Chapter 12—
Controlling Space

Stephen P. Randolph

Space forces have transformed the U.S. military over the past 40 years. The experiences of the past 10 years, from the Gulf War through the Balkan wars and now in the war against terrorism, have accelerated that transformation. As the war on terrorism goes on, it undoubtedly will affect the development and employment of space forces, as well as their relationship with other American forces, in ways now unforeseen.

The broad mission areas executed by space forces have remained remarkably stable over the span of the space age. Within a decade of Sputnik’s first exploration of low Earth orbit, the United States fielded space forces to meet critical needs for global reconnaissance, missile warning, navigation, meteorology, and telecommunications. Over the subsequent 30 years, there has been a dramatic increase in on-orbit capability to meet those missions. Probably the more significant change, though, has been in the overall reorientation of America’s space forces—from a near-exclusive focus on strategic users and preconflict intelligence through the Cold War, toward a gradually ripening integration with theater forces as part of the operational targeting sequence.

The stability in the mission areas occupied by space forces reflects the balance between the utility of operating in that medium and the tremendous demands that the space environment levies on those who would operate there. At the existing level of technology, those demands generally translate into high program costs and delays in fielding space systems, beyond those normally experienced in military acquisition programs. Over the past few months, to provide recent examples, the Advanced Extremely High Fýequency communications satellite program has gone to a two-satellite buy at roughly the price of the original proposed five-satellite constellation. The Space-Based Infrared System has reported massive cost
increases and delays in the high, low, and ground segments, to the point where Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and
Logistics Peter Aldridge has directed the Air Force and National Reconnaissance Office to explore alternatives to the high segment.1

This history is relevant in surveying the future possibilities for national security space programs. Throughout the space age, there has existed a tension between the lure of space, the “final frontier,” with its endless possibilities for human exploration, and the real obstacles that have prevented its broader exploitation. It is easy to find aggressive visions for broad-scale transformations in the missions executed from space.2 It is more difficult to manage the relatively mundane issues of technology, funding, and doctrine that must be conquered to realize those visions. The history of space flight in all sectors is littered with the remains of programs and applications that appeared promising but could not be delivered at an affordable cost or effectively in competition with terrestrial systems.

Those issues will become more, not less, difficult in the near future, with the array of other requirements that have become evident in the ongoing war. Just within the Air Force, those include broadened employment of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), a new generation of manned intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) platforms, the Joint Strike Fighter and F-22, the small diameter bomb, increased airlift, and recapitalization of the tanker force. All these will be competing not only for a finite number of development and acquisition dollars but also more broadly with the demands of the other services, all with their own requirements for recapitalization and modernization. It is unlikely that defense budgets, even with the growth expected over the next few years, will easily accommodate all those requirements.3

The competition for resources will be more acute since the maturation of UAVs has seen these vehicles move into mission niches previously reserved for space forces and into others that space forces could feasibly assume in the next few years. U.S. Air Force (USAF) Chief of Staff John Jumper said in a recent speech to the Air Force Association:

Rather than having ISR assets that are primarily space-based or manned, both of which tend to have limited loitering time over any given area of interest, the DOD [Department of Defense] is looking to increase its inventory of UAVs that have longer loiter times. The United States should eventually treat UAVs like low-orbiting satellites.4

UAVs have proven their tactical contributions in remote sensing and have clear potential as communications relays as well.

So while American space forces will continue playing a critical role in theater combat capabilities, it is unlikely that they will see a major expansion in mission areas over the next few years. Instead, progress will more likely come in the less visible, but equally important, areas of integration with other forces, in protecting U.S. space capabilities and in building the foundation for the follow-on generation of space-based capabilities.

The Global Space Arena, 2002-2022

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States has enjoyed near-absolute dominance in military space capabilities.5 Only the European space program has mounted any sort of technical challenge to the United States, and the Europeans have placed very little emphasis on developing military space capabilities. That period of dominance is likely nearing its end now, as three related movements speed the proliferation of space capabilities across the globe.

First, space is no longer the exclusive preserve of national programs. Commercial telecommunications have thrived since the 1960s and have long carried an important role in communications structures of the Armed Forces. More recently, the remote sensing industry has seen the advent of high-resolution systems and their spread to non-American firms. Both the capabilities of those commercial systems and their technologies are spreading around the world. The high barriers to entry overcome by the United States and the Soviet Union 40 years ago have diminished with the advent of the commercial space market. A senior officer from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) declared, “We are now in the era of high-resolution imagery. With high-resolution imagery we are now able not only to monitor strategic movement of troops and equipment that may threaten our borders, but also to actually pinpoint individual targets of interest from a safe stand-off distance.”6 More recently, frustrated by America’s imposition during the Afghan campaign of a blackout of satellite data that had previously been available, the UAE has called for the Gulf Cooperation Council nations to study buying their own satellite to ensure access to space-derived imagery.7 That would be entirely feasible, given the availability on the open market of such systems as Russia’s Mashinostroyeniye Science and Production Association’s 1- to 3-meter-resolution optical/radar system. The Russian firm’s offer includes launch and ground segment services as part of the package. Although the space imagery business has been slow to take off, it seems clear that it is here to stay and that the United States is entering a new era of transparency that will affect areas ranging from military operations to public diplomacy.

