Friday, May 4, 2007

Fire From Space

One of the most prominent missions of the United States Air Force (USAF) is that of strike. At any time, theater commanders can order USAF fighter jets to hit targets with uncanny precision. However, with continued advances in air defense technology, the skies over hostile nations are becoming increasingly more dangerous. The answer is to remove the skies from the equation completely: it’s time for the USAF to embrace space.

One of the major development and procurement efforts currently being considered by the USAF will result in a new long-range strike aircraft. The current fleet of B-52H, B-1B, and B-2A strategic bombers will need to be replaced around 2040.[1] The USAF is also considering a shorter-ranged, theater strike aircraft to be available around 2015. Apparently, the current focus in this regard is a derivative of the Lockheed F-22A, known as the FB-22.[2] Under the banner of “Prompt Global Strike,” the USAF is currently conducting a two-year study to outline a future strike system capable of striking targets anywhere in the globe in a matter of minutes. Such a system, if procured, is expected to be available in the 2012 to 2015 timeframe.[3]

The problem the USAF will face in coming months is one of funding. It is illogical to assume that Congress will authorize funding for three independent programs, especially given the fact that at least two of those programs, the new strategic bomber and the “Prompt Global Strike” program, seem to have similar goals in mind and as a result offer similar capabilities. The USAF wants a quick-reaction strike capability, both over intermediate and global ranges. The USAF will need a new strategic bomber. By combining the strategic bomber requirement, the intermediate strike aircraft requirement, and the quick-strike program, the USAF will be in a position to maximize its resources and minimize the costs involved, and will finally obtain a truly transformational and revolutionary weapon system.

There are a number of concepts which could provide the USAF with the quick-strike capability it desires in the near future. The first of these is a simple modification of current intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), and possibly submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), with conventional warheads. The conventional ICBM system offers a global strike capability with a minimum of development work at a minimum cost. A conventional ICBM could be in service in a short amount of time, using modified versions of existing systems. One such proposal is the Minotaur III. Minotaur III would employ components from deactivated Peacekeeper ICBMs in concert with a new third stage designed to deploy conventional weapons.[4]

The main argument against a conventional ICBM system is political. How will conventional ICBM launches be differentiated from their nuclear-tipped brethren? Such a differentiation must be made in order to assure other nuclear powers that the United States is not in the process of launching nuclear weapons. Minotaur III answers this question by employing a unique launch signature which will be detectable by launch detection systems. Also, Minotaur III will not be silo-based, negating the need for basing conventional ICBMs at current nuclear launch facilities.[5]

The conventional ICBM system is not without problems. First, there is the issue of accuracy. ICBMs are designed as nuclear delivery systems. Simply mating a conventional warhead to an ICBM would not provide pinpoint accuracy; ICBMs are not designed to provide such a degree of accuracy as such accuracy levels are not necessary when delivering a nuclear warhead. Second, once an ICBM is launched, it cannot be recalled without complete loss of the system by remote detonation. Conventional strike aircraft hold an advantage in this regard: if intelligence changes or is found to be in error, a mission can be cancelled without loss of a multi-million dollar strike aircraft.

Another concept which could provide the required strike capability is a subsonic platform capable of employing weapons or armed unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs). One such concept involves a Boeing 747, equipped with the facilities to launch and recover both an F-22A (mounted dorsally) and a UCAV (mounted under the fuselage).[6] On the surface, the 747 concept seems to be cost-effective: existing 747s and F-22As would merely need to be modified, and UCAVs are comparatively cheap systems to develop and procure. Such a proposal would certainly be ambitious and seem to offer a good deal of capability, but is not necessarily the right answer. A subsonic platform would require refueling support, basing, and would not provide the quick-reaction capability desired by the USAF, necessitating the development and procurement of a second system to satisfy that requirement.

A third concept to be considered for a future strikes system is an armed orbital satellite. Logistically and politically, this presents the least feasible option. While a satellite could easily be configured to deploy a weapon, it comes with a myriad of logistical issues. First and foremost, satellites are not unlimited resources. They must be maintained and fueled, and in this case rearmed. Those factors necessitate the presence of an orbital system capable of mating with these weaponized satellites. Such a system is not currently available on a consistent basis, as the Space Shuttle program is currently struggling with technical issues. Furthermore, if a new orbital system is to be developed to service these satellites, then it would seem more logical to arm the orbiter rather than the satellites! Launch systems would also be required to place these satellites into orbit.

