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Air & Space Power Journal - Fall 2006
THE CONCEPT OF combined arms—integrating different military capabilities to achieve effects not available from applying the individual capabilities in isolation—provides a key asymmetric advantage to American military forces. Foreign military planners covet American-style jointness and seek to emulate it. Although the integration of existing capabilities is a key enabler, having a monopoly on new capabilities (and the means to integrate them quickly and effectively) is also powerful. As with American-style jointness, potential adversaries also envy the near monopoly on space-based intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) systems enjoyed by the American military.
The advantages provided by integration and by near monopolies on space-based systems warrant careful consideration by organizations responsible for delivering them to the war fighter. To analyze the opportunities and challenges inherent in the military use of space, one should consider the four classes of military capabilities and the six integration pathways they create (see fig.). Of these four classes, three currently exist, as do the three integration pathways between them (1, 2, and 3). For the most part, space-based combat systems remain in the conceptual stage (indicated by the dotted lines), as do the integration pathways that their deployment would create (4, 5, and 6).
Figure. Six available integration options among four classes of military capabilities
This article explores the opportunities exploited and the challenges overcome in the three existing integration pathways. It does so with an eye toward maximizing the utility of the three future integration pathways that will provide military advantages when space-based combat systems become a -reality. Since integration has proven its value for existing systems and capabilities, expectations for integrating future capabilities remain high. At least one complicating factor exists, however. As technology explodes in applications for war fighters, the choice of space-based versus air-/Earth-based systems is no longer an either/or proposition: because each host medium offers distinctive advantages, operating in and from two media becomes highly desirable, leading naturally to a need to integrate operations in both.1 This space-versus-air/Earth dichotomy holds equally for ISR systems as it does for combat systems.2
Over the past 20 years, the United States has repeatedly altered its approach to military operations in space.3 Reasons for this turmoil and uncertainty are complex; however, one can reasonably point to shifts in the perception of threats and advances in technology as major drivers. Rapid technological advances in today’s earthbound systems for remote sensing will likely continue this trend, as will rapid shifts in the threat environment. A desire for greater speed in acquisition, better integration, more transparency, more accountability, and more rapid deployment of capability will require the space community to restructure the way it does business yet again. That earthbound alternatives to space-based ISR and combat systems can change more quickly, just when the threat is changing more rapidly, suggests that space-based systems may lose their primacy to an integrated combination of space-based systems and their air-/Earth-based alternatives.
Military planners used to talk in terms of space as the “ultimate high ground,” but shifts in threat and technology have changed the military calculus. One can no longer assert that only satellites or only atmospheric systems will dominate future operations. The issue is not one of either/or; rather, all will remain, and all will progress. The challenge for space planners lies in integrating their efforts within the larger whole. Space formerly had a monopoly over vital military operations, but now space-based systems provide only one of several alternatives. In some cases, space may offer the best alternative. In other cases, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) might dominate. In all cases, planners strive to produce the greatest military effect by integrating space systems with atmospheric and terrestrial systems. Such integration has the crucial added benefit of giving the United States a unique global capability—a monopoly that no other group, nation, or group of nations can presently match.
Whether developing space ISR, space combat power, or both, the United States obviously needs to build a future space force that integrates leading-edge capabilities with the rest of the joint team. Postdeployment system integration is more difficult and far more expensive than the a priori integration of systems that exist only on paper or in computer-aided design / computer-aided manufacturing programs. Consequently, “the present” is always the time to start considering integration strategies for proposed and postulated space-based combat systems.4 Lessons learned from past integration of space-based ISR systems should inform future integration strategies for space-based combat systems.
The three solid integration pathways in the figure represent capabilities currently available to commanders. These integrations enable precision targeting, battle damage assessments, ISR cueing from one system to another, and all the capabilities that encompass the United States’ twentieth-century military arsenal.
Pathway One: Air-/Earth-Based Combat Systems with Air-/Earth-Based ISR Systems
Combat “systems” have existed as long as combat has. ISR systems, the most ancient of which include visual sightings, verbal communication, standard bearers, smoke signals, and flags, entered the battlefield shortly thereafter—if not concurrently. When ISR and combat systems took to the air, attempts to integrate them with their earthbound manifestations became imperative. Blitzkrieg serves as a useful example of pre-space-age air/Earth integration that provided tremendous military utility. These past integration initiatives represent useful analogies for future space/air and space/ground integration that we cannot ignore.