A second, related trend is the proliferation of newly maturing technologies that will ease access to space. In particular, the growing utility of small satellites provides opportunities for nations to bypass the enormous launch costs and investments in infrastructure that previously characterized space operations and set high thresholds for their use.

As with other aspects of space operations, smallsats enjoyed waves of enthusiasm that have receded as their limitations have become evident. Those limitations, however, are diminishing rapidly with advances in microelectronics and miniaturization. Already, minisatellites have demonstrated useful capabilities in communications, remote sensing, electronic environment characterization, and precision navigation and timing, all at a fraction of the cost of the larger systems now employed in those roles. Although these small satellites are not as capable as the larger and more complex systems used by U.S. forces, they offer military potential at a fraction of the cost of larger systems, while using components widely available on the commercial market.

Moreover, their low cost creates the opportunity to field constellations of satellites providing persistent coverage of selected areas, thus moving beyond the relatively intermittent coverage of existing imagery systems. As one observer recently commented in the People’s Liberation Army Daily:

Each microsat has a large computational capability. Tens, or even hundreds, of these microsats can be networked to form a “skynet,” which would provide a carpeted global coverage and thus realize high-altitude military reconnaissance with no “dead zones.”...The advantages of such a system include rendering an enemy’s space defense mode deficient, and providing a global coverage of information transmission which allows total area monitoring and more timely data management and dissemination of imagery.8

A recent analysis in The Economist extended that vision still further, projecting that “It is clear that small satellites will remain a niche market for some years, but it is equally clear that they are here to stay—and that their prospects can only improve.”9 That improvement will rest, to a large degree, on the maturation of microelectro-mechanical systems, fabricated using techniques developed in the semiconductor industry, which will multiply the efficiency and the effectiveness of small satellites. At that point, “prices of small satellites could be expected to tumble and performance to rise remorselessly as the market widened from government agencies to include companies and universities, and then wider still to include small communities and co-operatives, and finally to embrace even wealthy individuals.”10

For any such systems, the challenge will lie more with handling data than with putting hardware into space and keeping it there. Anyone building such a constellation would face the same issues of tasking, processing, exploitation, and dissemination (TPED) that have thus far defined the utility of national imagery systems in U.S. theater operations. However, any military force now setting about this course would have the advantage of starting with a clean sheet of paper, not needing to manage this data flow with organizations, processes, and technologies constructed for different purposes, as would the United States. In a sense, the maturation of microsatellites to full functionality would create a situation analogous to the development of the Dreadnought by Great Britain at the dawn of the last century. It would create the opportunity, for a nation able to master the technology and willing to make the investment, to bypass huge investments in infrastructure and start afresh with a new approach.

The full maturation of the small satellite will also rest on improvements in launch costs and responsiveness, neither of which appears imminent. It hardly matters how cheaply one can operate in space, if the expense of getting there is prohibitive. Nor is it possible to take full advantage of the rapid and flexible development cycles theoretically available to smaller satellites, if launch cycles remain as expensive, cumbersome, and inflexible as present technology dictates. American efforts over the past decade to develop reusable, responsive launchers have proven acutely disappointing, but the work done on propulsion, structures, flight software, and thermal protection has moved the world closer to the day when reusable systems, either single- or two-stage, could reduce launch costs significantly. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Space Launch Initiative, if it survives the intense budget pressures now besetting that agency, will move us closer still to that critical goal.

This is certainly an area where existing policies and responsibilities should be reviewed. The division of labor between NASA and the Department of Defense (DOD) outlined in the 1994 National Space Transportation Policy yielded the successful Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program. This initiative has met the more acute needs of the Armed Forces and commercial sectors for launch vehicles competitive on the world market and significantly less expensive to operate than legacy systems. But the arrival of competing Boeing and Lockheed-Martin launch vehicles later this year will mark the end of the pathway outlined in that policy. As we look toward the next decades of space operations, the national importance of moving ahead toward responsive, less expensive launch systems is clear, as is the importance of an effective NASA-DOD relationship in moving toward those systems.

The third trend tending to reduce the U.S. margin of superiority in space operations reflects the fact that in the world of military technology, every action eventually brings a reaction. America’s space forces have enabled the Nation to extend its military power to distant shores and to achieve information dominance even in operations on an adversary’s home terrain. However, those remarkable capabilities have created vulnerabilities that others will inevitably seek to exploit. America’s national strategy and style of warfare have necessitated a heavy reliance on space forces for connectivity, global capability, and real-time intelligence. Over the past decade, as the United States has proven increasingly successful at inserting space-derived data into theater decision and targeting chains, that reliance has grown. It is not a question of whether others will seek to exploit the vulnerabilities created by this movement; that has already begun. The questions are, rather, what form those challenges will assume and what responses are appropriate.

American Advantages and Obstacles to Exploiting Them

Given the trends noted above, it is likely that America’s margin of superiority will diminish over the coming decades. However, as we look toward that time, it is important to understand the strengths that America will bring to this competition in the world of space capabilities. First among these is the Nation’s long experience in space operations, which has created a vast pool of expertise among the thousands of men and women who have made this a space-faring nation. That long experience has rested on massive investments in space technologies and has yielded a balanced set of space capabilities and a broad technological lead over all competitors, most pronounced in the areas focused on military capability. Finally, those capabilities feed into a highly developed communications infrastructure and world-class information architecture, with synergistic effects among these three components.

