Defending the High Ground
By ALan W. Dowd, ASCF Senior Fellow
“If you control space,” Xu Qiliang, commander of China’s air force, explains, “you can also control the land and the sea.” As America lowers its sights and enters its second year of self-imposed exile from manned spaceflight, Beijing seems eager to prove Xu’s hypothesis. “China has accorded space a high priority for investment,” a Pentagon report on Chinese military power concluded in 2007. Five years later, the payoffs of that investment are sobering.
China has launched a lunar orbiter; test-fired anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons, satellite jammers and satellite-killing lasers; deployed a constellation of satellites to support its armed forces; begun developing “aerospace strike systems” that, like the Pentagon’s “prompt global strike missile,” use space as the avenue for hitting global targets within minutes of launch; and updated its military doctrine to reflect the centrality of space and counter-space operations.
For instance, a 2008 Pentagon report quoted Chinese military planners as openly envisioning a “space shock and awe strike.” The Pentagon noted in 2009 that Chinese military “writings emphasize the necessity of ‘destroying, damaging and interfering with the enemy’s reconnaissance/observation and communications satellites,’ suggesting that such systems, as well as navigation and early warning satellites, could be among initial targets of attack to ‘blind and deafen the enemy.’” And the Pentagon’s 2011 review of Chinese military power reported that Beijing “is developing a multi-dimensional program to improve its capabilities to limit or prevent the use of space-based assets by adversaries during times of crisis or conflict.” In fact, the Economic and Security Review Commission noted this year that, “barring effective countermeasures, the PLA’s ability to complicate U.S. access to space assets is likely to grow over the next 10-15 years.”
Is the United States prepared to meet this challenge?
In 1996, the Clinton administration directed the Pentagon to “develop, operate and maintain space-control capabilities to ensure freedom of action in space and, if directed, to deny such freedom of action to adversaries.” A decade later, the Bush administration declared that America’s “national security is critically dependent upon space capabilities.” The Bush administration vigorously opposed treaties that would constrain U.S. operations in space and demonstrated U.S. space capabilities by shooting down a satellite. Similarly, the Clinton administration authorized the Pentagon to test laser weapons against a satellite.
The Obama administration, on the other hand, has sent mixed signals on the military’s role in space. Although the Obama administration has allowed testing of the X-37B to proceed—the high-flying space plane has obvious applications as a space-based weapons platform—the administration has vowed to pursue “a worldwide ban on weapons that interfere with military and commercial satellites,” shelved plans for the space shuttle’s successor program (known as Constellation) and indicated its willingness to sign on to the European Union’s Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities.
Establishing “rules for the road” for spacefaring nations is a good idea in theory, and banning ASAT weapons is a noble goal. But many worry that the EU’s space code of conduct would have the effect of tethering America and limiting the U.S. military’s freedom of action. In fact, before the administration decided to support the EU’s efforts, a State Department official called the code of conduct “too restrictive.”
As to banning ASATs, to update an old saying, that rocket has already left the earth’s atmosphere. The Chinese and Russian militaries are not going to unlearn what they know or surrender their capabilities. Neither should the U.S. military. Space is the ultimate high ground, and being prepared to defend America’s space assets—and America’s freedom of action—is essential to America’s security.
Already, U.S. space-based assets—civilian and military—are supporting the U.S. military’s earth-based operations: Missile-defense ships prowling the Pacific and Mediterranean, Marine and Army units rebuilding Afghanistan, UCAVs circling over Pakistan and Yemen, JDAMs strapped to loitering bombers, sensors monitoring nuclear activity in Russia and China and North Korea and Iran, and the infrastructure and superstructure of the entire military rely on space assets. In the not-too-distant future, space will become more than just a means to support military operations. It will become a theater of military operations. But don’t take my word for it. “We know from history that every medium—air, land and sea—has seen conflict,” as a blue-ribbon commission on space concluded more than a decade ago. “Reality indicates that space will be no different.” The commission added, “In the coming period…the U.S. will conduct operations to, from, in and through space in support of its national interests.”
