The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Early MOL illustration
Elements of the US Air Force have long been attracted to grandiose military applications of space, such as this early concept for the Manned Orbiting Laboratory. (credit: NASA)

General Power vs. Chicken Little

“[The] Basic strategic space requirement is for a manned strike force that is highly survivable, capable of sustained operation, independent of Earth support during periods of hostilities, subject to assured positive command and control at all levels of operations before, during, and after initial strike, and capable of delivering weapons with precision and discrimination in the face of any conceivable defense in the period under question.”
“… In addition, the requirement for a high degree of survivability implies self defense weaponry and massive shielding beyond that required for protection from natural radiation.”

General Tommy Power wrote that in 1962 in a secret telex explaining why the Air Force needed a manned spacecraft propelled into orbit by nuclear bombs exploded underneath it—fighting its way into space the whole time. Power was in charge of Strategic Air Command, and the Orion space battleship was obviously not approved, either by his bosses on the Air Staff or the Secretary of Defense. However, that kind of overheated warrior rhetoric has always existed in the US Air Force when it comes to space programs. A small segment of the Air Force space leadership has always been in favor of unrealistic space weaponry, but is rarely able to convince anybody at higher levels that it is necessary.

Unfortunately, a lot of people outside of this community fall for the rhetoric with regularity. The press reports these speeches and the occasional wild study as if they represent real Pentagon plans. Conservatives believe that if an Air Force general states the need for an anti-satellite weapon or an expensive piece of hardware it must be vital. Moreover, so-called “peace and justice” groups claim that the sky is falling and that we are about to enter the era of space militarization. The gulf between rhetoric and reality is filled with a lot of clueless people.

Military space ambition

One could assemble a pretty neat comic book containing all of these over-ambitious, unaffordable, or just plain unnecessary military space weapons systems that Air Force generals have insisted were vital to preserving democracy.

The US Air Force has a long and vivid history of advocating ambitious space projects. General Homer Boushey declared in 1958 that we needed to put nuclear missiles on the Moon in order to serve as the ultimate deterrent (they would nuke the commies three days after the war was over). The Air Force was soon studying plans for a permanent military lunar base, which in 1960 space advocates rather optimistically predicted would cost less than half as much as the entire Apollo program ended up costing for just six Moon landings. General Curtis LeMay wanted an Aerospaceplane that would fly into space to perform military missions. Later he and General Power wanted the X-20 Dyna-Soar spacecraft. By the mid-1960s, other Air Force generals flacked the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) with its massive reconnaissance camera and a suite of sensors. After MOL’s demise, some Air Force officers set their sights on acquiring their own space shuttle—although both the Dyna-Soar and MOL experiences had soured much of the leadership on manned space programs. During the 1980s the various generals who ran Air Force Space Command wanted a Space Based Wide Area Surveillance System, which was supposed to serve as a giant air battle management system in orbit, capable of monitoring an air war against the Warsaw Pact or Soviet bombers flying toward the United States. Artist illustrations depicted this spacecraft, with a rectangular radar antenna bigger than a football field, hovering over the earth. Soon after the Persian Gulf War in 1991, General Charles Horner insisted that the United States needed a rapid launch capability, even though its satellites were not suited to rapid launch. That claim has been repeated by several of Horner’s successors.

In fact, one could assemble a pretty neat comic book containing all of these over-ambitious, unaffordable, or just plain unnecessary military space weapons systems that Air Force generals have insisted were vital to preserving democracy. But the hidden story behind all of these plans is that over a period of time support for space programs, particularly space weapons, faded from the upper echelons of the Air Force.

The loudest advocates remained the leadership in Air Force Space Command. Perhaps not surprisingly, much of this advocacy came from officers with relatively little experience in space operations, a result of the way that the Air Force treats spaceflight in its ranks. Horner, for instance, was a fighter jock who ran the Gulf War air campaign. When he was sent to US Space Command he still thought in terms of weaponry, not the many complex and important support roles that space served. Others have done the same.

Recently the New York Times ran a front page article about the Department of Defense seeking White House approval for a new generation of “offensive and defensive space weapons.” The Times article mentioned several of these, including a space-to-ground laser, and an idea nicknamed “Rods from God,” a satellite that would carry long tungsten rods that could be dropped from orbit to smash into targets at high velocities. In order to strike targets around the globe, a constellation of these weapons and their targeting sensors would have to be placed in orbit.

The core of the Times article is true—the DoD is seeking a revised national space security strategy document. After all, the last one was produced in 1996 and predates such things as the development of a (semi) robust commercial remote sensing industry and microsatellite technology, and changes in the international launch market. But the reporter, Tim Weiner, made a classic mistake of equating military space hyperbole—usually expressed by Air Force space officers—with real plans. Both space-based lasers and “Rods from God” are not going to become operational space weapons in the next several decades, and possibly not ever.

There were some other mistakes in the Times article as well, the most notable being the reporter’s claim that the XSS-11 satellite has the potential to be an anti-satellite vehicle. That is not what it was designed nor intended for, but the inability to differentiate between a line in a speech or a speculative (and perhaps badly-researched) study and real plans was the article’s biggest flaw, although not terribly surprising.

