October 1, 2008  

An outer space defense bargain

Much like the world’s oceans, space is now a medium that enhances and reinforces the power of the U.S. military.

However, the nature of this medium, combined with the process by which we build and deploy satellites, means that space is simultaneously the greatest force-multiplier for the U.S. military and potentially the most significant force divider.

The military uses space for tasks such as guiding munitions to their targets, maneuvering unmanned systems, helping soldiers and sailors navigate, and transmitting vast amounts of information throughout the battlespace and back to decision-makers in Washington.

Unfortunately, the immense utilities that space provides depend on a constellation of satellites that are inherently vulnerable: They are visible to all and follow an established and predictable route, making them easy targets.

For America’s enemies, being unable to compete militarily with the U.S. on a level playing field often means surveying alternative options that target vulnerable choke points such as satellite-reliance. Much as radical Islamists have resorted to terrorist tactics — using crude weapons to produce catastrophic events that drive the media cycle in a politically beneficial manner — China has chosen to pursue its own high-end asymmetric advantage that links advanced anti-satellite (ASAT) technology with a larger effort to deter, disrupt and deny U.S. forces the capability to operate in an environment that would otherwise be easily dominated by conventional U.S. power. The extent of China’s anti-satellite capabilities have been clearly demonstrated in the past several years, including the January 2007 direct ascent ASAT demonstration against a Chinese weather satellite.

Equally troubling is the costly and time-consuming process required to build and deploy new satellites. This system is inflexible and unresponsive to the operational needs of the military. Before the 1991 Gulf War, for example, Pentagon planners determined that their existing satellite communication capacity was insufficient to support the war effort. Even in the middle of a pressing scenario being driven by a pending conflict, efforts to launch an additional Defense Satellite Communication System III did not occur until February 1992, a year after hostilities ended.

A relatively new effort that aims to provide solutions to this dual problem is Operationally Responsive Space (ORS). Born largely out of the transformational era of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, ORS provides a cheap, rapid and highly adaptive means for “surging” space capabilities based on the real-time demands of combatant commanders and reconstituting assets in an emergency situation following a surprise attack. Over the past five years, this vision has matured rapidly, culminating in the establishment of an ORS program office in May 2007. ORS can have a strategic impact in an environment where the capability to reconstitute assets on an as-needed basis exists in conjunction with China’s expanding ASAT capabilities and developed anti-access strategy. Given proper funding priority, it could provide one of America’s best-value defense systems.

Responsive space

A product of the Defense Department’s Office of Force Transformation, ORS would rapidly deliver to the war fighter short-term capabilities that augment space-based national security assets. Accomplishing this requires developing low-cost tactical satellites (TacSats) weighing less than 1,000 pounds, along with appropriate “bus” standards that enable the Pentagon to adopt a plug-and-play approach to satellite production for mission-specific payloads. Also necessary, and perhaps more challenging, is the need for launch vehicles that are cheap, small and available on demand. However ambitious, the plan is for these launch vehicles to be ready to launch within days, possibly hours, of being called up.

The advantages of miniaturized satellites lie in their nimble and adaptive qualities. Compared with traditional large, stand-alone satellites, microsatellites can be outfitted continuously with the latest technological upgrades and can replace their outdated counterparts. Additionally, because they offer only one or two capabilities each, should one on-board system fail, the satellite is replaced relatively cheaply. And finally, capabilities could be tailored to the needs of combatant commanders and be easily reinforced on an as-needed basis. Imagine the flexibility for combatant commanders needing additional reconnaissance satellites to observe events during a pending crisis. When communication bandwidth must be surged, they can bring these assets online in a matter of days.

Over the past five years, the program designed to produce miniaturized satellites, TacSat, has evolved at a reasonable rate. The TacSat 1 program was initiated in May 2003, aiming to achieve development within one year for less than $10 million. Although the satellites were never launched, the Naval Research Laboratory met deadlines and kept costs relatively low through a series of cost-cutting initiatives that built on existing commercial technologies and took into account an expected unit lifespan of one year. The TacSat 2 program, costing $39 million and outfitted with tactical imaging and radio frequency equipment, was launched in December 2006 and successfully took part in military exercises during the summer of 2007. Development of TacSat 3 and a TacSat 4, expected to be launched in August and September 2009, respectively, are well underway, and TacSat 5 is planned as well.

Promising launchers

Among the small, low-cost launchers either available or in development, the most promising appears to be the Minotaur. Ranging in cost from about $21 million to $28 million, the Minotaur proved its effectiveness when it was used to launch the TacSat 2 satellite in December 2006. In April, the ORS program office procured three Minotaurs for missions in 2010-11. The Defense Department is also looking to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) Falcon program, which offers similar, low-cost solutions.

The unprecedented modernization of China’s military and the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) efforts in space are consistent with an asymmetric strategy that seeks to acquire the capabilities to deny access to anyone China believes might pose a threat. From direct attack weapons such as direct-ascent systems and co-orbital interceptors to “denial of service” jamming technologies, the PLA is developing a diverse array of anti-satellite weapons.

As ORS matures, it has the potential to have a tremendous impact on the decision-making process of Chinese military planners. At present, and according to the 2009 Pentagon review of China’s military capabilities, the PLA has judged that the possession of proficient ASAT technologies could deter the U.S. from entering into a conflict over Taiwan. According to the judgments of PLA strategists, the U.S. is unlikely or less likely to intervene in conflicts where it runs the risk of being the target of a space “shock and awe” strike which may leave its conventional forces seriously disadvantaged against Chinese forces and equally incapacitated in other global theaters of operation.

The U.S. had committed to a strategy that aims to “dissuade or deter others from either impeding those rights or developing capabilities intended to do so.” The ability to build sizable satellite constellations cheaply and reconstitute satellites on a short-term basis will help to reinforce this strategy.

One of the underanalyzed benefits of ORS is that it offers a relatively cheap way to nullify the PLA’s efforts in space by dissuading its pursuit of ASAT technologies. The concept of dissuasion, given prominence in the Bush administration’s National Security Strategy and Quadrennial Defense Review, is defined by analysts Andrew Krepinevich and Robert Martinage as a type of “pre-deterrence” where the target is discouraged from employing or expanding development of a capability.

In the case of China, the availability of ORS capabilities for U.S. planners could go a long way toward ensuring that U.S. space power remains guaranteed. If space is no longer a major vulnerability for the U.S. military, PLA planners may be less inclined — indeed, dissuaded — to pursue ASAT technologies.

Questions need to be asked, among them:

å Might the PLA response be to turn to denial-of-service weapons?

å Would it seek to acquire even more direct-attack weapons in an effort to overwhelm America’s reconstitution capabilities?

å Do both a direct attack and a denial-of-service attack constitute an act of war when one is permanent and the other only temporary?

å What further steps can the U.S. take to enhance the dissuasive capacity of ORS?

More initiatives to partner with allies on the design, construction and deployment of satellites, creating a shared system, might serve politically to dissuade Beijing.

ORS deserves considerably more thoughtful analysis and consideration. It must also receive a portion of the defense budget that respects the prominent role it has the potential to play. The ORS program office has a budget of $646 million for fiscal 2008 through 2013 and funding for 20 government staff members. With short- and long-term priorities, including the difficult task of coordinating the development of affordable launch vehicles, Congress must ensure the program office has the resources necessary to meet its requirements. Funding the development and deployment of ORS capabilities is vital to ensuring that the advantages the military procures from space will be sustained, reinforced and enhanced in the coming decades.

Eric Sayers is a national security research assistant at The Heritage Foundation.