The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

GPS satellite
Few people argue about using space-based assets, like GPS navigation satellites (above), for supporting military operations, so why not place weapons there as well? (credit: Boeing)

Orbital strike constellations: the future of space supremacy and national defense

“Victory smiles upon those who anticipate the changes in the character of war, not upon those who wait to adapt themselves after the changes occur.”
– Gulio Douhet

The idea that space should be a sanctuary free of weapons and combat is prevalent in certain circles. However, we should place more emphasis on developing the plans necessary to defend America from and in space. This essay proposes we develop a prompt global strike capability from space, using constellations of orbital strike platforms, and shows why this idea is important in determining the success or failure in future wars.

Space power seems to be, in the words of Gregory Billman, “stymied as a purely supporting force, with no aggressive trend toward realizing greater independent military potential”. Orbital bombardment systems have been discussed since the beginning of the Space Age. One of the perceived threats posed by the launching of Sputnik in 1957 was the potential for an orbiting object to carry nuclear weapons and target any base in the world in a very short time without being able to defend against it. Both the United States and the Soviet Union did research on orbital bombardment systems. However, the United States never really put much effort into that research or potential deployment. That attitude still prevails today for several reasons, some political, others based on traditional visions.

Space power seems to be, in the words of Gregory Billman, “stymied as a purely supporting force, with no aggressive trend toward realizing greater independent military potential”.

Why do we seem to have such a negative attitude toward the deployment of orbital bombardment groups? Again, we go back to the launch of Sputnik in 1957 when the Eisenhower administration wanted to find a policy that would answer the Soviet launch. Donald Quarles, then Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research and Development, believed the Russians unintentionally helped our strategic position by establishing the concept of freedom of international space. He believed that this idea, known today as “Sanctuary” theory, was critical to US intelligence gathering in space. Also, it would alleviate political implications and possible fears of starting a war with the Soviets. Since the end of the Cold War, we have adhered to the policy of freedom of space since our space assets have not been threatened by any other spacefaring nation. This policy, while good intentioned, may be a weakness in the future of American security. Many nations, namely the Chinese and the Russians, have formed separate military space services and have stated their intentions to push out into space and to challenge current American space superiority.

Regardless of how controversial these space weapons platforms may be to countries such as China or Russia, these weapons can and should be developed. According to Lt Col John M. Amrine’s paper “Command of Space,” “…the US needs to face three realities. First, the US has an enormous investment in space that continues to grow. Second, space weapons typically have a long development cycle and third, the nation’s ability to control space is severely limited.” If we do not develop space weapons now, and field them sooner rather than later, the US will have limited options for responding to an attack.

Our space assets are vulnerable. As General Lance Lord, former Commander of Air Force Space Command, stated at the Air Force Association’s National Symposium in November 2005, “Some would say we are not threatened in space, I want to disabuse everybody of that argument.” The general also said that we “cannot assume that space is benign and that we’ll never be challenged in that environment.” As a temporary means of guarding our space assets, Lt Col Amrine proposes to deploy terrestrial-based weapons that can have a wide variety of capabilities to deny space based threats. I agree with that as a starting point, but waiting until the threat becomes “more apparent” may be too late and may invite the “Space Pearl Harbor” that Col Amrine and the Space Commission members want to prevent. We need only look to recent history and the September 11, 2001 attacks to see that waiting for threats to become more apparent could result in thousands of American deaths and massive destruction in our cities.

What are the advantages of space-based attack constellations? One is that of persistent global presence, using the aforementioned freedom of international space. One researcher notes, “Constellations orbit without violating national sovereignty, having freedom of overflight. Three satellites in geosynchronous orbit can observe most of the surface of the Earth, minus the poles.” He also states that twenty-four navigation satellites in medium orbit provides surface users visibility of three or more satellites at a time. This is called virtual presence since the vehicles are mostly out of sight and unperceivable from the ground. Col Fredriksson states that this virtual presence would be substantial for basing weapons in space as well as facilitating nearly instantaneous global response. He calls it “strategic agility” whereby we could strike rapidly, over global distances with appropriate capabilities.

