The Military Space Plane: Providing Transformational and Responsive Global Precision Striking Power: Part 1

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 [2] [3]

Peterson AFB, Colorado

January 2002

The weapon of superior reach or range should be looked upon as the fulcrum of combined tactics. Thus, should a group of fighters be armed with bows, spears and swords, it is around the arrow that tactics should be shaped; if with cannons, muskets, and pikes, then around the cannon; and if with aircraft, artillery, and rifles, then around the airplane

–Maj. Gen. J. F. C. Fuller, Armament and History, 1945

Operations that now focus on air, land and sea will ultimately evolve into space

–Global Engagement


Symbols of a World Power

At the turn of the 20th century, nations that possessed battleships were world powers that shaped and determined how military and economic power would be employed during crisis and war. Today, nations with a robust and indigenous space capability firmly integrated into political, economic and military activities might be considered world powers. For the United States, the dominant spacepower, space is becoming more important to the Nation’s economy and militarysecurity. Just as airpower broke the stalemate of World War I and empowered our land forces to wage the Gulf War in 1991, so may spacepower in the form of a military spaceplane, become the force to ensure the United States has unfettered access and global reach to vital targets and prevails in all conflicts. It can also play a role in homeland security and defense.

The defense challenges posed in the 21st century demands a responsive space capability that provides near-real-time global force application based on critical intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR). This entails "launch on warning" non-nuclear weapons and space-based sensors that are available for and responsive to the National Command Authority (NCA)and the warfighter. The NCA requires timely, accurate, and responsive intelligence information for informed decision-making in crises and wartime. For the warfighter, timely execution of NCA direction could be accomplished through the use of spaceThis warfighting requirement means that space -delivered weapons on alert and ready to strike targets in less than 100 minutes from launch and rapidly deploys space-based sensors that can become available for use by the warfighter within three hours of launch. Current studies show that Ssuch power and capabilities are possible within 10 years.

Joint Vision 2020 and the Quadrennial Defense Review 2001, explicitly identifies the need for a transformed, capabilities-based military force structure that can create asymmetric advantages for our nation. The military spaceplane is a transformational system that can fill a critical niche within the Chief of Staff of the Air Force’s Global Strike Task Force and the Chairman’s Joint Strategic Capabilities Plan (JSCP). The As envisioned, the Military Spaceplane is a responsive, survivable, flexible launch and delivery platform, able tocapable of:

  • Enable Enabling joint force operations that will overwhelm adversary threats to terrestrial forces–such adversary threats include:
    • Weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and Effect (WME)–these must be destroyed before they can be used against our land, sea and air forces by terrorists, despotic governments, or adversary forces.
    • New and emerging longer range enemy air defenses (SEAD)–by 2010, long range surface to air missiles may be able to prevent our traditional airborne collection platforms (e.g. AWACS, Rivet Joint, and JSTARS) and even Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) from orbiting close enough to the front lines to be effective.
    • Advanced radars (e.g., bi-static and millimeter wave) that could vitiate the advantage our stealth assets currently provide and negate our ability to conduct parallel warfare (i.e. the simultaneous application of force across the breadth and depth of an entire theater). In some cases, our air forces could be forced to engage in a lengthy, inefficient and costly sequential "rollback" campaign around the edge of a robust integrated air defense system (IADS) (akin to peeling a skin off an onion) rather than striking deep and hard throughout the theater.
  • Augmenting and replenishing space-based ISR capability capabilities during the pre-crisis phase
  • As a protective asset, it helpshelping to ensure commanders can see the enemy while effectively commanding and controlling their own forces from peacetime through war termination

In many conflicts where anti-access and other asymmetric threats to traditional US military power abound, the military spaceplane could be the leading edge of a Global Strike Task Force that can open land, sea, and air corridors for joint strike packages without the need for forward basing or carrier battle group support. Firmly integrated with other warfighting capabilities, its 100 -minute or less on-alert delivery time from CONUS bases to points around the globe, provides the United States a seemingly impervious response platform for precision engagement, space control, predictive battlespace awareness and combat effectiveness assessment throughout the theater and all phases of conflict.

