Space Control Blasts Off

In war, von Clausewitz once opined, everything is very simple. But simple things become very difficult. Today, his adage is revalidating in a field that barely existed ten years ago: space control–the new equivalent of sea control and air superiority.

As a concept, space control is simple. It means using space for your own military purposes; protecting what you’ve got up there; and denying the military advantages of space to such evildoers as might merit denial. (And their number is growing into the dozens.)

What makes this difficult is not merely the austere and unforgiving nature of the universe beyond the biosphere. At the moment, some of the greatest obstacles are on the ground–specifically the ground beneath the Pentagon, the Congress, and a goof bit of the aerospace industry.

Effective space control demands a revolution on the ground, a revolution in thinking, in procedures, and in relationships. Space is already critical for earthbound communications and intelligence; it may soon be vital for protection against weapons of mass destruction. Soon, also, space-based systems may require defensive armament.

The more important space grows, the more endangered our ability to use it becomes. Other powers will see to that, even as they expand their own military capabilities in this area. Therefore, it is vital that this revolution on the ground begin now.

Among the necessary changes are these:

First, somebody has to be in charge. The logical candidate is the Air Force, which currently owns over 90 percent of U.S. military space assets. While it is premature to speak of the Air Force becoming the Space Service (or to start breaking ground for Star Fleet headquarters), only the Air Force can structure and manage the military space programs. This means that the other services, the unified commands, and the Defense Department should concern themselves primarily with formulating their operational requirements for space-based capabilities, not with how those requirements are met.

For its part, the Air Force must attain a Federal Express, not a post office level of responsiveness. And the Air Force should never again become dependent on other agencies for access to space, as it did with NASA prior to the Challenger disaster.

Second, the entire relationship between military and civilian/commercial space activities must change. Gone is the era of massive technological military-to-civilian “spin-off.” Yet civilian-to-military “spin-off” barely starts to capture the technological advances underway in the commercial field–perhaps most notably, the shift to small boosters and satellites (a change analogous to the computer shift from expensive mainframes to cheap and expendable PCs.) Commercial and military space efforts should be, to the maximum extent possible, merged. This requires joint research and development, dual use products, and co-production on the same assembly lines. Further, commercial satellites should be adapted for emergency military use–a practice similar to modifying airliners for the Civil Reserve Air Fleet.

The obstacles to such integration are enormous. Perhaps the greatest is governmental over-regulation, from excessive secrecy to surrealistic accounting. (Yes, you can co-produce on the same assembly lines, but who’s going to pay for the light bulbs?)

Almost as crippling is the ponderous culture of weapons development. In computer software, a generation is about two years; in weapons development, two decades. Defense contractors must learn to work at–or, more realistically, somewhere near–the civilian pace. The government must help it to happen, first by getting out of the way, and, second, by providing substantial incentives. Finally, the United States must pursue an aggressive mannered space program. While the current program rightly emphasized research and “Mission to Planet Earth” activities, the U.S. may someday require a human military presence.

This, of course, raises an obvious question about the wisdom of coupling military and civilian programs. Inevitably, the products and/or the data will reach unfriendly hands. But, in reality, it is no longer possible to stay secure by sitting on a pile of secrets. The basic technologies are already too widely diffused, and the advances of other countries will also find their way to market.

Security now comes from staying a few years ahead of the competition, in this sense, coupling commercial and military space programs may actually enhance national security by attracting scientific and engineering talent to the field. Aerospace, for all its importance, is not particularly attractive employment these days. An engineer starting out, in, say, 1960, probably worked on a half dozen major projects during his career, with perhaps two periods of serious unemployment. An engineer starting out today can expect only a couple major projects (of she’s lucky), intermixed with chronic unemployment or under-employment. Coupling commercial and military space means a more vibrant industry attracting good people. Good people make good products.

In sum, the ability to control space in the future requires fundamental changes now. Fortunately, there are indications that these changes are beginning to get underway: in the Air Force, the Pentagon, and in manufacturers such as Lockheed Martin. They should be awarded.

After all, as Clausewitz might have put it, since everything in space is difficult, the last thing you need is people on the ground making it harder.

Philip Gold

Dr. Philip Gold is a senior fellow of the Discovery Institute, and director of the Institute's Aerospace 2010 Project. A former Marine, he is the author of Evasion,: The American Way of Military Service and over 100 articles on defense matters. He teaches at Georgetown University and is a frequent op-ed contributor to several newspapers. Dr. Gold divides his time between Seattle and Washington, D.C.