The Military Space Plane: Providing Transformational and Responsive Global Precision Striking Power: Part 2

Status Report From: Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC), USAF
Posted: Thursday, January 17, 2002

Note: This paper is also available in Word and Acrobat formats.

A White Paper on the Operational Utility of a Military Spaceplane in the Emerging 21st Century International Security Environment

Proposed by members of ONE TEAM in Conjunction With the 120 Day Reusable Launch Vehicle Study

DISCLAIMER: Opinions expressed in this paper are solely those of the authors. This paper does not represent the views, policies, or plans of NASA, the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the United States Government. No classified documents were referenced in the preparation of this paper.

Part [1] [3]

Warfighting Needs

Warfighting requirements for a new and more capable defense force includes many references to the military spaceplane. Specific mission needs for a military spaceplane are documented in AFSPC 001-01 Operationally Responsive Spacelift (ORS) mission needs statement, which calls for the "capability to rapidly put payloads into orbit and maneuver spacecraft to any point in earth-centered space and to logistically support them on orbit or return them to earth"; AFSPC 002-01 Prompt Global Strike (PGS) mission needs statement seeks the capability "to strike globally and rapidly high value difficult to defeat targets in a single or multi-theater environment"; and Air Combat Command’s 2002 Global Attack Mission Area Plan (MAP) and its associated mission needs statements. The ACC Global Attack Map states:

To counter the [US Air Force] Global Attack capability, potential adversaries have, and are developing, sophisticated integrated air defense systems (IADS) and are pursuing anti-access strategies and capabilities. These defenses and strategies are designed to force the US to operate on the periphery of the theater rather than in it.

On 14 December 2001, Air Combat Command’s Advanced Programs Division specifically identified the need for responsive and reusable spacelift stating, "we see the potential combat capability for [a] Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV) with ISR and precision engagement. The RLV provides a unique opportunity for AFSPC to address aspects of all USAF core competencies from space." The GSTF is designed to rapidly establish air dominance and subsequently guarantee that joint aerospace, land, and sea forces will enjoy freedom from attack and freedom to attack. GSTF will be an on-call rapid-reaction force employed within the Air Expeditionary Force (AEF) construct that maintains interoperability with joint, coalition, and allied assets. Space systems provide deterrence, presence, power projection and coercive force for GSTF operations. As noted earlier, anti-access challenges and collateral damage concerns are at the heart of ACC’s precision engagement requirement.

While GSTF is designed to be responsive to impending or actual conflicts, even stealthy platforms like the F-22 and the B-2B bomber will find it difficult in some instances to penetrate a robust IADS in 2010. A military spaceplane armed with a variety of weapons payloads (e.g. unitary penetrator, small diameter bombs, etc) will be able to precisely attack and destroy a considerable number of critical targets while satisfying the requirement for precise weapons (i.e. circular error probable [CEP] of less than or equal to three meters). Most importantly, the responsive nature of the military spaceplane allows for seamless integration of MSP sorties with terrestrial aircraft sorties within a Global Strike Task Force.

Air Combat Command also noted in their December 2001 requirements memorandum that ISR requirements for the Global Strike Task ForceGSTF are more demanding than current national systems can handle. Future anti-access threats will also make it more difficult for airborne platforms like UAVs, AWACS, Joint STARS, and Rivet Joint to operate. Satellite constellations can be augmented with additional sensors or wolfpacks composed of many small satellites equipped with specialized sensors. These can be tailored to meet warfighter requirements until a permissive environment can be established allowing terrestrial sensors to provide their traditional level of operational support. A military spaceplane will allow the rapid deployment of operationally responsive space-based ISR sensors that in the initial phases of conflict can allow analysts to prepare the battlespace for decision makers and warfighters.

The critical need for forensic level detail of the battlespace environment requires robust and persistent ISR capabilities to enable combat identification, predictive battlespace awareness and combat effectiveness assessment. In a high terrestrial threat environment, current and projected national systems will likely require rapid and survivable augmentation and replenishment in order to achieve the National Imagery Interpretability Rating Scale (NIIRS) standards required for rapid target acquisition and identification (NIIRS 4-6) and combat effectiveness assessment (NIIRS 6-7) to support time critical targeting and re-strike. Beyond visual range combat identification of adversary aircraft will likely require detection by a robust constellation of space-based radar and other sensors in order to cue other sensors and direct real-time engagement information to the shooters. The military spaceplane could serve as both a responsive satellite deployment system or as a sensor platform, providing time critical targeting data.

