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Air Force Space Command Moves Into Different Orbit

February 2003
By Robert K. Ackerman
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Information-technology-capable personnel open up a new future for operations.

The newly independent U.S. Air Force Space Command is focusing on integrating exo-atmospheric operations with lower altitude activities, including ground campaigns. These operations in space, which range from communications to precision guiding of munitions, are becoming less of a separate warfighting aspect and more of a united element of high-technology network-centric warfare.

This represents a shift in planners’ thinking from an often-suggested doctrine of linking space and atmospheric operations. Instead of viewing the ultimate high ground as an extension of the airborne arena, the Air Force Space Command is taking the approach of linking space operations with air, land and sea activities of all the services. This reflects the crucial role that space-based operations, especially those involving information technologies and systems, play in all military activities in the joint battlespace.

A major driver of this approach is the maturation of both information technology and its users. Gen. Lance W. Lord, USAF, commander of the Air Force Space Command, Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado, believes that information technology, along with the personnel who work with it, is undergoing a profound change that will affect the future. Young people entering the services today are highly computer-skilled and -literate, he observes. The services no longer need to provide a basic kindergarten on information technologies for their personnel. So, people entering the service to work in communications will be equipped to step in and take advantage of these technologies from the start, which in turn will change the way the services approach their use of information technologies.

“The young professionals who come into this business will be what I call communications exploiters or network exploitation experts,” he says. “They will help us think about what it means to evolve in a network type of way and how we can exploit what we are collecting through our networks in a way that will help us really create effects for the future.

“So, I can see—10, 15, 20 years from now—what used to be the J-6s of the world will really be an integrated group of people who will be a mixture of intelligence, communications, network and information people who are really on the leading edge of how we develop, acquire and apply capability. That, to me, is the essence of the asymmetrical advantage that we have as a nation,” Gen. Lord declares.

“As our technologies mature and evolve, we will move into space in a great way,” the general offers. “I don’t think we’ll do it as a separate space force. We will do it in an integrated way, and we’ll naturally evolve as we develop our skills and abilities. Our competencies in the integration of air and space will lay the foundation for us to move in that environment.”

Instead of viewing the Air Force as an aerospace service, Gen. Lord emphasizes viewing its arenas of operations as two separate entities. “We must think in terms of air and space,” he says. “It’s important to differentiate the cultures, as air is different than space. Each is a different kind of medium, and it is important to think in those kinds of terms. We really must integrate air and space in a way that produces the best effect from both air and space for the warfighter.”

These types of activities are well underway in operation Enduring Freedom and operation Southern Watch. Gen. Lord notes that many Space Command personnel were involved in day-to-day operations and planning as well as helping with the combined air operations center. “These are space folks who are part of the air and space team that are integrating warfighting capabilities to create warfighting effects for combatant commanders,” he says.

Space-based capabilities include the global positioning system, weather reports, communications connectivity and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. “We must make sure that we, as the experts, understand what we can do in the medium and bring those effects to bear with our air colleagues in an integrated campaign,” the general concludes.

The general continues that space is becoming more integral to military operations, and having space command personnel working side-by-side with others improves capabilities. He adds that these space command personnel are part of the expeditionary air force, and this participation is a harbinger of future operations. “We need to think in expeditionary terms, what it means to be operating at fast tempos in far-flung locations and how to bring capability to bear quickly. Our space personnel are integrated throughout,” he states.

One year ago, the commander of the U.S. Air Force Space Command also served as the commander of the U.S. Space Command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). With the U.S. Space Command now folded into the U.S. Strategic Command and NORAD now headed by the commander of the Northern Command, the Air Force Space Command no longer shares its commander.

Having a full-time commander has helped the Air Force Space Command focus its roles and responsibilities, Gen. Lord offers. “Any time you had a commander that wore three hats, his time and attention had to be divided among three competing functions,” he relates. “Not that my predecessors weren’t great leaders—they were. But, any time you wear three hats, you must make priority decisions on where you can spend your time. I have been able to devote my full attention to this command.”

Gen. Lord cites several new thrusts that have benefited from this new command structure. The command has been able to focus on improving its acquisition programs, and it has fully integrated the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles as part of the command.

The command has restructured the space-based infrared system (SBIRS)–high program, which Gen. Lord says now is the model for how the command will operate and execute its acquisition programs. This was a team effort among the Space Command, management headquarters and the Space and Missile Systems Center.

“I have charged our folks to be the recognized experts in the ICBM [intercontinental ballistic missile] and space businesses,” Gen. Lord declares. “That is going to be our hallmark.”

Despite the command’s focus on matters above the Earth’s atmosphere, Gen. Lord states that its experts must understand the air, land and sea business. The command’s acquisition programs must fit joint models and an integrated set of capabilities, so it must understand unfolding events in the U.S. Army, U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps. This is especially true as these services engage in major transformation endeavors.

In addition to restructuring the present, the command is working with the new Transformational Communications Office (see page 25) as both plan for the future of space-based activities. Gen. Lord describes this office as a key enabler for how the Air Force Space Command does business in the future. The command supports the office’s efforts to develop a space architecture, especially with regard to its own programs such as Milstar, advanced extremely high frequency capabilities and wideband capabilities.

A key will be for the command to develop a solid concept of operations—“how we intend to use these capabilities,” the general states. “I don’t want it to be like software, where whatever happens with software, we fill up the bin as quickly as possible. Instead, we want to ensure that we are practicing bandwidth management from the operational concept as well.”

Several technology thrusts are facing command experts as they both plan for the future and try to implement it. Right now, the command is working on the concept of having space-based radar as a system of systems, the general relates.

In addition, the command has been tasked with providing ground moving-target indicator capability to the warfighter. This must be attained again using a system-of-systems approach without regard to specific platform solutions. A recent study with Lincoln Laboratories in Massachusetts is helping to provide direction in this effort.

Some of these challenges face significant technology hurdles before they can be turned into useful systems. “We have the technology. We have some problems to work and issues to solve,” the general posits. “Physics are physics. With radar, for example, there are limits to what you can do given the amount of power you can radiate. Those are facts of life that we have to deal with.”

Gen. Lord offers that the single greatest need for the command from industry is sustained production capabilities. Many of the command’s most important technology products are space-specific, and the general professes concern about the U.S. satellite and rocket industrial base. “We are facing the same age-out that most of the aerospace industry is,” he warns. “We want to ensure that we can get people back into that business and fortify ourselves against breaks in production and stops and starts.

“Any time you have to stop production on satellites or a capability and then restart a year or two later, then you must re-certify and get your skills and abilities back up. We need to stabilize capabilities so that we can focus together,” Gen. Lord declares.

He notes that the satellite processing and handling business has suffered “a couple of little glitches” recently. The successful launches of the Delta IV and the Atlas V bode well for the expendable launch vehicle program and assured access to space, he offers.