This writeup is, in fact, a writeup of a seminar given at MIT done by yours truly. Dr. Pike spoke to an audience of international security and public policy wonks regarding the then-current and projected future of U.S. military uses of space. Here’s the writeup of the talk, which took place on October 8, 1997.

The Future of Military Space
A talk by Dr. John Pike
10/8/97 Seminar at MIT
Director, Federation of American Scientists Space Policy Project

Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. has been adrift in terms of being able to define the geostrategic/geopolitical environment; it is difficult to frame the correct questions, much less gain the correct answers with confidence. Some broad statements are possible, however. The ‘New World Order’ vision of American pre-eminence touted by the Bush (senior) administration is currently workable, and will be for several decades into the future. Although a few states are able to contend with the U.S. for regional or narrow sectoral authority, the world is essentially unipolar.

Civil aerospace policy can be viewed as a tool of national security policy, or national strategic policy. This is especially important given the current ‘soap opera’ about the Russian space station Mir. NASA seems unaware that the Mir crisis provides opportunity to rehearse the answers for why the U.S. is pursuing space programs. NASA’s standard answer is that space programs are searching for the ‘miracle cure and mystery crystal,’ i.e. pure science. The true impetus behind space exploration and exploitation, however, has always been a political statement, not a scientific need. Sputnik, the orbits of Yuri Gagarin and the Mercury astronauts, and the Apollo program came about not at the behest of scientific curiosity but as a result of a fierce international rivalry between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. The Apollo was, essentially, a $125 billion reassertion of U.S. supremacy.

Space Station Freedom (ed. note: now the ISS) was born and sold with a simple idea, one which Ronald Reagan could read from a 3x5 card: the ‘Evil Empire’ has a space station flying; therefore, we need a bigger one which also involves our allies to demonstrate the unity of our commitment. However, the collapse of the U.S.S.R. removed the justification for civil space programs under the Bush (Sr.) administration, which attempted to sell Mars exploration and the space station using the traditional rhetoric.

The Clinton administration has positioned cooperation with Russia in space as an icon of broader cooperation between the U.S. and Russia. Thus, joint missions can be sold to the American people. Given the recent upswing of ‘nostalgia for the Cold War’ visible in the defense and policy establishments of both the U.S. and Russia, this opportunity for emphasis on partnership is an important political tool.

Cooperation is also an excellent incentive for Russia to comply with another U.S. security policy, the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). It has been demonstrated to the Russian space industry that it is more profitable and fun to sell spaceships to rich customers, i.e. the West and the International Space Station, than to sell rockets to poorer customers such as Iran, North Korea and the like.

Finally, the cooperative effort is important to proponents of the manned space programs, for without such visible examples of humans working in space, support for such endeavors would be in immediate jeopardy.

Such foreign policy oriented rationales are foreign to NASA. Whereas the DoD is good at selling its programs (Carriers, aircraft) based on such ‘foreign’ arguments (competition with opponents, joint development plans with allies, etc.) NASA is still pushing the ‘miracle cure and mystery crystal’ argument.

Given that China is rising, how is the U.S. to manage the Chinese effort in aerospace? It appears that, by example, we have a choice of imparting to China that either missile technology and production is the legitimate business of a superpower, or that peaceful cooperative space projects are the accepted norm. Although cooperative space programs would be a relatively painless and low-cost solution to communicating the latter, NASA currently lacks the infrastructure to make such a ‘foreign space policy’ work.

On the traditional military space side, there are serious problems with American systems which were hidden, rather than exposed, by the Gulf war. Desert Storm has been hailed as the first ‘space war’ - one in which the U.S. overmatched Iraq partially through its use of space-based systems. This has led to a renaissance of traditional national security uses of space.

The fact that the U.S. was facing such a weak opponent, however, masked massive flaws in the space systems the U.S. was using. These flaws are symptomatic of a traditional problem: over-investment in space systems (launch vehicles, spacecraft, spacecraft control) and under-investment in ground support systems to exploit their product. Such ground systems include GPS receivers for ground troops (there weren’t enough), a functional military satellite intelligence analysis and dissemination system, secure satellite communications with reasonable throughput, etc. etc.

The system is ‘broken’ because there is no central advocacy or institution for space forces and space-specific doctrine. The users of the space systems are scattered throughout the forces, manning service-specific communications and imagery systems. As a result, the end users are not controlling the systems. The Army and Navy are the primary users of space systems, requiring the mobile communications, navigation and reconnaissance that space provides. The Air Force, however, which has fixed bases and very few long-term communication requirements, controls the systems.

The Air Force has had ‘space’ in its doctrine since the space age started (no mean trick before word processors; every use of ‘air power’ suddenly became ‘aerospace power’ long before global search-and-replace). As a result, the USAF thinks that all the tenets of air power are applicable in space. Thus, projects exist to create space-based combat air support, hypersonic spaceplane transports, etc. etc. when in fact space as a medium is so different that traditional Air Force missions make no sense there. Perhaps the information warfare model, rather than the air power model, is a better paradigm for organizing and utilizing space.

The U.S., however, will probably use space not as an infowar environment but will continue to attempt unfeasible missions using ‘air force missions.’ Just as the proponents of air power doctrine ended up with a separate service, the proponents of space doctrine need a separate service to make their voices heard. The USAF knows this, which is why it studiously avoids such doctrine.

In order to correct the traditional space/ground investment imbalance, the ground users must be forced to compete for the same budget ‘pot’ as the space systems providers. In this way, zero-sum adjustment of the budget will produce a more even balance.

In the realm of ASAT technology, the U.S. should not produce or pursue ASAT weapons for three primary reasons (emphasis mine – ed.). First, there is currently an international norm which states loosely that there is no good reason for states to pursue such weapons, and if the U.S. attempts to do so it might trigger a completely avoidable arms race. Second, the U.S. is currently the only nation with a significant military and strategic infrastructure in space! Therefore, creating an environment in which these weapons are desirable simply makes the world less hospitable to the U.S. which currently enjoys relative safety of its space systems. Finally, there is no reason to spend the resources on new ASAT technology, given that several of these systems already exist, with at least one having been tested in the 1970s. Given these arguments, there is no good reason for the U.S. to perform any new ASAT testing.

I don’t agree with all of this. However, Dr. Pike’s talk was quite interesting, and I have noded it today after considering the relevance it has to the current debacle over national missile defense and related idiocies of the current administration.

Woohoo! I’m an M-Noder!


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