From a political standpoint, armed satellites present two major problems. First, to be most effective, a satellite should be locked into a geostationary orbit over a potentially hostile nation. This would help to alleviate the need for refueling maneuvering systems, but does mean that the satellite is not available to cover other areas without maneuvering and using valuable fuel. The political argument against such an action would be that orbiting a weapon directly over a nation is an overtly hostile action. Such an action would likely be attacked as an example of the aggressiveness of the United States; a nation with an armed satellite positioned directly over its capital could argue that it is being convicted without a trial, as it has not (yet) acted in a hostile manner.

Second, there is the issue of a technical problem occurring and an armed satellite crashing into a populated area. While the satellite itself would likely burn up upon reentry, the weapons themselves would likely survive reentry and fall to Earth as that is, after all, their designed function. The United States would be the target of severe backlash if the weapons impacted in a friendly nation, and could find itself in the middle of an unwanted war if the weapons impact in a neutral or potentially hostile nation state’s territory.

A fourth concept capable of meeting the goals of quick response and global strike is an aerospace craft. Such a craft would be capable of launching and recovering from the CONUS. When considering such an aerospace craft, the question that must be answered is one of system characteristics: is the answer a single-stage-to-orbit (SSTO) or two-stage-to-orbit (TSTO) craft?

From a technical standpoint, a SSTO platform offers fewer risks. A TSTO platform must achieve a clean separation; launching aircraft at the comparatively benign speed of Mach 3 was proven to be troublesome in the 1960’s during the CIA’s TAGBOARD program and has not been attempted since.[7] The TAGBOARD program utilized two specially modified OXCART reconnaissance aircraft to deploy D-21 drones for reconnaissance sorties.[8] Three clean separations were achieved before a failed fourth attempt resulted in the cancellation of the program after the loss of the M-21 launch aircraft, the D-21 drone, and the life of Launch Control Officer (LCO) Ray Torick.[9]

TSTO craft also present financial and developmental concerns. A TSTO craft requires two components, and both components must be funded, developed, and procured. If one component is found to be lacking during development, then the entire program must be put on hold while a suitable alternative can be developed. Support equipment for both craft must also be developed and procured. The size of the orbital component of the TSTO craft is dictated by the carriage capability (or throw weight, if a conventional space launch vehicle is used) of the launch system. A SSTO craft can be considerably larger than a TSTO craft’s orbital stage, and as such would prove to be more useful as it would possess a larger payload capacity. Insofar as aerospace craft are concerned, the more attractive option is clearly that of a SSTO craft.

The concept of an orbital strike aircraft is not new, and is certainly not a concept conceived in the 21st Century. Indeed, the concept of an orbital strike aircraft even predates supersonic flight. The first orbital strike aircraft concept was under development in Nazi Germany during the Second World War.

In the early 1930’s, Austrian-born scientist Dr. Eugen Sänger began studying a rocket powered commercial transport capable of speeds of up to 29,000 kilometers per hour. Dr. Sänger was one of the first “rocket scientists” in the world, and his 1933 book titled Raketenflugtechnik (translated as “The Technique of Rocket Flight”) is widely regarded as the first practical text covering rocket-powered flight.[10] Dr. Sänger conducted private research throughout the 1930s until he found work with a rocket research firm in 1936, the Hermann Göring Institute in Germany.[11]

When World War II broke out, Sänger’s attention turned to a military strike version of his rocket powered transport in order to guarantee continued funding of his research efforts. Sänger’s rocket bomber would achieve global range by “skipping” off of the Earth’s atmosphere rather than reentering.[12] While Sänger’s proposal was never destined to reach the hardware stage in Nazi Germany, it was sufficiently enticing to Soviet intelligence agents that in 1946 Josef Stalin’s son Vasilli offered to pay an informant their weight in gold if they could disclose the post-war whereabouts of Dr. Sänger![13]

The USAF is certainly no stranger to the concept of a space based weapon system. In the 1950’s, the USAF conducted studies of its own orbital strike aircraft. Project ROBO was a study for a bomber based on the work of Dr. Sänger.[14] Under the auspices of the X-20 program, an armed variant known as the X-20B was studied.[15] The X-20 was even considered for the anti-satellite mission in an unarmed state: satellites would not be destroyed, but rather their trajectories would be altered by impact.[16] Unfortunately, the X-20 program as a whole was cancelled before it reached the hardware stage, so the USAF never got the chance to experiment with an armed aerospace plane.[17]

There have been persistent rumors that the USAF may already have tested a highly classified TSTO system from the flight test facility at Groom Lake, Nevada. Current reports seem to indicate that the system, apparently codenamed Blackstar, may have recently been mothballed, possibly due to an unresolved technical issue.[18] If that is indeed the case, it would potentially represent a further case in the argument for a SSTO system. Furthermore, any such program, if the classification level is downgraded sufficiently, may well provide a valid jumping-off point for the development of a SSTO craft. At the very least a plethora of technical data could be made available to designers.

