The Pentagon sends mixed messages into space
April 23 was a busy day for the Pentagon's space program. First was a launch from Florida of the experimental X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, a smaller robotic version of the soon-to-be retired NASA Space Shuttle. The Air Force hopes to develop a reusable robotic spacecraft that can carry satellites and cargo into space, stay in orbit for many months, maneuver to different orbital planes, and land on a runway for reuse. Second that day was the launch from California of the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency's Falcon Hypersonic Technology Vehicle-2 (HTV-2). The HTV-2 is an experiment to test whether the Pentagon can develop an extremely fast maneuvering glider-bomb that could promptly strike fleeting targets anywhere on the planet. Engineers lost contact with the missile 9 minutes after launch.
The Obama administration will soon attempt to explain two contrasting messages regarding the military use of space. On the one hand, it will call for international cooperation on a variety of space issues. On the other hand, as shown by the April 23 launches, it is hedging its bets by expanding the Pentagon's space power.
In its forthcoming Space Posture Review (SPR), the Defense Department will describe how important space and its space programs are to military success. The SPR will very likely explain how dependent U.S. military operations are on the military's reconnaissance, communication, weather, and navigation satellites. The report will also discuss how these systems are increasingly vulnerable to disruption by U.S. adversaries.
In a preview of the SPR's likely content, Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn recently discussed the need for international cooperation in space. Lynn called for "norms of behavior in space" that would include cooperation on space communication spectra, cooperation on navigation and missile warning, and protection of space assets from attack.
Having established the greatest range of space capabilities and with the most to lose from attacks on space assets, it is understandable that the United States government would now call for cooperation in space and the institution of a taboo on attacks on space assets.
In his speech, Lynn recognized that space has become a competitive military environment. Potential adversaries are likely to see a great advantage in offensive space capabilities that threaten the Pentagon's space assets.
As a hedge, the Obama administration has found itself supporting programs like those launched on April 23. In the future, the Air Force could use a spacecraft like the X-37B to rapidly replace military satellites destroyed by earlier enemy attacks. The X-37B could also have an offensive mission, to maneuver and linger near adversary satellites after a war has started, either to destroy them or to threaten them to deter escalation. The administration will hope that the HVT-2 eventually becomes an "Osama bomb," a weapon capable of rapidly destroying a fleeting target but without appearing on Russian or Chinese radars to be the start of a nuclear war.
The Obama team will attempt to sell a message of cooperation and harmony in space while simultaneously pursuing weapons programs that further expand the United States' dominant military space capabilities. No one should be surprised if America's adversaries hear the wrong message.