Those advantages have been dissipated in the past by the fragmentation of the American space effort.11 The inefficiencies generated by the “stovepipes” separating the civil, intelligence, and military sectors, and further subdividing efforts within the sectors, have long been recognized. This recognition finally led to the review by the Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organization, generally known as the Rumsfeld Space Commission.

The Commission, and the subsequent implementing actions taken by Donald Rumsfeld as Secretary of Defense, aimed at rationalizing the management of the national security space program and enabling stronger advocacy of space within the Air Force and DOD as a whole. The major organizational adjustments taken since then have reached from the departmental level into the unified command chain and down to the component level, redefining the relationship between the Air Force Space Command and Air Force Material Command.

Given the time required for organizational adjustments to take hold and for programs to reflect management reforms, it will be some years before these changes yield improvements to operational capabilities. However, the actions taken to this point will, in time, measurably strengthen the integration of space programs across DOD and within the Air Force. At this point, four adjustments appear to be the most significant.

First, the Under Secretary of the Air Force has been assigned to be the Director of the National Reconnaissance Organization (NRO) and the Air Force Acquisition Authority for Space. Milestone Decision Authority for defense space programs has been delegated to this position through the Secretary of the Air Force. These changes will strengthen the relationship between the National Reconnaissance Office and the military space program and will help align the services’ space programs.

Secretary Rumsfeld directed the Secretary of the Air Force to assign a four-star officer separate from the Commander in Chief, U.S. Space Command (USCINCSPACE), as commander of Air Force Space Command (AFSPACECOM). He ended the requirement that USCINCSPACE be a flight-rated officer and opened the position to “an officer of any Service with an understanding of space and combat operations.”12 These changes will open the highest ranks of DOD space operations to career space experts, a development that will have both direct programmatic benefits and large payoffs in the morale of officers in the space career field. Equally important, these actions will enable an Air Force general to sit at the table as programmatic decisions are made within the service and will ensure that space capabilities and requirements are argued effectively.

The authority of the AFSPACECOM commander has been vastly strengthened by assigning to this position the responsibility for space research, development, and acquisition. Organizationally, this has required the realignment of the Space and Missile Center from the Air Force Material Command to the Air Force Space Command (a wrenching realignment for the career acquisition professionals affected by the move). Over time, if effectively executed, this move will establish the same powerful linkage of requirements definition-research with development-acquisition-operations that has characterized the NRO since its formation in 1961. The Commission also recognized the importance of strengthening the career tracks for space experts and so recommended that the commander of the Air Force Space Command assume responsibility for managing the space career field. In addition, a “soft Major Force Program (MFP)” has been created by directing the establishment of a tracking mechanism to “increase visibility into the resources allocated for space activities.”13

It will be some time before any concrete results become evident from these reforms. It will also be some time before they can be fairly assessed. At this point, two major issues are worth watching. First, the Commission stopped short of recommending the reestablishment of a National Space Council to manage space policy at the national level. Given that almost all space technologies and applications are dual use, it may prove necessary to look at this issue again in the near future to ensure a proper balance among commercial, industrial, and national security concerns. The ongoing struggles to rationalize the export control regime provide a clear example of the difficulties that the Nation has had in managing the balance, as well as the damage that can be done when decisions in this area are made on an ad hoc basis. Beyond refereeing among the requirements of the various sectors, such an organization could provide a powerful means of integrating their efforts and ensuring, for example, that budgets and research and development (R&D) efforts across the agencies are coordinated effectively.14

On a more mundane level, the workload imposed on the Under Secretary of the Air Force by these reforms seems nearly impossible to manage. Certainly some of the more traditional service roles played by past under secretaries will fall to others, and these new responsibilities will demand much more staff support than has been available to previous occupants of this position.

These reforms may be considered as a necessary but not sufficient foundation for further progress in military space. However rationally organized the bureaucracy, space capabilities will advance only at the rate fed by resources and the vision shared by senior leaders for the role of space forces within DOD. At the end of the road, the real measure of success is not just the internal efficiency of the military space effort, but its contribution to the joint team and its integration with all the elements of the joint force. The effects of the recent reorganization have been to centralize and concentrate space expertise. In a few years, it will be time to assess whether that centralization has contributed effectively to meeting the broader requirements of the commanders in chief (CINCs) and the Secretary of Defense.

Space: Things to Do Next

The importance of national security space forces from the first days of the space age through the Cold War can hardly be overstated. Bilateral strategic stability, crisis management, and finally arms control all rested on the capabilities created by space systems. While probably less critical, and certainly less well known, space forces also played a significant role in American theater capabilities as early as the Vietnam War. By the late 1960s, U.S. air commanders relied on satellite-based meteorological systems to plan their air operations and on geosynchronous communications satellites for connection with the national leadership.15

On the whole, though, strategic and national users were the primary customers of space forces through this period. This changed with the end of the Cold War and, more visibly, with the Gulf War in 1991. Suddenly, the contributions of space forces to theater operations became manifest to all, from the tank columns maneuvering across the desert, to the fighter pilots’ reliance on space forces for mission planning and weather data, to special forces’ use of space-based communications. But as this potential and this reliance became clear, so, too, did the distance remaining to be traveled before space capabilities could be considered truly integrated with U.S. theater forces.

