The recent controversial firings of Secretary of the U.S. Air Force Michael Wynne and Air Force Chief of Staff Michael Mosley provide a strategic inflection point to reflect on the evolution of the U.S. Air Force and the implications of that evolution for military space. The U.S. Air Force is at the center of
military space, both in terms of procurement and demand. Nearly 85 percent of all
military data go through Air Force systems, and the dependence of
military connectivity on the Air Force is crucial enough that Secretary Wynne placed significant emphasis on the challenge of crafting cyber capabilities to defend the network.

After having worked through the “Back to Basics” effort led by former Undersecretary of the Air Force Ron Sega, the service’s military space effort has been stabilized, but the future strategic direction remains to be fully determined.

Much like the challenge of replacing the shuttle, the military space sector faces the replacement of an entire generation of satellites. Either the regeneration or replacement of the current military space architecture is required. This is especially important since the next presidential administration’s preferences for military strategy and procurement cannot be determined at this point – no matter which candidate wins. Indeed, the twin challenges of replacing the shuttle and determining the strategic direction of military space will determine to what extent the
United States
is at the center of 21st century space activities.

One path would see air systems function largely in their own domain as shapers of air combat; the F-22 would be seen as the successor of the F-15 and the F-35 as the successor of the F-16. Robotic vehicles would eat away at the numbers of manned aircraft but would largely function either as adjuncts of the air battle or the flying intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR) platforms for
ground forces.

Following this latter path, the approach would be to continue to focus on significant space-based ISR and communications systems to support global air operations and
ground forces when they are initially inserted into combat areas. The heritage structure would be replaced by a significant investment in satellites and systems with robust capabilities able to do complex support activities without relying on significant air-breathing intermediaries.

A very different path is suggested by the potential of the fifth generation aircraft and their associated robotic systems. Here the onboard processing capabilities of the F-22 and F-35 would be recognized for what they are – namely, breakthrough capabilities to process data for their own use, for the network of air combat systems and to integrate their capabilities with maritime and ground forces. Wynne refers to this as the air systems providing spherical situational awareness to the ground and maritime forces. As the manned systems are deployed and their capabilities better understood and exploited, the role of robotic vehicles in the air network will go up dramatically.

A wolfpack concept is likely to emerge in a way that allows the manned systems to direct and be embedded within airborne robotic networks. Those robotic networks, in turn, would work closely with maritime and ground forces. The capability of providing for collaborative decision-making among maritime, ground and air commanders becomes possible as the interactive network shapes options and provides choices to the joint commanders.

The role of space in this world has the potential to become radically redefined. The proprietary U.S. military space network is most significant when the U.S. seeks to establish air superiority and conducts joint and combined maritime and air strikes against adversaries, either nation state or discrete adversary targets located on foreign territory. Here the interaction among
military systems must be carefully protected and highly integrated for a successful insertion of force. In a way, given the key role of the evolution of the F-22, the military space network would be sized to support this initial air superiority and air dominance effort.

The impact of the fifth generation aircraft on the overall
military enterprise has not been well articulated by the U.S. Air Force. The F-22 has the potential to become the centerpiece of the
strike force. As the connectivity of the aircraft is enhanced to take advantage of its significant situational awareness capability, the F-22 can become the brain of the strike complex.

The F-35 is not an air superiority aircraft, but rather a “flying combat system.” Its ISR and command and control (C2) capabilities will make it capable of becoming the centerpiece of the kind of air-ground operations we have experienced in the last few years of warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan. How the U.S. Marine Corps has been articulating its approach to the use of the F-35 at the centerpiece of its Marine Air Ground Task Force is the harbinger of what could be done for the joint forces.

After the establishment of air superiority and support for the joint strike effort has succeeded, and, if the mission requires the insertion of force and its support for initial operations, then the reliance on proprietary military space can go down dramatically. Reliance on inserted air assets – the manned and unmanned network – to provide flying ISR and communications support would reduce the need for proprietary military space assets as well.

In addition, as ground forces become predominant, more coalition forces are likely to play enhanced roles as well for operations like stability missions. In such a situation, reliance on commercial systems – encrypted – but not based on proprietary
military satellite buses or systems can go up dramatically. Innovative approaches such as the use of hosted payloads can be aggressively pursued if one exploits the advantages of the new generation aircraft and their networked robotic systems.

But if these advantages are not exploited, because of classic military stovepiping and service separatist mentalities, then the need for proprietary military space systems goes up. However, the investment dollars are unlikely to be available to do so. The end result is that the holy grail of ubiquitous bandwidth for the Global Information Grid will not be provided. Indeed, one can question whether the technology or the dollars are available to provide for such a goal.

Rather, the opportunity to exploit the twin promises of the new fifth generation aircraft with new opportunities provided by commercial space is available. But options do not create capabilities without significant effort and clear focus. Will the new administration take advantage of this opportunity?


Laird, PhD, is an independent consultant who has worked closely with the

Air Force, Marine Corps, Navy and Coast Guard for many years and has focused on the connectivity challenge to craft combined and joint forces.