The nation’s military space capabilities may be stronger today than they have ever been. Effects generated by space-based systems are thoroughly integrated into combat plans. On-orbit systems are healthy and potent. Significant modernization plans are in place. The Air Force has fired off a record 44 straight successful space launches.
Will this happy situation last forever? The simple answer is: probably not. A host of dangers is already visible. USAF Gen. Lance W. Lord, commander of Air Force Space Command, argues that military leaders must think of space as a battleground. Indeed, the combat capabilities provided by advanced orbital systems increasingly are at risk.
“Some would say that we’re not threatened in space,” Lord observed. “I want to disabuse everybody of that argument.”
Lord delivered his warning at the Air Force Association’s annual National Symposium, held Nov. 18 in Los Angeles. The space commander said Pentagon officials cannot “assume that space is benign and that we’ll never be challenged in that environment.” He added, “We’re sometimes our own worst enemies about being complacent.”
Defense officials point out that space capabilities allow the US military to fight on its own terms. Advanced, space-based satellites underpin reliable precision weapons, highly accurate surface navigation, swift and secure worldwide communication, timely intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance data, and more.
“What happens if our space capabilities become compromised by our adversaries, or we lose them completely?” asked Gen. Bruce Carlson, chief of Air Force Materiel Command. The question was purely rhetorical. The American way of war would be, compared to today, slower, less accurate, more wantonly destructive, and deadlier for US troops.
Carlson said US officials must focus on the threat. Recounting the terrorist bombings in Madrid in 2004, London in 2005, and more recently in Amman, Jordan, Carlson said each of those attacks included complex planning, precise timing, and, sometimes, use of advanced technologies.
America’s terrorist enemy is “ruthless,” Carlson said, and will use “any tactics necessary” to kill Americans and reduce Western influence. This enemy realizes that the US military employs space capabilities “as an integral part of our warfighting capabilities all across the battlespace.”
The Year Was 1957Lord reminded the AFA attendees that the US was caught by surprise in space once before—with the Soviet Union’s October 1957 launch of Sputnik, the first man-made satellite. Before that shattering event, Gen. Bernard A. Schriever, founder of the Air Force’s space and missile effort, “wanted to talk about space superiority,” Lord said, and, “in fact, he made a couple of speeches about it.” Schriever was immediately censored.
Needless to say, once Sputnik went up, Schriever’s advice and insight were in high demand. “We don’t want to have to play catch-up in this business,” Lord said.
The Space Command chief reminded listeners of how warfare was conducted before it was revolutionized by space systems.
Lord’s Nov. 18 speech was on the anniversary of a 1944 raid by Fifteenth Air Force against oil refineries in Austria and airfields in Italy. That mission required 680 bombers, with 186 P-51 Mustangs for escort. He said that, although thousands of airmen were put in harm’s way, “on the ground, most of those bombs didn’t find their intended targets.”
Today, a B-2 stealth bomber powered by space assets can accomplish these sorts of missions with pinpoint accuracy.
For example, in a 1999 Operation Allied Force mission over Serbia, a single B-2 from Whiteman AFB, Mo., took off with 16 satellite guided Joint Direct Attack Munitions. The mission: Destroy the Novi Sad railway highway bridge.
“Attacking during the night to minimize collateral damage, and using only five of those JDAMs, the bridge was destroyed,” Lord recounted. It was not just the bridge spans that were dropped—each of the bridge abutments also was destroyed.
The effects were clearly better, but the general said space offers much more. “Think of those bombs that were not dropped, the broader destruction that did not have to occur,” and the large number of people who did not have to risk their lives to accomplish the mission.
Space capabilities also are helping rescues of downed aircrews. On April 3, 2003, two crewmen aboard a Navy F-14D, “Junker 13,” ejected over Southwest Iraq into hostile territory. Rescue teams “picked up the crew from Junker 13 after only 100 minutes from the time they ejected,” Lord said. Col. George E. “Bud” Day, Medal of Honor recipient shot down over Vietnam, was in prison for nearly three million minutes, Lord observed.
“R,” Not “SAR”Day lacked the “luxury” of space-enhanced search and rescue teams. The Global Positioning System and other capabilities from space take the “ ‘search’ out of search and rescue,” Lord said.
The Air Force is working now to ensure it can field the next generation of orbital capabilities. In the military space field in the 1990s, cost replaced mission success as the top priority—with disastrous results.
“We saw a good part of $11 billion in space assets literally go up in smoke due to successive launch failures,” said Lord. Space Command is now focusing on mission success because failure is always much more expensive.
Joanne Maguire of Lockheed Martin’s Space Systems Co. noted that another set of launch failures could have major long-term consequences. She pointed to the pioneering Corona reconnaissance satellites that began with a “string of 12 consecutive [launch] failures before achieving mission success.”