In addition to the aforementioned attempts to capitalize on Dr. Sänger’s research, it should be noted that Russia has been working on military aerospace craft of its own. OKB Tupolev had studied various concepts since the late 1960s. Their current project in this field is known as the Tu-2000. OKB Tupolev envisions the Tu-2000 as a SSTO orbital craft.[19]

In the 1950s and 1960s Vladimir Chelomei, working in concert with OKB Myasischev, designed an orbital aerospace plane intended for use as an anti-satellite system. The craft, dubbed “Rakatoplan,” was a small two-man reusable spacecraft. A March1963 test launch of an unmanned test vehicle reached an altitude of over 600 miles, but the system was cancelled in May of 1964 before it ever became operational.[20]

OKB MiG conducted its own research on aerospace craft in the 1960s and 1970s. Under the Spiral project, OKB MiG researched a TSTO aerospace craft consisting of a Mach 7 carrier aircraft and an orbital vehicle carried on its back. The only facet of this now-defunct program to reach the hardware stage was the 105-11 demonstrator. The 105-11 was a subsonic, jet-powered atmospheric test vehicle designed to test handling characteristics of the Spiral’s orbital craft. After a brief flight test program, the project was shelved. Data gathered while flight testing the 105-11 eventually paved the way for the Buran program.[21]

Clearly, the most logical answer to the USAF’s future strike needs is a space based weapon system in the form of a SSTO aerospace craft. A space based weapon system will offer many significant advantages over current in-service strike systems. The first, and perhaps most significant, is one of location. An aerospace craft will possess global range and quick-reaction capability. Given the nature of the system, it will be able to launch and recover from bases within the continental United States (CONUS). This will present both significant logistical and political benefits.

Logistically, CONUS-based weapon systems are cheaper to operate when compared to forward-based weapon systems. Consider the case of the Northrop B-2A, the USAF’s much-vaunted “stealth bomber.” In March of 1999 the B-2A undertook its first combat missions over Yugoslavia as part of Operation ALLIED FORCE. B-2As of the 509th Bomb Wing at Whiteman Air Force Base (AFB), Missouri, flew 30-hour round-trip sorties to Yugoslavia and back.[22] This was a very impressive demonstration of the USAF’s global strike capability.[23] Logistically speaking, this was a very cost-effective move.

Consider the benefits of employing the B-2A from the CONUS. First, the USAF saved the money which would have been spent forward deploying the B-2A, the required ground service equipment, and the personnel required to operate and maintain the aircraft. Second, the aircraft was kept in a secure environment. Third, money was saved which would have been paid to deployed personnel in various allowances as a consequence of being deployed away from their home station. All of these savings would also apply to an aerospace craft deployed from the CONUS.

A further logistic benefit to a CONUS based aerospace craft is the lack of support aircraft needed to conduct operations. During a typical USAF operation, there are many support aircraft involved, ranging from in-flight refueling aircraft like the KC-135R, to fighter escorts like the F-15C. Removing the need for these support aircraft will result in a substantial reduction in overall operating costs required to perform a given strike. Eliminating the need for in-flight refueling alone will result in substantial savings; the average cost of transferring 10,000 gallons of jet fuel is nearly $200,000.[24] Furthermore, the costs of deploying aircraft and personnel to forward bases would also be considerably slashed, as far fewer aircraft would need to be deployed to any given combat theater.

There are numerous political benefits to having strike aircraft based in the CONUS. First and foremost, basing privileges do not need to be negotiated with friendly states in close proximity to the desired theater of operations. Secondly, overflight clearances do not need to be negotiated. This would aid in keeping the element of surprise on the side of the USAF: there is no guarantee that a nation which grants US combat aircraft an overflight clearance en route to a combat zone will not notify the targeted nation state that an air strike is incoming.

Any space based weapon system will confer a significant advantage on the USAF’s strike capability in terms of reaction time. A weapon with the speed of an ICBM will need 30 minutes to an hour to reach any target on the globe from the CONUS. The advantage here is clear. An aerospace craft could launch from the CONUS, acting on real-time intelligence data, and strike a priority target in minutes. This would enable the United States government to deal much more decisively with hostile nation states. Rather than needing to wait for forces to be deployed in-theater, strikes could commence virtually immediately at the outset of hostilities, perhaps catching certain sensitive targets before they can be relocated or adequately defended against a conventional air strike.