Toward that end, the Air Force is testing the secret X-37. This unmanned space plane enters orbit courtesy of an Atlas V rocket, can loiter in space for more than a year (an X-37B returned from a 469-day mission in June) and can fly 500 nautical miles above the earth. X-37s have flown highly classified missions in 2010, 2011 and 2012. A Washington Times report quoted anonymous Pentagon sources as saying the X-37 would likely be used to attack and disable Chinese satellites in the event of a U.S.-PRC conflict. In addition, NBC has reported that Boeing may build a larger variant of the space plane—the X-37C—capable of carrying more cargo and up to six astronauts into space.
Is the X-37 a first step toward a U.S. Space Force or Space Corps? Given the obvious lack of political will in Washington and concerns among some policymakers about the message it would send internationally, an independent branch devoted solely to space operations may not be in the offing in the near-term. However, as Ralph Milsap and D.B. Posey have argued, it may be time for an “Aerospace Force”—an Air Force that is fully empowered to exploit space and space-based capabilities. (It’s worth noting that Beijing has been discussing an independent space force since the 1990s.)
The foundation is certainly in place for an Aerospace Force. The U.S. has a constellation of military units and commands focused on space—and buttressed by substantial funding.
Tracking the Pentagon’s space-related spending is “extremely difficult,” according to the Congressional Research Service, “since space spending is not identified as a line item in the budget.” But as The Washington Post reports, NASA’s annual funding—about $18 billion—is “less than half of the amount spent on national security space programs.” So we can extrapolate national-security space spending to be somewhere north of $37 billion. (A caveat: sequestration threatens to slash military space programs by 22 percent.)
As to units and commands, the Air Force Space Command fields 43,000 personnel at 86 sites worldwide. The 21st Space Wing, for instance, detects and tracks space launches, missile and satellite activity, and 18,000 manmade objects in space. The 22nd Space Operations Squadron commands remote tracking stations and conducts satellite ops. The 310th Space Wing’s mission is to project “space power for U.S. interests worldwide.” The 527th Space Aggressor Squadron “develops new tactics, techniques and procedures to counter threats and improve U.S. military space posture.” The 76th Space Control Squadron conducts “space superiority operations.” And the list goes on. As the National Space Studies Center details, the U.S. military relies on the Missile Defense Agency, National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, Army Space and Missile Defense Command, Naval Network and Space Operations Command, Joint Space Operations Center and other organizations for a range of space-related specialties.
It would be wrong to conclude that the military is steering us toward space. To the contrary, the military is following U.S. interests into space. At its core, the U.S. military’s job is to protect U.S. interests, wherever they are. And today they are increasingly found beyond the earth’s atmosphere. Some 260,000 Americans work in the space sector, and worldwide space-related spending and revenues—the “space economy”—are more than $262 billion, according to the Space Foundation. “The number of space-related patents has almost quadrupled in fifteen years,” according to an OECD report. Of the 999 functioning satellites currently orbiting earth, 442 are American—four times as many as second-place Russia. America’s fleet of satellites relays everything from Nike ads to the Nikkei Average; improves the use of farmland; guides ships, planes and trucks to their destinations; monitors weather; synchronizes financial networks; supports police and fire departments; connects a people and an economy that move at ever-increasing speed; and arms the U.S. military with arguably the most important weapon in modern war: real-time, on-demand information. Yet most Americans are oblivious to the fact that we are so dependent on space.
Long before Americans took to the air for their first flight, George Washington counseled that “There is nothing so likely to produce peace as to be well prepared to meet an enemy.” That truism applies wherever nation-states come into contact with one another—whether on land, the high seas, the skies, cyberspace or space.
A Fleeting Moment for Missile Defense
By Alan W. Dowd, ASCF Senior Fellow
Three decades ago, there were nine countries that fielded ballistic missiles. Today, there are 32. Several of the countries in the growing ballistic-missile club are unstable or unfriendly. Pakistan and Egypt fall into the former category, while Syria, Iran and North Korea are not only unfriendly but also unstable. As the missile threat metastasizes, missile defense is gaining support around the world.
