Category Archives: USAF

“Space War” History


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Scientific American put out an article a few weeks ago about the first advertised use of Global Positioning satellites during the Persian Gulf War. At least it’s the first time a type of space infrastructure was used aside from satellite communications and satellite imagery. We were pretty used to the idea of satellite communications by 1991, but GPS is a bit different, then and now.

What I didn’t realize, since I was going through college at the time, is there wasn’t even the minimum number of satellites the DoD says is required today, which is 24, back then while the U.S. was conducting the campaign. The number of GPS satellites then was only 2/3’s of today’s baseline, with specific time limits in which to conduct combat effectively. Even with that, the U.S. military men and women still managed to do what needed to be done to win the campaign. The story, “GPS and the World’s First ‘Space War’,” is a good story, and worth reading, if you’re into that sort of history.

The U.S. Air Force likes saying Desert Storm was the first “Space War.” But it was more about a different way to use space infrastructure–a very new kind of space infrastructure, to be sure, but infrastructure nonetheless. Otherwise we’d be calling other campaigns the first kind of “Submarine War” because we’d laid cable underwater and used mines. Or the first kind of “Air War” because we used pigeons for communications and observation balloons for reconnaissance. Maybe saying it’s the first “Space War” is just a convenient way to continue funding for the USAF…and it sounds very impressive, right?

It ties in nicely with my previous blog post, “When China Attacks?”¬† It shows that even if someone somehow took the GPS constellation below the baseline of 24, things would still not be simple for those attacking, and the U.S. military would still be resourceful in using the remaining satellites (or maybe not even having to–there are alternatives, such as pseudolites).


Losing Proposition: Cutting USAF Space Operations

A different Chinese Long March? ūüôā Image from The Diplomat.

The United States Air Force (USAF) looks¬†to be on the verge of admitting it can’t spend the money on its own people to operate its own satellites. They are¬†considering some piecemeal options for moving contractors into what were military positions. ¬†¬†This SpaceNews post describes four¬†studies the USAF will be contracting out to figure out if they should outsource certain space operations: ¬†“operating the service‚Äôs research and development satellites; operating its geosynchronous-orbiting satellites; operating a limited number of geosynchronous satellites; and picking up the responsibilities of a single shuttered Air Force ground station.”

Yes, you read that¬†right, the USAF will spend money on contractors to conduct studies about options that would give other contractors more USAF money, to operate equipment owned by the USAF. ¬†Isn’t this akin to hiring contractors to fly the USAF’s fighter jets, because training and maintaining a fighter pilot force costs too much money, too? ¬†And yet, no one in the USAF seems to be bringing that up (and yes–it is the AIR FORCE–I understand that).

Of course contractors have been involved with satellite operations for a while. ¬†I’ve worked with a few. ¬†They’re great. ¬†They typically are very motivated. ¬†And they have a great amount of knowledge to pass on, if anyone bothers to listen. ¬†But they are civilians. ¬†Loyal civilians, but civilians nonetheless. ¬†And the USAF is exploring the options of adding more while diminishing its own stock of space operations expertise. ¬†It’s studies like the ones the USAF is contracting out, that makes me think it’s really time for them to split Air from Space. ¬†Time to have a true space force, one that won’t even think about stripping out their core military space experts, because those are who are needed to win a war. ¬†A space force won’t have to worry about balancing decisions such as how many¬†more fighter planes to buy vs. that awesome new satellite that will give the US an edge in space.

The cutting of military space personnel isn’t new. ¬†The USAF was cutting space operators long before I decided to get out in 2007. ¬†They kept on cutting afterwards, too. ¬†But just how deep is the USAF going to cut before it finds all the space operators it let go sitting in the same positions, but as more expensive contractors? ¬†It’s already happening with certain space systems. ¬†And most of the contractors¬†will need a Top Secret clearance, which the government has noted to be an issue already–too many contractors with clearances.

Sure, it might be cheaper to run space operations (although knowing government contracts and military contracting companies, I seriously doubt it), and day-to-day, the contractors will be fine. ¬†But what happens when ground sites and satellites are targeted? ¬†A GPS-guided cruise missile loaded with the right coordinates would take out possibly half of the contracted space operations expertise for some systems in one strike. ¬†Are there redundant systems, with personnel ready to man such systems? ¬†Listening to the money squeeze the USAF is facing, it doesn’t sound like it.