As effective as space-based support to Desert Storm operations proved, this support was largely a result of heroic ad hoc adjustments, provided on the run as new requirements and opportunities appeared. Anecdotal examples of this adaptation include Army officers getting global positioning system (GPS) receivers from home for use in helicopters, the provision of missile warning data to theater forces, and the provision of overhead imagery outside established channels to meet theater timelines.16 Overall, this was a classic and near-perfect trigger event, displaying for all the utility of these systems and the work that remained to take full advantage of what they could do. That recognition established the work program that has guided space forces over the past decade.

The process has proven to be much more difficult and time-consuming than first estimated. While progress has been steady, and improvements have been evident from operation to operation since 1991, every after action report throughout this period has identified issues with the integration of space and theater forces that still demand improvement. Even as results are still forthcoming from the current operations, early reports indicate that this will be the case once again. This pattern represents a combination of causes: the inherent challenges of the task, the continuing expansion in expectations of theater users, and the initial underestimation of the challenge being the most dominant.

From an operational perspective, the reorientation of space forces has demanded a series of collateral improvements in those forces. These include fusion, timeliness, coverage, integration, dissemination, command and control, and survivability.


In general terms, the space forces that went to war in 1991 operated through a series of discrete information conduits, with system-unique sensors and communications pathways feeding a well-defined set of users. With the vision of information dominance established in Joint Vision 2010 and Joint Vision 2020Ť theater users now expect to operate within an “infosphere,” taking advantage of fused, correlated information, tailored to their own needs.17 Data derived and transmitted through space must be fused with that arriving from other sources to provide full utility to the users. The magnitude of this task will grow in the coming years as new space-based sensors entering the inventory create ever-larger quantities of sensor data.18


Until 1991, space forces focused largely on preconflict planning and intelligence. Their integration into theater operations demands that they operate on the same timelines as other theater forces and that operational tempo has been increasing rapidly over the past decade. The criteria for acceptable timeliness are shortening still further under the pressure of ongoing operations, as the United States focuses attention on means for attacking fleeting targets.


ýn 1991, black-and-white photographs represented the height of the aspirations for theater users. As capabilities have expanded, so too have expectations for a range of complementary sensors, enabling real-time coverage of the battlefield across a range of wavelengths and sensor technologies.


Space forces are just one of the array of capabilities available to the theater and must be integrated with other systems—manned, unmanned, aerial, and surface—to reach full potential. Through the first 30 years of the space age, little thought was given to the programmatic or operational integration of space systems with other elements of the Armed Forces. They were developed largely in isolation to meet specific needs. This is no longer feasible. Given the convergence in capabilities among UAVs, manned ISR systems, and space systems, these systems must be integrated in the program and in operations alike.


The well-defined, relatively narrow pipelines of data once characteristic of space forces are no longer adequate. As the user community has grown, so have the complexities and costs of getting the data to the right users at the right time. To some extent, meeting this requirement is a technical issue of bandwidth and systems integration. More broadly, though, getting information to the proper set of users has organizational and cultural implications that have proven more significant than expected at the outset of this new era in space operations.

Command and Control

As space capabilities have become more and more critical to an increasingly wide set of users, allocating and tasking space systems has become increasingly challenging. As space systems continue to advance—and the old lines dividing intelligence, surveillance, and targeting continue to blur—this competition for limited resources will continue and very likely intensify.


As space systems become an intrinsic part of the theater command and targeting architecture, they likewise become attractive targets for
adversaries seeking not to be targeted. Past exercises have indicated that space forces may in fact prove an Achilles’ heel for American forces. Unlike other theater forces, which are built to withstand attack and to degrade gracefully, space forces have not been—a situation that demands change.

Areas for Future Progress

Given this range of adjustments, it is hardly surprising that work has continued for the past decade with no end in sight. Already the integration of GPS data into weapons guidance has transformed the U.S. military into an all-weather precision strike force, creating unparalleled capabilities that have proven themselves in Afghanistan. More broadly, reports indicate that in ongoing operations, imagery has been piped directly to special forces units for tactical decisionmaking in real time. If accurate, this report marks the progress that has occurred in a relatively short time in transcending old organizational, doctrinal, and technical barriers. As recently as 1999, informed observers estimated that space force contributions to theater operations reached only 10 to 15 percent of their potential.19 It appears that space-based contributions across the range of theater operations have now gone far beyond that estimate.

The aim of integration is a transparent employment of space forces and manned and unmanned sensors, all feeding into a command system able to use the information for real-time decisionmaking and targeting. The Navy’s Network Centric Warfare concept, originating in the late 1990s, represented the first sustained movement in that direction; the Air Force is now working toward a similar construct.20 The role of space forces in that construct, in providing sensor data, connectivity, and precision navigation and timing, will be critical.

Further progress will be accelerated and guided by the specific lessons of current operations. One issue in defining further requirements will be extrapolating the lessons into more demanding environments. Not all future wars will feature a low-tech adversary, with no means to challenge U.S. control of the air or space, and with the operational tempo defined almost entirely by the Armed Forces. Too literal an extension of ongoing operations into future requirements would be a serious error.

Certainly, any more capable opponent would seek means of countering the information dominance that is central to U.S. combat capabilities. With America’s reliance on space to provide that dominance, it is essential that the United States ensures that space forces are survivable enough to withstand such a challenge. Already, GPS jammers are available on the open market, designed to deny GPS-guided weapons their guidance signals. Various antisatellite (ASAT) programs are reportedly in progress in the People’s Republic of China, fed both by old Soviet technology and indigenous developments. These reports have included everything from old co-orbital ASAT systems, to laser blinders, to parasitic microsatellites. All of these are technically feasible, and they represent only a portion of the range of options open to an adversary seeking to cut the chain of data derived and transmitted through space. Given the importance of space systems to the national information infrastructure, their protection is far more than a strictly military requirement.

