FAS | Space | Military | Program |||| Index | Search |


Despite the international political transformations of the past seven years, the American military space program is continuing an unprecedented and largely unrecognized expansion. While the terrestrial military is preoccupied with reductions, space forces continue to grow. Indeed, Martin Faga, the first Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Space (and Director of the National Reconnaissance Office) asserted that "even if super power tensions truly decline, an environment of unpredictability and uncertainty will still remain -- an environment where space systems can and will play a unique role."(1) He has also noted that conventional force reductions will not reduce the demand for satellite services such as the Navstar navigation satellite, since "You need to navigate with Navstar regardless of whether it's 50 airplanes or a hundred."(2) In this conclusion he was joined by U.S. Space Command Deputy Commander Vice Adm. Diego Hernandez asserts that "the need for space product becomes increasingly important since you have fewer forces deployed around the world... and you need to avoid being surprised."(3)

This expansion is taking place on three levels. First, previously planned satellite systems are finally coming into being. The Lacrosse and KH-12 intelligence satellite systems are now reaching operational status, and the Navstar navigation satellite system has recently been brought up to full strength. And over the next several years, a fleet of new Milstar satellites will come into service.(4)

Second, at least five new intelligence collection systems are under development. These include new imaging radar and optical imaging satellites, as well as a new geostationary signals intelligence satellite and a new Space Based Wide Area Surveillance System for global aerial and maritime surveillance. In addition, a new missile launch detection satellite is also under development, which may utilize technology derived from the SDI Booster Surveillance and Tracking System.

Finally, entirely novel satellite programs are in the works, aimed at developing smaller and less expensive satellites to replace existing systems which may become unacceptably vulnerable to anti-satellite attack in coming years. While these so-called Lightsat or Cheapsat systems may not become operational in this century, their development will be a central focus of military interest in the 1990's.(5)

Major Trends

Military and non-military activities in space are increasingly interdependent and terrestrial military forces becoming ever more dependent on an ever-growing numbers of operational military spacecraft. The division between military and non-military space activities has never been clear, and is becoming increasingly blurred. The United States operates separate military and civilian low altitude weather satellites (which are physically quite similar and made by the same company), though the military uses data from both systems. Russia operates a single network of such satellites, presumably for the equal convenience of military and civilian users. The Russians operate discrete military and civilian low altitude navigation satellite systems (both of which apparently use the same type of spacecraft), while the similar American Transit is used by both the military and civilian sectors.

Although both countries operate discrete military and civilian communications satellite networks, in the United States the Defense Department is a major customer of commercial satellites, and presumably the same is true in the Russia. The American military mapping community is the leading customer of the commercial Landsat remote sensing system, and high-resolution remote-sensing film products commercially available from Russia are apparently derived from satellites whose primary mission is military map-making.

Military and civilian spacecraft hardware are increasingly indistinguishable. France intends to base its forthcoming Helios photographic reconnaissance satellite on the SPOT remote sensing spacecraft. And Hughes will build the American Navy's new communications satellite using its HS-601 spacecraft that is also being used by commercial users such as Australia.

At a more profound level, as the world enters the post-Cold War era, national security is increasing defined in terms that are much broader than the simple military balance of prior years. In this sense, while many satellites are not military, all space activity directly relate to national security. Commercial sales of launch services by China and Russia have been impeded concerns in the United States over the potential for transfer of sensitive technology. The Chinese interest in selling launch services to the West may be based from a desire to utilize manufacturing facilities that were originally constructed to produce ICBM's. And over the past two years the American Air Force has gained control of American commercial expendable launch vehicles.

This enlarged notion of national security has not reduced the interest of the military in space operations. To the contrary, Both the United States and the Soviet Union continue to modernize and expand their military presence in space, and interest in military space operations in growing in other countries as well. The expansion of new players in the military space arena may prove to be one of the most distinguishing features of the coming decade. Both France and Britain, who have long used space for military communications, will soon follow China's lead in placing military intelligence satellites in space. Canada and Italy are planning new military communications systems, and Canada is evaluating more ambitious projects as well. Israel joined the ranks of spacefaring nations in 1988, and there are reports of Israeli plans for intelligence collection satellites for the early 1990's.