Any space based weapon system will enjoy virtual immunity from attack, being able to perform its’ mission without interference. This will further decrease the reliance on support assets. This will also remove any doubt from the minds of foreign leaders regarding their ability to defend against an air strike launched by the United States, enabling the United States government to take a far more aggressive stance at the bargaining table.

Any space based weapons program will likely result in a number of commercial benefits. An operational aerospace strike aircraft will have the ability to takeoff, leave the atmosphere, perform a given task, reenter the atmosphere, and land. This could result in a direct commercial benefit in two areas: satellite launch and commercial air transport.

A civilian derivative of a military aerospace craft, or a contracted military craft itself, could be employed as a reusable satellite launch vehicle. Also, technologies in areas such as propulsion, fuels, and construction materials could be used to produce a next-generation commercial aircraft. Of course, any possible commercial benefits are contingent upon the program existing in an unclassified state. However, joint development of a SSTO system with a commercial agency such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) would enable the overall program to share development costs and draw upon a larger pool of engineers to solve tough technical problems as they develop.

The primary obstacle to developing and producing an aerospace craft is that of cost. Simply put, advanced technology comes at a price. The closest example to a military aerospace craft was the NASA X-30 program of the 1980s and 1990s. The X-30 program never resulted in a flight vehicle, but cost estimates generated during the latter stages of the program estimated that $17 billion would have been needed to go from design to flight test, with a further amount of up to $20 billion being needed to produce an operational example.[25] In comparison, the original Engineering, Manufacture, and Development (EMD) contract awarded for the F-22A program was $11 billion.[26]

Fortunately for a military space based weapon system, there was a good deal of research done during the X-30 program, so designers would not necessarily be starting from scratch. That fact alone should help to reduce overall program cost. A production run of operational examples will also help to alleviate the burden of program costs by allowing development costs to be pro-rated over the production run. Individual aircraft cost would rise accordingly, but the yearly overall strain on the Federal budget would be reduced by not having to spend all of the money at once.

Political ramifications must certainly be considered when making the decision to develop and deploy an aerospace weapon system. It should first be noted that such a system can operate “within the law,” as there are currently no international laws precluding the usage of such a system, as it effectively operates outside the national boundaries of any nation on Earth.[27] However, that certainly does not mean that objections to such a system will not be raised.

The primary political objection to a space based weapon system will be a matter of defense. For the first time, a nation will have an unquestioned and total superiority in the battlespace environment. Current and projected defensive systems in the possession of threat nations will offer absolutely no defense against a space based weapons platform.

There are two ground based defensive systems which could conceivably intercept or threaten a space based weapon system. The first such system is the National Missile Defense system, in the hands of the United States, and as such would certainly not be regarded as a threat to a USAF-operated space based weapon system. The second potential threat system is the Russian A-135 anti-ballistic missile (ABM) system currently situated around Moscow. The 51T6 (ASIC codename: GORGON) exoatmospheric and 53T6 (ASIC codename: GAZELLE) endoatmospheric interceptors used by the A-135 are not in a position to be proliferated to threat nations as they are out of production, and employ nuclear warheads to perform their intercepts.[28] Also, given the current state of US-Russian international relations, and the continued presence of the Russian nuclear deterrent force, Russia should not be regarded as a potential target for any US strike platform, aerospace craft or otherwise.

Missile defense systems are the undisputed purview of the two Cold War superpowers. Given their complexity and the expense needed to develop and employ such systems, genuine missile defense systems are not likely to be obtained by threat nations in the near term, and as such are not regarded as being a threat to a space based weapon system.

Anti-missile satellites or other such space based interceptor systems, as is the case with anti-missile systems, do not pose a serious threat to a space based weapon platform. Any space based weapon system could conceivably be equipped with offensive or defensive anti-satellite systems to counter such a threat. While threat nations possessing space launch capabilities such as Iran and China could conceivably develop and employ anti-satellite systems, a space based weapon system could either destroy these systems in orbit or neutralize the launch facilities before launch can be accomplished.

This lack of defensive capability will no doubt be a cause of concern for many nation states. The United States will be in a position to act preemptively against any foreign state perceived to be a threat to national security interests. This could potentially affect the relationship between the United States and other nation states. There is a possibility that threat nations will be more likely to form alliances, and to act militarily whenever the opportunity exists. There is also a distinct possibility that threat nations will feel compelled to act, using weapons of mass destruction or other systems likely to be targeted by a space based weapon system, out of fear of losing that battlefield capability in the future. Ultimately however, the United States is in a position to counter any current aggressor with existing systems, and as such should not feel compelled to abandon the concept of a space based weapon system for political reasons alone.

