By the early 1980s, the strategic and tactical importance of space to military leaders was crystallizing. The vision Air Force Gen. Henry H. “Hap” Arnold had in the late 1940s – that missiles and
their payloads would play an important role in the service’s future – largely had come to fruition.
With progress, however, came the realization that the status quo no longer would work. The Air Force’s space assets, spread out among several commands, needed to be under one umbrella. The time was right to establish a separate entity – Air Force Space Command.
By then, the
force that took shape in the Air Force’s Los Angeles-based Western Development
in the early 1950s had been firmly ensconced in the nation’s weapons inventory for 30 years
Atlas, Titan and (Thor) missiles, initially built to carry warheads, had been hauling communications, reconnaissance and weather satellites into orbit from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., and Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., for years – for civilian as well as military customers.
While the research-and-development community stayed busy perfecting existing space technologies and creating new ones, military commanders on land,
in the air
came to depend on space-borne equipment to provide the latest and quickest communications and weather information. Air raids over North Vietnam hinged upon satellite weather information.
In addition, the nation’s only real competitor in space – the Soviet Union – was hot on the path toward developing and deploying anti-satellite
weapons to augment its formidable inventory of ICBMs.
Pressure to Change
“Clearly, the world had changed,” said George W. Bradley
, chief historian for the Air Force Space Command, Peterson Air Force Base, Colo. “It made sense to consolidate [military space assets] under one command.”
“Pressures were building that space would become important for war
,” said retired Maj. Gen. Robert S. Dickman, who was deputy to the undersecretary
of the Air Force for military space programs and a senior officer
with the National Reconnaissance Office.
is now executive director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.
Air Force space advocates, particularly in the Air Defense Command (ADCom
), came to the forefront in the quest for a separate command for space within the service. But ADCom
was disestablished in 1978, when its primary mission – defense against nuclear attack from Soviet bombers – atrophied, Dickman said.
assets were absorbed by Strategic Air Command
and development people
still were opposed to ceding turf to a new command.
Still, the concept had powerful supporters:
Future Air Force Secretary Edward C. Aldridge;
Gen. Lew Allen, the chief of staff;
and then-Lt. Gen. Jerome O’Malley, who arguably would have become chief of staff had he not died in a 1985 plane crash, were among
the strongest advocates of creating
Air Force Space Command.
Gen. Kevin P. Chilton, the outgoing commander of Space Command, cites Allen as a critical influence.
“He was the chief of staff of the Air Force who said, ‘We’re going to have an Air Force Space Command,’” Chilton said.
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill, particularly former astronaut Sen. Harrison Schmitt
(R-N.M.), also were critical of what they perceived as inertia regarding military space assets. At Schmitt’s request, the
General Accounting Office (GAO, now known as the Government
Accountability Office) produced a report that decried the Air Force’s wont of calling space a mission, rather than a medium. The GAO report concluded by urging creation of the new command.
“The pressures to become more operational were coming together,”
On Sept. 1, 1982, Air Force Space Command was formed;
Gen. James Hartinger was tapped as its first commander.
A Fresh Start
From that point, the new command began a gradual assimilation process in which it took on
missions that had been spread out across the Air Force.
“Once the command was born, you could see it evolving into what you see today,”
“The first thing was moving stuff back from SAC
so there was some infrastructure,
keeping track of orbital, missile warning radars and satellites, and eventually weather satellites,
” Dickman said.
“SAC had control of some communications satellites, and some development and control fell under Air Force Systems Command,”
Systems Command still retained some assets, such as satellite control and the launch bases at Vandenberg and Cape Canaveral. However, b
oth launch bases moved into Space Command by the mid-1980s.
In addition to the Defense Support Program
, intended to spot incoming Soviet ICBMs
and the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program from SAC, Space Command also assumed control of surveillance radar and optical systems in 1983.
, which at the time required individual receivers that each took up an entire Jeep, came over in 1984
from Systems Command.
The consolidation took several years
and was marked by some historic milestones. But the change was neither fast nor thorough enough to satisfy proponents of change, primarily those within the military space community.
Success In The Desert
During Operation Desert Storm, space assets were used in an
providing battlefield commanders with accurate and up-to-the-minute communications,
weather, navigation and other information, making them an indispensable tool in the eyes of commanders.
“It was the first time that the full complement of national security space systems were brought to bear in a military conflict,” said retired Gen. Thomas Moorman, who headed Air Force Space Command during the Gulf War.
“It was so significant because as the person who was [in command] at the time, I learned an extraordinary amount as to what space could do, in a trial by fire. The learning also was going on by the warfighters,” Moorman said.
In many cases, battlefield commanders had not understood the full range of information space could provide, Moorman said. Some satellites provided warning of incoming Scud missile attacks, and sent signals to F-15 fighters, which then scrambled to search for them. Others provided information on cloud cover and moisture content on the ground in Iraq.
“That was important because in the months leading up to Desert Storm, it was a particularly wet rainy season,” Moorman said. “As a consequence, there was a lot of standing water and mud.”
The moisture information helped Army Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, the commander of
coalition forces during Desert Storm, and his advisers plan the so-called “left hook” attack on Saddam Hussein – advancing from the west through the desert, rather than launching an amphibious assault directly into the sights of Iraqi guns from the
Likewise, Moorman said, GPS provided all-weather navigation to ground troops in areas that were either inhospitable or had no landmarks. GPS also helped the Navy perform its minesweeping mission in the Persian Gulf, and allowed 24-hour precision bombing in all weather.
