The American Legion Magazine | 7.1.10
By Alan W. Dowd
Tomorrow … The White House will neither confirm nor deny reports that a fleet of B-8 Infinity bombers participated in operations aimed at neutralizing Iranian satellites and nuclear missile sites. However, an unnamed Pentagon official did say that “assets of the U.S. Aerospace Force enabled us to perform this global strike mission without violating the airspace of any neighboring nation”—a clear reference to the hypersonic B-8’s unique ability to rocket into low-earth orbit, descend to strike range and then return to orbit.
With the U.S. military focused on counterinsurgency operations that have more in common with the 19th century than the 21st century, the shuttle program shutting down, and the United States quite literally lowering its sights in space, this scenario may sound far-fetched. But the Pentagon and its industry partners—the same people who gave us the other-worldly SR-71 and invisible B-2—are testing space planes that blast into orbit for operations beyond the earth’s atmosphere, missiles that can strike anywhere on earth within an hour of launch, and “scramjets” that can skip across the upper atmosphere and cruise at speeds in excess of Mach 6, perhaps as fast as Mach 15.
In short, the outlines of what some have called an “Aerospace Force”[i] are coming into focus.
The Leading Edge
It would be wrong to conclude that the military is steering us toward space. To the contrary, the military is following U.S. interests into space. At its core, the U.S. military’s job is to protect American interests. And today they are increasingly found beyond the earth’s atmosphere.
In 2009, worldwide space-related spending and revenues were $261.6 billion, 40 percent higher than five years earlier, according to the Space Foundation.[ii] Some 260,000 Americans work in the space sector.[iii] Yet most Americans are oblivious to the fact that we depend on space for communications, commerce, air travel and ground transport, emergency services and most notably, for national security.
Missile-defense ships prowling the Pacific, Marine and Army units rebuilding Afghanistan, UAVs circling over Iraq, JDAMs strapped to loitering bombers, sensors monitoring Russian, Chinese, North Korean and perhaps soon Iranian nukes, and the infrastructure and superstructure of the entire military rely on space assets. Sometime in the not-too-distant future, space will become more than just a means to support military operations. It will become a theater of military operations. But don’t take my word for it. “In the coming period,” as a blue-ribbon commission on space concluded a decade ago, “the U.S. will conduct operations to, from, in and through space in support of its national interests.”[iv]
In short, the U.S. will need to do in space what it already does on the seas and in the skies: defend the global commons and protect its own interests, by force if necessary.
“Space capabilities are more important…than they were 10 years ago,”[v] says Gen. Kevin Chilton, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, who plans to devote more resources to new satellites—and understandably so. The Air Force reports that during Operation Iraqi Freedom commercial satellites—not military satellites—“provided over 80 percent of all satellite communications used by the U.S. military.”[vi]
Satellites and other space assets are crucial to maintaining America’s military edge. China wants to cut into that military edge, and its leaders know that exploiting space—the ultimate high ground—is the key.
“If you control space,” observes Gen. Xu Qiliang, commander of China’s air force, “you can also control the land and the sea.”[vii]
In fact, the Chinese news agency Xinhua reported 10 years ago that China was “developing methods and strategies for defeating the U.S. military in a…space-based future war.”[viii] Toward that end, “China has accorded space a high priority for investment,”[ix] according to the Pentagon, which adds that “China is developing a multi-dimensional program to limit or prevent the use of space-based assets by its potential adversaries during times of crisis or conflict.”[x]
In 2007, for instance, Beijing tested an anti-satellite missile (ASAT), demonstrating its ability to attack American satellites in low-earth orbit.
A 2008 Pentagon report quotes Chinese military planners as envisioning a “space shock and awe strike…[to] shake the structure of the opponent’s operational system of organization and…create huge psychological impact on the opponent’s policymakers.”[xi]
The Pentagon noted in 2009 that Chinese military “writings emphasize the necessity of ‘destroying, damaging, and interfering with the enemy’s reconnaissance/observation and communications satellites,’ suggesting that such systems, as well as navigation and early warning satellites, could be among initial targets of attack to ‘blind and deafen the enemy.’”[xii]
The good news is that the U.S. has a constellation of military units and commands focused on space—and buttressed by substantial funding.
Tracking the Pentagon’s space-related spending is “extremely difficult,” according to the Congressional Research Service, “since space spending is not identified as a line item in the budget.”[xiii] But as The Washington Post reports, NASA’s annual funding—$18.7 billion in 2010—is “less than half of the amount spent on national security space programs.”[xiv] So we can extrapolate national-security space spending to be around $38 billion. The Air Force space budget alone was $11.9 billion in 2009.[xv]
As to units and commands, the Air Force Space Command fields 43,000 personnel at 86 sites worldwide. The 21st Space Wing detects and tracks space launches, missile and satellite activity, and 18,000 manmade objects in space. The 22nd Space Operations Squadron commands remote tracking stations and conducts satellite ops. The 310th Space Wing’s mission is to project “space power for U.S. interests worldwide.” The 527th Space Aggressor Squadron “develops new tactics, techniques and procedures to counter threats and improve U.S. military space posture.” The 76th Space Control Squadron conducts “space superiority operations.” And the list goes on. As the NationalSpaceStudiesCenter details, the U.S. military relies on the Missile Defense Agency, National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, Army Space and Missile Defense Command, Naval Network and Space Operations Command, JointSpaceOperationsCenter and other organizations for a range of space-related specialties.
