The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

GPS satellite
GPS is just one example of military space systems facing threats both from jamming and other counterspace systems as well as from declining budgets. (credit: Boeing)

Protecting critical space capabilities from physical and fiscal threats

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“In the long haul our safety as a nation may depend upon our achieving space superiority. Several decades from now the important battles may not be sea or air battles, but space battles, and we should be spending a certain fraction of our national resources to ensure that we do not lag in obtaining space supremacy.”
– General Bernard Schriever address to the Astronautics Symposium in San Diego, February 19, 1957

Throughout history, the “high ground” has been viewed as a position from which one could dominate the battlefield. From Sun Tzu’s ancient Chinese warriors securing a hill, to Lee and Meade clashing over Culp’s Hill, Cemetery Hill, and Little Round Top at the US Civil War battle of Gettysburg, to the evolution of airpower after World War I, military leaders have moved aggressively to control the high ground. With few exceptions, whoever seized the high ground possessed strategic, operational, and tactical advantages. Soldiers on the high ground see farther and this enhances maneuvers, they move quicker downhill, and elevation helps give weapons greater range.

Space, like land, sea, and air, is a medium, not a mission. However, with its unique advantages, space can support many significant missions in a cost-effective fashion.

Today, space is this “high ground” and provides powerful advantages. Unfortunately, for the first time in many years, the current top five Air Force funding priorities do not contain any proposed space initiatives. In fact, we are seeing a desire within the service to scale back military space activities as part of its response to budgetary and ongoing, persistent operational pressures. Some even propose to reduce reliance on space capabilities. But, is this a good, or even a practical, idea?

Space, like land, sea, and air, is a medium, not a mission. However, with its unique advantages, space can support many significant missions in a cost-effective fashion. As a result, space systems are building blocks essential to the defense of our nation. The unique advantages provided by the ultimate “high ground” in coverage, persistence, and responsiveness satisfy vital 21st century warfighter needs for battlespace awareness; strategic missile warning and defense; communications (wideband, protected, and secure); navigation and timing; environmental monitoring; intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR); and highly integrated combat search and rescue.

In line with a new homily that “bullets win battles, information wins wars,” space systems help eliminate the fog of war by providing an unblinking eye over any areas of interest worldwide, 24/7/365. Space assets offer persistent views of the Earth and satellites have been fielded that see deep into an adversary’s territory. This provides a rich environment for users to exploit information technology and network-centric warfare by enabling real-time global collection and dissemination of information. With a full set of navigation and timing, imaging, signals, and electronic information provided by spacecraft, analysts can rapidly ascertain and fix adversary orders of battle and provide precision targeting, plan precise kinetic strikes, and then begin battle damage assessment as the strikes commence. Thus far, this has been done with little risk to humans or machines.

While the US has opened space up to the world, and proved its great advantages, this has also made space congested, contested, and competitive. No doubt, the United States is more dependent on space than any other nation, and with this significant dependence, space systems will be a high priority target in a conflict. However, these important capabilities are now placed at risk, not by just by physical threats—intentional and unintentional—but also by the present budget environment. Space missions must respond to both critical physical and budgetary threats simultaneously.

There is currently in place a two-year budget deal that mitigates the impacts of sequestration for this period. However, those two years will pass by quickly, and we will again be confronted by these cuts. The Air Force has begun looking at increasing affordability and resiliency of our space systems. Back when the US and Russia dominated space, developing and deploying space systems were very expensive. In those early days, success was not assured. Still, with consistent investment and significant funding, the US successfully captured the lead in pioneering the domain, and drove down its risks and failures to low levels.

The US has showed the rest of the world that it can leverage the huge advantages provided by space, but it still has not achieved perfection. Producing small quantities of large expensive systems, with few program resources left available to acquires spares, means that these constellations suffer from a lack of resiliency. Visionaries now argue that acquisition strategies that stress development and fielding of smaller, lower cost, more numerous systems, with spares, can best satisfy synergistic mission, resiliency, and cost needs. As a result, Air Force Space Command (AFSPC) has begun numerous initiatives to reduce the cost of space systems, while increasing responsiveness, agility, flexibility, and the speed of technology insertion. The organization hopes to secure these results by disaggregating missions, shortening system design life, and using commercial buses, both for dedicated spacecraft and commercial rideshares.

Any program with significant funding today will be critically scrutinized, as the US Air Force faces critical resource decisions. It must decide how to continue funding critical space capabilities for our national security and civilian community, yet still respond to the pressures demanded by ongoing sequestration-related budget reductions. As such, the Air Force needs to answer several important questions. How should it:

  • Respond to proposed across-the-board double-digit reductions in the military space budget and continue to sustain all its critical capabilities?
  • Assess if missions from space should be accomplished in other mediums?
  • Assure the affordability of national security space systems?
  • Retain the asymmetric advantages of its space systems?