Desert Storm - Contending Viewpoints

The events of 1991 dictate that the history of military space activities must now be divided into two epochs. The performance of American military space systems in the war with Iraq, the renewed American commitment to the Strategic Defense Initiative, and the collapse of the Soviet space program, all mark the beginning of a fundamentally new era of military space operations.

While it is too soon to fully appreciate the significance of the contribution of American military space systems to the outcome of operation Desert Storm, it is clear that the disparity in military space capabilities was one of the distinguishing features of that conflict. Indeed, this was the first occasion on which the full range of modern military space assets was brought to applied to terrestrial conflict. And it is equally clear that, whatever the facts of the matter, proponents of military space systems will point to the outcome of Desert Storm as a sign of the decisive potential of military space systems.

Taking inspiration from the apparent success of Patriot interceptors against Scud missiles during Desert Storm, and capitalizing on the political disintegration of the Soviet Union, proponents of the Strategic Defense Initiative succeeded in reversing the political fortunes of the program in 1991. Whereas 1990 had witnessed a major reduction in funding for the program, the SDI budget approved by Congress in 1991 more than reversed the cutbacks of the prior year. Furthermore, in a major step, the Congress endorsed the eventual deployment of a large ground-based system that would far exceed the limits imposed by the 1972 ABM Treaty.

From the perspective of the 21st Century, the use of American military space systems in the Operation Desert Storm may be seen as marking a major watershed in the history of military technology and military tactics, ranking with the introduction of effective armored tactics in World War II, the machine gun at the beginning of the century. And perhaps in time it will rank with the introduction of gunpowder, the long-bow, chariots, and bronze swords several millennia ago.

An alternative view would contend that military space systems were of marginal relevance to the outcome of Desert Storm. From this perspective, Desert Storm was not so much a case of a Coalition victory through superior technology as an Iraqi loss due to political and military incompetence, both strategic and tactical. Those who are skeptical of the decisive influence of high technology generally, and of space systems in particular, point to the low morale and high desertion rate of Iraqi troops, and the preponderant impact of conventional non-precision bombing on reducing the combat effectiveness of Iraqi forces in the Kuwait theater of operations. They would also note the relative ineffectiveness of the campaign against Scud launchers, and that during the later phase of the air campaign, target acquisition did not rely on sophisticated satellite systems, but rather on the initiative of individual pilots. From this perspective, while satellite intelligence might have been crucial in the initial decision by the Saudi government to permit Coalition forces onto Saudi territory, by the commencement of the ground campaign, space systems were largely irrelevant to the conduct of the war.

A third perspective notes that the fundamental problem in choosing between these two alternative interpretations is that it is much easier to identify the technological inputs of military space systems in the Gulf Conflict, than it is to identify the military outputs as a result of the application of these systems. It simple to point to the number of reconnaissance satellites that were in orbit, the number of Global Positioning System navigation receivers that were in use, or the variety of weather satellites and the number of ground terminals that were receiving those weather satellite photos. Unfortunately it is more difficult to say precisely what operational military difference was made by the input of those capabilities, particularly given the fact that in most cases there were other non-space systems that were also providing similar or complimentary types of inputs.

A fourth viewpoint holds that the main lessons learned from the Gulf War should be in the field of military space, even though it may be difficult to draw hard and fast lessons learned about the contribution of military space systems to terrestrial operations in the theater. There was certainly an unprecedented range of military space systems in play in the Gulf Conflict and an unprecedented number of ground receivers for the product from these satellites. In addition, there were many unique opportunities for using these systems in the Gulf; many more requirements for using these systems would have obtained in other theaters or other conflicts. All of these factors have served to accentuate the extent to which the Gulf Conflict will be regarded as the first space war, regardless of the facts of the matter.

Which of these viewpoints prevails must await the verdict of history.

