OPED: Air Force Space Strategy is Prudent, Not Trigger Happy

Lawrence Cooper is a former space and missile operations officer and currently principal analyst for space and intelligence programs at Kepler Research, Inc.

In her February 28, 2005 commentary, “Worst-Case Mentality Clouds USAF Space Strategy,” Theresa Hitchens makes some important points, but clouds them in hyperbole and her own version of “worst-case mentality.”

Where she makes the case for maintaining a dialogue about the necessity and prudence of space weapons, Hitchens mistakenly equates the Air Force’s concern with the possibility of an attack on our space assets with a worst-case/trigger-happy mentality.

This is an unwarranted and wrong accusation.

Hitchens is excoriating the Air Force for doing its job. Her worry in this particular case is that the Air Force is overly concerned with the vulnerability of U.S. space assets to adversaries (she modifies that with “potential” as if the United States does not have any adversaries who would wish we didn’t have our formidable and very useful space force enhancement capabilities).

She blames the Air Force for using hype in selling the need for space weapons and particularly in pushing a worst-case/first-case scenario “that any disruption of a space system is potentially the result of an attack.” Her basis for this is Maj. Gen. (select) Daniel Darnell’s statement in Air Force Magazine that space operators should “think possible attack” when something goes wrong with a space system.

Hitchens is wrong in assuming this is a worst-case/first-case mentality and wrong to chastise the military for suggesting this mindset for three particular reasons.

First, it is the military’s job to worry about the worst-case scenario. That must enter into the calculus of protecting this country. Consider the case of Pearl Harbor — the enemy aircraft were detected, but no one thought to consider it was an attack and assumed it was a flight of B-17s. The attack was not in their calculus because Japan did not have the means to bring aircraft all the way to Hawaii … or so they thought, and we know how well that turned out.

The Air Force must consider whether a satellite malfunction or other problem is the result of an attack — that is a prime element in troubleshooting the problem.

An example is MIJI (Meaconing, Intrusion, Jamming and Interference), a term abandoned by the Air Force. Meaconing is the act of using a fake transponder in order to be authenticated as a friendly unit. Intrusion can be someone gaining access to networks or systems. Jamming at its simplest is making it difficult for your enemy to communicate or collect information. Interference is different from jamming. Subtle hindering — not active squelching — is the goal of this technique. The problems these actions cause — whether intentional or accidental — can be subtle and hard to detect, but if not diagnosed cause continued problems.

When I first began space operations, there was a campaign (and there may still be under its new moniker) to raise awareness of MIJI so that we would be able to detect intentional attacks on our systems. Space operators tended to assume satellite anomalies were due to unintentional causes, and there was concern that failures to consider other sources of the problem could leave the true cause undiagnosed, hamper our operations and prevent success.

Hitchens states “… even the most ardent space weapons proponents reveals that no one seriously believes major threats to on-orbit systems exist today.” I ask what is a major threat? Does she mean physical attacks on our systems? Then maybe the risk is low, but what about the risk of electronic attack such as the intentional use of MIJI?

We have seen on-orbit jamming of Tongasat. We have had our own uplinks of broadcasts intended for the Middle East jammed from Cuba, the British temporarily had control of one of its Skynet satellites wrested from them, and more recently China has had its own control of communications satellites temporarily hijacked. This doesn’t mean our own military satellites are necessarily vulnerable, but the military does make heavy use of commercial satellites. It has to consider intentional sources of satellite problems or it is lax in its duties.

The second reason is that Hitchens opines about trigger-happy thinkers who would accidentally push the United States into a war due to a worst-case mentality that mistakenly thinks our satellites were attacked. She worries about a “shoot first and let God sort ’em out” strategy, which could result in the United States shooting down innocent satellites. This is not only an instance of worst-case thinking on her part, but it also borders on absurdity.

The Air Force rightly wants its satellite operators to consider all possibilities. As part of that philosophy it has established the development of the Rapid Attack Identification, Detection and Reporting System , which is intended to provide the capability for differentiating between satellite malfunctions and the infliction of intentional problems through physical and electronic attacks.

This mentality is a prudent one that seeks to consider all possibilities with no bias towards or against the diagnosis of an intentional attack. Furthermore this does not necessarily mean that the diagnosis of an intentional attack will result in a reciprocal attack on guilty or innocent satellites.

There exist a whole gamut of responses that can be taken militarily, economically and/or diplomatically. The Air Force is not going to decide to shoot first. The cognizant Combatant Command (most likely Strategic Command) would take the lead in developing courses of action, and I am confident that a reasoned process would be used to determine the cause and source of the problem. Non-military options would assuredly be on the table and the issue would be decided at the national level.

The third and final reason is her use of a poor straw man argument. She states in her opinion piece that “careful probing of even the most ardent space weapon proponents reveals that no one seriously believes major threats to on-orbit systems exits today.” I’ll grant her that, but the Air Force looks ahead 10 to 20 years from now. That is how long it would take to design, develop and deploy an operational system.

The Air Force must look ahead because adversaries and potential adversaries will continue to adapt existing and advancing technologies to their ends — hence the use of airliners as cruise missiles. There are a wide range of possibilities and potential threats out there. The Air Force is doing the right thing by considering the threat and planning for it. It is up to interested citizens and groups like Hitchens’ organization to engage with our national leaders and commence a dialogue, not to demagogue the issue and denounce those entrusted with protecting this nation.

Hitchens uses too much hyperbole and assumes the worst of dedicated military offices. She and others would likely be among the first to cry foul if the United States did indeed experience an attack on its satellite systems but had no capability to do anything about it.

We should let the Air Force develop its defensive counterspace capabilities and plan for offensive counterspace capabilities. These programs are subject to a rigorous Planning, Programming and Budgeting Execution System process that looks at the costs and benefits, including risks and considers the big picture of the U.S. National Security Strategy, the other military services and the needs of the warfighters.

These are the reasons why space programs are cut back, why space-based radar gets pushed back, and why space-based lasers are not orbiting. It is the Air Force’s job to plan for and advocate systems, but it is the Joint Staff, the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the National Security Council where the overarching strategies and priorities are hashed out.

Let’s argue at those levels and stop trashing the Air Force’s intentions and integrity. We do need to discuss the relative values of counterspace systems to other Department of Defense programs, but we need to do it in the proper venue and in a respectful manner.

Lawrence Cooper is a former space and missile operations officer and currently principal analyst for space and intelligence programs at Kepler Research, Inc.