And while the United States government is seemingly going along with the USAF study proposals, there’s a country watching and likely hoping the USAF will find the ‘efficiencies’ within these studies worth exploring. ¬†If the USAF does that, it will¬†possibly the best thing that could happen¬†for¬†China. ¬†I mentioned yesterday that China is moving ahead and building up their own dedicated space force. ¬†Shouldn’t that kind of news make general officers here in the US think hard about the direction certain elements seem to want to take the USAF?

China¬†seems to be more serious than the United States regarding investing people and money into military space operations. ¬†The¬†idea of a dedicated space force is one the United States Air Force toyed with but never truly implemented. ¬†The USAF actually went in the opposite direction and cut down their space operations force, gutting the expertise of America’s space force. ¬†And with this latest SpaceNews post, it sounds like they’d like to cut some more.

This is not to say the USAF isn’t playing around with their own interesting satellites. ¬†But it seems that China understands it’s not just technology, but also about investing in space expertise in people, and giving¬†their space operators an edge in any space combat scenario. ¬†Meanwhile, certain USAF generals worry about what font is being used on a¬†PowerPoint slide, working on more impactful mission statements, and waiting for study results with that nice, well-used, rubber stamp ready to go. ¬†Who do you think is more ready for a space conflict?

SpaceX‚Äôs Own Spaceport Will Not Affect NASA or DoD Operations, Part 2

Space Launch Complex 40, at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Image hosted by The Conversation, provided by SpaceX.

This post is the completion of a short analysis I started yesterday about why NASA’s and the DoD’s launch operations will not be affected by SpaceX’s choice to build and use a launch operations center in Brownsville, Texas. ¬†It was prompted because of¬†a post The Space Review put up on their site Monday, which suggested that SpaceX’s move might prompt some more changes in space launch operations for NASA or the DoD. ¬†In essence, I doubt it will.

Money Rules

Yesterday, I suggested that politics is a condition that hasn’t changed (in that it’s changing all the time), and there are many porkfathers trying to protect their political pigpens.¬† Another condition that ties into that is there‚Äôs also disagreement from many politicians about how NASA should be spending its budget.¬† So whenever a budget is agreed upon for NASA, there are many stipulations.¬† NASA, the House, the Senate, and the Administration all have different ideas for what‚Äôs the most important thing NASA should focus on.¬† Each budget, then, is a struggle and eventually, a mish-mash of how NASA will spend its money.¬† The latest 2015 NASA budget changes are a great illustration of the kind of changes that happen for every single NASA budget submission.

Budget is the other factor that seems unchanging.  NASA’s budget stays fairly stable, with very small annual increases.    Considering the differing mission visions of elected leadership, and the turf wars certain congressional staffers initiate, it almost seems that changing any sort of operations or project has an element of risk which may adversely affect NASA’s budget.  The budget is a version of Damocles Sword for NASA.

Budget also affects the technologies NASA uses.¬† Because high visibility engineering and manufacturing feats give NASA a favorable image to the public, other, less visible but important systems suffer.¬† The arguments to spend money on the ‚Äúsexy‚ÄĚ tech are always very logical—if NASA shows off a new robot, moon rover, or space launch system, it shows they‚Äôre doing something important and fantastic, and more money will hopefully come their way.¬† But such arguments are shown to be false when looking at NASA‚Äôs historic budget, which does grow, but very slowly.¬† Very useful, but certainly less visible, infrastructure such as the technology used for launching rockets in the Eastern Range suffers from this kind of decision-making and eventually falls behind.¬†¬† In the latest story regarding the aging of Eastern Range technology, one of the Air Force‚Äôs primary launch tracking radars went down, and there was no back up for it.¬† Everyone apparently knew there was a risk, but as with all organizations just trying to get things done, they had accepted the risk and moved on.

MAD‚ÄĒMission Assurance Debauchery

This, and other, risks have been examined and documented because both NASA and the military have fairly hefty mission assurance requirements, with or without SpaceX.¬† The acceptance of the risk of blowing up unique satellites with unique payloads is very low, and so mission assurance will continue to be a catch-all for risk management activities for NASA and the DoD.¬† The requirements to identify as many risks as possible, with as many mitigation processes and solutions implemented as possible, throughout the acquisition, building, and launching of rockets is generally considered to be one of the bigger reasons SpaceX is moving to Texas.¬† However, if SpaceX continues to launch government satellites, then each of those launches will still be scrutinized fairly slowly and closely.¬† Mission assurance will still be a requirement for the government.¬† In turn, because time and manpower are added on to every government launch, a government satellite will be more expensive to launch‚ÄĒeven if SpaceX does it from Texas.

