. Moreover, "for US forces deploying into a
contested area—in the Middle East or wherever—space-based radar would already
be there. It would have a picture of the air defenses in the area, and our
forces could roll out their antennas and their computer displays and plug into
that picture as soon as they arrive."
About a year ago, USAF's leadership gave space operations a
big boost, elevating them to the status of a "core mission" and
according them high-priority status in the service's planning, programming, and
General Piotrowski hails this move and believes that it
augurs well for his long campaign for SBRs or some other sort of surveillance
system in orbit.
USAF is now teamed with the Navy in exploring SBRs and
infrared sensors, which the Navy would prefer, for "wide-area surveillance"
from space. This is seen in some circles as the first step toward eventual
deployment of satellites carrying both radars and infrared sensors.
There is a good chance that NORAD partner Canada would join
in, and share the cost of, developing a system of surveillance satellites.
Such a system has long been championed by the CINCs of the
unified and specified warfighting commands, if not by their budget-conscious
Says General Piotrowski: "I, as CINCNORAD, would
probably make the greatest use of it [a wide-area space-based surveillance
system] during peacetime. But every CINC wants it and needs it for his theater.
All the field CINCs—SAC, MAC, you name it—have weighed in on this. They want an
all-weather, day/night surveillance system capable of tracking aircraft and
"With that kind of support, we were in a position to
ask for enough money—$10 to $20 million—to explore whichever concept is chosen
by the Defense Acquisition Board."
The DAB is expected to make its choice later this year from
among concepts now being explored by the Air Force and the Navy. Meanwhile, the
notion of space-based surveillance seems to be gaining favor in Congress, but
The lawmakers are concerned about costs, maturity of
technologies, and the vulnerability of orbiting surveillance platforms to
attack by hunter-killer Soviet anti satellite (ASAT) systems already
operational or by directed-energy weapons, such as lasers, that mayor may not
For example, the Senate report on the Fiscal Year 1990
defense authorization bill noted that the Pentagon's plans for "expensive
new missions in space" must be weighed against the threat of those ASAT
weapons and against the absence of any defenses against them.
The report agreed with the Administration's assessment that
the Soviet Union poses a threat in space. It said that the Soviets' monopoly on
ASAT weapons is "a serious deficiency in our space control capability and
should be redressed." But it stopped short of endorsing the
Administration's proposal for a US ASAT system in the furtherance of such US
"A US ASAT capability alone would be a weak deterrent
unless or until the nation substantially improves satellite survivability,
jamming resistance, launch responsiveness, and the way we approach satellite
construction," the Senate report asserted.
General Piotrowski says "amen" to the need for all
those improvements. But he sees no point in making them prerequisites to the
deployment of a US ASAT system. Without such a system, he contends, Soviet
"gunsight satellites" would be free to do their worst in wartime. His
reference is to the Soviet reconnaissance and electronic intelligence
satellites long since in space for the purpose of tracking and targeting US
fleets and other military forces.
As with the threat from air-breathing systems, the threat
from space systems must be detected before it can be resisted. Such detection
is the responsibility of Cheyenne Mountain's Space Surveillance Center.
The SSC houses computers that constantly receive and process
data from the Command's Space Surveillance Network (SSN), made up of land-based
radars, telescopes, cameras, and radio receivers around the world.
SSN records up to 50,000 observations of satellites each
day. But it is incapable of tracking all objects. There are worrisome gaps in
its coverage of what is going on in space.
Objects in deep space—beyond geosynchronous-orbit altitude
22,300 miles above the planet—are out of range of most land-based sensors. For
the time being, such objects are spacecraft on scientific missions, such as
planetary probes, and are of no military significance. But this could change.
Conventional radars can look into deep space, but their
beams are too narrow to search large areas. Some orbiting objects in the
"space debris" category are simply too small and too far away to be
seen by any sensors trained on the sky from Earth.
Optical sensors—cameras and telescopes—can be operated only
in clear weather and in deep twilight or darkness, when objects in space within
the sensor's range of vision can be seen to reflect sunlight. This is also true
of electro-optical sensors and is why the relatively new Ground-Based
Electro-Optical Deep-Space Surveillance System (GEODSS) network can see only so
much in space.
