U.S. Must Maintain Superiority in Space, General Says
By Steven Donald Smith
American Forces Press Service
LONG BEACH, Calif., April 20, 2007 Maintaining superiority in space will go a long way toward protecting U.S. national interests, the commander of the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center said here.
“If adversaries are using space in ways that would threaten America or our forces on the battlefield, we have to be able to disrupt or deny their use of those capabilities,” Air Force Lt. Gen. Michael A. Hamel told American Forces Press Service during the center’s Industry Days held here April 17-19. “Space capabilities will become increasingly critical to our national well-being.”
The center is located on Los Angeles Air Force Base in El Segundo, Calif. Personnel at the center are responsible for researching, developing and purchasing military space systems, ranging from global positioning technology and space-based infrared surveillance and tracking, to launching and maintaining military satellites. As the Air Force’s executive officer for space, Hamel is also responsible for America’s deployed and fielded intercontinental ballistic missile forces, as well as developing the next generations of missile capabilities.
“If it has something to do with military space, somewhere within SMC we either are or should be working on the concepts and technologies,” Hamel said. “We have a responsibility for the life cycle from the initial idea to actually working with industry to build it, launch it, and operate and sustain it.”
Hamel said all nations have the right to operate in space, but it is important the U.S. can protect its commercial and military interests in the realm. He said the concept of space superiority is very similar to land, sea or maritime superiority.
“With maritime superiority, we acknowledge that all nations have the right to operate on the high seas, but we also recognize that if our freedom to navigate is threatened, we have to be able to enforce our rights. It’s very similar in space,” he said.
Current space capabilities are comprised of three principle elements: satellites on-orbit, ground control stations that operate the satellites, and the links that connect the two. “We have to look at how to protect those from threats,” Hamel said.
Hamel pointed out that space technology, especially as it relates to satellites, is an integral part of everyday life. Global positioning systems in cars, commercial television feeds, and financial transactions at ATMs all depend on space technology.
“Space is a critical strategic capability for the nation,” he said. “And we’re going to have to ensure that others can’t take that away from us.”
Hamel stressed that the U.S. is not weaponizing space and abides by all international treaties. The U.S. is not placing futuristic offensive weapons like lasers in space.
“What we do in space is in complete accord with our international commitments,” he said. “We support the peaceful use of space, but we also recognize the legitimate rights of self defense. We view our satellite systems as our sovereign property and attacks or interference with those are viewed as an infringement on our sovereign rights.”
Several countries have the ability to destroy orbiting satellites, including China, which destroyed one of its aging satellites with a ground-launched missile during a test in January.
Space technology also plays a crucial role in current U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and is beneficial during humanitarian crises, the general said.
U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan rely on GPS technology in operations on the ground and for guiding munitions to their intended targets. “From a military standpoint, virtually every aspect of how we conduct our operations, you will find space imbedded in some fashion,” he said.
Hamel said U.S. forces can turn a garden-variety iron bomb into a precision weapon by simply attaching a guidance package.
“The accuracy with which we’re delivering these is on the order of two to three meters. Part of the reason this is so important is you can select the exact weapon to achieve the desired effect while minimizing collateral damage,” he said.
Blue Force Tracking is another space technology that will become increasingly vital to situational awareness on the battlefield, Hamel said. Blue Force Tracking integrates GPS receiver packages with ground forces, aircraft and ships, and continuously broadcasts a position. By relaying the position of a specific Humvee, for instance, through a satellite link, it can be precisely pinpointed. “This is very critical to be able asses the status of friendly forces in large expanses of a battlefield,” he said.
Through the proper integration into combat forces, space becomes a true force multiplier, he added.
High-tech space technology has also lent a hand in humanitarian operations. Following the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 and Hurricane Katrina along the U.S. Gulf Coast in 2005, military forces were able assess the damage through satellite imagery and determine how best to deliver relief. “Space capabilities were the first on scene, so to speak,” Hamel said.
Because space acquisition is an inherently expensive and risky endeavor due to the technical demands involved, the government’s relationship with industry is crucial to acquisition success. Since the military doesn’t produce the space systems, it must define its needs and then work with contractors on the best engineering design, technologies and value proposition for building and fielding the systems.
“This is a demanding business. It requires excruciating attention to detail. All it takes is one detail overlooked and that spells the difference between success and total failure,” Hamel said. “The misplacement of a decimal point in a guidance parameter can destroy the launch of a satellite into orbit.”
The government must be an informed customer, and transparency and check and balances are essential during the development and acquisition process “because at the end of the day, we’re accountable to the American taxpayer,” Hamel said.
The general emphasized how far the United States has come since first setting its sights on space.
“We are now approaching 50 years of having operated as a nation in space,” he said. “We have gone from the initial stumbling steps of trying to get satellites into orbit reliably to the point now where we have a tremendous spectrum of operating capabilities in space.”