A Problem of Motivation

If the SpaceX was faced with this kind of frustration and equipment, it should be easy to see why they are moving to Texas. ¬†Politics, money, risk‚ÄĒthese conditions all still exist for NASA and the DoD.¬† They are very real motivators for both to stay the course and not rock the boat.¬† With that in mind, while SpaceX‚Äôs move is interesting, and potentially great for SpaceX‚Äôs future, there will barely be any significant operations that will change at the Eastern Range‚ÄĒuntil something terrible happens. ¬†Does this mean there’s no chance for change? ¬†No. ¬†But until these critical conditions change, there’s no motivation, at least in their worlds, for change.

SpaceX‚Äôs Own Spaceport Will Not Affect NASA or DoD Operations, Part 1


Yesterday, I expanded on a Space Review post of the possible reasons Space Exploration Technologies Corp (SpaceX) is moving launch operations to Texas.  The company believes it will conduct about 12 launches a year from its own space launch complexes near Brownsville, Texas.  Such a launch rate is more than triple SpaceX’s 2013 launch rate of 3 per year,  and beats the United Launch Alliance’s (ULA’s) 2013 rate of 11 launches. 

SpaceX may have a few good reasons to move space launch operations away from government‚Äďrun complexes and organizations.¬† But, as a result hoped for in the Space Review’s article, do SpaceX‚Äôs possible reasons for moving impact organizations like NASA and the DoD? ¬†Is it a wake-up call for Eastern Range operations, and will they change?¬† Fundamental changes in administrative and space launch operations are unlikely for either NASA or the DoD, even if SpaceX succeeds with their Texas launch operations. ¬†This is a very cursory explanation and examination showing why such changes are unlikely.

Reason Roll-Call

The Space Review has a decent rundown of the possible reasons SpaceX is building a spaceport in Texas.¬† First, there are too many bureaucratic agencies to work with‚ÄĒeach one with very specific rules and requirements.¬†¬†All add a lot of overhead to the already complicated task of building and launching rockets.¬† Second, the Eastern Range is a busy place to launch rockets from and scheduling is very tight.¬†¬†Any slip in schedule might impact overall rocket launch schedules severely.¬† Third, the technology used at the Eastern Range is outdated, and can‚Äôt support concurrent operations.¬†¬†Fourth, the insidiousness of mission assurance and its impacts on the overall schedule of the mission.¬† It also reinforces and rewards a culture of risk aversion at any price.¬† The fifth reason‚ÄĒthe limitations placed upon visitors before and during a launch, while seeming reasonable from a security standpoint, do not help foster good relations among countries and companies.

It’s a Matter of Motivation

So those might be the reasons why SpaceX is moving launch operations to Texas.  But why will SpaceX’s Texas move not change NASA’s or the DoD’s processes?  It sometimes helps to answer a question with another question:  Have the conditions influencing and motivating NASA and the DoD operations changed?  Are the major conditions motivating their behavior any different after SpaceX moves launch operations?  No.  Politics still heavily influences both organizations’ missions.  Their budgets are remaining fairly steady.  And government payloads will still require government processes.  These conditions definitely influence some of the reasons SpaceX might have as the company moves to Texas.

Protectionist Politics

The military and NASA are political organizations.  Each one makes plans and agendas based on input from current officeholders, then changes whenever new administration or congress members are elected to office.  Each one must react whenever any of their taskmasters have a question, a complaint, or a comment.  The examples used in this post for why things will not change will focus on NASA, as military space tends to operate a bit more in the background.