Military Space Pplane Combat Power

In war, to strike quickly is the first step towards striking hard

–Gabriel Darrieu, War on the Sea, 1908

Generating Combat Power

In order to produce the desired operational effects required of air and space forces in a modern conflict, the military spaceplane must be responsive. Like the B-2B bombers, the military spaceplane will likely be a high value, low-density strike and support asset. To illustrate its utility, it is useful to juxtapose a spaceplane fleet operability and responsiveness against that of the B-2B bomber.

There are 21 B-2B aircraft in the inventory. For discussion purposes, we assume that a base force of approximately six bombers are committed to support the Single Integrated Operations Plan (SIOP); one is typically being serviced by the depot; up to two may be undergoing testing and modification; while the remainder are at various states of readiness. Some may be undergoing required maintenance while others may be used for training. All are normally staged out of their CONUS operating location.

The Joint Operational Planning and Execution System (JOPES) provides a systematic way of increasing the readiness of the bomber fleet to meet contingency requirements or to support a long military campaign. Upon receipt of an alert order, the percentage of operational B-2Bs will increase–some aircraft of this enhanced force may be forward deployed to other operating locations. Upon receipt of a warning order, almost all of the bombers will be made ready for execution. With an execution order, the robust execution force of B-2Bs will be tasked through the air and space tasking order to strike assigned targets.

A robust fleet of spaceplanes may include 10 vehicles staged at four CONUS operating bases. Daily, a base force of perhaps two vehicles and their associated launch infrastructure and payloads would be ready for immediate tasking and launch. Upon receipt of an alert order, additional vehicles and support structures will be made launch ready. This enhanced force of operational vehicles may launch to deploy ISR or space control assets to bring them up from a base force to an enhanced force level. A warning order will trigger full generation of all vehicles and infrastructure and increased taskings for support and precision engagement operations against terrestrial and space targets. An execution order may require the spaceplanes equipped with the Common Aero Vehicle (CAV) and weapons to strike in concert with terrestrial aircraft assigned to a Global Strike Task Force. Like the bomber fleet, both the spaceplane fleet and ISR and space control constellations will have achieved robust execution force levels of readiness.

Apart from being a key element in effecting space control, the military spaceplane serves as a multi-role vehicle with rapid global reach of missiles, flexibility similar to aircraft, and the weapons delivery precision of a cruise missile. Spaceplanes can support a wide range of military missions including a worldwide precision strike capability; rapid unpredictable reconnaissance; new space control and missile defense capabilities; and both conventional and new tactical spacelift missions that enable augmentation and reconstitution of space assets. Less understood is how robust space weapon systems, other than conventional or nuclear tipped ICBMs could play a role against asymmetric threats such as terrorism, rogue nations and simultaneous firefights at multiple sites around the world.

Homeland Defense and Security

Cold War era nuclear deterrence theory relies on rational actors who appreciate the power of the nuclear weapons, protect and control the weapons through sophisticated means, and who have credible second strike capabilities that ultimately obviate the need for their use in a preemptive strike or in a preventative war. Nuclear deterrence as practiced by the traditional five declared nuclear powers (U.S., Russia, Great Britain, France and China), is possibly less of a deterrent not operative in a multipolar world where even the most unsophisticated and poorest nations and the richest trans-national terrorist groups can arm themselves with nuclear weapons using non-traditional launch platforms.

nuclear weapons.

The challenges posed by nuclear weapons in the hands of these nations and groups is a lack of rational civilian control; the absence of a high fidelity, positive command and control system to prevent unauthorized use; no credible second-strike capability; geographical proximity (e.g. India and Pakistan); hyper nationalism combined with militaristic extremist movements; and leadership that is seemingly sanguine or oblivious to the dangers and consequences of using nuclear weapons. Should one of these unstable nuclear nations attempt to use or lose control of its nuclear weapons, an alert-ready military spaceplane could provide the national command authority with a non-nuclear immediate response option to destroy these weapons before they could be used or proliferated to terrorist organizations.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the national, state and local governments can make good use of a military spaceplane to immediately enhance existing ISR capabilities in response to large scale natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods or hurricanes. Space-based sensors could provide robust imagery of the affected areas to recovery and survey teams. Specialized multispectral imaging (MSI) and hyperspectral imaging (HSI) sensors could identify hidden areas resulting from natural disasters such as those areas affected by toxic spills or severe erosion. Such information can help response teams and planners mitigate the long-term effects of disasters. The experience gained through homeland defense and security operations is relevant to counter threats and to future combat operations.