With a few exceptions, notably the Milstar communications satellite, the United States has historically paid little attention to the survivability of its space systems. The need to do so now reflects the growing importance within the theater command structure and the proliferation of technology around the world. At present, the United States does not meet even the most basic of requirements for military operations: the ability to maintain situation awareness in the arena. The space surveillance system now in place was structured during the 1960s, “developed and optimized to meet the needs of the Soviet threat,” as noted by a recent Defense Science Board task force. Now, “the nation is faced with aging sensors, rapid growth in the number of nations with access to space, a loss of the intelligence information base, a declining space surveillance budget, and a growing U.S. dependence on space for national security.”21 This lack of situation awareness extends to the system level where “the nation currently has no means to determine whether national security space systems are under deliberate attack (‘purposeful interference’) or are experiencing some type of malfunction. Accurate knowledge of an attack is critical for developing appropriate and timely responses.”22

A better understanding of the threat environment will strengthen America’s ability to protect its space capabilities. While there is a broad range of theoretical modes of attack for those capabilities, the attention generally focused on the vulnerability of the space segments of U.S. systems is probably misdirected. From a mission perspective, the links and ground stations are more accessible to attack and probably an easier target than space systems. As with any military capability, there exists a broad menu of options that could be used to protect American space capabilities; these will be dependent on their role, orbital regime, and technological composition. Generalizations are impossible here, except to note that more attention must be given to survivability of these systems if they are to continue in their central role in U.S. theater capabilities. Too often in the past, survivability measures have been traded off for competing performance or cost considerations.

While looking toward protection of its capabilities, America must also build an effective denial capability. Already other nations are taking advantage of commercial space-based imagery systems for military purposes. All indications are that the use of space by other nations will broaden in the years immediately ahead.

Countermeasures will be complicated by factors unique to the space community. First, the problem will not be defined by hardware that can be counted but by the ability of others to gain access to space-derived information and then use it effectively within their forces. Traditional intelligence measures of merit will play a small role, and net assessments are almost meaningless in this context. Even if a clear understanding of the threats is possible, in many cases traditional means of countering them will be unavailable. The information will come from commercial systems, sometimes multinational, perhaps traveling via third parties—in short, difficult to track and difficult to counter. In many cases, as in the operation in Afghanistan, diplomatic and economic measures will be more effective than military counters. In this environment, realistic exercises exploring politico-military options will be important in defining American options for a crisis. Should nonmilitary measures prove unsuccessful, it will be important to have temporary, reversible attack options available to lower the threshold for employment. Over time, in any case, it will be necessary to have some kind of lethal option to protect the Armed Forces. The time to develop this option has arrived.

The critical challenge of building toward a space-denial capability probably is accounting for the complexity of the environment and planning for the range of options that will be necessary. It will be equally important for operators at all levels to understand the implications of this new global transparency and to account for it in doctrine, training programs, and contingency operations.

Now Coming over the Horizon

The array of competing requirements is likely to delay space programs for the near future. Over the longer term, though, the new strategic environment creates operational requirements that may well demand space solutions.

The virtues of constant surveillance, or persistence, have become clear to all and are at the heart of the drive toward more responsive targeting. In the Afghanistan campaign, with a permissive air-defense environment, UAVs and manned aircraft have provided the persistent surveillance necessary to meet theater requirements. Over the long run, though, a space-based system would provide both global capabilities beyond the reach of any practical force of air-breathing systems and coverage in a denied-access situation. It is unlikely that any space-based system could fully replace air-breathing platforms, but a constellation of satellites might relieve some of the operational tempo burden now placed on manned ISR aircraft. A space-based surveillance force would provide full-time coverage of selected areas, through the spectrum of peacetime, crisis management, and operational employment. Among the lessons being repeated in Afghanistan is that preconflict preparation is the key to effective battlefield intelligence; a space-based system would provide exactly that capability. It would also avoid the complications of basing rights and overflight requests for ISR assets and provide surveillance unobtrusively for any region necessary to meet national or theater requirements. Naval forces would find a space-based radar (SBR) system especially valuable, extending their standoff range and increasing targeting flexibility.23

DOD has explored SBR concepts over the past 5 years with a view toward providing this capability, most visibly in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)-NRO-Air Force Discoverer II program of the late 1990s. Discoverer II was designed to provide an advanced technology demonstration of space-based ground moving target indicator (GMTI) capability on the path to an affordable production system; the intent was to provide an operational capability for under $100 million per satellite and within a $10-billion program life cycle cost. The failure of the program to stay within its cost goals led to the demise of Discoverer II, but work on basic technologies has continued, and the Air Force has resurrected the program. The Air Force is exploring the tradeoffs among satellite capability, system architecture, and operational requirements, studying an array of low Earth orbit, medium Earth orbit, and mixed systems. The different constellation configurations raise different technology issues; electronically scanned antenna technology, onboard processing capabilities, and power generation are now considered the highest-risk elements. If the SBR concept is delayed, as seems likely due to budget pressures, the time made available for technology development in these areas could contribute to a lower-risk deployment later on.

