Commentary | Shaping Redundant Response U.S. Military Space Capabilities
In a recent report by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, the evolving threat to U.S. space capabilities was highlighted. “China is pressing forward with an ambitious counterspace program, including a ground- and space-based space surveillance systems, electronic warfare capabilities, and kinetic kill vehicles,” the report said.
As the United States shapes an Asian pivot, the ability to network U.S. and allied forces is growing in importance. The Chinese understand this, and their counterspace program is designed precisely to degrade such U.S. and allied capabilities and to undercut confidence in what the U.S. and its allies can do to deal with threats in the Pacific and beyond.
The answer to such a challenge is clearly robust and redundant space-enabled C5ISR(command, control, communications, computers, combat systems, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) capabilities. But the response is not simply in terms of space platforms, it is about building from the recognition that air breathing systems being deployed and about to be deployed into the Pacific provide crucial building blocks for robust redundancy.
“No platform fights alone” is a key point in understanding the design of the attack and defense enterprise of the 21st century. Space platforms are not being tasked to provide the only response to a Chinese counterspace threat. Rather, the entire C5ISR enterprise built into a honeycomb is the correct response and approach.
The Pacific capability of the U.S. military can be built around three principles: presence, economy of force and scalability. Presence refers to having U.S. forces present and interdependent with allied forces in the Pacific. Economy of force is built around not having to bring overwhelming force to presence. But that only works if the force is scalable and has the capability to reach back and up to a surge of capability to provide for overwhelming force as necessary.
The key linchpin to do this is the C5ISR enterprise in the Pacific. With robust and redundant ISR, the enterprise enables a distributed force presence to be honeycombed. That is, the network is not about hierarchy and the ability of an adversary to whack the head of the hierarchy; it is about a honeycomb of deployed and distributed capability that no adversary can cripple with a single or easy blow.
A key element for shaping a robust and redundant ISR system in the Pacific is the F-35, a tactical aircraft with strategic impact. The new aircraft is a flying combat system that has C5ISR built into the cockpit. As a fleet, the F-35s provide a critical layer in shaping a robust and redundant ISR system, which is both synergistic with space systems and complementary to those systems.
A deployed fleet of F-35s — allied and U.S. — provides a powerful deterrent to any Chinese thought of a first strike on U.S. military space systems. It makes such a strike significantly less effective and useful to Chinese military planners. From the outset, the deployed fleet and space systems forge a powerful deterrent capability.
To understand how the F-35 can intersect with the deployed C5ISR systems and provide robust redundancy for military space, it is important to understand briefly what the F-35 actually is. The F-35 is often simply referred to as a tactical aircraft, and a replacement for fourth-generation or legacy aircraft. It is really something quite different.
It represents a dramatic shift from the past. Individual F-35 pilots will have the best database of real-time knowledge in the history of combat aviation. And all of this is internal to their cockpit and enabled by advances in computer processing and sensor information fusing.
Each F-35 pilot combined with human sensing (seeing visual cues outside the cockpit) will be enabled by machine-driven sensor fusion to have combat situational awareness better than any opponent.
Concurrent with their ability to look-see, which is limited by physical realities, the F-35 pilots will be able to “see” using cockpit electronic displays and signals to their helmet allowing them not to just fight with their individual aircraft but be able to network and direct engagements at more than 1,200 kilometers in 360 degrees of three-dimensional space out to all connected platforms.
A fleet of F-35s will be able to share their fused information display at the speed of light to other aircraft and other platforms, such as ships, subs, satellites and land-based forces, including unmanned aerial vehicles and eventually robots. Tactically, “Aegis is my wingman,” “SSGN is my fire support” will be developed for conventional warfare.
This enables a “tactical” aircraft to evolve into a key technology for strategic operations and impacts.
The F-35 is known as a fifth-generation player in the state-of-the-art for both the air-to-air fighter and air-to-air attack combat roles. It also adds an electronic warfare component to the fight.
Electronic warfare is a complex subject with many discreet but also connected elements. It was designed inherently into the F-35 airframe and C5ISR-D (for decision) cockpit.
Electronic warfare can include offensive operations to identify opponents’ emissions in order to fry, spoof or jam their systems. In successful electronic war, often-kinetic kill weapons can be fired. An F-35 can be a single sensor/shooter or offload its track to other platforms such as planes, ships and subs and eventually unmanned aerial combat systems.
The kinetic kill shot is usually a high-speed missile designed to home on jam. It has been said on the modern battlefield — air, sea or land — if not done correctly,
“you emit and you die.”
Defensively in electronic warfare there are a lot of other issues, such as electronic countermeasures, electronic counter-countermeasures, and all things “cyberwar,” which is a subject unto itself, extremely complex and not well understood.
Electromagnetic pulse concerns, infrared sensing, always protecting “signals in space” of the friendly info being transmitted and, as mentioned, jamming opponents’ signals, all are key considerations in electronic |warfare.
What is necessary to succeed in evolving capabilities to fight in the age of electronic warfare?
In taking a lesson from history, before World War II, AT&T long lines research found that in order to build and keep operational a U.S. phone system, the key to success was the need for “robust and redundant” systems.
Two generations later, the F-35 was designed as both inherently robust and redundant with many sensors and systems built into the airframe structure from initial design forward. All the F-35 systems designed and developed sent electronic information into the aircraft cockpit “fusion engine.” Trusted fusion information generated by inherent aircraft systems, queued up electronically by threat, will send to the cockpit displays and the pilot’s helmet battle-ready, instantaneous situational awareness.
The ability of the deployed F-35s — again owned by allies as well as U.S. forces — presents a diversified and honeycombed presence and scalable force. This baseline force is significantly enhanced by reachback to space assets, but the space assets now receive redundancy by being complemented as well by a deployed fleet of flying combat systems. This joint capability means that the value of space-based targets goes down to the Chinese or whomever, and diversification provides significant enhancement of deterrence as well.
In short, in rethinking the way ahead with regard to military space — notably in a period of financial stringency — getting best value out of your entire warfighting enterprise is highlighted. Reorganizing the space enterprise within an overall C5ISR approach enabled by a honeycombed fleet of F-35s is a strategic opportunity of the first order.
And this re-enforces an American and allied advantage in facing competitors like China. In countless articles on the People’s Liberation Army and its way of war, author after author refer to the brilliance of Sun Tzu and his “Art of War.” The point they often make is always be alert to advantages accruing to the side that creates an “asymmetric war” advantage.
The evolving capability described above actually foreshadows U.S. and allied asymmetric robust and redundant strategic technologies. It is the beginning of a new level of deterrence against proliferating 21st century threats.
However, one of the best examples of the American “Art of War” was forcefully stated by William Tecumseh Sherman, a West Point-trained officer who arguably was one of the most visionary and capable generals in history. His words 150 years ago cautioning the South not to trigger a war still ring true to this day: “You are rushing into war with one of the most powerful, ingeniously mechanical and determined people on Earth — right at your doors. You are bound to fail.”
Robbin Laird is the co-founder of Second Line of Defense and an analyst of defense, space and security issues, based in Paris and Washington. Ed Timperlake is editor of the Second Line of Defense Forum and a former director of technology assessment, international technology security for the Office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense.