“If you control space,” Xu Qiliang, commander of China’s air force, explains, “you can also control the land and the sea.” As America lowers its sights and enters its second year of self-imposed exile from manned spaceflight, Beijing seems eager to prove Xu’s hypothesis. “China has accorded space a high priority for investment,” a Pentagon report on Chinese military power concluded in 2007. Five years later, the payoffs of that investment are sobering.
China has launched a lunar orbiter; test-fired anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons, satellite jammers and satellite-killing lasers; deployed a constellation of satellites to support its armed forces; begun developing “aerospace strike systems” that, like the Pentagon’s “prompt global strike missile,” use space as the avenue for hitting global targets within minutes of launch; and updated its military doctrine to reflect the centrality of space and counter-space operations.
For instance, a 2008 Pentagon report quoted Chinese military planners as openly envisioning a “space shock and awe strike.” The Pentagon noted in 2009 that Chinese military “writings emphasize the necessity of ‘destroying, damaging and interfering with the enemy’s reconnaissance/observation and communications satellites,’ suggesting that such systems, as well as navigation and early warning satellites, could be among initial targets of attack to ‘blind and deafen the enemy.’” And the Pentagon’s 2011 review of Chinese military power reported that Beijing “is developing a multi-dimensional program to improve its capabilities to limit or prevent the use of space-based assets by adversaries during times of crisis or conflict.” In fact, the Economic and Security Review Commission noted this year that, “barring effective countermeasures, the PLA’s ability to complicate U.S. access to space assets is likely to grow over the next 10-15 years.”
Is the United States prepared to meet this challenge?
In 1996, the Clinton administration directed the Pentagon to “develop, operate and maintain space-control capabilities to ensure freedom of action in space and, if directed, to deny such freedom of action to adversaries.” A decade later, the Bush administration declared that America’s “national security is critically dependent upon space capabilities.” The Bush administration vigorously opposed treaties that would constrain U.S. operations in space and demonstrated U.S. space capabilities by shooting down a satellite. Similarly, the Clinton administration authorized the Pentagon to test laser weapons against a satellite.
The Obama administration, on the other hand, has sent mixed signals on the military’s role in space. Although the Obama administration has allowed testing of the X-37B to proceed—the high-flying space plane has obvious applications as a space-based weapons platform—the administration has vowed to pursue “a worldwide ban on weapons that interfere with military and commercial satellites,” shelved plans for the space shuttle’s successor program (known as Constellation) and indicated its willingness to sign on to the European Union’s Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities.
Establishing “rules for the road” for spacefaring nations is a good idea in theory, and banning ASAT weapons is a noble goal. But many worry that the EU’s space code of conduct would have the effect of tethering America and limiting the U.S. military’s freedom of action. In fact, before the administration decided to support the EU’s efforts, a State Department official called the code of conduct “too restrictive.”
As to banning ASATs, to update an old saying, that rocket has already left the earth’s atmosphere. The Chinese and Russian militaries are not going to unlearn what they know or surrender their capabilities. Neither should the U.S. military. Space is the ultimate high ground, and being prepared to defend America’s space assets—and America’s freedom of action—is essential to America’s security.
Already, U.S. space-based assets—civilian and military—are supporting the U.S. military’s earth-based operations: Missile-defense ships prowling the Pacific and Mediterranean, Marine and Army units rebuilding Afghanistan, UCAVs circling over Pakistan and Yemen, JDAMs strapped to loitering bombers, sensors monitoring nuclear activity in Russia and China and North Korea and Iran, and the infrastructure and superstructure of the entire military rely on space assets. In the not-too-distant future, space will become more than just a means to support military operations. It will become a theater of military operations. But don’t take my word for it. “We know from history that every medium—air, land and sea—has seen conflict,” as a blue-ribbon commission on space concluded more than a decade ago. “Reality indicates that space will be no different.” The commission added, “In the coming period…the U.S. will conduct operations to, from, in and through space in support of its national interests.”
Toward that end, the Air Force is testing the secret X-37. This unmanned space plane enters orbit courtesy of an Atlas V rocket, can loiter in space for more than a year (an X-37B returned from a 469-day mission in June) and can fly 500 nautical miles above the earth. X-37s have flown highly classified missions in 2010, 2011 and 2012. A Washington Times report quoted anonymous Pentagon sources as saying the X-37 would likely be used to attack and disable Chinese satellites in the event of a U.S.-PRC conflict. In addition, NBC has reported that Boeing may build a larger variant of the space plane—the X-37C—capable of carrying more cargo and up to six astronauts into space.
Is the X-37 a first step toward a U.S. Space Force or Space Corps? Given the obvious lack of political will in Washington and concerns among some policymakers about the message, it would send internationally, an independent branch devoted solely to space operations may not be in the offing in the near-term. However, as Ralph Milsap and D.B. Posey have argued, it may be time for an “Aerospace Force”—an Air Force that is fully empowered to exploit space and space-based capabilities. (It’s worth noting that Beijing has been discussing an independent space force since the 1990s.)
The foundation is certainly in place for an Aerospace Force. The U.S. has a constellation of military units and commands focused on space—and buttressed by substantial funding.
Tracking the Pentagon’s space-related spending is “extremely difficult,” according to the Congressional Research Service, “since space spending is not identified as a line item in the budget.” But as The Washington Post reports, NASA’s annual funding—about $18 billion—is “less than half of the amount spent on national security space programs.” So we can extrapolate national-security space spending to be somewhere north of $37 billion. (A caveat: sequestration threatens to slash military space programs by 22 percent.)
As to units and commands, the Air Force Space Command fields 43,000 personnel at 86 sites worldwide. The 21st Space Wing, for instance, detects and tracks space launches, missile and satellite activity, and 18,000 manmade objects in space. The 22nd Space Operations Squadron commands remote tracking stations and conducts satellite ops. The 310th Space Wing’s mission is to project “space power for U.S. interests worldwide.” The 527th Space Aggressor Squadron “develops new tactics, techniques, and procedures to counter threats and improve U.S. military space posture.” The 76th Space Control Squadron conducts “space superiority operations.” And the list goes on. As the National Space Studies Center details, the U.S. military relies on the Missile Defense Agency, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, Army Space and Missile Defense Command, Naval Network and Space Operations Command, Joint Space Operations Center and other organizations for a range of space-related specialties.
It would be wrong to conclude that the military is steering us toward space. To the contrary, the military is following U.S. interests into space. At its core, the U.S. military’s job is to protect U.S. interests, wherever they are. And today they are increasingly found beyond the earth’s atmosphere. Some 260,000 Americans work in the space sector, and worldwide space-related spending and revenues—the “space economy”—are more than $262 billion, according to the Space Foundation. “The number of space-related patents has almost quadrupled in fifteen years,” according to an OECD report. Of the 999 functioning satellites currently orbiting earth, 442 are American—four times as many as second-place Russia. America’s fleet of satellites relays everything from Nike ads to the Nikkei Average; improves the use of farmland; guides ships, planes and trucks to their destinations; monitors weather; synchronizes financial networks; supports police and fire departments; connects a people and an economy that move at ever-increasing speed; and arms the U.S. military with arguably the most important weapon in modern war: real-time, on-demand information. Yet most Americans are oblivious to the fact that we are so dependent on space.
Long before Americans took to the air for their first flight, George Washington counseled that “There is nothing so likely to produce peace as to be well prepared to meet an enemy.” That truism applies wherever nation-states come into contact with one another—whether on land, the high seas, the skies, cyberspace or space.