Space Control

Between the election and inauguration of Bill Clinton, the outgoing Bush Administration issued a series of reports that will define the debate over military and civil space policy for the remainder of this decade. The Final Report to the President on the U.S. Space Program provides a general overview of civil and military space policy. Although the Final Report covered a broad range of topics, its vigorous advocacy of "Space Control" is certainly the most controversial of the Quayle recommendations, and apparently one that has escaped the notice of the new President.

The Final Report observes that opponents of anti-satellite weapons "... have argued that U.S. interests are best protected by seeking to avoid an `ASAT race' with the former Soviet Union, thereby preserving a `space sanctuary.'" But the Report contends that "... the proliferation of space systems has changed profoundly the space control equation, and the `space sanctuary' concept has been overtaken by events. Sixteen nations today have some degree of indigenous capability to employ militarily useful satellites. That number is expected to double by the beginning of the next century."

During the Cold War the threat inflators looked to the East, and espied the bomber gap, the missile gap, and the mine-shaft gap. Now with equal concern, they face the southern hemisphere, and discover a satellite gap. The addition of the proliferation of military spacecraft to concerns over the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and advanced delivery systems one element of the portrayal of the post Cold War era as even more menacing than the Cold War. At least during the Cold War the America faced a single, rational adversary. But now, we are told, America is surrounded by a multitude of hostile Third World countries.

Alas, the reality is far more prosaic. There are today only six space-faring nations (counting the multinational European Space Agency as one), and the number of countries able to build and launch their own satellites is unlikely to substantially increase in coming years. Though a few regional powers remain hostile to the United States, notably North Korea, Iran, Iraq, and Libya, these do not number among the countries that are likely to achieve an autonomous spaceflight capability within the ponderable future.

But focused on a new menace from the heavens, the Final Report asserts that "The United States would never tolerate the flight of enemy airborne reconnaissance vehicles over U.S. military forces. Similarly, the United States should not allow hostile space-based reconnaissance systems to overfly and threaten U.S. forces with impunity." The import of this remarkable assertion cannot be underestimated, for it contravenes the freedom of navigation of space that was established by Sputnik 1, endorsed by every American President since Eisenhower, and enshrined as the fundamental precept of the law of outer space in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. Vice President Quayle seems to have forgotten the essential distinction between national sovereignty over air space, and freedom of passage through outer space that motivated Eisenhower's interest in developing reconnaissance satellites to replace the admittedly illegal U-2 spy planes.

There is precedent in neither law nor practice for this Quayle Doctrine, that the United States is the final arbiter of permitted uses of outer space, and that the United States will enforce its decisions on which countries are to remain Earth-bound.

To provide an enforcement mechanism for this celestial quarantine, the Final Report asserts that " ... the nation now more than ever needs a comprehensive space control capability, including ... satellites that are impervious to interference from hostile forces, and a comprehensive antisatellite capability to deny the military use of space to future enemies."

The election of Bill Clinton posed many new questions for the Strategic Defense Initiative, which entered the fourth stage of its development since it was originally announced in 1983. The Clinton program is largely focused on ground based defenses against tactical, theater and intercontinental range ballistic missiles, with space-based elements de-emphasized, though not eliminated. However, the advent of the new Administration did little else to alter plans inherited from its predecessors.

1. Faga, Martin, "Prepared Remarks to the National Space Club," 29 November 1989, page 2.

2. Foley, Theresa, et al, "Newsmaker Forum," Space News, 11 December 1989, page 54.

3. McMillan, Sue, "Growing Reliance on Spy Satellites Seen by Official," Colorado Springs Gazette-Telegraph, 27 November 1989, page 1.

4. Rawles, J., "Military Satellites: The Next Generation," Defense Electronics, May 1988, pp 46-63.

5. "Tacsat Requirements Sent to Joint Chiefs of Staff," Aviation Week & Space Technology, 13 November 1989, page 29-30.

FAS | Space | Military | Program |||| Index | Search |

Implemented by Christina Lindborg, 1997 Scoville Fellow
Maintained by Webmaster

Updated Sunday, March 09, 1997