Waiting for Starfleet

John Pike

No issue better clarifies the ongoing Roles and Missions debate than the current controversy over reorganization of the American military space program. No major mission area involves such a high level of inter-service joint operations. No other single arena so clearly embodies the cutting edge of the Revolution in Military Affairs. And no other debate has generated so much heat and so little light.

Although "Jointness" has been elevated to the first principle of the American military, nowhere is service inter-dependence more of an accomplished fact than in space operations. Communications, navigation, weather and intelligence satellites are all used by all the services, regardless of the service or agency of origin. While the Army may intermittently depend on Navy or Air Force transportation services, it continually relies on their space systems.

The current Revolution in Military Affairs, also referred to as the Military Technical Revolution, was convincingly demonstrated in the combination of sensors, computers and precision weapons used with such remarkable effect in Operation Desert Storm. This triumph of silicon over steel has the potential to provide America with armed forces of unprecedented lethality at reduced force and budget levels. Despite shortcomings and the contributions of other technologies, the application of space systems to conventional operations is arguably the most novel ingredient in the mix of programs which constitute this Revolution.

Mindful of the adage, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it," any proposal for military space reorganization must begin with a diagnosis of what, if anything, is wrong with the current way of doing business. Although a wide variety of diagnoses have been proffered of late, at least three maladies of the present dispensation are widely recognized.

First, the present system is too focused on Air Force concerns, to the detriment of the other services. The commander of the Air Force Space Command also heads the US Space Command, with little prospect that his Army or Navy counterparts would get a chance at the top job. And the Air Force proposal to cancel the Milstar communications satellite, though laudable on its merits, highlights the danger that the space support needs of the other services could be sacrificed on the altar of Air Force fighters and bombers.

Second, the present system is too oriented toward space system developers and operators, and gives too little consideration to users and consumers. The consistent shortcoming of military space systems during Operation Desert Storm, from navigation to intelligence, was inadequate user equipment and organization. One of the Iron Laws of space seems to be a predisposition to focus on space segment to the detriment of ground segment. The civil space program has proved no exception to this rule, with spending on new spacecraft normally edging out funding for analysis of data from existing probes.

And finally, the present system is too focused on the development of unique military systems, to the exclusion of comparable if not superior capabilities available in the commercial marketplace. During Desert Storm, the overwhelming bulk of Navstar user equipment was commercially procured, and similar contributions were made by commercial-standard communications and weather systems. Since Eli Whitney's invention of the mass-produced musket, military technology has been treated as different from, if not superior to, civilian technology. But today, particularly in space, commercial products match if not exceed many military requirements (and often at lower cost).

Notably absent from this list are launch vehicles. Although oceans of ink have been spilled on this subject, launchers may be one area that is not (presently) broken. While the Titan 4 has been singled out for particular opprobrium, its recent string of successes should quite the critics. The Titan is in fact the whipping boy for its payloads. Heroic Titan delays have been largely due to spacecraft problems, and it is pointless to complain about the cost of a $300 million booster when it carries a payload costing over a billion dollars. Launch services and operations consume only a small fraction of the overall national security space budget (less than one-fifth), and it is difficult to foresee any cost-effective innovations that would materially alter current cost, schedule and reliability calculations. The Clinton Administration's new launch policy recognizes this reality, and perhaps now attention can turn to more important concerns.

Not surprisingly, the Air Force has offered to assume the entire burden of the military space program, and no one will be shocked to learn that the Army and Navy have declined this generous proposal. But their counter-offers would merely add further layers of Pentagon bureaucracy. Similar problems attend the proposals of the House Defense Appropriations Committee, which has suggested consolidating major acquisition programs under the direction of the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

Unfortunately, the recent transfer of responsibility for national security space planning has only exacerbated the ills of the military space program. Placing the new "space architect" in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Technology is an unfortunate step backwards, and will only delay resolution of the program's current woes.

Conceptually, the simplest solution would be to consolidate all military space activities into a new Military Service -- a Space Patrol -- or perhaps a distinct Space Corps within the Air Force. While Starfleet is hopefully part of our future, the time is not yet ripe. And the proposal founders, if for no other reason, on the color of this new service's uniform. Outgoing US Space Command chief General Charles Horner's suggestion of light blue is too close to the Air Force, purple would be apt but ugly, and the jet black of space (which is the logical choice) has unacceptable historical resonances.

Fortunately, a well-functioning precedent is lurking plainly in site. Frustrated by an equally wide range of maladies, in 1986 the Congress established the Special Operations Command, with its own major force program budget account. Subsequently, unlike other unified commands, the Special Operations Command was given direct control over this budget account and its acquisition programs. Functioning almost like a military service, this command reports to and receives policy guidance from a civilian Assistant Secretary of Defense. A recent review of the Command by John Collins of the Congressional Research Service gave its innovative structure high marks for performance and efficiency.