The last issue regarding development of a space based weapon system is one of armament. Current weapons employed by existing strike aircraft, such as the Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM), would not be compatible as they are not capable of withstanding the heat of atmospheric reentry. This would result in a further research and development effort, imposing a further cost on the program.

Ultimately, kinetic weapons may prove to be the best choice for an aerospace weapons platform. There is no risk of premature detonation upon reentry, the weapons bay does not have to incorporate special cooling systems to ensure that warheads are not heated to the point of detonation during high-speed flight or atmospheric reentry following a cancelled strike, and they will possess enough kinetic energy to obliterate any target on the surface of the Earth.

One of the primary roles for an aerospace strike vehicle will be to serve as the USAF’s next-generation bomber, the “B-3.” However, even if the system is mooted as a long-range strike platform, it will by nature be capable of performing a plethora of missions if given the right equipment. Certainly, the strike mission is of the most importance. That being said, given the quick-reaction nature of the craft, it could also be used in an intelligence gathering capacity. This could help to reduce the current dependency on expensive to maintain satellites. The craft could also be employed in an anti-satellite capacity if given rudimentary targeting sensors and an appropriate offensive weapon system.

When designing the next-generation bomber, the follow-on to the B-2A, there is one question that will invariably arise. Should it be a low-observable aircraft, another “stealth” bomber? Given that it has already been determined that the next-generation bomber should be an aerospace craft, the answer is no.

Stealth technology is certainly a very valuable asset, as the recent combat performance of systems such as the F-117A and B-2A will demonstrate. The problem is that it is, for the most part, physically impossible to make a hypersonic stealth aircraft. Even if the aircraft is restricted to operating within the confines of the Earth’s atmosphere, certain physical attributes will virtually eliminate any chances of bestowing low observable characteristics on the aircraft. Consider the three main aspects of stealth technology: radar signature, infra red signature, and electronic signature.

An aircraft’s electronic signature, or the level of detectable electronic emissions emanating from the aircraft, is typically the easiest by nature to control: designers can simply eliminate or greatly reduce the number of detectable emitters on the aircraft. A prime example of this would be Lockheed’s F-117A. The F-117A’s offensive sensor suite consists primarily of two passive infra red sensors and a laser designator. Infra red sensors are passive and therefore do not radiate emissions which could be detected and tracked by an enemy, and laser designators, while they are active emitters, give off emissions in quantities which are still very difficult to detect or track. A strike aircraft can, therefore, employ passive or hard to detect offensive sensors and still retain a high degree of accuracy.[29] The problem areas for making a high-speed aircraft stealthy are, therefore, primarily concerning the radar and infra red signatures of the aircraft.

An aircraft’s radar signature, measured in square meters, is defined as “the ratio of the scattered power density in a given direction (usually the backscatter) to the incident power density normalized so as to be independent of the distance R at which the scattered power is measured.”[30] In simpler terms, RCS is the amount of radar energy reflected by a target which returns to the transmitting emitter. This reflected energy is then interpreted by computers to determine the location of the objects which generated the returns, providing radar operators with a “picture” of the area which they are scanning.

When dealing with an orbital strike platform, radar detection by a hostile nation becomes less important. First, radar detection of threat systems is necessary in order to prosecute an engagement with radar-guided surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) or to direct interceptors towards their target. As neither of these systems represents a threat to an incoming strike aircraft cruising at orbital velocity above the atmosphere, radar detection can be effectively overlooked as it pertains to a threat aspect. Second, there is the issue of early warning. A hostile nation state could employ radar in a conventional environment to detect incoming aircraft and defend or relocate sensitive items which may be targeted.

Defensive systems employed by hostile nation states have already been determined to be of no concern where an aerospace craft is concerned, so the primary concern becomes relocation of targeted items such as mobile missile systems. The issue then becomes one of reaction time. If an aerospace craft can launch from CONUS and reach a target in Iran in thirty minutes, for example, the question is as follows: how much reaction time will the Iranian air defense network have before the craft is overhead?[31]

Consider the following set of parameters: a launch from Whiteman AFB, Missouri, a range to the closest point in Iran of 6410 miles, and an escape speed of 25,000 miles per hour. It will take the strike platform 15.384 minutes to reach Iranian airspace.[32] If Iran can detect inbound targets 200 miles away from its borders, it will detect the aerospace craft roughly 14.904 minutes after it launches, providing a reaction time of roughly 30 seconds. Clearly, there will be insufficient reaction time to react. Radar detection of the aerospace craft is, therefore, of no concern to designers, as hostile nation states will not have sufficient time to react to its presence whether it is detected or not.