“And communications satellites carried a great majority of the inter-theater traffic,” said Moorman, who now handles Air Force and NASA business matters for Booz Allen Hamilton, McLean, Va. “Put that all together, and it was a great success story. We learned a great deal.”
The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 led to diminished ICBM threat and a reduction of the weapons’ inventory. A year later under an Air Force reorganization, SAC was folded into
newly created Air Combat Command, which
took control of ICBMs for one year before turning them over to Space Command.
Air Force Space Command picked up F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyo., in 1993, and Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont., a year later, as well as Falcon Air Force Base, Colo., which was renamed after Shriever in 1998.
In 2001, the base where Shriever and his charges conducted much of their early work in ballistic missiles – Los Angeles Air Force Station, Calif. – also joined Air Force Space Command.
Also in 2001 the Space and Missile Systems Center, the acquisitions arm of Air Force space operations, moved to Air Force Space Command from Materiel Command.
Until 2002, Air Force Space Command fell under U.S. Space Command, along with the North American Aerospace Defense Command
and other tenant organizations. The Air Force Space Command chief also headed U.S. Space Command, but when
U.S. Space Command was
U.S. Strategic Command (Stratcom),
Air Force Space Command got its own four-star commander.
The more recent changes came in the wake of a January 2001 report to Congress by the Commission to Assess U.S. National Security Space Management and Organization, known as the Rumsfeld Space Commission,
which sharply criticized the Air Force for its disjointed approach to managing its space assets.
The commission’s creation was spurred by considerable dissatisfaction on Capitol Hill and among advocates for a strong military presence in space.
chaired by then-incoming Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, dealt with how the service handled the budget crunch that followed the success of Desert Storm and the end of the Cold War.
“With the cutbacks, more responsibilities were turned over to the civilian defense community without sufficient involvement and oversight from the military,” said David Spires, a retired Air Force major who now teaches history at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
“The result was programs that were either delayed, too expensive, or stretched out. There were problems with every military system – communications, weather, GPS. It came to a head in the late 1990s, with a series of launch failures. Those in many ways can be attributed to the loose system with not enough oversight,” Spires said.
The panel cited a lack of central control, a scattered and disorganized approach to the budget process, too many “stovepipes” in the chains of command that oversaw space operations, and the potential for a Pearl Harbor-style attack on U.S. military and civilian assets in space.
Following that report
– not to mention the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Virginia –
the emphasis on Air Force oversight and control of military space assets has intensified, Spires said.
“There’s much more of an operational focus, with the Air Force as the key agent for space in the entire defense community,” Spires said.
“Space and air guys were working next to each other at Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia at the launch of Operation Iraqi Freedom. GPS is revolutionizing warfare with its precision. In the first Gulf War, laser targeting was negated by bad weather. With GPS and JDAMs (Joint Direct Attack Munitions) on a bomb, you can control [a weapon] almost as precisely as a laser,” Spires said. “The Air Force is at the heart of this.”
Champions of space power find there is still much more work to be done.
Chief among the tasks ahead, Spires said, is improving the capability to launch a satellite without having to wait six months to get a booster ready. Troops fighting the Taliban in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan could use more weather satellites, Spires said.
Another concern centers around the command system itself. Though Air Force Space Command is autonomous, the appearance of parochial interests could hinder progress.
Retired Gen. Ron Fogleman, who served as Air Force
staff from 1994 to 1997, said that even though the landscape around Air Force Space Command has changed dramatically since 1982, its leaders still have the important task of making it clear that space is not just an Air Force asset.
“This is a joint capability,” Fogleman said. “It’s still why I think we need focus at the unified command level. You have to have robust Air Force, Army
and Navy space commands, and somebody at the command level to pull these things together.”
commander of Air Force Space Command also used to wear the hat as commander of U.S. Space Command, with purview over all military space assets,
it never achieved the legitimacy of a unified command that was anything other than a mouthpiece for the Air Force,” Fogleman said.
“We need to relook at the whole space command idea and get true support from the other services and the Defense Department.”
The jointness message is not lost upon
“We are the principle force provider for the joint fight,” said Chilton
, who has been nominated
. Lt. Gen. Robert Kehler, the deputy commander at Stratc
, was nominated to succeed Chilton at Air Force Space Command.
his point, Chilton
told a story of a young senior airman attached to the 2nd Space Operations Squadron, which flies GPS satellites.
“He was being visited recently by an admiral from another command, who was getting a tour. And the admiral, like most flag officers, asked the junior guy in the room, ‘What do you do?’ And this airman said, ‘Sir, I control 30 GPS satellites that provide precision, navigation
and timing to warfighters all over the world.’ And the admiral said, ‘Those are pretty big words.’ And the airman said, ‘I don’t know about that sir, but that’s what I do.’
But the important thing is that even at our junior levels, in our space operations squadrons that are back here in the United States of America,
our airmen realized that they are not just operating the satellites. They’re delivering a capability that is critical to people on the ground on the other side of the world, or people at sea on the other side of the world, or in the air on the other side of the world. If that capability isn’t delivered, it matters.”
Staff writer Jeremy Singer contributed to this article.