First, let’s look at the threat.
Because of the nature of their regimes—adjectives like paranoid, fatalistic, reckless and terrorist come to mind—North Korea and Iran are the most worrisome of the world’s missile threats. To be sure, other regimes have larger, more lethal arsenals, but those other regimes are rational and stable, which means the old rules of deterrence can keep them at bay. That may not be the case with a nuclear-armed Iran or an unraveling North Korea.
We know that Iran is developing nuclear weapons and delivery systems for those weapons. In fact, Iran has carried out “covert ballistic missile tests and rocket launches, including testing missiles capable of delivering a nuclear payload,” according to the British government. U.S. intelligence agencies have tracked the shipment of intermediate-range missiles from North Korea to Iran, giving Iran the ability to strike American allies and bases in Europe. Worse, the Defense Department estimates Iran could have an ICBM capable of reaching the United States by 2015. But Iran’s missile reach is not limited to land-based assets. In 2004, high-level Pentagon officials confirmed thatIran secretly test-fired a ballistic missile from a cargo ship. Hiding a Scud-type missile and launcher below decks, the ship set out to sea and then transformed into a floating launch pad, peeling back the deck and firing the missile, before reconfiguring itself into a nondescript cargo ship. As Lt. Gen. Henry Obering put it during his tenure as director of the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), “We should not assume that we have full understanding of ballistic missile activities around the world. We have been surprised in the past.”
North Korea was one of those unwelcome surprises, stunning the world with long-range missile tests in the 1990s and nuclear tests in the 2000s. Since 2009, North Korea has detonated a nuclear weapon, test-fired long-range missiles, torpedoed and sunk a South Korean ship in international waters, shelled a South Korean island and begun developing a road-mobile ICBM, which would allow the Kim Dynasty to hide its missile arsenal.
If proliferation gives us reason to worry, the global web of missile defenses offers reason for hope. The operative word here is “global.” An international missile defense (IMD) coalition, for lack of a better term, has emerged to answer the looming missile threat.
• The United States serves as the cornerstone and keystone of the IMD coalition. President Bill Clinton signed legislation that paved the way for deployment of a missile-defense system “as soon as technologically feasible.” By endorsing missile defense, Clinton reflected the emergence of a new national consensus on the issue. Thanks in part to that consensus, President George W. Bush was able to accelerate the program, deploying a layered system of missile defenses, including ground-based interceptors, a chain-link fence of radars spanning the globe, sea-based interceptors on Aegis warships, theater-wide defenses, 747s armed with lasers capable of killing missiles in their boost phase, and plans for ground-based interceptors in Poland and companion radars in the Czech Republic. Today, the U.S. deploys 30 ground-based interceptors in California and Alaska; two Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) batteries, with two more on the way; scores of Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) batteries around the world; and 22 warships equipped with Aegis missile defenses, building toward a fleet of 32 Aegis ships by 2017. In addition, MDA is in the process of standing up data systems on the East Coast that will link to the ground-based interceptors, and there is growing support in Congress for deploying a bed of ground-based interceptors on the East coast, perhaps as soon as 2015.
• Fittingly, Britain was the first ally to join the IMD coalition, agreeing in 2003 to upgrades of ground-based radar stations at Fylingdales and Menwith Hill. Once used to scan the skies for Soviet bombers, the bases now peer into Central Asia, the Middle East and the Mediterranean borderlands, watching for accidental or rogue missile launches.
• In 2008, NATO endorsed U.S. plans to deploy missile defenses in Eastern Europe, including Bush’s proposal for permanent ground-based interceptors in Poland and radars in the Czech Republic. And in 2010, alliance leaders called missile defense “a core element of our collective defense.” Today, Aegis warships are pacing in the Mediterranean, and plans are in the works to deploy a land-based variant of the Aegis system in Eastern Europe.
• With a wary eye on North Korea, Japan deploys missile-defense warships, hosts a powerful X-Band IMD radar and is co-developing the new interceptor missile for Aegis warships. Japanese Aegis-armed warships prowl international waters near North Korea as a hedge against another Pyongyang surprise, and discussions are underway for Japan to host another X-Band radar.