The third primary aspect of stealth technology, reducing the infra red signature, is beyond the technical means of a hypersonic aircraft. Airframe friction at high Mach numbers will endow the aircraft with a very large infra red signature. Engine exhaust temperatures will be stratospheric and, given the use of afterburning engines, scramjets, or other exotic propulsion methods, the infra red signature of the exhaust will be impossible to effectively mask. A further issue with the exhaust is that high-temperature exhaust plumes can generate their own radar signature and contribute to the aircraft’s overall radar cross section. This effect was noted during the development of the CIA’s OXCART Mach 3 reconnaissance platform during the late 1950’s and early 1960’s and was identified as a primary contributor to the aircraft’s radar cross section.[33] However, as radar detection has already been proven to be a non-issue, infra red detection can be treated in the same fashion.

Simply put, stealth technology, even if it could be applied to an aerospace craft, is not needed anyway. The USAF would be mindful to avoid the trap of attempting to apply the “latest and greatest” technologies to any future aerospace strike platform. Given the current emphasis on stealth technology in nearly every major US weapons program, over all branches of the Department of Defense, this is certainly a valid concern.

Once a decision to generate a force of orbital strike aircraft has been made, the next issue that must be addressed is the size of the fleet. In order to be an effective weapon system, the B-3 must be able to effectively engage multiple targets on a single sortie. This requires a decent payload capacity, and as payload capacity increases, so does the size of the craft itself, and consequently its cost. The key will be to balance airframe size, and therefore cost, with target engagement capability. Multiple target engagement capability means fewer systems are needed. Ultimately however, the defining factor regarding the number of aircraft employed will most likely be cost, regardless of the capabilities it offers.

It should be noted that a fleet of aerospace strike aircraft is not intended to serve as the only offensive air arm of the US military. Air defense aircraft such as the F-22A are still needed, as an aerospace craft by nature cannot effectively perform an air intercept mission or a combat air patrol. However, given a large enough fleet of aerospace craft, the USAF could replace its entire fleet of strike aircraft, ranging from tactical bombers such as the F-15E to strategic bombers such as the B-1B. The savings gained by making such a bold and sweeping move would be enormous.

Certainly, in some situations, a definitive military presence is required to perform a “show of force,” or to act as a deterrent between nation states. In these instances, the US Navy can be called upon to deploy an aircraft carrier and its associated air wing to a given theater of operations. Also, combat aircraft are often called upon to support ground forces. Again, the US Navy could take on this responsibility. Any further gaps in the USAF’s capability could be taken up by either low-cost UCAVs, or an increased number of F-22As.

One notable effect on the USAF following the induction of an aerospace weapon system into the active inventory will be that of reorganization. New command structures governing the aerospace arm of the USAF will be needed to take full effect of the new capabilities that an aerospace strike system brings to the table. The simple answer would be for such a system to fall under the purview of United States Space Command (USSPACECOM). However, USSPACECOM is not currently knowledgeable on contemporary USAF operations and has little or no experience with regards to day-to-day warfighting. Currently, USSPACECOM manages USAF space activities, none of which are offensive-minded (ICBMs, after all, fall under Air Combat Command). The answer is a merger of elements of USSPACECOM with the other main combatant commands and bringing the space battlefield environment, and the new capabilities available, to the attention of military planners and warfighters at all levels.

Once a command structure is established, joining space assets with more conventional weapon systems, new doctrine and tactics will be needed to effectively utilize all available systems in a given wartime environment. Currently, the only credible quick-strike capability in the USAF is nuclear, in the form of ICBMs. ICBMs are strategic weapon systems, and as such doctrine and tactics regarding their usage will not necessarily effectively translate to a conventional system.

