Sequestration and hangovers
Regardless of whether Congress manages to avoid or postpone going over the "fiscal cliff" of automatic budget cuts that would lop more than 10 percent off defense and space accounts, there is a real risk of a "sequestration hangover" that could haunt the defense industrial base for years. So said Marion C. Blakey, president of the Aerospace Industries Association, in a December speech.
Blakey said the sequester, according to research AIA took great pains to ensure was "highly credible" and not exaggerated, would claim 2.14 million aerospace and defense jobs, exact a $215 billion hit on gross domestic product, increase national unemployment by 1.5 percent, and potentially lead the country "back into a recession." She spoke at the association’s annual year-end review and future forecast for the press.
Although the aerospace industry saw an uptick in 2012 sales—driven almost entirely by demand for commercial aircraft—it would be "too easy" to think the industry is so healthy it could "withstand anything," Blakey said. And even if sequestration is averted, aerospace and defense will likely continue to be budget-cutting targets because such accounts are large and discretionary. If that gets to be a habit of lawmakers, "we should also begin to question whether some of the critical capabilities provided by this industry will still be there when we wake up in a year or two," she said.
She noted that new polar-orbit weather satellites funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration would be hamstrung by sequestration. That’s ironic, since without data from such satellites, Hurricane Sandy’s recent turn into the mid-Atlantic seaboard would not have been predicted, she said, and the death toll from the storm could have been far worse.
She also said Congress has been slow to accept that the US will likely never again have the luxury of getting ready for an armed conflict on its own timetable.
"The new reality," she said, is that America’s enemies tend to strike suddenly, without warning, and the "traditional" methods of mobilizing for war "no longer apply." The nation can no longer assume it will have months to prepare for a conflict and spool up defense production on an as-needed basis. There must be a routine, adequate investment in defense research and development and force structure for the nation to be ready for any contingency, Blakey asserted.
She also said that US adversaries are "doubling down" on investment in aerospace technologies and educating their youth for careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
If sequestration is allowed to go into effect for even a few months, Blakey said, it could push out of the business "a number of third- and fourth-tier suppliers," probably small businesses dependent on a single government contract. Some of these producers provide niche materials for which there is no alternative, and they simply don’t have the resources to ride out losing such contracts.
These companies very well "may not come back," she said.
Thinking about Counterspace
If the US goes to war with a near-peer enemy, the conflict could spill out of the atmosphere and become a war against satellites as well. This is a near-inevitability that Air Force Space Command thinks about and USAF explores in exercises.
Adversaries know the US depends on its space assets, and will surely try to deafen and blind them at the outset of any armed conflict. But how the US could punch back is an open question, according to AFSPC chief Gen. William L. Shelton.
"In terms of active defense, we’ve looked at this seven ways from Sunday, and we cannot make that work," Shelton said in a November interview. Satellites doing battle is technologically unwieldy and fiscally prohibitive, he explained.
"The distances are too great. You would have to have exquisite intelligence, and by that I mean indications and warning that give you time [and] place, … before you could be successful in defending," Shelton observed. Putting defensive capability on each satellite "or an escort satellite for each high-value satellite" is "simply unaffordable," he said.
Instead, he advocates having a sufficient number of satellites on orbit so that an enemy could not disrupt or destroy them all, thereby providing some resiliency to the force and deterring an enemy from even trying to knock out entire constellations.
However, anti-satellite capabilities are being pursued by a number of countries; China tested a kinetic system in 2007, and laser technology is advancing to where an enemy could "dazzle" the optics of a reconnaissance bird. Is there a more active, rather than passive approach to deter attack?
"If you talk about offensive capability, that is a tremendously difficult policy question," Shelton said, "and one that would have to go to the highest levels of government before we would consider those kinds of capabilities for the future."
The US is not handcuffed by treaty on this point, though, he noted.
"National space policy is very permissive in this area. It very carefully talks about the United States defending its capabilities in space. They are vital assets and described that way. ... It’s crucial." He declined to give any more specifics.
Given the threat of space denial, Air Combat Command has added elements to its exercises that assume a loss of space capability for some period of time, and AFSPC’s space aggressor squadron is involved in a growing number of wargames.
Shelton noted that ACC even did a study a few years ago called "A Day Without Space," but he finds the idea unrealistic.
"I never liked that title," he said. "There would not be a day without space. There will be days with challenged space capability, but … there’s just too much capability on orbit and too much dependence on that capability."
