The Space Force’s Value

Monday, October 15, 2018
Image credit: 
Poster Collection, GE 1530, Hoover Institution Archives

Image credit: 
Poster Collection, GE 1530, Hoover Institution Archives

Imagine what power would accrue to the nation were its military—on the ground, at sea, and in the air—to be backed by a force able to decide whether or how any other country might benefit from objects in orbital space; if that nation were to control access to orbit, securing such objects and benefits for itself. Today, who can do what to whom in or by using orbital space makes a big difference. The world’s significant militaries live by information from and communications through objects in orbital space. Inevitably, sooner or later, one will bid for the comprehensive capacity to control that space. Better that America be first. Establishing the U.S. Space Force will endow people with the mission—the goal, the will, and the interest—to make U.S. control of space happen.

Ever since 1960, when the U.S. managed the first orbital rendezvous, and hence the capacity to destroy objects in orbital space, every technology useful for space warfare has made giant strides—computing power, communications, energy storage, miniaturization, reduction of weight and vibrations, all manner of optics, pointing and tracking, control systems, etc. Continuing advances offer ever-more tempting options for offense and defense in orbit. It is impossible to imagine any major war’s operations henceforth without competitive destruction of satellites. Because orbital space is ballistic missiles’ highway, satellites offer the only prospect of anything like preclusive defense against them through control of access to space. Moreover, orbital fire control systems—which America now lacks—are key to efficient operation of surface-based missile defenses.

But for human beings to turn any technology’s potential to military effect, those who really want to do it must be in a position to make it happen. Though the logic of war and technology has long counseled establishing a U.S. Space Force, the logic of military bureaucracy has forestalled it. The existing military services’ bureaucratic interests have obscured the fact that orbital space is itself a major theater of operations, victory in which might be decisive for victory everywhere else. That is why establishing the U.S. Space Force is no mere rewiring of bureaucratic diagrams.

Understandably, the U.S. Air Force has objected most ferociously. The USAF already lost the claim that had justified its separate existence—that manned “strategic bombing” is the key to warfare. That happened when modern air defenses, plus accurate ballistic missiles and the space sensors that act as artillery spotters for them, combined to de-value airplanes for the delivery of major ordnance. The USAF styles itself the aerospace force. But it has regarded what happens in space as instrumental to other missions and, to say the least, has not prioritized either satellite warfare or missile defense. Moreover, establishment of the Space Force will mean losing some of its best people, reduced missions and promotions, and fewer contracts and post-retirement jobs for senior officers. Keep in mind, however, that the military services, their missions and budgets, exist for the country, not vice versa.

America’s need for serious capabilities to defend and attack satellites, as well as for a missile defense worthy of the name, has been debated for decades. Only under the Trump administration, however, have persons occupied senior positions for whom these needs override other considerations (e.g., National Security Advisor John Bolton and Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Michael Griffin).

On September 4, 2018, Griffin, a former Administrator of NASA, summed up to a Congressional forum the technical futility that results from the self-imposed lack of precise birth-to-death information on all missile threats, and inability to transfer such information directly to surface based interceptors. That is to be remedied by putting the requisite equipment in orbit. He also saw no technical or military reason why America should not avail itself of the opportunity we have to defend against ballistic missiles through orbit-based interceptors or lasers. The technology exits to make the devices to take care of these needs.

Safeguarding our devices in orbit is not least among these needs, and is surely the most challenging to fill. While hardening satellites may protect them against the necessarily weak flux from ground-based lasers, no satellite of any kind can possibly be protected against a megawatt laser firing through unobstructed space. Nor can hardening protect satellites against kinetic kill vehicles. Nor can satellites be safeguarded by escorts.

Because satellites are so easy to kill in so many ways, the challenge is simply this: Protecting satellites requires preventing any threats to them from reaching space in the first place. Hence, a partial defense of satellites is akin to a partial defense of virginity. But acting as the gatekeeper to orbital space the way that America and Britain policed access to the oceans during WWII is a political more than a technical problem. Nevertheless, one cannot even consider defending satellites at all unless the technical tools are in hand.

It hardly needs to be said that, technically, preventing rockets from reaching space is identical to boost-phase missile defense. Once that is in place, whether by interceptors or lasers, one may consider using it to kill enemy satellites and to protect our own.

Establishing the Space Force opens technical-military vistas, and will force us to confront choices from which we have averted attention. But an undertaking so focused on America’s own interest and so pregnant of major consequences must overcome our ruling class’s congenital allergy to unilateral assertion of America’s own interests. Its military value may be inferior to its role as a reminder that Americans have it within ourselves to do what is necessary for our own good.