This paper will briefly explore the warfighting utility of a military spaceplane against the context provided by the QDR transformation study, joint warfighting capabilities analysis, Joint Vision 2020, and warfighter requirements identified in mission need statements and other requirement documents, particularly those required to support the Air Force’s Global Strike Task Force in the 2010-2012 timeframe. The bottom line: the nexus of technology, operational military requirements, specialized weapons and sensors, and a trained cadre of space professionals presents a unique opportunity for a new warfighting system–the military spaceplane, its associated weapons and payloads, and a robust architecture to provide the combat identification, predictive battlespace awareness and combat effectiveness assessment required to overwhelm any adversary. It also offers a robust means to support our ability to protect our space assets and capabilities while denying access to other space powers or those capabilities which might be provided by a third party during a conflict or war.

The Emerging International Security Environment

In 2002, and the immediate near term future, the international security environment may be more fluid than during much of the 20th century. The superpower standoff that dominated the Cold War is over, national borders are more porous, and transnational non-governmental organizations and terrorist networks have had a disproportionate impact on state-to-state relations. According to the most recent Quadrennial Defense Report, "the challenges the Nation faces do not loom in the distant future, but are here now. They involve protecting our critical bases of operation - including the most critical base of operation, the U.S. homeland - and projecting and sustaining U.S. forces in distant anti-access environments."

While the threats today are uncertain and dynamic, what hasn’t changed is the need for responsive and effective weapons and real-time information that can give skilled warfighting commanders an edge against traditional, dynamic and asymmetric threats. Consistent with U.S. national security goals, we We must transform the force structure with its inherent capabilities and functions to conform to shape and respond to the new international security environment. We must continue to control access to vital targets and deny our adversaries access to their their key capabilities and terrain and while preventing them from threatening our systems and territory. Our adversaries are not static–they have demonstrated a willingness to invest in asymmetric capabilities (e.g. WMD, ballistic and cruise missiles, long-range SAMs, advanced radars, etc.) to challenge our most capable warfighting systems. By 2010, anti-access threats, and improved Integrated Air Defense Systems (IADS), and advanced weapons make it less certain that our forces will remain dominant.

Transforming the Force

Space is a medium like the land, sea, and air within which military activities shall be conducted to achieve U.S. national security objectives.

– DoD Space Policy, 21 October 1998


With a largely CONUS based force, the United States is faced with a dilemma of divining a strategy and developing capabilities allowing it to protect its vital international interests and meet its global responsibility to maintain a stabile international security environment. The long-lead time required to project terrestrial power (i.e., land, sea, and air) can allow adversarial regimes and malevolent forces to gain a foothold or take actions relatively free of fear of immediate retaliation. How then, can the United States project and employ sufficient striking power that is responsive enough to compel nations and transnational actors to conform to international law and behavioral norms without resorting to a potentially bloody and difficult "boots on the ground" strategy? One possible solution is to invest in responsive systems that allow decision-makers and military planners you to detect, find, fix, track, target, engage and assess possible threats to international stability and vital national interests early. Precision engagement weapon systems, space superiority and responsive ISR are key elements to that solution.

Defense Planning Guidance

Nuclear weapons carried by land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine launched ballistic missiles continue to still provide deterrence and serve as an immediate, although in many ways impractical, response force. Since the Gulf War, Pprecision munitions, standoff weapons and a variety of land, sea, air and space sensors now provide a significant combat edge and have altered the dynamics of war. The combat synergy they create, and shapes the military equation. These technologies enable precision strike and provide persistent presence. Imagery and electronic intelligence provide information dominance and build the battlespace picture for fighting forces resulting in a transformation of the Nation’s warfighting forces. The new Defense Planning Guidance (DPG) directs that a transformed force must:

  • Protect our bases of operation and be able to defeat nuclear/biological/chemical weapons and ballistic missile attack
  • Project and sustain U.S. forces in distant anti-access or area-denial environments
  • Deny enemy sanctuary through various means, particularly through long precision strike of different kinds
  • Conduct space operations
  • Ensure joint and combined interoperability and integration of long-range strike and deep maneuver forces

The military spaceplane will become a key-enabling element in every aspect of this transformed capabilities-based defense force by 2012.

