Nine years ago, as Americans watched live coverage of Tomahawk cruise missiles changing lanes in downtown Baghdad and government-supplied video of smart bombs ringing bunker doorbells before exploding, it became obvious that a Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) was underway. The obvious assessment of this RMA: Damn, we’re good.
And so we are. Whatever else might be said of the American defense establishment, our stuff is world-class-plus. Nobody does it better . . . or even comes close.
And therein lies the problem. Three problems, actually. First, the same RMA that makes us uniquely powerful also makes us uniquely vulnerable. Second, both this vulnerability and the evolution of the RMA point to the need – the ineluctable need – for a strong new U.S. military presence in space.
The third problem: a lot of folks don’t want us to go there. And unless and until the reasons why we must go there are made so clear that not even NOPE (Naysayers Opposed to Practically Everything) can miss it, only disaster awaits.
To take them in turn:
For the most part, the RMA – the RMA Phase I, actually – has been an Information Revolution. Fifty years ago, mathematician John von Neumann predicted that of the two military revolutions going on, the nuclear and the computational, the latter would prove the more significant. He called it. Our warheads molder and rust; our microprocessors grow ever more potent. We rely now on a military “system of systems” that, as retired Admiral Bill Owens puts it in his fine new book, “Lifting the Fog of War,” does exactly that. Targeting grows almost as precise as Tiger Woods’ short game. Information can flow “from sensor to shooter” in something approaching real time. High-level commanders and staffs now “see” their battlefields and beyond in ways that Napoleon, (who could barely see over the next hill) couldn’t have imagined. Were Karl von Clausewitz alive today, he’d be frantically updating “Vom Kriege” from his graveside PC.
All very fine, this system of systems. But it’s heavily and irrevocably dependent on military and — increasingly — civilian satellites for intelligence-gathering, communications, navigation. Destroy, incapacitate, or degrade the satellites and the military system of systems begins to totter. Perhaps it crashes. Not to mention how rough it would be on civilian cell phone addicts and those who love them.
America has, at the moment, no mortal enemies – in Pentagonese, “peer competitors.” Those who wish us ill know that they can’t match our system of systems. So they won’t try. They’ll concentrate instead on “asymmetric threats” and “niche capabilities,i including anti-satellite warfare. Some years ago, the U.S. Naval War College ran a rather disconcerting simulation. A country that looked a lot like China did quite a number on the U.S. Seventh Fleet. Their weapons of choice: land-based anti-ship missiles and rockets that trashed U.S. satellites faster than we could launch them.
Very niche. Very asymmetrical. And, real-world, very doable – if not today, then soon enough. Anti-satellite missiles. Kinetic kill vehicles. Space mines. And, of course, nonviolent isoft-killi techniques: cyberattacks, jamming, deceptive telemetry, etc.
Clearly, it’s vital to defend American satellites. It would also be nice to be able to deny the use of space to other nations. The Army recently played a war game in which a certain “New Islamic Republic” used both Chinese and commercial satellites to depressing effect. (Some folks donit always turn them off when you ask nicely.) And it might be useful to place systems in space that could directly affect terrestrial events, whether the space-based component of serious homeland missile defense or weapons that could participate in combat below.
The RMA is trending there. RMA Phase I was basically about information. RMA Phase II will be about exotic new systems: lasers and beam weapons; nano-technologies and MEMS (Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems); and placing these items aboard new types and generations of spaceware. How close are we to Phase II? Hard to tell, given the classified nature of so many programs and the fact that all components of any system have to mesh before youive got a real-world weapon. The conventional wisdom holds that it will take decades to develop and deploy such systems. Given that unclassified major defense programs now do take decades from concept to combat, it may indeed be a while.
Thates the conventional wisdom. The conventional speculation is that, out there in the black world, where things sometimes get done a lot faster, there’s a lot of stuff maybe sorta getting ready to get ready to go up.
Historical curiosity. During the 1980 presidential campaign, Jimmy Carter, in a desperate attempt to look tough on defense, revealed the existence of the Stealth fighter — a super-secret previously known only to God, the Pentagon, Area 51, and the readership of iAviation Week and Space Technology.i Were Mr. Gore to try something similar, he could no doubt find a program or two worth revealing.
In any event, the gear is out there. Or could be. If the United States fails to exploit space, offensively and defensively, over the next few decades, the failure may be more political and cultural than technological.
Opposition comes from many sources. Some object to the “militarization of space,” as though space hasn’t been militarized since the first ICBM passed through and since the first satellite went up. Others fear provoking an “arms race.” The logic here seems to be that since our most precious assets are totally undefended, defending them will increase their vulnerability. In truth, there is an arms race in space; weire just not racing. The Russians and Chinese have had serious anti-satellite programs for decades. So, perhaps, have other countries, such as India and Pakistan, combining indigenous R&D with purchase of foreign components from states and private corporations. Israel has also been busy with lasers, missile defenses, and other adaptable items.