On a more tactical level, as USAToday reports, the Marine Corps has proposed deploying U.S. forces—call them “aerospace-men”—through low-earth orbit to any point on the globe within minutes of an order. Meanwhile, the Air Force is testing the secretive X-37B space plane, which enters orbit courtesy of an Atlas V rocket, can loiter in space for up to 270 days, and can fly 500 nautical miles above the earth.[xvi]
Embracing “offensive counterspace operations” as part of its mission, the Air Force has evolved into a branch that enfolds both air and space.[xvii] These counterspace operations include targeting enemy space capabilities; preventing enemy exploitation of space; and deceiving, disrupting, degrading and destroying enemy space capabilities.[xviii]
Writing in Aerospace Power Journal, Ralph Milsap and D.B. Posey have argued that creating a new military department dedicated solely to space—a Space Force—or a new branch within the Air Force—a Space Corps modeled after the Navy-Marine relationship—may be premature due to the fact that the military’s space mission is “still in its infancy.”[xix] However, the time may be right for what they call an “Aerospace Force.”[xx]
Meeting the Enemy
The Obama administration is sending mixed signals on the military’s future role in space.
The administration allowed testing of the X-37B, which has obvious applications as a space-based weapons platform, and supports the Prompt Global Strike missile system,[xxi] which would deploy a hypersonic kill vehicle through space. Yet the administration has vowed to pursue “a worldwide ban on weapons that interfere with military and commercial satellites.”[xxii]
Banning ASAT weapons is a noble goal, to be sure. But to update an old saying, that rocket has already left the earth’s atmosphere.
The Chinese and Russian militaries are not going to unlearn what they know or surrender their capabilities. Neither should the U.S. military.
As George Washington counseled, “There is nothing so likely to produce peace as to be well prepared to meet an enemy.” That time-tested maxim applies whether the enemy lurks on the seas, in the skies or in space.
The previous two administrations subscribed to this commonsense view. The Bush administration, for example, opposed treaties that would constrain U.S. operations in space and demonstrated U.S. space capabilities by shooting down a satellite. Likewise, the Clinton administration authorized the Pentagon to test-fire laser weapons against a satellite[xxiii] and adopted a space policy directing the Pentagon to “develop, operate and maintain space-control capabilities to ensure freedom of action in space and, if directed, to deny such freedom of action to adversaries.”[xxiv]
Just as sea and air assets support ground forces, space is already supporting military operations on the earth. Air Force Space Command matter-of-factly notes that U.S. operations in Afghanistan led to the first “counterspace war, during which Afghanistan forces attempted to disrupt GPS signals while the U.S. destroyed a ground-based satellite communications site.”[xxv]
In short, defending the ultimate high ground is not a matter of science fiction in the far-off future. It’s a matter of national security in the here and now.
[i] Ralph Milsap and D.B. Posey, “Organizational options for the future Aerospace Force,” Aerospace Power Journal, Summer 2000. Ralph Milsap and D.B. Posey, “Organizational options for the future Aerospace Force,” Aerospace Power Journal, Summer 2000.
[ii] The Space Foundation, The Space Report 2010, p.5.
[iii] The Space Foundation, p.8.
[iv] Report of the Commission to Assess U.S. National Security Space Management and Organization, p.11.
[v] John Bennett, “Chilton: Nore ready-to-launch satellites needed,” MilitaryTimes, November 4, 2009.
[vi] Air Force, Counterspace Operations, August 2, 2004, p.23.
[vii] BBC, “US praises China’s space progress,” December 4, 2009.
[viii] Space Commission, p. xiv.
[ix] Department of Defense, Military Power of the People’s Republic of China 2007, p.20.
[x] Department of Defense, Military Power of the People’s Republic of China 2008, p.3.
[xi] Department of Defense, Military Power of the People’s Republic of China 2008, p.28
[xii] Department of Defense, Military Power of the People’s Republic of China 2009, p.14.
[xiii] Patricia Moloney, et. al., “US Space Programs: Civilian, Military and Commercial,” CRS Issue Brief, June 13, 2006.
[xiv] Marc Kaufman, “U.S. finds it’s getting crowded out there,” Washington Post, July 9, 2008.
[xv] Gayle Putrich, “US Air Forces’ space budget up 5.3 percent,” DefenseNews, February 11, 2009.
[xvi] Leonard David, “Some details of secretive X-37B space plane revealed,” Space.com, April 18, 2010.
[xvii] Air Force, Counterspace Operations, August 2, 2004, p.9.
[xviii] Air Force, Counterspace Operations, August 2, 2004, p.2.
[xix] Milsap and Posey.
[xx] Milsap and Posey.
[xxi] David Sanger, “US faces choice on new weapons for fast strikes,” New York Times, April 22, 2010.
[xxii] Frank Morring, "White House Wants Space Weapons Ban," Aviation Week, Jan 27, 2009, www.aviationweek.com/aw/generic/story.jsp?id=news/Spacewea012709.xml&headline=White%20House%20Wants%20Space%20Weapons%20Ban&channel=space.
[xxiii] John Hyten, “A sea of peace or a theater of war?” Air and Space Power Journal, Fall 2002.
[xxiv] The White House, National Space Policy Fact Sheet, September 19, 1996.
[xxv] Air Force Space Command website.