One area of the USAF must be improved if a quick-reaction aerospace craft is to be employed effectively: intelligence. A system that can strike any target in the world within mere minutes must be backed up by accurate, real-time intelligence if it is to be successful. The solution can be provided through various means. First, an aerospace craft configured for a reconnaissance mission rather than a strike mission could be used to make a final pass over the target area before a strike. The intelligence gathered could be datalinked back to commanders, who will then make the call to deploy or not deploy the strike aircraft. Second, satellites could be employed in larger numbers to provide users with a larger range of intelligence data. When hostilities with a given nation state escalate to the point where military action may become necessary, a satellite could be placed into a geostationary orbit over the potential aggressor to provide real-time intelligence data by the minute. Third, given that satellite coverage is not guaranteed, and electro-optical satellites may find their target obscured by cloud coverage, stealthy reconnaissance aircraft could be employed in-theater to provide final verification of targets. Finally, more thorough analysis of current intelligence data, as it is gathered, will provide commanders with a better picture of the battlespace environment and the intended target area without the need for other measures to be put into effect.

The B-3 is intended to be a quick-strike weapon system, and providing planners with the needed data in a timely and efficient manner is crucial to its effective execution of its design goals. Ultimately, the intelligence network must be tailored to provide real-time, accurate intelligence data on very short notice, in order to make the most of the B-3s extraordinary abilities.

The decision to proceed or not proceed with an aerospace strike platform will ultimately hinge on its affordability. Given the exceptional and revolutionary capabilities it will bring to the USAF, and the benefits that will be gained through the possession and employment of those capabilities, it can be argued that the benefits will outweigh the costs. USAF officials should argue that developing, employing, and maintaining the B-3 will be cheaper over the long run than proceeding along three paths to produce a new strategic bomber, an intermediate strike aircraft, and a quick-response strike system.

The benefit of having the ability to strike anywhere in the world within minutes cannot be overstated. Politically, it provides the US government with a “big stick” to carry to any international bargaining table. Militarily, it provides planners with the ability to deal with short-notice taskings virtually immediately, and to provide a new form of deterrence suited to the Twenty-First Century world.

Perhaps the most important benefit of an operational aerospace weapon system is the guarantee of US superiority over the coming decades. No other threat nation will possess a similar system, or even a viable defense against such a system, for at least fifty years. When one considers the military capabilities and technological bases of nations such as Iran, Syria, or China, the evidence is clear: the United States will maintain a decisive strategic war fighting edge over any threat nation for quite some time. That decisive war fighting edge is the ultimate driving point behind the argument for an aerospace weapon system. One can only hope that the point is not lost on the United States Air Force.
[1] Michael Shirak, “USAF focuses on future long-range strike plans,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, 28 January 2004, 12.
[2] Jay Miller, Lockheed Martin F/A-22 Raptor Stealth Fighter, (Hinckley: Midland Publishing, 2005), 76.
[3] Michael Shirak, “US Air Force prepares for prompt strike study,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, 11 May 2005, 10.
[4] Michael Shirak, “Minotaur III eyed for global attacks,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, 11 May 2005, 10.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Colonel George D. Kramlinger, USAF, “Narrowing the Global-Strike Gap with an Airborne Aircraft Carrier,” Air & Space Power 19, no. 2 (Summer 2005): 94.
[7] This action should not be confused with the Space Shuttle’s jettisoning of solid rocket boosters (SRBs) as it ascends towards orbit. The SRBs are simply jettisoned; in the case of TAGBOARD, both launcher and drone were required to maintain controlled flight before and after separation.
[8] The single-seat OXCART aircraft, also known as A-12s, were the predecessors of the SR-71A. The two-seat D-21 mothership was known as the M-21.
[9] Tony R. Landis and Dennis R. Jenkins, Lockheed Blackbirds, 2d ed. (North Branch: Specialty Press, 2004), 24-25.
[10] David Myhra, Sänger: Germany’s Orbital Rocket Bomber In World War II (Atglen: Schiffer Publishing Ltd, 2002), 49-52.
[11] Ibid., 61.
[12] Ibid., 77-79.
[13] Ibid., 4.
[14] Bill Yenne, Secret Weapons Of The Cold War (New York: Berkeley Books, 2005), 144.
[15] Jay Miller, The X-Planes – X-1 to X-45 (Hinckley: Midland Publishing, 2001), 233.
[16] Bill Yenne, Secret Weapons Of The Cold War (New York: Berkeley Books, 2005), 147.
[17] Jay Miller, The X-Planes – X-1 to X-45 (Hinckley: Midland Publishing, 2001), 239.
[18] William B. Scott, “Two-Stage-to-Orbit ‘Blackstar’ System Shelved at Groom Lake?” Aviation Week & Space Technology, 5 March 2006. On-line edition.
[19] Yefim Gordon and Vladimir Rigmant, OKB Tupolev: A History of the Design Bureau and its Aircraft (Hinckley: Midland Publishing, 2005), 327-330.
[20] Bill Yenne, Secret Weapons Of The Cold War (New York: Berkeley Books, 2005), 150-151.
[21] Bill Gunston and Yefim Gordon, MiG Aircraft since 1937 (London: Putnam Aeronautical Books, 1998), 233-235.
[22] James Goodall, B-2 Spirit in action (Carrollton: Squadron/Signal Publications, Inc., 2002), 39.
[23] The only problem was the 15-16 hour ingress time. In a future conflict, when time-sensitive targets must be hit on short notice, 15 to 16 hours will not be sufficient.
[24] James Michael Snead, “Global Air Mobility and Persistent Airpower Operations,” Air & Space Power 18, no. 3 (Fall 2004): 44.
[25] Jay Miller, The X-Planes – X-1 to X-45 (Hinckley: Midland Publishing, 2001), 311-312.
[26] Jay Miller, Lockheed Martin F/A-22 Raptor Stealth Fighter (Hinckley: Midland Publishing, 2005), 42.
[27] Major Samuel L. McNiel, USAF, “Proposed Tenets of Space Power,” Air & Space Power 18, no. 2 (Summer 2004): 80.
[28] Pavel Podvig, ed., Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2001), 414-418.
[29] A system such as the B-3 may be able to do away with offensive sensors altogether. Given that it will, by design, be striking targets in minutes instead of hours, there may not be time to rely on onboard sensors for target identification and designation. Ergo, the B-3s weapons will most likely be targeted by other means, such as the Global Positioning System (GPS), whereby target coordinates can be fed into the weapons before launch, negating the need for onboard targeting.
[30] David C. Aronstein and Robert J. Piccirillo, HAVE BLUE and the F-117A: Evolution of the “Stealth Fighter” (Reston: American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Inc., 1997), 208.
[31] This is, of course, based on the assumption that Iran acquires the ability to detect such a craft.
[32] Ranges calculated using the Google Earth program’s measure tool.
[33] Tony R. Landis and Dennis R. Jenkins, Lockheed Blackbirds (North Branch: Specialty Press, 2004), 10.