Speaking during an industry panel, Maguire wondered aloud whether the American public would “have the tolerance to stand by such a program today.”
“Sustained commitment to the mission” is the single most important thing the government can do to help ensure that space programs are developed successfully. Programs cannot be allowed to “twist in the wind” or “be competed at every turn,” she cautioned.
The service is still paying the price for some of the policies from a decade ago. The developmental Space Based Infrared System High recently had its fourth “Nunn-McCurdy breach,” meaning it had gone significantly off schedule or over budget again.
These types of problems were “born during an era where we were operating more on a case of hope” about costs and schedules, said Lt. Gen. Michael A. Hamel, commander of the Space and Missile Systems Center at Los Angeles AFB, Calif. Blind faith in “faster, cheaper, better techniques” proved unfounded. The space environment and launches are “very unforgiving,” he said.
On the whole, however, the Air Force officials were upbeat on the state of the industry. “We don’t have a lot to apologize for in terms of the capabilities we’ve delivered,” said Hamel. DOD has its healthiest orbital constellation ever, and space systems are integrated into joint war plans like never before, he said.
More tangibly, the Air Force has now had 44 straight space launches without a failure, dating back to May 1999. This run broke the old record for successful launches that ended in 1971. During this period, officials note that the final Titan II and Titan IV boosters were launched, and the first 10 evolved expendable launch vehicles went up without a hitch.
Assuming historical failure rates of about 10 percent, this string of successful launches saved taxpayers at least $3 billion—a remarkable turnaround after the failures of the 1990s.
Next GenerationOfficials are working to ensure a next generation of military space technicians is on hand to develop future systems. Carlson said AFMC’s Air Force Research Laboratory supports an expanding Space Scholars Program that brings in collegiate science and engineering students to work with Air Force technicians. Students are paired with researchers who serve as mentors and show the value of careers in Air Force science and engineering.
The work is practical. Carlson said space scholar research is being conducted in areas such as improving computer power, composite materials for space, increased solar power efficiency, passive and active sensor development, propulsion, and flight dynamics.
Participation continues to increase. For 2005, the program had 41 students —28 of them graduate level—from 33 universities. All are highs for the program.
Carlson noted, however, that the service has had difficulty converting space scholars into Air Force scientists—typically only one or two have been hired per year. The service is “working on a program to ... make sure we can hire them in at the right grade,” he said, because under the current hiring rules, “industry has been successful in outbidding us.”
AFMC also is working with the Air Force Academy, where it has an assurance that the cadets will give the service something in return. An ongoing program has physics and aeronautics cadets building space-qualified hardware for USAF’s FalconSAT program. The cadet-built FalconSAT-2 microsatellite was scheduled to fly by the end of 2005.
One of the academy cadets working on the program explained to Carlson that FalconSAT-2 “investigates low-latitude ionospheric plasma depletions and their effects on radio waves.” In layman’s terms, the 43-pound satellite is designed to study interference with GPS communications signals.
Numerous speakers cited the need for stability and accountability to ensure program success. Industry leaders want steady funding, program developers seek stable requirements, and everyone wants management to remain in place.
According to Hamel, the biggest challenge SMC faces at the moment is revitalizing its workforce. During the decade of “acquisition reform,” he said, the Air Force became passive in overseeing its space programs. That fact taught “bad behavior.”
Hamel said SMC will ensure that accountability returns to all levels of management. Developers must have a stake in the outcome, he said, “all the way down to individual project engineers.” That way, officials have personal accountability “for their particular part or subsystem.”
AFSPC is emphasizing longer tours for its system program office directors. “We want to have them as long as we can,” said Lord, “Not program managers for life, but a minimum of four-year tours in that business.” Frequent program manager turnover has been cited as a factor in program instability, as each arriving SPO manager must relearn what the previous director already knew.
Improved professional development also should help build stable management, Lord said. Space acquisition schooling is “further reinforcing solid systems engineering, cost analysis, and program management” skills.
Future RequirementsThe space community has a clear understanding of the capabilities it must develop. The Air Force wants to be able to replenish satellites in days and respond to new missions rapidly by shortening development and prelaunch checkout times.
The need for reliable battlefield communications was cited by several speakers as a top priority. Lord said the Air Force will pursue a combination of commercial access and dedicated military systems to meet future communications demands.
“If you look at the size of the commercial space business and how it’s booming” relative to military space, the Air Force is “going to have to take advantage” of commercial capabilities, Lord said.
Work on protected military systems, such as the Transformational Satellite Communications System, will continue in parallel. “There are things we need protected military communications for,” said Lord. For many missions, troops need “low probability of intercept, low probability of detection.”