• Australia is a charter member of the IMD coalition, signing a 25-year pact on missile defense cooperation in 2004.
• South Korea’s missile defenses include Patriot batteries, Aegis warships and long-range radars—all courtesy of the U.S. Israel and the U.S. are preparing to share the Arrow anti-missile system with South Korea.
• Israel and the U.S. have collaborated on development, testing and deployment of the Arrow anti-missile system for many years. In 2008, the U.S. installed a radar station in Israel to support the IMD system.
• Elsewhere in the Middle East, the Gulf Cooperation Council (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE, Kuwait and Oman) has agreed to partner with the U.S. in deploying a layered missile-defense system, with ground- and sea-based components. These assets will be networked with U.S.-manned radars in Turkey, which will share data across the IMD architecture. Plus, the UAE recently became the first foreign government to purchase the THAAD system.
This global acceptance of missile defense—enfolding some three dozen nations—is nothing short of remarkable. After all, not long ago, missile defenses were considered too internationally destabilizing, too politically divisive, too financially expensive to deploy. But today, Reagan’s vision of a shield against madmen, mistakes or miscalculation—once derided at home and abroad as “Star Wars”—is shared by leaders on four continents.
In short, missile defense has gone mainstream, which makes it all the more perplexing that President Barack Obama has taken a cleaver to this essential piece of the national-security puzzle.
The Obama administration’s initial budget slashed overall missile-defense spending by 16 percent and ground-based missile defenses by 35 percent. Although the administration has increased investment in sea-based missile defenses, it capped the number of ground-based interceptors in the U.S. at 30 (instead of the planned 44), shelved the 747 airborne laser and reversed NATO’s missile-defense plans for Poland and the Czech Republic. The Czech Republic announced that it was withdrawing from Obama’s scaled-down alternative system—a movable, non-permanent system dubbed “Aegis Ashore”—angrily rejecting Washington’s revised plans as “a consolation prize.” A Polish defense official called the decision “catastrophic.”
Some dismissed Poland’s reaction as paranoia. However, as the old saying goes, it’s not paranoia if they’re really out to get you. Just consider that Russian war games regularly involve simulated nuclear strikes against Poland. (Russia’s opposition to missile defense is a subject for another essay. Suffice it to say, it has more to do with Moscow’s inability to come to grips with the settled outcomes of the Cold War—and attendant loss of its vassal states in Eastern Europe—than it does with any real threat to Russian security. In fact, once upon a time, Vladimir Putin himself declared that the U.S. anti-missile system “does not pose a threat to the national security of the Russian Federation.”)
The administration’s 2013 budget proposal slashed another $810 million from MDA, with fresh cuts in funding for THAAD and the X-Band radar. Cuts in a time of fiscal crisis are necessary. But it’s impossible to ignore the fact that while virtually everything else in the federal budget grows, the missile-defense program is shrinking.
While we’re on the subject of cost, protecting the U.S. from missile-armed madmen is not the cause of our fiscal woes. The U.S. invested a total of $141 billion on missile defense from FY1985 through FY2011. In comparison to the Pentagon’s budget ($662 billion in 2012), the size of big-ticket social programs (Medicare’s 2011 tab was $568 billion) or the overall federal budget ($3.7 trillion in 2012), the amount invested in missile defense is miniscule. Spread over 26 years, missile defense has cost $5.2 billion per year—a rounding error relative to other cost centers in the federal budget.
Still, the critics latch on to the system’s costs—and misses—as reason to downgrade missile defense. But just as the costs are relatively small, so are the number of missile-defense misses. In fact, this system of systems has scored successes on 54 of 68 hit-to-kill intercepts since 2001—79 percent of the time.
In other words, technology has finally caught up with Reagan’s farsighted vision—and so has the rest of the world. Rather than cutting missile defense, the White House should make the most of this fleeting moment when both the technological and geopolitical conditions are favorable.