(Washington, D.C.): Finally, the United States seems to be getting serious about the need for space power. For eight years, President Clinton paid lip-service to the importance of America being able to have ready and reliable access to and use of space — and the capability to deny such access and use to hostile powers. Yet, his Administration deliberately precluded the Nation from acquiring the wherewithal to do so. Within its first week in office, however, the Bush-Rumsfeld Pentagon has begun to correct this strategically foolish and potentially costly policy disconnect.
A front-page article in today’s Washington Post reveals that the Air Force recently conducted a war game focusing on military operations in space. This step comes on the heels of the release on 11 January 2001 of a blue-ribbon commission report urging the United States to acquire and exercise space power and the subsequent confirmation of its chairman, Donald Rumsfeld, as Secretary of Defense. The war game also appears to have validated findings and recommendations made at the Center for Security Policy’s High-level Roundtable Discussion on space power held in December (see attached).
Interestingly, Post reporter Thomas Ricks who attended part of the war game held at Schriever Air Force Base (a facility named for one of the Nation’s most visionary and accomplished space pioneers, General Bernard A. Schriever USAF [Ret.], who has long served on the Center for Security Policy’s National Security Advisory Council) seems to have been surprised by the lesson of this “first major war game to focus on space as the primary theater of operations”: Notwithstanding the keening of those who oppose the “militarization of space,” U.S. control of space — far from promoting global conflict — will actually help keep the peace. As one participant in the games concluded, “Space surprised us a bit. It turns out that space gives you a lot of options before you have to go into conflict.”
By Thomas E. Ricks
The Washington Post, 29 January 2001
Schriever Air Force Base, Colorado — Last week, the possibility of war in space moved from pure science fiction created in Hollywood to realistic planning done here by the Air Force.
Spurred by the increased reliance of the U.S. military and the U.S. economy on satellites, and facing a new secretary of defense, Donald H. Rumsfeld, who is more focused on space than his predecessors were, the Air Force’s Space Warfare Center here staged the military’s first major war game to focus on space as the primary theater of operations, rather than just a supporting arena for combat on earth. The scenario was growing tension between the United States and China in 2017.
“We never really play space,” Maj. Gen. William R. Looney III said. “The purpose of this game was to focus on how we really would act in space.”
The unprecedented game, involving 250 participants playing for five days on an isolated, super-secure base on the high plains east of Colorado Springs, was the most visible manifestation of a little-noticed but major shift in the armed forces over the last decade.
The Gulf War showed the U.S. military for the first time how important space could be to its combat operations — for communications, for the transmission of imagery and even for using global positioning satellites to tell ground troops where they are. The end of the Cold War allowed many satellites to be shifted from being used primarily for monitoring Soviet nuclear facilities to supporting the field operations of the U.S. military.
But military thinkers began to worry that this new reliance on space was creating new vulnerabilities. Suddenly, one of the best ways to disrupt a U.S. offensive against Iraq, for example, appeared to be jamming the satellites on which the Americans relied or blowing up the ground station back in the United States that controlled the satellites transmitting targeting data.
In response, the Air Force over the last year focused more on space — not just how to operate there, but how to protect operations and attack others in space. It established a new “space operations directorate” at Air Force headquarters, started a new Space Warfare School and activated two new units: the 76th Space Control Squadron, whose name is really a euphemism for fighting in space, and the 527th Space Aggressor Squadron, whose mission is to probe the U.S. military for new vulnerabilities.
All those steps come as Rumsfeld, who just finished leading a congressional commission on space and national security issues, takes over the top job at the Pentagon. Among other things, his commission’s report hinted that if the Air Force doesn’t get more serious about space, the Pentagon should consider establishing a new “Space Corps.”
So, perhaps to show that it is giving space its due, the Air Force held its first space war game here, and even invited reporters inside for a few hours. The players worked in a huge building behind two sets of security checkpoints, the second of which features two motion detectors, four surveillance cameras and a double-fenced gate with a “vehicle entrapment area.”
Yet officials were notably jumpy about discussing specifics with the reporters they brought in. “We’re doing something a little unprecedented, bringing press into the middle of a classified war game,” said Col. Robert E. Ryals, deputy commander of the Space Warfare Center here.
The U.S. military has a long tradition of conducting war games, not so much to predict whether a war will occur, but to figure out how to use new weapons, how to best organize the military and how political considerations might shape the conduct of war.
After World War II, Adm. Chester W. Nimitz commented that the war in the Pacific had been gamed so frequently at the Naval War College during the 1930s that “nothing that happened during the war was a surprise — absolutely nothing except the kamikaze tactics towards the end of the war. We had not visualized these.”