Maj. Gen. Roger W. Burg, Air Force director of strategic security, said changes in land combat units are driving much of the demand for communications capability. “Today’s satellite communication architecture was designed for large stationary units,” said Burg.
Furthermore, on-orbit intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance systems “have predictable overflight times and are designed to provide a strategic look for the nation,” Burg explained. For the next generation, “tactical space ISR capabilities could and should be dedicated to the theater commander.”
The smaller, more mobile ground combat units today have vastly increased demand, as they “require instant access to a myriad of different sources,” said Burg.
This is a change industry fully appreciates. George K. Muellner, Boeing vice president for Air Force space systems, said military users are, in most cases, bandwidth constrained. Mobile users are the disadvantaged users under the current setup, he said, because they have limited access to communications systems while “on the roll.”
With the Army moving toward a more modular combat system featuring independently acting brigade combat teams, the need for tactical intelligence could increase exponentially.
Troops in motion are not getting timely information, Muellner said. A Marine Corps commander operating in Southwest Asia told him mobile combat units typically received intelligence that was a day-and-a-half old.
Further, units were almost totally dependent on information from the organic sensors they brought with them, such as unmanned aerial systems. Troops are “not getting the current information” that is almost always available at the command posts, Muellner said.
In the future, mobile forces need to be “pushed” the all-source intelligence that they need through a system that automatically routes the information through whichever communications system is available at the time.
Alexis Livanos, Northrop Grumman vice president for space technology, said the United States faces increasing competition in the ability to develop and field these future space capabilities. “A recent study by the National Academies reports that China is graduating 600,000 engineers a year, India is graduating 350,000 engineers a year, and we are graduating 70,000 a year,” a fact that could threaten US technological dominance in the long term.
Working to America’s advantage is that developing nations generally lack the diverse, global workforces, like those in the United States, that foster innovation.
Therefore, “it is self-defeating to be cutting off the flow of international workers and students that is the lifeblood of our high-tech [industry],” said Livanos. “We recognize that post-9/11 security concerns must not be compromised, but [security] must be balanced against the long-term needs of the nation.”
What To Look For
Participants in the Air Force Association’s National Symposium industry panel were asked to name a small number of revolutionary technologies or capabilities that need to be developed for military space use.
Northrop Grumman’s Alexis Livanos cited a need for very large structures in space, high-data rate communications systems, and the development of nanotechnology, to allow for more capability in a smaller and lighter package.
Lockheed Martin’s Joanne Maguire said radiation-hardened microelectronics are essential, as are more efficient power systems, and lightweight precision structures that can be put into space more easily.
Boeing’s George Muellner called for new networking technologies to truly enable machine-to-machine and horizontal integration and for the development of more responsive space launch capabilities.
Muellner concluded by saying, “Space acquisition is not off track.” The Air Force has a running record for successful launches, and space-based capabilities are fully ingrained in defense planning.
“We’ve got to put things in perspective,” he said. The Air Force and its contractors are developing complex machines, and “the environment that we put [systems] into is very hostile and unforgiving—and we only have one shot” to get it right.
Employed, Though Not Deployed
Airmen supporting missions such as the search and rescue operation that recovered the crew of Navy F-14D “Junker 13” in the early days of the Iraq War often work from their home stations or at operations centers outside the immediate combat zone.
The Air Force’s 19,000 airmen deployed to the US Central Command area of responsibility represent less than 10 percent of the 196,000 troops in the CENTCOM AOR.
Maj. Gen. Roger W. Burg, director of strategic security on the Air Staff, noted that this results in frequent, unjustified criticism of the Air Force.
“Some would have you believe that if you’re not deployed, then you don’t count,” said Burg at the Air Force Association’s National Symposium on Nov. 18. “I’m here to tell you that that’s absolutely wrong. ... We need to dispel the myth that contributions to the fight are only made if you are deployed.”
For example, satellite systems controlled from the United States “allow commanders and units half a world away to view real-time Predator video or to [receive warning] of incoming dangers like tactical ballistic missiles,” said Burg.
The other services have come to appreciate what space power offers. The Air Force is routinely called on to operate in or over denied territory, he said, and “space systems provide the ultimate anti-access capability, with their ability to look down into denied airspace in any part of the world.”
Air Force space is a growth area, and the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps are making ever-greater use of military space capabilities. Burg said Air Force spending on capabilities used by all the military services has increased from 33 percent in the 1960s to 45 percent today.
“The really striking trend,” said Burg, is that “soon roughly half of the Air Force budget will be going to joint enablers.” These are the capabilities that the Air Force purchases and operates, but whose primary users are the other military services—of which space assets are a prime example.
Daily Report: Read the day's top news about 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.
Daily Report: Read the day's top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
Tweets by @AirForceMag