Still other opponents invoke the ABM and Outer Space Treaties, documents signed in an era when (hard to remember) there was but a single “Star Trek” series on earth. Not. There’s no law made by humankind that can’t be altered for sufficiently good reason, starting perhaps with the good reason that the Soviet signatory of these and other relevant treaties no longer exists.
Yet perhaps the greatest opposition – no, call it hesitancy – to the full military exploitation of space comes from the organization that bears the greatest responsibility for such exploitation: the United States Air Force.
This might seem odd. After all, what more logical outfit to handle space? But the Air Force suffers from a strange set of problems nowadays. They know it. They admit it. But they may not have the will, or the wherewithal, to do much about it.
The Air Force has always been a pilot-dominated culture. The white-scarf-and-goggles mentality dies hard, and missilery and satellite-driving have never been fast track careers. Most of what the Air Force does in space supports the other services. Not sexy.
And then thereis the money crunch. If anything has gone into orbit of late, itis the cost of maintaining the present tactical aircraft fleet. Funding the F-22 fighter (replacing the F-15) and the Air Force portion of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF, replacing the F-16) will require more cash than most governments spend on everything. When something has to give, itis usually space.
But the age of manned (in PC terminology, iinhabitedi) air combat is over. Weive built our last heavy bomber, the B-2 (The Air Force intends to fly B-52s until theyire 70 years old). The JSF may never get built. The future lies with remotely piloted and robotic vehicles, with MEMS, and in space. Culturally, this means that the Air Force as we know it doesnit have much longer. In fifty years, perhaps less, person-in-the-cockpit combat will be as obsolete as the cavalry charge.
Think on it. The Army, no matter what its high-tech appliques and transformations, will still be about boots on the ground. The Navy: Ships will still be big and gray and sail away. But the United States Air Force, at the very moment of its global supremacy, must morph into something very different . . . and alien to its cultural essence.
Theyire human. They donit like it. Rhetorically, they have no objection to exploitation of space. In the 1990s, the Air Force described itself as an air force becoming an air and space force “on an evolutionary path” to becoming a space and air force. Now theyire back to the old word, iaerospace.i Generals make fine speeches about the importance of space and establishing a new culture, beginning with basic officer training. A few more space jocks and geeks are pinning on stars. But in truth, space remains an afterthought, perhaps at best a yes-if-we-only-had-the-bucks-but-we-donit affair.
Several years ago, this got the attention of Senator Bob Smith, New Hampshire Republican and ardent space booster (pardon the pun). In an impassioned 1998 speech, he held that if the Air Force wouldnit or couldnit get happy and busy about space power, perhaps another service — or an entirely new Space Service — could.
Sen. Smithis passion led to the establishment, with strong bipartisan support, of the iCommission to Assess National Security Space Management and Organization.i This blue-ribbon panel is scheduled to report by 15 January 2001. A staffer in Smithis office says that nobody expects any immediate radical action; the goal is to get some good advice and do a bit of Beltway consciousness-raising. A defense insider familiar with the Commissionis work adds: iAbsolutely everything is on the table, including oversight. They want the deliberations to be free from being vetted publicly.i
Most probably, space issues would have to be settled as part of fundamental restructuring and revision of the National Security Act of 1947 and subsequent legislation. Given the inter-service animosity and rivalry such an effort would generate, itis an ieverythingis-on-the-tablei scenario that most would love to avoid.
But the challenge of space cannot wait until everybodyis turf bowls are protected, or the balloon hits the fan in some future conflict. And the Air Force is the logical repository of the nationis space power . . . provided they can apply their traditional genius, energy, and courage to the effort. In the first decade of its existence, the Air Force worked miracles which the American people have yet to appreciate fully. Between 1947 and 1957, the service organized as a separate branch; fought the Korean War; transitioned from prop jobs to jets; built the Strategic Air Command; established a brilliant ICBM program; and got damn good PR in Hollywood and elsewhere, because they had a proud story to tell. Would that they could undertake the space mission with equal fervor and adequate resources.
Toward that end, there should be a Space Corps established within the Air Force, with its own budget line item and with ample career opportunities. In time, this Space Corps might evolve into a separate Space Service within the Department of the Air Force, just as the Marine Corps exists within the Navy Department. Its mission should be to function as the “cavalry of the High Frontier,” fighting in space and on earth when necessary, protecting and working closely with the civilian sector, and with scientific endeavors.
As to whether this Space Service should someday segue into Star Fleet . . . who knows? Star Fleet is, after all, a naval-heritage outfit. And after all the grief a recent Chief of Staff, General Tony McPeak, put the service through with those abortive uniform changes, the last thing the Air Force needs to contemplate right now is Star Fleet polyester. For the moment, let’s just get this country the space power it needs.
As Jean-Luc Picard would say,
“Make it so.”
Philip Gold is director of defense and aerospace studies at the Seattle-based Discovery Institute.