Even when NASA uses government-approved processes and delivery vehicles, such as Indefinite Delivery/Indefinite Quantity (IDIQ) contracts, it is still publically and politically questioned by senators and representatives who have companies that may suffer in their districts.¬† The latest use of this kind of tactic was conducted by Senator Richard Shelby and Representatives Mo Brooks, Mike Coffman, and Corey Gardner regarding NASA‚Äôs use of IDIQ with SpaceX.¬†¬†Shelby and Brooks come from Alabama, where the NASA Marshall Spaceflight Center and one of the ULA‚Äôs manufacturing facilities resides.¬† Coffman and Gardner, representatives from Colorado, have the ULA‚Äôs headquarters and facilities in their backyard.¬† Gardner, Coffman, and Brooks demanded that NASA change contract terms for more ‚Äútransparency‚ÄĚ into SpaceX‚Äôs rocket-building processes for NASA in July 2014. ¬†I also wrote another opinion piece, “Crony and the Bandit,” highlighting the antics of these House members.

There’s more to come. ¬†There are a few more existing conditions that need to be elaborated upon, showing why NASA, the DoD, and other bureaucracies will not change operations because of SpaceX’s move.

Five Reasons SpaceX Wants to Launch from Texas

Lone Star Rising

Edward Ellegood wrote a very good post on The Space Review yesterday about why SpaceX is moving launch operations to Texas. ¬†Back in August, I also posted some conjecture about SpaceX’s reasons for moving launch operations to Texas. ¬†But Ellegood goes into a bit more detail than I did, so it might be a worthwhile read for those of you wondering why on Earth anyone would move to Texas.

For the most part, some portions¬†of Ellegood’s list falls in line with mine. ¬†The government loves to help, at the expense of any sort of efficiency, and that sort of thing must really chafe at SpaceX’s purported “g0-go” culture. ¬†In fact, the government hires a lot of people in its endeavor to help, which slows things down even more, while making things more expensive. ¬†Ellegood brings up these problems under the titles “Too many cooks” and “Mission Assurance Support.”

He does list a couple of issues I didn’t bring up (probably because I was too close to the problem). ¬†The range scheduling issue is something I’ve had to deal with in the USAF and the Missile Defense Agency. ¬†Of course people are fighting for time to launch their rockets and satellites. ¬†Of course people have to talk in long meetings and figure out a shared schedule when to launch. ¬†It seems ever present, so much so, I never gave it much thought. ¬†It would make sense then, on that issue alone, for SpaceX to buy their own launch complex, which they can use whenever they want, barring any external conflicts. ¬†This would be helpful to SpaceX¬†since they seem to be running behind on certain launch obligations (mentioned near middle of this post).

The other bit I’ve dealt with, questioned a few times, but never really could change was the technology gap of the government (Ellegood lists this issue under “Range Technology”). ¬†Government civilians and military want to get their money’s worth out of whatever technology they’ve invested in. ¬†So it makes sense to keep the technology they’ve bought for a good long time, upgrading, grudgingly only when the expertise disappears, or parts aren’t available anymore¬†(there’s a reason for the “Good enough for government-work” truism). ¬†This becomes a problem, though, if the investments in the launch tracking equipment stops or trickles in, and there’s no way to maintain updated equipment, or have stand-by equipment on hand. ¬†It can get bad enough for “work-arounds” to be developed¬†to accommodate the equipment limitations. ¬†And those limitations can affect launch schedule and are unable to cope with multiple events happening at the same time. ¬†Maybe it’s time for the government to treat their technology like the public treats laptops and phones? If only the equipment were as cheap.

An issue Ellegood lists that I never even gave any thought to was the visitor aspect. ¬†When I’m trying to get a mission done, visitors are the last thing on my mind. ¬†I’m sure the people within NASA and the DoD who¬†are trying to get their work done are in the same frame of mind. ¬†Visitors are what public affairs get to deal with. ¬†But that said, I do understand what Ellegood’s getting at, and it may be a very good reason¬†in this instance, for the move. ¬†The DoD and NASA are trying to protect US assets and knowledge from people they think shouldn’t have them. ¬†So they have processes in place to have people show up in a certain place at a certain time. ¬†Which works if someone special is showing up from a relatively local area. ¬†But if they’re flying in from Hong Kong or Johannesberg, such processes are less than convenient for those customers–especially if a launch is scrubbed.

So, Ellegood’s listing some very good reasons for SpaceX’s move to Texas. ¬†However, I do think he’s a bit optimistic about the effect this will have on NASA, the DoD, etc. ¬†I don’t know if it will impact NASA or the DoD the way he thinks it will. ¬†An analysis to boost this opinion will be posted tomorrow. ¬†But Ellegood’s post is still a good read with good reasons for why SpaceX is moving launch operations to Texas.