Unknown said...

While I agree with most of your points Sean, I do think that re-fueling may be an important part of a ssto aerospace plane. Because of the weight of fuel, the strike platform would have to refuel before it's insertion into low earth orbit. Also, I would hope the U.S. has already created this capability and has a "well kept secret". Finally, as your new article on a possible Chinese Laser Weapon illustrates, there may indeed already be a defensive measure against a space plane strike platform.
There are a series of novels by Dale Brown which cover some of the technologies although they are of course - "fiction".
Keep up your terrific work. I really enjoy reading your material and find your research impeccable. Regards, Jim Heffernan

Anonymous said...

"Rakatoplan,” = Raktoplan = spacecraft said...

The U.S. army has had a space based ruby laser since 1983.
However with the recent developments in computer chips and technology it is likely to say a newer system such as the Navys
Free Electron Laser system capable of 20 foot burn through solid steele is more likely. It is against the Geneva convention and Salt II to emplore space based weapons and since Russia now runs our Nasa its unlikely. It would set off a type of second cold war.
Additionally I have no doubt Rods from God (Tungsten Rods based on Kinetic acceleration mach 18 are somewhere probably available. Extreme in nature is a light term.
I think it quite probable that space based systems will depend on whether the laser can transmit the twelve miles down range. It is more that feasible. Many secret works in Marylands Eastern Shore at the laser development center.Such a weapon would prove worthy on such targets such as Iran. The sabre rattling and recent Israeli diplomat killings will soon yield the result so we might see such actions soon. Irans recent launch of a space vehicle in orbit sends a loud message. Pair this to the nuclear program and its looks bad. More than likely this engagement will some how be surgical . The worst case would be mutual retaliation. Secretive operations would probably the best scenario and even possibly the use of EMP to blind Iran as Israeli jets dismantle Irans nuclear capabiliites and space program. No one wants this however such as Korea they are like a child screaming for attention when they don't get it they lash out only
enough's enough they are about to get spanked and belted.
Thankyou HM3 Scott Burrell- Nellis said...

The use of rhe "free electron laser" would provide pinpoint surgical lethality toward difficult targets. Albeit the U.S. outlawed sanctioned assasinations against dissadent rogue elements. It would provide use as icbm barrier on unwanted guests stemming from our former Ottoman friends.As well as NPRK and company. Iwould think a 5 megawatt powerplant in orbit would provide adequate output for the twelve mi dwn rnge effect,we know the rail gun works and at mach 18 provides effective g.p.s. directed ballastics./HM3 Scott Burrell MDW