Resisting across-the-board budget cuts in space

The US, our allies, and partners depend on military space systems. Over the years, the DoD and Air Force have conducted many war games and exercises to confirm this. Maybe the most attention-getting was a “Day without Space” exercise. During the Day without Space, the Air Force concluded that the consequences of not having space capabilities are unacceptable, especially in terms of meeting war fighting requirements. This is largely because space capabilities have migrated from a minimal force enhancement role into a complex integrated combat support role. In fact, the United States developed its space capabilities precisely because many requirements cannot be met cost-effectively through other means. But will they be there when they are needed?

The DoD has already moved to dramatically cut force structure in total numbers because of the overwhelming information advantages presented by space systems. The information allows for precision and maneuver that, in turn, has dramatically increased US combat capabilities in the face of other resource reductions. If this information (much of which is derived from or transported by space capabilities) is done away with, commanders will be left without sufficient supporting information system needed to achieve warfighting objectives.

To cut space systems significantly would likely mean significantly scaling back, or ending entirely, a certain space mission. What mission can we afford to end? Precision navigation and timing? Protected, secure communications? Missile warning and defense? ISR? Weather? It is difficult, if not impossible, to make large-scale cuts in space without totally eliminating a capability or mission area. Once deployed, space capabilities operate 24/7. When a space capability is fielded, designers plan only for the number of satellites necessary to provide the required coverage, persistence, and responsiveness. Eliminating satellites significantly impacts the fielded capability it was designed to meet. Even a partial cut to a program significantly impacts delivered capabilities.

Space missions, while not inexpensive, are not a huge portion of existing national or military budgets.

Moreover, one cannot dial back incrementally on space systems in any fashion comparable to that which can be done by the military flying community. Space operators cannot park spacecraft at the end of the flight line. Space operators cannot simply cut back or reduce flight time. That is, we either operate the satellites, or not. So, any flexibility to simply scale back on spacecraft operations is limited. Of course, some satellites are retained as on-orbit backup spares at the end of their planned life. But those spares usually have impaired capabilities or other defects, explaining why they have been converted to backups. Now, with years of austerity, fewer and fewer systems are retained as spares, and what little flexibility there was is gone.

We have already seen the military space budget take a significant, if not devastating, cut to its space-based weather mission. The decades-old Space Fence has been closed. These decisions are in the process of precipitating significant effects. It is unlikely that the US can truly afford cuts other space missions given how our forces have come to rely on these capabilities.

Can missions from space be accomplished in other mediums?

The ultimate high ground of space provides strategic advantages of coverage, persistence, and responsiveness for 21st century warfighters. Spacecraft perform their missions oblivious to terrestrial geographic boundaries. US systems have led the way for the span of missions performed, and they are integral to every element of US national power. Regardless of the location that is at issue, and whether it is an adversary or a natural disaster, space is first in the arena. It is there, persistent, and can be collecting information that will allow the US to develop an intelligent response.

Space systems enable the United States to cost-effectively bring its political and military power to bear with only a small international and in-theater footprint. In general, to attempt to accomplish these missions within other mediums is either not achievable or very expensive. The worldwide coverage needs for navigation result in a space-based constellation as the only reasonable global solution. There could be regional solutions accomplished in other fashions, but a global solution demands space. Performing ISR missions when confronted with anti-access systems or geographic limitations demand space-based solutions, as demonstrated during the Cold War shootdowns of the U-2 and other surveillance aircraft during in the 1950s and ’60s. While fiber has made high-speed communications readily available in many locations, only space can provide truly global coverage. Space-based communication will continue to expand, limited only by bandwidth allocations, and laser technologies have the potential to enable operators to burst past those limitations.

Assuring the affordability of military space systems

Space missions, while not inexpensive, are not a huge portion of existing national or military budgets. We spend real measurable dollars on providing space capabilities, and there is certainly a drive to get the costs of these capabilities down, especially during this time when nothing is exempt from budget cutting and belt tightening. Today, sequestration-driven budget cuts, combined with limitations on what is allowed to be cut, has created a perfect storm for the world of space acquisition, operations, and sustainment. For the current fiscal year, the unclassified military space budget is just a little over $8 billion, a 22 percent cut from the previous year, and next year’s budget would cut more than another half a billion dollars. However, since it supports the other warfighting domains that heavily leverage space, a dollar invested in space pays out 10 to 1 in the impact it has on land, sea, and air investments.