Coercive Spacepower and Asymmetric Threats

Our national leaders have made clear that the fight against terrorism cannot be waged with point solutions. The military spaceplane is part of the solution set as it canmight help deter terrorism. In conjunction with other human and overhead intelligence assets, the spaceplane can rapidly employ a targeted reconnaissance payload to help find the enemy. The spaceplane’s responsiveness allows it to unpredictably overfly targets soon after take-off. This ability complements the very predictable orbits used by today’s intelligence satellites and airborne platforms. Clearly, the spaceplane’s ability to surprise and rapidly surveil an enemy camp must be used in conjunction with today’s overhead systems and expanded human intelligence sources.

Once a target is identified, the spaceplane can respond from the U.S. and strike worldwide targets in under an hour. The munitions employed are generally the same as those used on conventional aircraft, only they are released from a small, low cost, precision guided missile called a Common Aero Vehicle (CAV). The CAV enables interchangeable use of virtually the entire arsenal of next generation air munitions currently in development at the Air Force’s Air Armaments Center. It protects the munitions during hypersonic reentry and dispenses them with the same accuracy and effect as if being dropped from aircraft. These munitions are designed to selectively strike surface targets, mobile vehicles, deeply buried bunkers, aircraft in flight, and potentially even bio-terrorism targets requiring Agent Defeat munitions designed to destroy biological weapons.

A key advantage of CAVs is that they reenter controlled airspace only over the target country, and the U.S. need not seek over flight permission from any other countries. Currently there are few potential defenses against munitions delivered by CAVs. Thus, they can be used to strike hard and deeply buried land targets, naval bases and surface combatants, airbases, and military and civil infrastructure. These are the same target sets identified in the ACC Global Attack MAP. Military space planes armed with CAVs provide global power projection without the massive logistics tail required when employing conventional airpower overseas–a critical capability for a transformed force.

The conflict in Afghanistan provides an example of how these weapons will be used. As human and technical sources provide fleeting intelligence locating key Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders, the military spaceplane is tasked to respond. The spaceplane takes-off from the United States within minutes of being tasked and either drops the weapons over the target country or stages the weapons to their target without any over flight. Approximately 35 minutes after take-off, multiple precision guided weapons begin striking CINC priority and time critical targets. Potential strikes include the use of hypersonic deep earth penetrators to take out Al Qaeda forces hiding in caves; the use of small diameter bombs to take out Taliban troop concentrations; or even the use of low cost autonomous attack systems to take out an Al Qaeda leader driving between cities. Selection of specific targets and weapons will depend on the political and military objectives of the conflict, sufficient and timely intelligence, and on the level of conflict.: peace, crisis, or war.

Space Combat Power on Demand

The Military Space Plane could be deployed on orbit awaiting an execution order from the NCA or a CINC or the National Command Authorities. This type of deployment could be more responsive to key targets on the CINC’s Prioritized Target List — this approach would be similar to that employed by immediate close air support tactics. Orbiting the earth, a CAV- armed military spaceplane would be ready to precisely strike fixed or mobile WMD and other high value targets within moments of combat identification. Since the Military military space plane has the unique legal right to overfly all nations during peacetime, this pre-deployment strategy offers many unique advantages to the NCA. The most important being to immediately remove many potential WMD-related issues early in a crisis and to dominate all phases of integrated air and space operations.

This unrestricted overflight capability resembles the early presence of a carrier battle force during a crisis, the denial ability of task forces to coerce belligerents, and the SIOP effects of our nuclear triad during the Cold War. This potential to expand or to control the warning time gives our decision -makers a means to control response time calculus during a crisis. It also allows us to strike quickly with precise effects and support integrated joint operations to meet national objectives. Each of these reflects the transformational effects of this new capability.