The rhetorical space program

Military space historians will tell you that there are two national security space programs: the regular military space program, primarily led by the Air Force and consisting of missile warning, communications, navigation, and weather satellites; and the intelligence space program, run by the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and consisting of reconnaissance, signals intelligence, and similar satellites. (Contrary to popular myth, the National Security Agency does not operate satellites.)

A former civilian Air Force Chief Scientist once remarked that one of his jobs consisted of serving as a reality check for goofy proposals from Air Force Space Command, like using lasers to blow up tanks.

To this, though, we might add a third category, the rhetorical military space program. This has consisted of speeches and papers by a few Air Force generals advocating the development of various pie-in-the-sky plans, often involving space weaponry. The problem is that most of the programs in rhetorical military space do not abide by the laws of physics, few of them abide by the laws of bureaucratic and international affairs, and none of them abide by the laws of fiscal reality.

Generals have been advocating these kinds of projects since the beginning of the space age, usually from Air Force space outposts in places like Omaha or Cheyenne Mountain or Colorado Springs. But the proposals never survive very long when they reach Washington, DC. A former civilian Air Force Chief Scientist—whose job placed him on the senior uniformed Air Staff at the Pentagon—once remarked that one of his jobs consisted of serving as a reality check for goofy proposals from Air Force Space Command, like using lasers to blow up tanks.

Then there are the ASAT proposals. The United States has built ASATs in the past. So did the Soviet Union. But it turns out that the justification for ASATs has never been as good as their advocates claim. They cost a lot of money and the number of targets for them has always been relatively low. The cost-benefit ratio was never very good. One of the many myths in military space history is that Congress and arms control advocates killed the F-15 ASAT weapon developed by the Air Force in the 1980s. The reality was that the weapon had only limited utility and cost an incredible amount of money—and the Air Force never really wanted it.

But this long-standing pattern, this disconnect between the speechmakers and the budgeters and operators, is not something that the general media understands when it reports about military space. They equate a speech and an occasional viewgraph with actual plans and hardware, never bothering to look for a line item in the budget, or to actually call up a source. The programs that the Times article refers to are nothing but fantasies, and connecting them to a policy process is misleading. This is not the first time that the New York Times has fallen for inflated space weapons rhetoric. In August 2001 the Times Magazine ran an article by Jack Hitt that mentioned the possibility of blowing up hydroelectric dams with lasers. This is possible for Godzilla, but not the US Air Force. Hitt fell for the rhetoric and never bothered to check it.

Believing the rhetoric

The media is not the only group that believes the rhetoric. Both advocates and opponents of space militarization do as well.

The conservative press occasionally advocates various space weapons programs, usually in op-ed articles in newspapers like the Washington Times or on websites. Sometimes their arguments are tied to a perceived threat, like the increase in Chinese space operations. More often they are linked to discussions of missile defense. They are quick to latch on to calls for space weapons issued by “the warriors,” i.e. the generals at Space Command. They often seem unaware that many of these military space programs are opposed by other warriors in other parts of the military.

Another group that falls for the rhetoric is the “peace and justice” crowd which is better known in space circles for their opposition to the use of nuclear power for space missions. If you look at their websites or their literature, they issue dire warnings about the impending “militarization” of space. However, virtually all of their examples are taken not from existing space systems, but from Air Force speeches. These groups recently held two conferences on the subject of space weaponization, one in Virginia and another in New York City, where they hyperventilated about the Air Force’s discussion of “full spectrum dominance” and “space supremacy.”

Real military space programs with real problems get ignored, both by the general media and the public.

The Pentagon—and NASA—are lucky that these “peace and justice” groups are generally inept and not very effective, even though they occasionally get on television complaining about space nuclear power. They understand remarkably little about how the military operates in space. Their habit of equating the civilian space program with the military one, such as claims that the nuclear batteries (RTGs) used on the Cassini Saturn probe were somehow military in nature, essentially excludes them from any legitimate discussion of these subjects. Surprisingly, in the past few years they appear to have cleaned up their language a bit, recognizing the difference between space militarization, and space weaponization (although they are opposed to both). But their own propaganda can seem as breathless and hysterical as the military’s machismo.

The real space problem

There is actually a social cost to this misdirected focus on space weapons. Real military space programs with real problems get ignored, both by the general media and the public. Several expensive American military space programs are currently in extremely bad shape. The Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) missile warning program is hundreds of percent over-budget and years behind schedule. Several spy satellite programs have also experienced extreme cost overruns. A search of the New York Times in the media search engine Lexis-Nexis for the past ten years turned up only one article on the SBIRS cost overruns, and this for a program that is expected to cost over $11 billion. A search for space weapons turned up dozens of hits. SBIRS exists, space weapons do not, but the Times shows more enthusiasm for the fantasy than the reality.

It is because of these overruns that Congress no longer has any faith in the Air Force when service leaders propose new space projects with ambitious technological goals such as Space Radar and the T-Sat communications satellite. But neither the press nor the “peace and justice” crowd gets very upset about that. They should. We all should.