The Sky's No Limit as Air Force Aims Spaceward
As satellites become more crucial, Air Force expands its role in outer space.
"Aim High" has long been a slogan of the United States Air Force.Skip to next paragraph
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Now it's aiming even higher.
The Air Force's fundamental purpose is again adapting to the newest platform from which war is waged: outer space.
The Air Force's mission evolution is so complete that there are persistent rumors of an eventual name change for the service. Any such Space Force, or Aerospace Force is officially still years in the future, but a combination of the current day fighter-bomber role with a space-based intelligence mission that feeds all of the military services is well under way.
Already, about 30 percent of the Air Force's mission is space related. And 90 percent of what the US military spends on space comes from the Air Force.
"You are seeing a significant increase in the investment in space," says Glen Bruels, a vice president at Booz, Allen, and Hamilton, a consulting firm.
In the past three decades, the heavens have gone from a mysterious and unexplored realm to a crucial, strategic vantage point, from which the US and other countries spy, communicate, and relay information.
Indeed, space programs are now elbowing up to the budget table alongside traditional, big-ticket programs like the Joint Strike Fighter and the radar evading F-22.
The la carte menu of space-based programs includes the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle, or EELV. This $2 billion program is designed to save $5 billion to $10 billion over the next 20 years by using cheaper vehicles to launch satellites.
Milstar satellites, orbiting more than 22,000 miles above earth, relay military communications through each other, making jamming and interception more difficult. Two are now in orbit. Four more are planned.
Beaming missiles, maps
Satellites are also indispensable in today's battlefield operations. They beam down digital signals that guide a bunker-busting missile into the Iraqi sands or provide 3-D maps of mountain valleys in Bosnia to foot soldiers.
"We'll depend a lot more on space than we have in the past," says Michael Vickers, director of Strategic Studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington think tank.
The Gulf War, called the first space war, proved the pinpoint efficacy of satellite-guided munitions. Satellites also relay navigation signals, provide crucial weather data, and detect missile launches. And their reconnaissance abilities are legendary.
While the military's spaceward trend is clear, its new strategic outlines are still emerging.
For instance, a future Space Force may be called on to protect commercial satellites in space. Congress could eventually ask the military to develop a protective mission the way the Navy patrols the open ocean.
Today's "passive" orbiting satellites aren't built to withstand attacks or to shoot at other satellites. But as the number of US commercial and military satellites - now 220 - swells to 1,800 over the next 10 years at a cost of a $1 trillion, that could change. The US may have to protect this massive investment
The vast majority of these orbiting craft will be commercial - put into orbit by the telecommunications and entertainment industries.
In fact, in the past two years, spending on commercial satellites has eclipsed similar government expenditures, including those by NASA, and the military and intelligence communities combined.
Nevertheless, the military already has a major presence in space. The Pentagon spends $35 million a day in space.
The Air Force Space Command at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado "defends America through its space and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) operations," according to its mission statement.
Meanwhile, the National Reconnaissance Office oversees construction, launching, and information gathering from satellites.
In need of a Space Force?
As the use of space by military and commercial interests grows -and to avoid duplication of effort - some think a separate space service will eventually be necessary to launch, operate, and organize the information transmitted down to earth.
Many experts say the Air Force is the heir apparent to create this new force. Yet Air Force ownership of space is not a done deal. "Space is an area the Navy would also like to be involved in," says Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution.
The Navy is the single largest military consumer of satellite intelligence. "My guess is the Navy won't go quietly," says Dr. Korb.
But change is well under way as the Air Force integrates its current mission with space-based intelligence gathering that feeds all military services.
"This evolution is a 40-year development," says retired Air Force General Tom Moormon, who has been at the forefront of the Air Force's long-range space planning for many years.