The marriage of today’s precision weapons, new deep earth penetrators, and the responsive global reach of spaceplanes ensure our ability to kill future terrorists if we know where they are. With such responsiveness, even fleeting intelligence can be acted on with a good chance of success. As the military spaceplane shrinks the U.S. decision-to-action loop, the terrorist is forced onto the defensive and must move to simply survive. Essentially, you deter terrorism is deterred with terrifying responsiveness–this is the effect of coercive spacepower.

The responsiveness and lethality of spaceplanes are also useful against both conventional and emerging threats, particularly if the U.S. is forced to fight at geographically dispersed locations or against rogue nations. The CAV weapons can target any worldwide location from U.S. bases. A single military spaceplane flight can potentially even target multiple sites on separate continents. In terms of firepower, each flight of the spaceplane shown earlier is capable of attacking from 15 to 30 separate surface targets, 30 to 60 mobile armored vehicles, 5 to 10 deeply buried bunkers or some mix of the above.

Combat Spacepower and the Global Strike Task Force

Areas denied to terrestrial forces can be struck from space with some level of impunity within 100 minutes of launch. The speed of space delivered weapons can produce decisive operational effects by cutting the time to target thereby reducing adversary reaction time. An attack from space can surprise an adversary and reduce confidence in his ability to defend his vital resources. Additionally, precision delivery of weapons at high mach numbers can produce greater kinetic effects and higher resultant damage expectancy against hardened targets. The chart below gives a sense of the effect a space delivered weapon can have on adversary reaction time.

Space Delivered Weaponry Response Times

Given the high mach speed of delivery from high altitude standoff ranges, the military spaceplane is a highly effective and survivable combat platform capable of penetrating and opening access to denied areas. Once long-range threats are removed and air access corridors are opened, high demand, low-density airborne sensor platforms (UAVs, JSTARS, Rivet Joint, and AWACS) can move forward or activated from passive orbits to support suppression of enemy air defense (SEAD) and strike operations. At this point, the full power of a Global Strike Task Force can be brought to bear.

The Defense Planning Guidance (DPG) and Joint Publication 3-0, Doctrine for Joint Operations, defines define five phases of conflict. Within these phases, various targets are rank ordered based on priority and are struck or serviced based on the national level and campaign objectives. Within this construct, operational tasks, targets and priorities for a military spaceplane can be discerned. The GSTF is designed to function primarily during Phase I and Phase II, however it can be used in any phase to enhance the combat power of joint forces. Firmly integrated into GSTF and other combat operations and tasked through the Air and Space Operations Center, the military spaceplane will, like other systems, be apportioned a number of targets and tasks. A skilled cadre of space experts and weapons officers will conduct strike and other employment planning based on the tasking order.

A notional construct for military spaceplane combat employment in accordance with the phases of conflict identified in Joint Pub 3-0, can be found in Attachment 1. This unclassified construct is based on real-world targeting concerns found in a major regional conflict. The military spaceplane has utility throughout the spectrum of conflict, from a discrete response to a fleeting threat to a sustained, long-term regional war. Its use is limited only by orbital parameters and the imagination willingness of political and military leaders to employ it in support of national security objectives.



Full range combat spacepower with global vigilance, reach and power is a key transformational system. The Military Spaceplane is the "battleship" of this system. Its ability to rapidly strike with precision; to deploy pervasive theater ISR systems which integrate with the UAV and airborne assets to enable robust, persistent predictive battlespace awareness from peacetime through conflict; combined with its ability to enable deep and persistent Global Strike Task Force operations with the survivability, , lethality, and mission success required to deny "anti-access" strategies, mark this system as a dominate transformational capability par excellence. The Military Spaceplane and its versatile payloads are essential to meeting the threats predicted by our national intelligence estimates that will be present by 2010. The entire spaceplane architecture provides a robust, versatile and responsive tool that can be part of the solution set the NCA and warfighting CINC’s can use to help solve the most vexing challenges to homeland security and international peaceミfrom terrorism to full scale war. Technology exists today to create this capability and evolve it now. It is time to approve the operational concepts, deploy the ISR and strike capabilities for this system and begin the acquisition of this crucial transformational capability.

Part [1] [3]

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