While the space budget is merely a small part of the Air Force Total Obligation Authority (TOA), some frequently argue that space is too expensive. Those arguments are familiar. Those of us with a long memory recall that some tried to cancel the nascent GPS system back in the ’70s and ’80s, arguing that it was a waste of resources. Mark Twain, if quoted correctly, was right when he said, “History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” Certainly, it is not easy to argue that spacecraft systems are not expensive. From the perspective of total for core functions, based on numbers from the 2013 Program Objective Memorandum (POM), however, space, at 9 percent, is in 4th place behind Agile Combat Support (29 percent), Global Mobility (15 percent), and Global Precision Attack (15 percent). It’s ahead of Air Superiority (7 percent), Global ISR (7 percent), Command and Control (6 percent), Nuclear Deterrence Operations (5 percent), and Cyber (4 percent).

The current space architectures supporting the DoD consist of expensive multi-purpose satellites. Since they are expensive, this means that only small constellations can be fielded, with each satellite designed and built to support multiple needs, with long development time lines and high costs, making them difficult to replace. Because of these high costs, few spares are built. This makes it virtually impossible to quickly replace lost, damaged, or defective satellites. The troubling result is that our capabilities are concentrated in too few satellites. This is a significant vulnerability.

As a steward of military space, AFSPC has moved to identify approaches to avoid billions of expenditures on space systems while increasing resiliency, flexibility, agility, and increasing technology insertion by disaggregating constellations. Some of these proposals demand near-term investment to realize success. AFSPC has begun to discuss ideas of disaggregating systems, to provide resilience where it makes sense; shortening system life to allow technology infusion and decrease cost and schedule risk; moving some spacecraft processing capabilities to the ground; driving designs away from unique systems architectures to open systems that are better able to share data; and significantly shortening the development cycle of space systems.

Just as the current space environment has become congested, contested, and competitive, the air battlespace during World Wars I and II suffered from similar attributes and challenges.

It also makes great sense to take advantage of the robust commercial space industry. Using commercial buses as dedicated platforms can significantly reduce the costs and schedules required for military space systems. The DoD would not have to sustain these manufacturing lines, and can allow market pressures to drive technology advantages. The DoD could also use commercial rideshares, or hosted payloads, where missions and security permits. As demonstrated on the Commercially Hosted Infrared Payload (CHIRP) program, this brings significant cost savings. The added benefit of exploiting commercial buses is that the DoD can then focus on the critical portion of payload design and development.

In addition, AFSPC has been working hard to drive down the cost of launch, something that has traditionally been an intractable challenge since more launches are generally needed to secure the economies of scale needed to support spacelift innovation and recoup investment in those technologies. Ultimately, as the Air Force lowers costs of the space segment, and greater numbers of spacecraft are built, this could help drive down the cost of launch even further.

Retaining the asymetric advantage of space in a conflict

Just as the current space environment has become congested, contested, and competitive, the air battlespace during World Wars I and II suffered from similar attributes and challenges. As the skies became contested in each war, adversaries worked hard to devise increasingly sophisticated methods to shoot down opposing aircraft. This, in turn, led to the development of improved air and counter-air capabilities fielded by the combatants. However, the value of the medium made it critical to achieve and maintain “Air Superiority” through various offensive and defensive approaches, underpinned by superb airspace awareness. No matter where one wants to operate, whether on land or sea, in the air or cyberspace, or in space, if the domain provides an advantage, it will be contested.

Current US space systems are held at risk by a variety of environmental phenomena and intentional threats. Several on-orbit collisions have occurred and they have generated huge debris clouds that can threaten orbiting systems. China and the former Soviet Union have demonstrated the ability to kinetically attack and destroy space systems. In 2007, China shocked the world when it successfully destroyed an orbiting weather satellite. The event confirmed what we already knew: destroying a satellite through kinetic means can create massive debris clouds that can accidentally damage or destroy their own satellites. The US reached the same conclusion in the 1980s.

Given the asymmetric advantages the US has reaped from space systems, one can assume that other nations, including China, Russia, and others, are pursuing alternative methods to selectively inhibit satellite performance with techniques involving jamming, cyber technologies, and possibly lasers. Some press reports indicated that, late last year, China successfully tested a satellite with a robotic mechanical arm that could be used to attack or alter the orbit of other satellites: truly, a troubling development. Also, and perhaps a more likely threat, several potential and actual adversaries have demonstrated the ability to jam or spoof our space systems.

AFSPC is responding to these threats by moving to implement more resilient architectures for its next generation of space systems. To assure its access to space and to deter potential adversaries, AFSPC has pursued a “Space Superiority” goal. This goal has been to assure freedom of action in space for US assets and to encourage the peaceful use of space by all commercial entities and nations, but, if necessary, to also deny an adversary’s space capabilities when they are a threat to US and allied lives and interests.

