September 1, 2007  

America’s brittle space systems

In his 2004 book "Air Power," Stephen Budiansky considers the evolution of modern air power through Vietnam, the Persian Gulf War, Afghanistan and Iraq, and judges that "making full use of the third dimension of space, and the fourth dimension of information warfare, this ‘new kind of American air power’ could indeed operate against an enemy force with impunity." He goes on to note that these improved capabilities have been exploited by closer integration of air forces’ capabilities into the overall maneuver plan of theater ground forces. Budiansky summarizes: "The ability to suppress air defenses and operate at medium and high altitudes with a near one-bomb-one-kill efficiency has swept aside all of the old ways of thinking about air power on the battlefield."

This sounds good, but in the wake of China’s provocative Jan. 11 direct-ascent anti-satellite test (ASAT) alarm bells should be ringing. The system described by Budiansky, although exceedingly powerful and destructive, is also a brittle system. "Brittle" here means simply something that may be strong but doesn’t bend much before it breaks. In this sense, a wooden beam is brittle. An example of a military element that is not brittle, that bends a lot before it breaks, is a mechanized infantry division. This unit can absorb a lot of damage in casualties and equipment loss, and still comprise a powerful fighting force. To take another analogy from the world of material science, this quality is known as toughness, which contrasts with brittleness.

The "new kind of American air power" described by Budiansky is brittle by virtue of the brittleness of the space systems (navigation, communication, surveillance, position location) upon which it depends. That brittle nature of our space elements is a consequence of decisions about space architecture made two generations ago. For reasons of utility and economy, our military and civil space programs evolved according to a "big iron" architectural philosophy, which involved big satellites (of which we could afford only a few) and big boosters (launched from complex, soft platforms), all controlled from big, soft and complex operations centers. This system, in contrast to our mechanized infantry division example, would not fail gracefully under attack. A score of well-aimed shots, whether anti-satellite or anti-ground element, could effect a drastic reduction in our space capabilities and deliver a major blow to the space-dependent combat force described by Budiansky.

The New York Times characterized the Chinese action as "the most provocative military action since it test-fired missiles off the coast of Taiwan more than a decade ago." Times analyst Joseph Kahn described the ASAT as "a component of China’s unofficial doctrine of asymmetrical warfare" that reflects their intention to "use relatively inexpensive but highly disruptive technologies to impede better-equipped and better-trained American forces in the event of an armed conflict." Wall Street Journal writer Bret Stephens pointed out the vulnerability implicit in the U.S. military’s "increasing reliance on precision and networks over mass and concentration in combat situations — reliance that is almost wholly dependent on space-based surveillance, positioning and communications satellites."

What do we infer from this? One thing seems clear: No nation capable of interfering with our new space-dependent capabilities is going to stand for our plinking their precious ships, tanks, weapons and people using airmen on ponies to direct fire from satellite-guided weapons launched from B-52s orbiting far from the battlefield. The evidence we have on ASAT operations over the past 30 years or so suggests that it would not be an extremely difficult technical or operational task to do serious damage to our war-fighting capability. Furthermore, it is not evident that such actions, conducted in space, with no other overt offensive acts, would provide a casus belli.

There has been much discussion in recent times about the need to train, organize and equip our military for new forms of armed conflict: counterterrorism, counterinsurgency, nation-building and the like, in the Third World. We might be able to take some comfort from the fact that no Third World opponent is likely to have an ASAT capability, but that is cold comfort. It is not reasonable to think that we would maintain a military force well-equipped for the war on terrorism but unfit for general war.

Consider a scenario in which a nation wishes to take strong military action in a matter it considers to be of vital national interest, in a region that it considers within its historical sphere of influence. It would intend no direct threat to the U.S. and would likely communicate that fact in advance, but it would be acutely aware of the prospect of U.S. military response in opposition to their planned action. If the nation had the ability to drastically reduce American combat capability by attacking space assets, an act not directly threatening to U.S. territory or forces, it might judge that we would be deterred from interfering, not wanting to risk our general war-fighting capability in a regional conflict.

This threat raises the question: What alternatives in C4I systems architecture might be considered to ameliorate our vulnerability to exploitation of the brittleness of our "new kind" of military power?

Dispersed constellation

Proposals have been made in the past for a totally different space architecture, one based not on a few "big iron" elements, but upon a proliferated and dispersed constellation of small computing, navigating and communicating elements, which would be controlled and exploited by proliferated and dispersed ground elements including combat elements at all levels. However, the technical and operational feasibility of such concepts is undemonstrated. In addition, such a system would fill near-Earth space with thousands of orbiting objects, a condition that would be unacceptable for normal peacetime space- faring.

A different perspective on alternative architectures is provided by Vago Muradian (C4ISR Journal, March), who discusses the Chinese ASAT test and some initiatives that have been considered for the re-engineering of our space structure.

Another architectural alternative would be to replicate the space communication-navigation-positioning net work, using mobile atmospheric and surface elements. Much is known about the capabilities of UAV systems such as Global Hawk. Recently, attention was drawn to the stealthy, real-time intelligence-gathering and fusion capability of the F-22. We also know about the capabilities of the mobile airborne warning and control systems and Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System, as well as many other airborne communications and intelligence platforms.

Tough network

These developments suggest the possibility of creating a mobile, proliferated, survivable (tough) network, minimally dependent upon space assets, which would deploy with and be set up and operated by the expeditionary forces in the theater of operations.

Any such alternative approaches would have severe impact — organizationally, technically, operationally and financially — but we have too much invested in our new military power to allow it to be negated, essentially on the cheap.

A debate on the merits of this threat assessment and possible reactions seems appropriate.

AIR FORCE BRIG. GEN. (RET.) WILLIAM L. SHIELDS is a former deputy chief of staff, space surveillance and missile warning systems at Strategic Air Command. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Air Force, Defense Department or U.S. government.