Four GEODSS stations are in place, the latest one having
gone into operation on Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean in 1987. A fifth
station is destined for Portugal if Washington and Lisbon, after years of
delay, can resolve disagreements on the terms of deployment.
Even with the best of land-based equipment, gaps in space
coverage would be likely. The reason, explains General Piotrowski, is that
"the Space Surveillance Network is a predictive system. It does not
provide continuous monitoring of space objects. Consequently, there are gaps in
our surveillance coverage of near-earth orbits and deep-space orbits that could
be exploited [by an enemy spacefaring power]."
SSN computers calculate when satellites should be in
particular places in space, and the system keeps checking them out. If their
actual positions in space do not square with their predicted positions, the
system recalculates their movements.
Sometimes, the SSN simply loses track of this or that object
in space for a time.
The problem would be solved and US Space Command's
space-tracking requirements would be met by orbiting radars that constantly
peered up and around. Such radars are being developed for the Strategic Defense
Initiative (SDI) program's Space Surveillance and Tracking System (SSTS).
General Piotrowski points out that the Air Force had planned
such a system of satellites to detect so-called "cold bodies" in
space long before SDI was conceived in 1983 to develop technologies for
defending against ballistic missiles. SDI picked up on the idea for space-tracker
radars to detect ICBMs and their disgorged reentry vehicles in mid course
Says General Piotrowski: "If SDI goes forward, it will
give us [USSPACECOM] the space surveillance capability we need. If it does not,
then we'll have to go back to the Air Force's original plan for radars that
would do space surveillance only."
The Boost Surveillance and Tracking System (BSTS) satellites
being developed in the SDI program were also thought up by USAF before SDI was
a twinkle in the Pentagon's eye. Their purpose is to spot ICBMs and SLBMs on
launch. The Air Force had conceived them as the successors to the Defense
Support Program (DSP) satellites that have long been NORAD's lookouts for
The SSTS and BSTS satellites would come a lot cheaper for
Space Command and NORAD purposes than for what SDI would need them to do. Their
jobs would be much less complicated, and so would they.
Explains General Piotrowski:
"We wouldn't use them for battle management—handing off
to weapons—as SDI would, so their accuracy wouldn't have to be quite as good,
and their software and power requirements would be much lower. There would be
big savings in that."
He adds, "Of course, we'd have to convince Congress,
the public, and—for arms-control purposes—the Soviet Union that we weren't
fielding a ballistic missile defense system in disguise."
Fielding such a defensive system under its own name is
exactly what General Piotrowski would like the US to do. He is a strong
supporter of SDI.
The General takes great satisfaction in his command's
ability to detect and track ICBM and SLBM launches and to sound the alarm in
plenty of time for the National Command Authorities to decide how best to
retaliate. He is convinced that the US policy of strategic nuclear deterrence
has been successful precisely because Soviet leaders have known that NORAD is
always on the lookout.
In his opinion, though, being watchful is not enough.
"My operators in Cheyenne Mountain would do an excellent job of warning
that an attack was under way. But we have no active defenses—no bullets—to
defend our homeland against even the most limited of attacks.
"If deterrence failed, for whatever reason, our nation
could be destroyed in minutes by nuclear weapons."
General Piotrowski claims that changes in technology now
make it possible to build a defense against ballistic missiles at no
more—perhaps less—than it would cost to continue the buildup of offensive
He also notes that "the Soviets, despite their
rhetoric, are continuing to modernize their strategic weapons" and
"have deployed two new, highly accurate ICBMs—the rail-mobile SS-24 and
the road-mobile SS-25—in just the past four years."
He warns, too, that the US may also have to deal with
nuclear threats from other quarters in years to come.
"It's no longer a bipolar world.
Tomorrow's nuclear threats may come from elsewhere. The number
of countries possessing ballistic missiles has increased significantly in the
last two years, and if this proliferation continues at its present pace,
nations that wish us harm may [soon] possess the capability to attack US forces
with ballistic missiles."
General Piotrowski declares:
"One of my greatest concerns is that several nations
will have submarine-launched ballistic missiles. We wouldn't be able to
retaliate against an attack from under the sea unless we knew who had attacked
us, and it might be difficult to determine that."
In such an event, "deterrence would no longer be a
viable defense, so we'd better be able to defend ourselves against the
missiles," says the NORAD Commander in Chief.
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