It may be that the real challenges for SBR will lie more in TPED than in the space component of the system. The quantities of data available through this system will be staggering. They will make extremely heavy demands on bandwidth and on the terrestrial information infrastructure. The organizational issues may prove as difficult as the technical. As the system matures, it will be necessary to explore operational alternatives for tasking the system to satisfy the demands of the theater CINCs, SPACECOM, NRO, the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, and other mission partners. This movement toward a generation of low-flying, taskable systems will also move the world of military space to a whole new level of operational and technical complexity that will place heavy demands on planners and operators alike. Defining the operational and technical linkages among SBR, other sensors, and theater forces will also require careful thought.

The generation beyond this may see the operational advent of clustered systems: small satellites flying in formation, cooperating to perform the functions of a large “virtual satellite.” In principle, these could provide a flexible mix of passive and active sensors, reconfigurable while on orbit to meet new operational demands. They could provide the opportunity to field sparse-aperture systems that could provide staring electro-optical surveillance from geosynchronous distances. Alternatively, clustered microsats could provide a GMTI capability comparable to SBR.24

Coordinating the interactions of clustered satellites will demand a focused development effort. The U.S. military is just beginning to address these capabilities with the TechSat 21 cluster of three satellites scheduled for launch in 2003. Both DOD and NASA are exploring these technologies for applications, such as surveillance, passive radiometry, terrain mapping, navigation, and communications; certainly this would be an opportunity for cooperative development between these two agencies. These technologies will demand government-led development since commercial applications lie far in the future.

Weapons in Space?

Over this time horizon, the United States will face the longstanding question of whether it is strategically wise and militarily cost-effective to place weapons in space—a question that arose in the first days of the space age and has arisen recurrently since then. Despite all the various studies and development programs by the United States and Soviet Union, no nation has yet crossed that threshold, although the military has gotten successively closer to that line with weapons targeted by space systems and guided by GPS.25

Legal restrictions have played a role, but only a secondary one, in this outcome. The legal regime governing military space operations is permissive to a degree that surprises many new to the field, and the recent U.S. decision to abrogate the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty has further opened legal possibilities for development of space-based weaponry. In a larger sense, the existing legal framework reflects the judgment of the major powers that it has not been in their national interest to pursue space-based weaponry; that, on balance, strategic risks, technical issues, and military cost-effectiveness considerations ruled against pursuing this option. However, as the strategic environment evolves, military requirements change, and technology advances, these considerations will inevitably be readdressed.

Planners envision three mission areas in which space-based weaponry might provide necessary capabilities: terrestrial attack, antisatellite missions, and missile defense. From a technical perspective, three broad approaches have undergone study: kinetic weapons, delivery of conventional precision weapons, and directed energy weapons (most often radio frequency or laser).26

Kinetic weapons are generally studied in the form of tungsten or titanium rods to be released from orbit in clusters and directed against large fixed targets or for missile defense. If used for terrestrial attack, these would be limited to a vertical attack profile and so would be most suited for use against tall buildings, missile silos, hardened aircraft shelters, and the like.

Conventional weapons would reenter the atmosphere from orbit or a suborbital flight into a “basket” around the target and then use GPS or other precision guidance. The Air Force has discussed a version of this system in its Common Aero Vehicle (CAV) and may be developing the technology in the X-41A program. Details of this program are classified, but the Air Force describes it as “an experimental maneuvering reentry vehicle which carries a variety of payloads through a suborbital trajectory, reenters the Earth’s atmosphere, and safely dispenses its payload in the atmosphere.”27

Directed energy weapons would be capable of light-speed attack for either destructive or disruptive effects. This category offers the greatest technical challenges, most urgently in the areas of generating and directing the power necessary to achieve required effects within a spacecraft weight budget low enough for launch. The Air Force’s Space-Based Laser (SBL) program has continued work since the mid-1980s on these technologies and had been working toward a test mission launching in 2012. Recent reports indicate that the program is now undergoing a complete restructure and will return to component development with no plan for a flight test.28

The fate of the SBL program illustrates a long-term hurdle for the development of space-based weaponry. In the absence of a catastrophic trigger event, consensus behind the strategic utility and military requirement for space-based weapons will be very difficult to sustain through the extended development periods and the expense necessary to field these capabilities. In the absence of a triggering event, the standard incremental acquisition sequence leading to space weaponry is hardly conceivable.

Among these candidate technologies, it appears that the current balance of technical maturity and operational requirements most favors the development of conventional precision-guided weaponry. Depending on orbital geometry and the basing mode, these weapons could provide a very rapid response capability and an attack option that precludes effective defense. Against a highly capable adversary, these weapons might provide a leading-edge attack option to blunt the effectiveness of defending forces. They might provide the only effective counter to an opposing directed-energy weapon. Technology for reentry vehicles is now over 40 years old, and so the technical barriers to fielding this capability seem readily surmountable. Until launch costs fall dramatically, however, this will remain a prohibitively expensive way to attack surface targets.

The diplomatic and political costs of these capabilities would depend on the circumstances surrounding their deployment, and in particular whether they are viewed as a justifiable response to valid threats. From a narrower perspective, those issues will only become worth considering when standard measures of cost-effectiveness and mission requirements support the investments required. As this point nears, it will be necessary to consider the likelihood of an open arms race in space, as other nations look toward means of countering American systems.29

This range of options for exploitation of space 20 years hence changes fundamentally if there is a breakthrough in launch technology. If launch costs can be reduced and responsiveness improved, the possibilities for human exploitation of space expand beyond any horizon now envisioned.