Quadrennial Defense Review Transformation Study

In April 2001, the Transformation Study for the Quadrennial Defense Review expanded on this direction. Specifically, the Quadrennial Defense Review identified six critical operational goals transformational efforts must address:

  • Protecting critical bases of operations (U.S. homeland, forces abroad, allies, and friends) and defeating CBRNE weapons and their means of delivery;
  • Assuring information systems in the face of attack and conducting effective information operations;
  • Projecting and sustaining U.S. forces in distant anti-access or area-denial environments and defeating anti-access and area denial threats;
  • Denying enemies sanctuary by providing persistent surveillance, tracking, and rapid engagement with high-volume precision strike, through a combination of complementary air and ground capabilities, against critical mobile and fixed targets at various ranges and in all weather and terrains;
  • Enhancing the capability and survivability of space systems and supporting infrastructure; and
  • Leveraging information technology and innovative concepts to develop an interoperable, joint C4ISR architecture and capability that includes a tailorable joint operational picture

Its dominant themes of transformation and space control revolved around responsive spacelift. A responsive military spaceplane would provide revolutionary capabilities that significantly improve our ability to meet these goals. The military space plane could enable prompt global strike and Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) system augmentation from space, while also enabling "launch on demand" capabilities to augment, replenish, project, deploy and sustain the U.S. military and intelligence space force structure. The military spaceplane addresses the force needs specifically enumerated in the QDR transformation study. A transformed force must be able to provide:

  • Information and decision superiority that allow our forces to:
    • Operate inside the adversary’s decision cycle
    • Combine both precision and speed
    • Respond rapidly and potently to the full range of contingencies
    • Are parallel, continuous and seamless rather than sequential, scheduled and segmented
  • Precision strike
  • forces that deter, assure, dissuade with the capability to:
    • Rapidly respond globally with U.S. based long range forces
    • Integrate with single joint force package
    • Enable alert force posturing to demonstrate U.S. resolve
  • Dominate the land, sea, air and space battlespace with forces that are decisive on any battlefield with the capability to:
    • Respond globally to build on forward deployed and rapid response forces
    • Integrate with or absorb previously deployed operating forces into a single integrated campaign force
    • Conduct robust space, ground, sea and air campaign through integrated fires and maneuver–enabled by advanced intelligence and logistics

The critical elements required to effect achieve these actions include integrated command and control architectures; information operations; robust intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissanceISR capabilities; long-range precision attack platforms; time critical precision targeting; and maneuver and mobility. A review of Unified Commanders’ Integrated Prioritized Lists (IPL), their prioritized list of warfighting requirements, supports the results of the transformation study. All indicate a need for these capabilities in the near and mid-term (2002-2015). A Joint Warfighting Capabilities Analysis of unified requirements measured against a significant threat to the Nation’s power projection capabilities in 2010, reveals shortfalls in the areas of intelligence operations (e.g. sensors, payloads and processes), battle management (e.g. command and control), and attack execution. The common shortfall element is responsiveness.

Given that U.S. military forces are largely based in the continental United States (CONUS), each service has developed or is developing expeditionary forces to project power, as required, address threats and resolve conflicts. Much of our power projection capability is predicated on at least 72 hours of unambiguous warning. Advanced warning allows the The Army to deploy its medium weight is developing brigades capable of deploying to almost any location within 96 hours of callup. , tThe Navy routinely uses carrier battle groups to project power and , the Marine Corps has at least two Marine Expeditionary Units (MEU) at sea at any time. , and tThe Air Force is evolving its air expeditionary forces (AEF) to provide a Global Strike Task Force (GSTF) capable of striking any target in the world within 24 hours. In the absence of advanced warning, our forces face a daunting task of moving forces into theater fast enough to thwart the advances of a well-prepared adversary. Beginning in 2010, Tthe challenges facing the Nation’s expeditionary forces will include more robust and well integrated anti-access threats (e.g. long-range surface to air missiles, ballistic and cruise missiles, weapons of mass destruction and effect, etc.).

The volatile security environment and defense evolving defense challenges demand a new fulcrum of combined tactics. It requires a weapon of superior reach and range . . . one that is responsive enough to maneuver quickly to target with sufficient mass to surprise and overwhelm an adversary while remaining secure from his countermeasures. It must be technologically advanced enough to provide economy of force–so that by placing the right weapon at the right time and place, we apply overwhelming force to the greatest effect. In 1925, airpower pioneer Brigadier General Billy Mitchell wrote about a new kind of defense, Winged Defense, built around bomber and pursuit airplanes, to contend with a new security environment. In the dynamic international security environment of 2002, we need to expand his vision beyond terrestrial airplanes to a military spaceplane. We need to consider a new dimension to defense, an Empyreal Defense . . . a defense of and from the celestial sky based on integrated air and space capabilities with global presence, reach and power that form the foundation for these expeditionary concepts.

Part [2] [3]

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