No doubt space defense and satellite protection is an arena where security is justifiably tight. I, for one, am confident that the US is developing the necessary systems needed to assure space capabilities are there when needed, and that it can move to negate space capabilities that threaten our troops. The ability to effectively counter the threats to our space systems is underpinned by space situational awareness (SSA) systems. SSA systems can provide the “eyes and ears” of friendly, neutral, and potentially hostile global space activity. Without SSA, space operators may be unaware of space activities that can jeopardize their systems. Robust SSA enables operators to understand adverse environmental conditions such as space weather, to know where space adversaries are, to predict foreign space operations, and to determine appropriate responsive courses of action to resolve threats or risks.

SSA includes finding and tracking space objects, identifying links and nodes, and characterizing the intent of space systems. Defensive counterspace (DCS) operations can provide for the protection for our nation’s space power, deterring and defending space systems from enemy attack with active or passive means. Flexible DCS options can reduce the threat to space systems with hardened satellite systems, anti-jam components, elimination of ground jammers, frequency-hopping and spread-spectrum signals, on-orbit maneuvers to evade hostility, and resiliency of our systems. Offensive counterspace (OCS) operations provide the capability to selectively negate an adversary’s space capability (ground segment, satellite, or signal) when it poses a threat to our national interests.

Without a significant commitment to defending one the most important and cross cutting military domains, the US will be at a considerable disadvantage in a future military action.

Disaggregation will definitely help space constellations be more resilient, creating larger numbers of systems, with lower costs allowing sparing (ground and potentially on-orbit), and allowing more affordable and timely reconstitution. But, ultimately we will have to defend the high ground of space. SSA is clearly a critical aspect of anything we will do, and OCS and DCS will allow future control of the environment. However, if nothing is done, declining budgets will adversely affect SSA, DCS, and OCS efforts.

Concluding thoughts

Where does this all leave us?

  • Space is critical. Space provides unique advantages in coverage, persistence, and responsiveness. It supports activities both regionally and globally, and it supports all services and mediums (sea, air, and land.) Since the other warfighting domains leverage space, a dollar invested in space pays out 10 to 1 in the impact it has on land, sea, and air investment.
  • While not inexpensive, the value of space systems is very high, and with their support on air, sea, and land, their value has a high multiple in support across the warfighting domains. We must reduce costs in the future, but that requires some investment today.
  • Missions that are done from space are done there for a reason: there is no other practical, affordable way to do them.
  • There are monumental challenges and threats to our space systems: active threats from adversaries, both electronic and kinetic, reversible and irreversible; accidental threats from a congested environment and large amounts of space debris; and fiscal threats from looming budget challenges.

To solve these problems, we need to:

  • Ultimately reduce the cost of space systems, and make space and the movement to disaggregated systems one of the top five Air Force priorities.
  • Advance our SSA capabilities, supported by OCS and DCS systems.
  • Move to disaggregation for smaller systems, with shorter lifetimes, increase launch frequency to drive down the cost of launch, increase technology insertion, allow for a robust spares program, provide for rapid reconstitution, and increase constellation sizes, all to increase resiliency and affordability.

Some have suggested that the Air Force or DoD look at other means to accomplish the missions it currently performs in space. That is easier said than done. As one tries to find other means of doing missions from locations other than space, we are reminded that there are reasons these missions are performed in space: there is really no cost effective alternative to them. When a mission demands worldwide coverage, it can only be done from space. When persistence over large areas is required, this can only be done from space.

While certainly not low cost, space systems provide cost-effective building blocks essential to the defense of our nation. The consequences of not having space capabilities are unacceptable in terms of meeting our military war fighting requirements. Yes, space is becoming contested, congested, and competitive. However, like we did in the air domain decades ago, we can develop systems and strategies to mitigate these threats. AFSPC is already moving forward with a future of disaggregation, resiliency, and lower cost single-purpose systems. This is a strong first step in overcoming the threats to our space systems.

Budget reductions for the DoD should be considered a fact of life for the future. AFSPC, like other organizations, have already cut some systems and reduced spending significantly, and the dangers of proposing further space systems budget reduction which may deny warfighters critical combat support capabilities and, as a consequence, put warfighter needs at risk. For decades now, US space systems have proven themselves to be a critical resource to military operations and civil activities. Budget cutters will not find it easy to slash space system costs without sacrificing vital missions. It will not be a good idea to cut military space mission since it is not likely we can find suitable or affordable alternatives.

Without a significant commitment to defending one the most important and cross cutting military domains, the US will be at a considerable disadvantage in a future military action. While cuts to all military missions are inevitable while Sequester remains in place. If we are to retain the asymmetric warfighting advantages provided by the Space domain, investments should be at least in the top five of the Air Force priorities. Future space capabilities can be made more resilient to emerging threats through disaggregation and other approaches, along with development of appropriate SSA, DSC and OSC capabilities.

Finally, modest investment in the near term can realize lower cost systems and develop the necessary situational awareness and protection capabilities to counter emerging threats, providing resilient and affordable space capabilities.