Pathway Two: Air-/Earth-Based ISR Systems with Space-Based ISR Systems
Networks, adaptability, and access are moving toward depriving space of the unique capabilities that operating from the high ground once afforded. Networks of all kinds—air defense, command and control, and remote sensing (as well as networks of networks)—have become the new centers of strategic value. Rapidly expanding networks, growing faster and broader by the day, generate incredible wealth and national power. They have become dominant features of societies, economics, politics, and militaries.5
One can no longer depend only on space systems to provide the once unique perspective of space’s orbital heights. In the commercial communications business, terrestrially based cellular networks and fiber optics helped drive Iridium, a satellite-based system, into bankruptcy. Cellular networks and fiber optics will continue to dominate, using robust private investment to match satellite communications, advance for advance. Given their large lead, surface-based communications will likely keep their lead for a long time.
In the same way, UAVs, high-altitude airships, and unattended ground sensors are making rapid progress in their support of remote sensing and persistent surveillance.6 These alternative systems adapt to the needs of a battlespace and offer some means of replacing our space architecture. Activities formerly conducted only from the high ground of space now take place in the atmosphere. When technological advances made all this a reality, space ceded the high ground.
With regard to access, one remembers that the Soviets shot down the U-2 piloted by Francis Gary Powers as he attempted to reconnoiter areas for which we had no detailed space coverage. Today, satellites provide that information without putting human beings in harm’s way. One still encounters limitations to the details detectable via space systems, but only some of the same challenges apply to airborne or ground systems.
This is not to say that commanding space is unimportant. The absolute value of space-based ISR systems, unique and not easily replaced, is not the issue. Their relative value, however, appears to be shifting. Space will remain one of the places from which we collect information, but in the future we will find solutions to our remote-sensing problems by netting space systems with both air and ground systems—even subterranean systems.7 Networks of space and airborne and terrestrial sensors now overshadow the importance of the high ground of space.
Pathway Three: Air-/Earth-Based Combat Systems with Space-Based ISR Systems
The coupling of the Joint Direct Attack Munition with the global positioning system (GPS), a fertile example of this pathway, is well known—so much so that it does not require detailed treatment here. The deployment of space-based GPS provided revolutionary advancements in terrestrial and aerial military power projection and precision. Ultimately, the GPS does not produce combat power but enables its projection, making it worthy of inclusion in this examination of space-based ISR systems. Since the US military relies so heavily on the GPS, it places a priority on the robustness of the system.8 The Department of Defense is exploring methods of GPS navigation based on terrestrial and airborne systems as an alternative to reinforcing GPS space-based assets.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), for example, has begun exploring the use of airborne pseudosatellites to overpower GPS jammers and the use of navigation via signals of opportunity to “provide the US warfighter with the ability to geo-locate and navigate effectively when GPS is unavailable.”9 Clearly, the GPS is no longer an exclusively space-based system. Pathway three may provide the greatest lessons for future pathways simply because it is freshest in the corporate memory of organizations that must build them.
The “dashed” integration pathways in the figure demonstrate the potential capabilities that space-based combat systems would offer the United States.
Pathway Four: Space-Based Combat Systems with Space-Based ISR Systems
Of the three potential future-integration paths created by the deployment of space-based combat systems, this one represents perhaps the most logical choice as the test bed for integrating new combat systems because one organization (or at least one service) will likely own both the space-based ISR and combat systems. Of the many impediments to successful integration, the technical and physical aspects are perhaps simplest to overcome. On the other hand, organizational and budgetary hurdles created by dispersed responsibility for the design, development, deployment, maintenance, and use of the several subsystems needing integration can prove the most formidable.10 It is difficult to imagine explicit examples of capabilities that could come from this integration pathway without knowing the characteristics of future space-based combat systems. Nevertheless, the global vision of space-based ISR, coupled with the global reach of a space-based combat system, suggests the emergence of very powerful strategic-level capabilities.
Pathway Five: Air-/Earth-Based ISR Systems with Space-Based Combat Systems
Some people may consider this integration pathway the most counterintuitive: how can we place a strategic-level, global, space-based combat system at the disposal of what is probably a more tactically oriented air-/Earth-based ISR system? By taking a page from history and drawing the appropriate analogy, one can make this a bit easier to imagine. Just as we have forward air controllers, why can we not have forward space controllers? At least for space-based ISR systems, combatant commanders already make use of such a person—the director of space forces. By extending from air to space the recent example of special operations forces on horseback in Afghanistan tasking B-52s (the American strategic weapon prior to the development of inter-continental ballistic missiles), one lends further credence to the argument that great utility resides in this future integration pathway.11
Pathway Six: Air-/Earth-Based Combat Systems with Space-Based Combat Systems
As the power and utility of space-based combat enablers advanced, so did the idea of projecting combat power directly from space. Some people recommend using space-based directed energy (DE) weapons to provide global power projection, but advances in autonomous unmanned systems, guided weapons, precision weapons, aerial platforms, and DE weapons suggest the availability of similar capabilities from terrestrial and airborne systems.12 Once again, the absence of an irrefutable argument demonstrating the clear superiority of combat power projection from space-based systems to that from air-/Earth-based systems (or vice versa) implies the presence of both, thus providing yet another opportunity for force multiplication via integration.