Our nation is dependent on space assets for everything from battlefield communication to direct-to-home TV. Why wait to defend our interests in space and on Earth with space-based defenses? Billy Mitchell stated, “National safety would be endangered by an air force whose doctrine and techniques are tied solely to the equipment and processes of the moment. Present equipment is but a step in progress, and any air force that does not keep its doctrine ahead of its equipment, and its vision far into the future, can only delude the nation into a false sense of security.” We should move beyond just writing theory and doctrine and start developing effective defenses in space that could be more reliable as well as cost effective in the long term compared to terrestrial forces.

Our nation is dependent on space assets for everything from battlefield communication to direct-to-home TV. Why wait to defend our interests in space and on Earth with space-based defenses?

The United States, as permitted under international and domestic law, has the right to defend itself against threats. The Space Commission report states that the United States reserves “the right to be able to retaliate or destroy” either ground sites or satellites, if necessary. Because of the rising threats to our space assets, America needs an ability to negate or destroy threats whether temporarily or permanently. Test ranges will be needed to test these abilities and perfect them. The fact that potential enemies would undoubtedly see these exercises, would help strengthen deterrence. With orbital bombardment groups, the United States would have a deterrence capability that would no longer rely solely on nuclear weapons to intimidate a potential aggressor.

Having orbital bombardment groups would offer a distinct military advantage over future adversaries. We would have the ability to affect air, land, and sea forces by projecting power from space anywhere in the world with very little time needed for mobilization. Unlike weapons launched from air, land, or sea, space bombardment groups could execute operations with little transit time or weather delays. This would provide the United States with a clear time on target advantage over enemy forces.

Are there prohibitions against basing orbital bombardment systems in space? No, but there are prohibitions against nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction due to treaties such as the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. However, Article 3 of the Outer Space Treaty does allow nations to prepare for “anticipatory self defense” in space. Also, the non-interference between nations’ satellites codified by other space treaties would be suspended during hostilities as the laws are currently written.

Mastery of space, which is vital to our national security, includes the need to reduce the costs of operations in relation to terrestrial alternatives. Orbital bombardment constellations would reduce long-term cost by permanently being in position compared with terrestrial forces that would need to be deployed. This would reduce the need, as well as cost, of forward deploying aircraft and personnel by not having to pay salaries, gain permission for basing rights, etc. As Greg Billman states in his analysis of perceived limits of spacepower, “As forces [terrestrial] are deployed, economic costs of all kinds tend to increase… field conditions require additional housing, food, water, transportation, medical care, maintenance and other things as these must be afforded apart from an established base.” Equipment tends to break and people tend to get injured or killed more than when home based. However, space-based systems would likely be less susceptible to damage or loss than terrestrial forces.

Unlike terrestrial forces, space forces do not require escalating support and operational costs upon deployment and engagement. Maintenance costs can be drastically reduced by a lift capability allowing either on-orbit replenishment or rapid, contingency-oriented delivery capability. While attack squadrons are in day-to-day operations, all that would be needed is occasional reboost and refueling which can be accomplished by either annual or decadal launches of refueling spacecraft or by basing orbital tankers that could link up with the satellites based on new advanced remote control technologies. The latter would most likely cost more than just occasional launching of such refuelers.

Given a more supportive policy toward space weapons, Billman states, “a force structure could be created that allows both maximum political flexibility and max military flexibility—a fully mission capable space force, coupled with a well proportioned terrestrial force. With such a force, the possibility may exist for long tern fiscal savings through a decreased terrestrial force infrastructure and long term manpower and equipment sustainment cost savings”. This would actively support the Air Force’s stated policy of wanting systems that “actively support Global Reach/Power by lessening reliance on forward basing as well as supporting aerospace power objectives of flexibility, range, responsiveness and lethality.”