Key Enablers of Space Technology

Just a few years ago, knowledgeable observers looked forward to the day, expected to arrive soon, when U.S. military space capabilities would be fueled by developments in the commercial market. Military space was expected to ride a wave of commercial technology and capabilities in a partnership of equals with the commercial sector.

That bright future never arrived and is now on indefinite hold. The expectations for a vast increase in the commercial use of space led to an expansion of capacity for both launch and satellite systems that now leaves the industry with massive overcapacity in both sectors. The wave of industrial consolidation of the past decade has left the space industry with an unhealthy combination of few firms, limited profit margins, shrinking capabilities through the supply chain, and keen competition for the few contracts still open for bid.30

These conditions demand attention if the United States is to preserve its capabilities in this sector and to sustain its ability to meet future requirements. Three related components must be addressed: adequate R&D funding; people with the expertise and energy to move the bounds of the possible still further; and the overall structure and capability of the industrial base.

Research and Development

Over the past decade, DOD cut space-related R&D funding, expecting that commercial pressures would drive developments that would then be available for national security purposes. Meanwhile, competitive pressures forced firms to focus R&D funding on near-term programs, choosing near-term survival over long-term possibilities. With everyone looking toward others to finance research, the technological lead enjoyed by the United States has eroded in launch, in remote sensing, in telecommunications satellites, and in systems integration. For the foreseeable future, DOD will get as much space technology as it is willing to fund. Capabilities will stagnate unless departmental funding permits programs to move beyond laboratory efforts to flight tests. There are also opportunities for close cooperation with NASA in developing next-generation sensors and launch technology. While the historical record of NASA-DOD cooperation is not very encouraging, neither agency has enough money to ignore opportunities for cooperation.


Sometimes termed the quiet crisis of the U.S. space program, workforce issues face the space community in every sector and every skill set. The community has evolved into a bimodal age distribution, with the wave of people who entered the space world during the glory days of the Apollo Program now on the verge of retirement. There is a serious demographic gap where their successors should be found. The problems range across the military, civil, and commercial space sectors, as more attractive opportunities open up in other industries. The acute pressures of a few years ago have been relieved, as people who had left the industry to seek their fortunes in the Internet startup world have drifted back. But over the long run, broader issues of job satisfaction and compensation will have to be faced to ensure that the right people remain in this community.

Industrial Base

The U.S. industrial base, ultimately the source of America’s national security space capabilities, has lost its global predominance, first in launch and later in satellite manufacture. Various factors have contributed to that result, including a decline in DOD procurement, the weak euro, and the export control regime that has been in place over the past few years. Despite frequent calls for a more rational approach to technology control, little practical improvement in licensing speed and flexibility is visible at this point. Improvements are pending; the question will be whether the damage done to American industry is reversible or whether the market shares forfeited by U.S. primes and subcontractors will remain overseas.

Despite the mixed results of earlier consolidations, it appears that this trend is nowhere near its end. The series of mergers of the past few years is credited with having improved productivity and honed the companies’ focus on customer satisfaction. Those advantages have come at the cost of considerable turmoil to the people involved, feeding the problems in the personnel area cited above. As noted by one observer, “the industry’s track record of integrating acquisitions has been abysmal and has failed to produce the synergies touted when transactions were announced.”31 These problems have been accentuated by the instability in government policies toward consolidation and trans-Atlantic cooperation. The Commission on the Future of the U.S. Aerospace Commission is now sorting through these issues, seeking to define the industrial capabilities needed to support U.S. national security needs and the policies required to secure those capabilities.32


The competition for funding over the next 5 to 10 years will probably delay the advent of major new space-based systems. Over that period, however, DOD should continue its efforts to integrate space forces more broadly into its terrestrial forces; lessons from ongoing operations will accelerate and guide that process. DOD must also move aggressively to ensure that its space forces retain necessary levels of survivability and that American situation awareness for space operations is adequate to understand this increasingly busy environment.

The Department of Defense can make good use of this time to buy down the risk in developing next-generation systems. In particular, the space-based radar offers significant strategic and operational capabilities. Clustered “virtual satellites” offer considerable operational potential, and focused development of these systems should continue. Throughout this period, DOD should take a stronger role in the development of next-generation launch technology than it has to this point, working in cooperation with NASA.

The United States now rests its national military capability largely on the information dominance made possible by space systems. In that light, the health of the industrial base that provides those systems is a real concern.


 1.  Inside the Air Force, January 4, 2002, 1. [BACK]

 2. See, for example, George Friedman and Meredith Friedman, The Future of War: Power, Technology, and American World Dominance in the Twenty-first Century (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1998). [BACK]
 3. See “Pentagon Seeking a Large Increase in Its Next Budget,” The New York Times, January 7, 2002, 1, for a partial list of service requirements for the 2003 budget. [BACK]

4. Jane’s Defence Weekly, January 2, 2002. General Jumper outlined his thoughts on the integration of air and space forces in a speech to the Air Force Association in Los Angeles, CA, November 16, 2001, accessed at <>. [BACK]

5. For a fine summary of global space capabilities, see Steven Lambakis, On the Edge of Earth: The Future of American Space Power (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2001), 142-174. [BACK]