Space-based DE weapons do face power and targeting hurdles. Future technology may address these issues, but UAV-based DE weapons may always prove more dependable, easier to maintain, cheaper, and just as safe as the space-based version.13 Furthermore, we may always find UAVs easier to refuel, rearm, and repair. Since the airborne laser program has already begun developing this capability, can a UAV-borne laser be far off? Like the GPS, DE weapons no longer reside exclusively in space, and the advantages of airborne and earthbound lasers may negate the need for space-based -lasers entirely. But what about space-based kinetic weapons?
Such weapons have the advantage of targeting anywhere in the world more quickly than terrestrially based alternatives, but this benefit may disappear if we compare them to land-based global-artillery concepts (e.g., the Slingatron, Blast Wave Accelerator, or guns of Gerald Bull) rather than to air-launched kinetic weapons.14 The fixed position of these large, hard-to-hide weapons is a clear liability, but the predictability of an orbiting kinetic weapon’s position poses similar problems of perhaps equal and offsetting magnitude.
In the past, this desire for speed and global reach has created research programs (such as the National Aerospace Plane) to explore the feasibility of craft that provide such reach by flying most of their route in space.15 These planes may eliminate many of the costs associated with forward-deployed support forces by enabling strike operations of any size or scale from US air bases. Additionally, they protect national security by permitting the basing of assets and personnel on US soil. Space planes also reduce dependencies on foreign states by taking off from domestic bases and flying into space—international territory—before reentering the atmosphere over enemy airspace to strike their targets. Researchers are currently exploring the possibility that if precision-guided munitions deploy from a plane outside the atmosphere, then it would never need to enter nonsovereign airspace at all.
Goals of the Joint Unmanned Combat Air Systems (J-UCAS) program provide some indication of future airborne force-projection capabilities.16 If successfully completed, such a system could facilitate global reach without space. Although the J-UCAS may not possess the speed of a space plane, it likely will offer greater persistence at costs more easily contained within finite budgets.
Virgin Galactic’s pursuit of both tourism and faster intercontinental travel indicates that spaceflights between terrestrial locations already lie within reach. This private “space line” has an agreement with New Mexico to establish the world’s first commercial spaceport for personal spaceflight. As commercial industry continues its push into the realm of space, further advancements in technology, engineering, and manufacturing should enable more cost-effective spaceflight.17 This increased capacity to use space as merely the transit medium for combat power decreases proportionately the feasibility of operational concepts that propose to use space as the origin of that power. Similarly, we cannot ignore the fact that opponents of space weaponization would approve of making space a transit media for combat power rather than its point of origin.18
It is counterproductive to think of tomorrow’s space capabilities solely in terms of space systems. Assets on the ground, in the air, and in space can increasingly perform each other’s missions. None has a monopoly on future military operations. If planners try to treat space as a separate mission, they will only continue the current cycle of turmoil that faces the space community. The optimum way forward calls for integrating atmospheric and space-based systems and operations. We must begin this task now.
The six integration pathways described above demonstrate that the three pathways of the past provide lessons we can and must learn to realize the three pathways that will arrive with the advent of space-based combat systems. The asymmetric advantages enjoyed by American forces, because of integration and a near monopoly on space-based capabilities, suggest strongly that success in these new integration pathways is critical to maintaining those advantages. The American public accepted the substantial expense of postdeployment integration of our space-based ISR systems because immediate deployment to counter the Soviet nuclear threat was critical to national survival. Because no such adversary today threatens our survival in a way that demands immediate deployment of space-based combat capability, we have no reason for postponing integration. Failure to begin this effort a priori may very well close out space-based combat capabilities as a financially viable option, thereby precluding a unique and powerful military capability.
*We are grateful to our colleagues Dr. Michael Stumborg, Jeffrey Barnett, Robert Bivins, Deborah Westphal, and Richard Szafranski for their help with this article.
The authors are consultants with Toffler Associates.
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1. Even air/Earth is complicated: near space, stratosphere, low altitude, surface, subsurface, and so forth. When military forces identify with an operational medium—or lay claim to it as their exclusive domain—integration can become extremely difficult.
