As we watch the U.S. House and Senate thrash out the future of President Trump’s Space Force Initiative, it is hard to avoid wondering why it has taken so long to have such a debate about this critically important matter.
Certainly, since I served as the Air Force (USAF) deputy assistant secretary for strategic and space systems from 1979 to 82, I've been an advocate for space-based systems to support and conduct both defensive and offensive military operations.
Moreover, ignorance is displayed by current claims that we are taking a significant "new" step in establishing a Unified Space Command. But USAF Gen. Robert T. Herres became the first commander of USSPACECOM in 1985. He was followed by seven other USAF generals (who were duel hatted as also the commander of Air Force Space Command), until that unified command was abolished in 2002.
Such was the perceived value of that command which is now so explicitly applauded as something new — after almost an 18 year hiatus.
Will its future role be different this time?
The current debate in Congress and among the military services casts doubt on its future role. Not least of those resisting the president’s advocacy for a separate Space Force is the United States Air Force, my favorite service as a former USAF officer.
That resistance was led by no less than former Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, now slated to be president of the University of Texas in El Paso.
But the legacy of her resistance lives on as major "studies are being pursued," which at a minimum should have previously been accomplished by the Air Force long ago — that was surely its role in hosting most of the Pentagon’s key space programs.
These matters were the subject of a June 11, 2019 article by the Editors of National Defense Magazine, “Editor’s Notes: Time for a Bold New Space Architecture.”
As it makes clear, needed is action — not more talk and studies, as is what the bureaucracy usually does as a stalling tactic — toward revamping the Pentagon’s space operations and supporting infrastructure, especially within but certainly not limited to the Air Force.
At least the importance of having that debate is finally being recognized by our leaders who at long last are beginning to see space as a military domain, not simply a place for basing adjuncts to support our “real” military forces based on land, at sea and in the air.
General Benard (Bennie) A. Schriever, the Father of USAF Space systems after whom is named Schriever AFB in Colorado Springs, was bridled in the late 1950s and early 1960s by the political leaders in those days after his speeches asserting this rather obvious future space military role. I discussed these matters with him many times when he was a key advisor to President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI).
Those negatively biased conditions of the 50s and 60s grew, especially among those who mistakenly have believed — and still believe — that arms control can protect our military systems. This view has left us with potentially vulnerable systems that can be countered by our enemies today.
So, the Pentagon is playing “catch-up” with some growing threats, as has been observed by Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Michael Griffin—and I know Mike knows whereof he speaks.
While I could point to many places for innovation, I again echo previous messages that we need again to exploit technology that has been advanced by the private sector to build truly cost-effective space-based defenses, after the pattern that was clearly demonstrated during by President Reagan’s SDI efforts.
SpaceX and others are pursuing these technologies for commercial purposes—and they should also be applied to build needed space-based sensors and interceptors for military purposes, as is included in the mission of the new Space Development Agency (SDA) — itself a focus of debate among the “powers that be.”
New SDA director, Dr. Fred Kennedy, stated at last week’s Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colorado that past efforts had been marked by "profound and pathological risk aversion."
At least — I would say.
Kennedy also noted that we should have considered exploiting large numbers of small satellites 20-years ago.
Hear, hear! I would only add that his timing is a bit off. The SDI efforts did just that, 30 years ago.
Moreover, the Pentagon’s most senior acquisition executive in 1990 approved a Demonstration and Validation (DemVal) effort that down-selected from five to two contractor teams to evaluate the potential for such a system — its name was Brilliant Pebbles and was based on exploiting cutting edge technology then advancing in the private sector.
Regrettably, the Clinton administration gutted that important effort as one of its first acts in 1993. But it was a good idea then—and is a good idea now. Hopefully, future related efforts this time will fare better in current debates about the president’s Space Force initiative.
Ambassador Henry F. (Hank) Cooper, Chairman of High Frontier and an acknowledged expert on strategic and space national security issues, was President Ronald Reagan's Chief Negotiator at the Geneva Defense and Space Talks with the Soviet Union and Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) Director during the George H.W. Bush administration. Previously, he served as the Assistant Director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, Deputy Assistant USAF Secretary and Science Advisor to the Air Force Weapons Laboratory. In the private sector he was Chairman of Applied Research Associates, a high technology company; member of the technical staff of Jaycor, R&D Associates and Bell Telephone Laboratories; a Senior Associate of the National Institute for Public Policy; and Visiting Fellow at the Heritage Foundation. He received B.S. and M.S. degrees from Clemson and a PhD from New York University, all in Mechanical Engineering. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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