He continued, "We practice with denied space—we practice with GPS jamming environments, SATCOM jamming environments, [and] we are developing tactics, techniques, and procedures" to get better at "buying back some of that capability" in a space-contested battlefield. However, "I think it’s important we be realistic about what it’s really going to be. It’s not going to be ‘no space’; it’s going to be ‘challenged space,’ … and that’s exactly what we’re practicing at Red Flags and other exercises."
In various discussions of AirSea Battle, the strategic planning construct for the Air Force and Navy, it’s often postulated that any war in an anti-access, area-denial situation would begin with a "blinding campaign" on both sides. Shelton thinks that’s likely.
"You’ve got to believe that would be included [at] the start, as a minimum," he said. And "I don’t know exactly how the President might choose to react, but I don’t think we would just sit back and absorb that."
When he was Chief of Staff, now-retired Gen. Norton A. Schwartz frequently voiced his belief that a broad network of space-based, airborne, and terrestrial systems, if it had enough nodes, would be practically self-healing and would provide deterrence by making any attack on the network futile and pointless. Shelton agrees.
"If we can combine all that … into a network of capability," he said, "you might not have the exquisite capability that you had full-up, but you end up with ‘good enough.’ You’re not deaf, dumb, and blind. I think that’s the way we have to proceed." It’s not acceptable to have known vulnerabilities that an enemy could exploit with what Shelton called a "cheap shot."
A thorny policy question, though, is how "to respond proportionately" to an attack on US satellites, he said.
"We always say this as a joke, but satellites don’t have mothers," he observed. "They’re just machines. So will the United States respond as we would if you included loss of human life in this attack? It will be a struggle for decision-makers to decide," he said.
Not long ago, military commanders could scarcely make a speech or offer congressional testimony without warning that the US military was maxed out on bandwidth and that a crunch was coming that might impair military operations. Those warnings have subsided, and the reason is the availability of commercial alternatives, Shelton said.
"We bought a lot of commercial capability," he noted, to the tune of 80 percent of the traffic in and out of Afghanistan.
Moreover, once those signals come down to Earth, they can travel over a vast network of commercial fiber-optics.
"So you don’t have to do multiple satellite hops like you used to have do in the past," Shelton said. "We’ve increased the bandwidth capacity tremendously through commercial satellite communications, through fiber."
That’s not to say the problem is solved, he pointed out.
"We still do sharing. … We still have users that don’t have their requirements satisfied. The advent of full-motion video and the tremendous [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] capability that we have has just really driven bandwidth needs through the roof. It’s just more data than we can stand right now."
The situation is "not forever," given the drawdown in Afghanistan.
"I think the workload will certainly start to drop off in that part of the world," Shelton said, but the ISR assets that have been devoted to Southwest Asia will probably be redistributed to other areas of responsibility and potentially increase the burden elsewhere.
"So … our bandwidth challenges are going to be interesting for us … especially as we look at the shift to the Pacific."
Shelton said the increased reliance on fiber provides no insurance that communications won’t be vulnerable to disruption.
"The physical locations of commercial fiber are well known," he warned. "So I would say the threat is less about jamming and more about severing the capability." Undersea fiber particularly is "something to be concerned about."
Off the Radar
Another hot space topic that has cooled off in recent years is space radar, envisioned as a constellation of medium-altitude satellites providing all-weather radar imagery for both the intelligence and defense communities. It collapsed because there was no way to make it meet all the users’ needs, Shelton said.
"It just got too hard," he said. The requirements of the intel community were for "high end, exquisite, very precise" sensors while defense sought "target indicators, … a broad, synoptic look," and "it just got too difficult to put those two together—and too expensive. And we couldn’t agree, frankly, to a compromise position between the two, because the needs were so disparate."
He added, "We certainly continue to be interested in radar technology from space," and the US has some access to a Canadian system, providing "all weather, day/night capability."
The technological Holy Grail for Air Force space commanders since the 1960s has been a single stage to orbit system—SSTO—wherein an airplane-like craft could take off from a runway, achieve orbit, release (or pick up) payloads, and return to Earth. However, it’s likely to remain an elusive capability, Shelton said.
"Every time we’ve looked at that, ... we could build the ship but we were left with virtually no payload capability. So the real limiting factor here is propulsion technology. Until there’s a real breakthrough, … I just don’t see it."
Shelton said the "greatest minds in the country," working with NASA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and others have worked on SSTO and came close to succeeding with the National Aerospace Plane project in the 1980s. But in the end, the payload that could be carried was "negligible," Shelton said, and "if you can’t carry anything, what’s the point?"
Daily Report: 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.
Daily Report: The day's top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
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