2. For the purposes of this analysis, we roughly define ISR systems as anything that provides the “observe” and “orient” parts of the observe, orient, decide, act (OODA) loop, and combat systems as those that provide the “act” portion. We do not consider command, control, communications, and computers (C4) systems, which essentially exist in cyberspace as opposed to physical space (air/Earth domain or the space domain) to provide the “decide” portion. It is convenient to consider them as part of the integration pathway “arrows” shown in the figure.
3. Report of the Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organization (Washington, DC: The Commission, 11 January 2001), 79, http://www.defenselink.mil/pubs/space20010111.html.
4. Michael Stumborg et al., “Total Ship Engineering: A Team Effort,” Surface Warfare 20, no. 6 (1996): 10–15.
5. See Alvin Toffler, Powershift: Knowledge, Wealth, and Violence at the Edge of the 21st Century (New York: Bantam Books, 1990).
6. Benjamin S. Lambeth, Air Power against Terror: America’s Conduct of Operation Enduring Freedom (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2005), passim, http://www.rand.org/pubs/monographs/2005/RAND_MG166.pdf.
7. Ibid., 290.
8. A Defense Science Board task force recommended a 30-satellite constellation for GPS III to increase robustness and improve the system’s performance in mountainous and urban-warfare environments. Defense Science Board Task Force on the Future of the Global Positioning System (Washington, DC: Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, October 2005), 9, http://www.acq.osd.mil/dsb/reports/2005-10-GPS_Report_Final.pdf.
9. “Global Positioning Experiments (GPX),” DARPA Special Projects Office, http://www.darpa.mil/spo/programs/gpx.htm; and “Navigation via Signals of Opportunity (NAVSOPP),” DARPA Special Projects Office, http://www.darpa.mil/spo/programs/navsopp.htm.
10. Richard Stevens et al., Systems Engineering: Coping with Complexity (New York: Prentice Hall, 1998), chap. 6.
11. John D. Banusiewicz, “Wolfowitz Asserts Value of Ground Forces, Touts Their Role in Joint Operations,” American Forces Press Service, 8 October 2003, http://www.defenselink.mil/news/Oct2003/n10082003_200310088.html.
12. Hon. John N. Hostettler, “Directed Energy and the Future of Security,” Lexington Institute, 11 July 2002, http://www.lexingtoninstitute.org/events.asp?aid=256; “Joint Unmanned Combat Air Systems,” DARPA, http://www.darpa.mil/j-ucas/index.htm; and “A Brief History of the Airborne Laser,” USAF fact sheet (Kirtland AFB, NM: Airborne System Laser Program Office, Office of Public Affairs, 27 February 2003), http://www.de.afrl.af.mil/Factsheets/ABLHistory.swf.
13. Publicly available information limits the argument made here. The authors recognize the possibility that classified research in the United States or other countries may very well alter the conclusions regarding DE weapons.
14. Eric Adams, “Rods from God: Space-Launched Darts That Strike Like Meteors,” Popular Science, 4 January 2006, http://www.popsci.com/popsci/technology/generaltechnology/df869aa138b84010vgnvcm1000004eecbccdrcrd.html; Dr. William R. Graham, The Status of Technology for Defense of the United States, Its Forces, and Its Interests against Ballistic Missile Attack, Hearings before the Committee on Foreign Relations, United States Senate, 106th Cong., 1st sess., 4 May 1999, http://www.fas.org/spp/starwars/congress/1999_h/s106-339-3.htm; Derek A. Tidman et al., “Sling Launch of Materials into Space,” SSI [Space Studies Institute] Update 22, no. 1 (January–March 1996): 1–5; David W. Bogdanoff, “Ram Accelerator Direct Space Launch System: New Concepts,” Journal of Propulsion and Power 8 (March–April 1992): 481–90; and “Project Babylon Supergun/PC-2,” Federation of American Scientists, 8 October 2000, http://www.fas.org/nuke/guide/iraq/other/supergun.htm.
15. William B. Scott, “Two-Stage-to-Orbit ‘Blackstar’ System Shelved at Groom Lake?” Aviation Week and Space Technology, 5 March 2006, http://www.aviationnow.com/avnow/news/channel_awst_story.jsp?id=news/030606p1.xml.
16. “Joint Unmanned Combat Air Systems.”
17. Leonard David, “Virgin Galactic Partners with New Mexico on Spaceport,” Space.com, 14 December 2005, http://www.space.com/news/051214_spaceport_newmexico.html.
18. Ensuring America’s Space Security: Report of the FAS Panel on Weapons in Space, Federation of American Scientists, September 2004, 1, http://www.fas.org/main/content.jsp?formAction=297&contentId=311.
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University
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