6. Warren Ferster, “Persian Gulf Hot Market for Satellite Imagery,” Space News, August 27, 2001, 1, 28. [BACK]

7. Warren Ferster and Gopal Ratnam, “Gulf States Consider Buying Spy Satellite,” Space News, December 10, 2001, 1, 3. [BACK]

8. Quoted in Wei Long, “China to Launch Micro Imaging Birds,” Space Daily, November 20, 2000, accessed at <>. [BACK]

9. “A Bigger Role for Small Satellites?” The Economist 360, no. 8240 (September 22, 2001), 20-22. [BACK]

10. Ibid. [BACK]

11. For a more comprehensive discussion of the development and organization of the U.S. space effort, see Joshua Boehm, with Craig Baker, Stanley Chan, and Mel Sakazaki, “A History of United States National Security Space Management and Organization,” background paper supporting the Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organization. [BACK]

12. Secretary of Defense assessment of the Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organization, May 8, 2001, reprinted in Space Daily, May 8, 2001, accessed at <>. [BACK]

13. Ibid. [BACK]

14. See “Peters: Better Interagency Budget Work Needed for Aerospace,” Inside the Air Force, January 4, 2002, 2, for recent comments by members of the Aerospace Commission on this issue. [BACK]

15. Curtis Peebles, High Frontier: The U.S. Air Force and the Military Space Program (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1997), 44-57. [BACK]

16. David Spires, Beyond Horizons: A Half Century of Air Force Space Leadership (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1998), 243-269. [BACK]

17. Mark H. Linderman and Paul T. Webster, “The Joint Battlespace Initiative,” Technology Horizons 2, no. 2 (June 2001). [BACK]

18. Ibid. [BACK]

19. Barry Watts, The Military Use of Space: A Diagnostic Assessment (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Analysis, February 2001). [BACK]

20. Arthur K. Cebrowski and John J. Garstka, “Network-Centric Warfare: Its Origin and Future,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, January 1998, accessed at <>. General Jumper’s speech of November 16, 2001, offered a complementary vision from an Air Force perspective. [BACK]

21. Defense Science Board Task Force, “Space Superiority,” February 2000, 12-13. [BACK]

22. Ibid., 16. [BACK]

23. Norman Friedman, Seapower and Space: From the Dawn of the Missile Age to Net-Centric Warfare (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2000), recounts the Soviet and U.S. navies’ development of space-based solutions to their operational problems, focusing on over-the-horizon (OTH) detection and targeting. A space-based radar would further extend naval OTH capabilities, increasing the lethality of naval attack forces and decreasing their vulnerability to land based attack, continuing a trend that has shaped naval employment concepts since the 1960s. In pursuing those concepts, the U.S. Navy has played a remarkable role in developing the current range of space applications and technologies. Examples include the first signals intelligence (SIGINT) system (GRAB, orbited in 1960), the first navigation satellites (Transit, operational 1964), and the Clementine, used to prove the utility of small satellites in deep space exploration. [BACK]

24. Alok Das, “Choreographing Affordable, Next-Generation Space Missions Using Satellite Clusters,” Technology Horizons 1, no. 3 (September 2000), 15-16. [BACK]

25. A minor exception is the 23-millimeter cannon mounted on Soviet space stations for self-defense purposes. The USSR’s Polyus space station represented a far more significant attempt to field space-based weaponry as a counter to the Strategic Defense Initiative (“Star Wars”), but it failed to reach orbit during a launch attempt in 1987. See the Encyclopedia Astronautica, accessed at <>, for details. [BACK]

26. See Bob Preston et al., “Space Weapons Earth Wars” (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2001), for a complete discussion of weapons effects, key technologies, basing considerations, and possible pathways toward U.S. or foreign deployment of these weapons. Watts also explored these issues in Military Space. [BACK]

27. Quoted in Ben Iannotta, “Explaining X-planes,” Aerospace America 39, no. 11 (November 2001), 30. [BACK]

28. “Space Based Laser Activities Reduced Because Of Deep Funding Cut,” Aerospace Daily, January 4, 2002. William Martel, ed., The Technological Arsenal: Emerging Defense Capabilities (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 2001), includes three chapters exploring different applications of space-based lasers and the technical challenges that must be overcome. [BACK]

29. For opposing views on the wisdom of proceeding with space-based weapons, see Howell Estes’ speech, “National Security: The Space Dimension,” at the Los Angeles Air Force Association
National Symposium, November 14, 1997, accessed at <>; and John Logsdon, “Just Say Wait to Space Power,” Issues in Science and Technology, Spring 2001, accessed at <>. [BACK]

30. For more detail, see the Defense Science Board (DSB) Task Force report, “Preserving a Healthy and Competitive U.S. Defense Industry to Ensure Our Future National Security,” final briefing,
November 2000; and J.R. Harbison, T.S. Moorman, Jr., M.W. Jones, and J. Kim, “U.S. Defense Industry Under Siege—An Agenda for Change,” Booz-Allen Hamilton report, July 2000. [BACK]

31. Anthony L. Velocci, “Consolidation Juggernaut Yet to Run Its Course,” Aviation Week and Space Technology, December 3, 2001, 48-49. [BACK]

32. John Deutch, “Consolidation of the U.S. Defense Industrial Base,” Acquisition Review Quarterly, Fall 2001, 137-150. [BACK]




Table of Contents  |  Chapter Thirteen