The US Space Command is presently the only unified command with global, rather than regional, responsibilities which lacks a separate major force program budget account (Strategic Command is program 1, Transportation Command is program 4, and Special Operations Command is program 11). It should have such a budget, becoming Major Force Program 12. But this should include not only the $14 billion presently acknowledged as the space budget, but also the moneys spent for space users, which exceeds $5 billion annually, as well as the $2.5 billion spent on intelligence satellites by CIA. As with the Special Forces Command, Space Command should also be given direct control of these resources. And just as the military services receive policy guidance and direction from the service secretaries, Space Command would report to the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Communications, Command, Control and Intelligence.

The ultimate purpose of these reforms must be to enhance the utility of space systems for combatant forces. The formation of the space commands was an initial step toward normalizing space, moving space systems out of the hands of developers into the hands of operators. The next step is to moving the current focus on space developers and operators toward a greater emphasis on space users.

The new unified Space Command must give greater weight to users, and this can only happen if these users are properly represented in its deliberations. Special Operations Command has worked, in part, because of the rough equivalence in size of its military service components, insuring that none overshadows the others. The invisibility of space user needs is manifest, not only in the multi-billion dollar underestimation of the space budget, but in discussion of military space organization. The 10,000 Air Force Space Command personnel are contrasted with the meager hundreds of the Army and Navy Space Commands. In reality, these offices are merely the tips of vast icebergs -- tens of thousands of Army and Navy personnel use space every day.

Navy Space Command should be expanded to include other organizations which are largely dependent on space, such as the Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command and the Naval Computer and Telecommunications Command. Similarly, the Army Space Command should include significant elements presently encompassed in the Information Systems Command and Army Materiel Command.

These commands are vital components of our space effort in every respect except name. They are as much an element of the space program as the scientists at the Hubble Space Telescope Institute. And just as NASA formed that Institute to insure proper representation of Hubble's users, so too should these commands be integrated into the US Space Command to increase military space user's visibility and influence. Although some activities tangential to space might be included in the process, this is preferable to submerging space initiatives in other organizations. Naval Space Command's inclusion of surveillance radars, and Air Force Space command's ICBM force, suggest that this difficulty is not intractable.

Prior to the formation of the space commands a decade ago, military space systems were both developed and operated by the same agency -- a practice still followed by the National Reconnaissance Office. This made sense at a time of rapidly expanding technological opportunities at a new frontier. But Defense Secretary Perry recently observed that "... it is not clear to me that there are giant leaps ahead of us in the next decade or two that are anywhere comparable to the giant leaps we made in the '70s and early '80s..." The National Reconnaissance Office, which still combines spacecraft development and operation under one roof, is clearly a relic of the bygone era in which spacecraft innovation was stressed to the exclusion of other considerations. NRO has outlived its usefulness -- Space Command should have the same operational control of intelligence satellites that it currently exercises over other space systems. And the sumptuous new NRO headquarters at Chantilly would provide a splendid site for an east coast counterpart to Los Angeles' Space and Missile Systems Center, consolidating acquisition activities currently scattered among the Army, Navy and other defense agencies.

A necessary corollary is increased purchase of goods and services from the commercial sector. Air Force Space Command director of plans Brig. Gen. Roger DeKok recognizes that the military "... is no longer the technology driver. It's a customer ... that will increasingly purchase commercial components..." Rather than spending most of its energies devising military-unique systems, a new Space Command should develop its own hardware only as a last resort. The Navy has led the way in the purchase of communications services in the Ultra-High Frequency Follow-on (UFO) program, based on a commercially available spacecraft from Hughes. Increased convergence of military and civilian weather and navigation programs should continue, and similar initiatives can begin immediately in areas such as launch services and medium resolutions imagery.

The Clinton Administration has announced its intent to break down the barriers between the defense industrial base and the rest of the economy by reducing reliance on unique military specifications. It is also committed to harnessing technology to improve American competitiveness and our quality of life. The military space program today has the opportunity both to improve its combat effectiveness and to be at the forefront of these exciting and challenging initiatives.

During the Cold War the Strategic Air Command, for better and worse, defined America's nuclear posture toward the Soviet Union. In the post-Cold War era a new institutional focus is needed to advance the Revolution in Military Affairs. As with SAC, no single agency can uniquely or perfectly foster this strategy and its associated instruments. The Navy -- only lately recognizing the importance of doctrine -- has made a major contribution with the articulation of Space and Electronic Warfare as a distinct combat discipline. And over the past several years, various institutions have contended for the role of SAC's successor as the defining institution of warfare's new paradigm. The Defense Information Systems Agency sought control of all communications and computer assets through the Defense Management Review. The National Security Agency is seeking a dominant place under the rubric of Information Warfare. But a renovated Space Command is the most promising focus for this new frontier of warfare.