“[The] Basic strategic space requirement is for a manned strike force that is highly survivable, capable of sustained operation, independent of Earth support during periods of hostilities, subject to assured positive command and control at all levels of operations before, during
and after initial strike, and capable of delivering weapons with precision and discrimination in the face of any conceivable defense in the period under question.”

General Tommy Power wrote that in 1962 in a secret telex explaining why the Air Force needed a manned spacecraft propelled into orbit by nuclear bombs exploded underneath it. Several more hyperventilating paragraphs followed.

Power was in charge of Strategic Air Command, and his Orion space battleship was obviously not approved, either by his bosses on the Air Staff or the Secretary of Defense. But that kind of overheated warrior rhetoric has always existed in the U.S. Air Force when it comes to space programs, particularly space weapons. Rarely have they been able to convince their superiors of the need for such expensive and usually impractical weapons, but that has not stopped them from hyperbole. Nobody is better at full jargon dominance than the space weaponeers.

Unfortunately, a lot of people outside of this community fall for the rhetoric with regularity, assuming that it means something. The press reports these speeches and the occasional speculative study as if they represent real Pentagon plans. Conservatives believe that if an Air Force general states the need for an anti-satellite weapon or an expensive piece of hardware it must be vital to national security. And so-called “peace and justice” groups claim that the sky is falling and that we are about to enter a dangerous new era. The gulf between rhetoric and reality is filled with a lot of clueless people.

The U.S. Air Force has a long and vivid history of advocating ambitious space projects. General Homer Boushey declared in 1958 that the United States needed to put nuclear missiles on the Moon in order to serve as the ultimate deterrent (they would nuke the commies three days after the war was over). Later senior Air Force leaders wanted the X-20 Dyna-Soar space plane and the Manned Orbiting Laboratory.

But the demise of both of these expensive programs soured senior Air Force and Department of Defense leaders on ambitious, often ill-defined military spacecraft. By the 1980s and 1990s only the senior leaders of Air Force Space Command and the joint service U.S. Space Command made extravagant claims about space programs. Perhaps not surprisingly, much of this advocacy came from former pilots with relatively little experience in space operations, a result of the poor way the U.S. Air Force has treated those in its ranks who make space operations a career.

Now there are reports that the White House is evaluating a revised national space security strategy document that will consider the role of offensive and defensive weaponry in space. The last one was produced in 1996 and could use some updating. But it appears as if once again the press — and partisans on both the left and the right — are going to engage in a vociferous, probably not very illuminating discussion. And already they are showing signs of falling for the rhetoric rather than the reality.

The United States always has had a substantial rhetorical military space program consisting of speeches and papers by a few Air Force generals advocating various programs for orbiting space weapons. The problem is that most of the programs in rhetorical military space do not abide by the laws of physics, few of them abide by the laws of bureaucratic and international affairs, and none of them abide by the laws of fiscal reality. Few of these proposals survive very long when they reach Washington, where engineers, analysts and accountants pick them apart.

A former civilian Air Force chief scientist, whose job was to advise the senior uniformed leadership, once remarked that one of his tasks consisted of serving as a reality check for goofy proposals from Air Force Space Command, like using lasers to blow up tanks. Godzilla can do this, the Air Force cannot.

Unfortunately, the general media often has fallen for the rhetoric, assuming that a weapon that is mentioned in a speech or a “future vision” document is obviously approved and under development. Similarly, the press may focus on the rhetoric because reporters lack an understanding of the operational issues. For instance, most space weapons require large and expensive constellations of satellites in order to provide quick response anywhere on the globe.

And one of the primary reasons that the United States has not fielded an operational anti satellite system in decades is not arms control or a vague notion of “the sanctuary of space,” but because an antisatellite weapon is both expensive and has limited utility.

But it is not only the press that falls for the rhetoric while ignorant of the reality — both advocates and opponents of space weaponization do as well. The conservative press occasionally advocates various space weapons programs, often in the context of a perceived threat, like the increase in Chinese space operations. They are quick to latch on to calls for space weapons issued by “the warriors,” failing to recognize the impracticality of the proposals or the lack of any military consensus that they are necessary.

Another group that falls for the rhetoric is the peace and justice crowd, which is better known in space circles for their opposition to the use of nuclear power for civilian space missions. They quickly hyperventilate over macho jargon like “full-spectrum dominance,” or the latest slang: “non-kinetic attack.” Fortunately for the military (and NASA), their grasp of even basic bureaucratic relationships — not to mention physics — has been so poor that it muddies their message.

There is a social cost to this diversion — the real issues in the real military space program get lost. Several of the biggest military and intelligence space programs right now are in major trouble. The Space Based Infrared Satellite High (SBIRS High), for instance, is hundreds of percent over budget and it has become difficult to believe the assurances of program managers that the end is in sight because we have heard that before.

Yet the left and the right, and the mainstream press, would rather focus on the remote and relatively unimportant issue of space weaponization instead of the management and budgetary mess that exists right now.

Dwayne A. Day is the associate editor of Raumfahrt Concret, a German aerospace magazine; his history of the F-15 antisatellite program recently appeared in Spaceflight magazine. This article initially appeared in different form at www.thespacereview.com

Dwayne Day served as an investigator on the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. This article originally appeared in The Space Review, a SpaceNews affiliate.