Last week’s space war game was set in 2017, with country “Red” massing its forces for a possible attack on its small neighbor, “Brown,” which then asked “Blue” for help. Officials described “Red” only as a “near-peer competitor,” but participants said Red was China and Blue was the United States. When asked directly about this, Lt. Col. Donald Miles, an Air Force spokesman, said, “We don’t talk about countries.”
Going with the conventional wisdom in the U.S. military, the game assumed that the heavens will be full of weapons by 2017. Both Red and Blue possessed microsatellites that can maneuver against other satellites, blocking their view, jamming their transmissions or even frying their electronics with radiation. Both also had ground-based lasers that could temporarily dazzle or permanently blind the optics of satellites.
The Blue side also had a National Missile Defense system, as well as reusable space planes that could be launched to quickly place new satellites in orbit or repair and refuel ones already there. Veiled comments made by some participants indicated that both sides also possessed the ability to attack each others’ computers — in military parlance, “offensive information warfare capabilities” — but no one would discuss those.
On Monday, as the game began, no conflict had occurred — or was even inevitable. As Red threatened its neighbor Brown, the first major question that Blue faced was whether to stage a “show of force” in space, akin to sending aircraft carriers to the waters off a regional hot spot.
On Day Two of the game, Blue decided to show force by launching more surveillance and communications satellites, making it harder for Red to stage an early knockout attack — that is, a successful Pearl Harbor.
Space gives the United States “more opportunities to demonstrate resolve” without using force, said Maj. Gen. Lance L. Smith, who played the role of commander of a Blue military task force. Asked whether that included taking over Red’s broadcast satellites, he said: “Those are the kind of options.”
On Day Three of the game, privately owned foreign satellites became a key issue. The Blue side asked the foreign firms not to provide services to Red. In response, Red tried to buy up all available services to constrain the U.S. military, which relies heavily on commercial satellites for many of its communications. Red offered to pay far more than is customary. Blue then said it would top Red’s offer. The eight people playing the foreign firms responded that they would honor their contracts, which left Blue worried and unhappy.
Robert Hegstrom, the game’s director, concluded that “dealing with third-party commercial providers is going to be a priority for CincSpace” — the U.S. commander for space operations.
Another lesson of the early friction between Blue and Red was that the Pentagon should prepare plans for what to do if it picks up indications that an adversary is getting ready to shoot blinding laser beams at commercial satellites operated by U.S. firms. Among other things, one official said, the government could tell the American companies to close the “shutters” over the optics on those satellites.
For four days, the two sides tiptoed up to the edge of war, but never actually fired a shot. They did come close: At one point, the Red military prepared a plan to fire dozens of nonnuclear missiles at U.S. military installations in Hawaii and Alaska. They calculated that those missiles would use up all the shots the United States had in its missile defense arsenal — and thereby leave the U.S. homeland open to being hit by subsequent missiles.
But the players found that “theater missile defense” — that is, coverage of a region, usually by U.S. Navy warships — bolstered deterrence in two ways, by making it harder for Red to attack deployed U.S. forces, and by encouraging U.S. allies to stay in the coalition, which would keep them under the protective umbrella of those ships.
Red also launched cyberattacks on U.S. computers, said Miles, the Air Force spokesman, who declined to provide details.
Officials were unusually tight-lipped about what actually happened in the game but were willing to describe some of their conclusions.
Not surprisingly, they found that many of the weapons on the Air Force’s drawing boards — missile defenses, anti-satellite lasers and “reusable space planes” — could have a useful role in deterring future wars by discouraging adversaries from thinking they can preemptively knock out the United States.
“With a robust force, we can absorb some losses before [the situation] becomes critical,” said Hegstrom, the game director. But, he said, with the “thin” space presence the United States will have in 2017 if current trends continue, “it becomes critical to respond almost immediately.” Thus a future president might be backed into escalating quickly, launching preemptive strikes against enemy weapons that could attack key U.S. satellites.
“Space surprised us a bit” in how much it might help boost deterrence of a future war, said retired Air Force Gen. Thomas S. Moorman Jr., who played part of the Blue team’s political leadership. “It turns out that space gives you a lot of options before you have to go to conflict.”
But generally the players came up with more questions than answers, both about how deterrence might work in the 21st century and how to employ the new weapons the Air Force is contemplating.
“We know what deterrence was with ‘mutually assured destruction’ during the Cold War,” said Brig. Gen. Douglas Richardson, commander of the Space Warfare Center. “But what is deterrence in information warfare?”
Likewise, said Maj. John Gentry, who played a staff member on the Blue force, the small attack satellites that both sides possessed are only barely understood. “A lot more thinking will have to go into the microsatellite, the concept of operations about how to use it,” he said.
“I hate to use the word ‘paradigm,’ but mind-set changes are happening here,” added Maj. George Vogen, who helped run the game. “This is the next step in seeing the growth of space into its own right.”