Frank Bednar, Jim Davitch, and Cara Treadwell
Militarily, the Italo-Turkish war of 1911-1912 stands out in aviation history for several reasons. To the Italian’s credit, they were the first to fly combat missions at night, as well as the first to employ aircraft-delivered ordnance. An Italian airman named Giulio Gavotti executed both of those feats, the latter accomplished by hurling grenades from a satchel on-board with him. Unfortunately for the nascent Italian Air Force, the conflict also represented the first time an aircraft was brought down by surface-to-air fire. Though primitive and uncoordinated in comparison to today’s integrated defenses, the Ottoman ability to deny Italy exclusive air supremacy exposed a truth: control of domains above the earth’s surface would be contested in the future.
In 2007, China successfully tested an anti-satellite weapon against one of their own weather satellites. This demonstrated China’s burgeoning strategy to hold space-based assets at risk, and further expand their military capability in the space domain. Today’s joint force may be on the verge of learning the same lesson in the space domain, as the Italian Air Force learned in the air, and should prepare by proactively employing proven offensive counter-air analytical and planning frameworks.
In this article, we present the merits of evaluating an adversary’s air defense system by looking at its component parts and argue for the application of the same schema with the space domain. Using this methodology to identify, analyze, and prioritize space domain threats will enhance the ability for joint force commanders to make critical decisions in the defense of U.S. space capabilities. Further, it will allow planning staffs to lean forward rather than just react to an adversary’s potential courses of action in the contested space domain.
For air power practitioners, the Italo-Turkish conflict demonstrated that military forces in the future would now need a plan to suppress enemy air defenses. Since then air warfare strategists have had to grapple with the problem of gaining and maintaining control of air and space, while dealing with enemy defenses designed to prevent exactly that. One of the most effective ways of evaluating an adversary’s air defenses is to break them down into component parts: air surveillance, battle management, and weapons control.
Breaking Down the Integrated Air Defense System
At its heart, an integrated air defense system (IADS) is a command and control organization, not a loose assembly of radars, control centers, and weapons. An integrated defense system involves sensors that provide situational awareness of the operating environment, a commander who is responsible for the control of a defined space, and weapons that can affect the environment. By analyzing an air defense’s functional components, planners can evaluate strengths and weaknesses, and then focus resources on how best to degrade or disrupt the system. Air Surveillance can employ a variety of sensors from visual observers wielding binoculars and a radio, to sophisticated radars capable of determining the precise location of a target in three dimensions. Battle management is comprised of the information fusion centers that ingest, process, and analyze surveillance data in order to recommend engagement courses of action to decision makers. When an air defense commander chooses to act, he or she may respond with fighter aircraft, surface-to-air missiles, air defense artillery and/or electromagnetic effects. These weapons represent the third component of and integrated air defense system: Weapons Control. The commander’s ability to successfully employ multiple weapons at the same time and place against an enemy defines the degree to which these defenses are integrated. Integration is made possible today by redundant, reliable command and control networks. A well-integrated defense system is more lethal because it can better allocate resources and respond to airspace incursions in a coordinated manner.
Any action taken to drive air defense components to an independent state is beneficial because it limits their integration. Therefore, one may see the benefits of viewing adversary defenses as part of a system and finding vulnerabilities within it. Using synchronized non-kinetic and kinetic effects to divide and isolate air defense system components represents the future of multi-domain counter-air defense operations. This approach of analyzing and targeting an air defense network can and should be applied to space.
Analysis for the Space Environment
In June 2017, Secretary of the Air Force, Dr. Heather Wilson called for the Air Force to “integrate, normalize and elevate space operations in the Air Force.” Accomplishing this task has been, and continues to be, a significant challenge. The Air Force was only 10 years old in 1957 when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik and seemed destined to surpass the United States in the battle for space. From that point until now, the United States and its global competitors have competed for space superiority. Similar to air superiority, Joint Publication 3-14, Space Operations defines space superiority as, “the ability to maintain freedom of action in, from, and to space, sufficient to sustain mission assurance.” In order to develop a method for analyzing and combating threats to space superiority, the joint force should adapt the same framework applied to air defenses. As discussed, the process of analyzing air defense functions as a component of an integrated system allows for focused effects-based targeting and defense.
As Bruce Sugden previously described here in The Strategy Bridge, over the past thirty years many have observed the manner in which the U.S. has executed major contingency operations. The U.S.’s use of space-based effects has been apparent to foreign observers evaluating U.S. operations at least from Operations Desert Storm to Inherent Resolve. Since the early 1990s, the joint force has increasingly integrated assets like the Global Positioning System constellation, to communications, to missile warning, to space-based intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets. These space-based sensors provide the unique ability to access enemy targets when the geometry of the battlefield would inhibit the use of airborne sensors. Therefore, space systems may be a priority target for adversaries who seek to quickly degrade the U.S. ability to effectively wage war. Understanding an adversary’s counterspace system is crucial in the defense of these assets.
Fortunately for joint planners, a nation’s counterspace system overlays nicely with the same components as a typical modern integrated air defense system. When applied to the space domain, terrestrial air surveillance becomes “space surveillance.” The battle management function that represents the commander and decision-making authority utilizes the same nomenclature (battle management), as does the weapons control function.
Space Situational Awareness and Space Object Surveillance & Identification are the two key components that make up Counterspace Surveillance. In the air domain, surveillance is accomplished through the use of radars, optical systems, and passive detection. Space surveillance uses the same type of tools and often the same tool itself, repurposed for surveillance of on-orbit systems. Ballistic missile early warning radars, for example, can be used to detect and track not only ballistic missiles, but satellites as well. Optical systems vary from civilian astronomy systems to advanced sensors such as the Space Surveillance Telescope. Like ground-based passive detection systems, passive space surveillance systems rely on the activity or emissions of a spacecraft in order to collect or receive information. Nations and civilian organizations can use the data collected through space surveillance to build extensive space object catalogs. Ostensibly, these catalogs are used to prevent unintended orbital collisions. However, these same catalogs support counterspace targeting and enable decision makers’ situational awareness of space order-of-battle.
Counterspace Battle Management fulfills the same function as described in the air domain. It is perhaps the most important component in the integrated space defense architecture, as all decision-making flows through it. Degradation of space battle management may have cascading and critically disruptive second and third order effects, especially in authoritarian nations that may rely on strict centralized control.
From a Counterspace Weapons Control perspective, space defense systems share two commonalities with a typical air defense: non-kinetic and kinetic effects. Non-kinetic effects impacting space systems are expanding across the globe –– the most common development includes electronic attack directed against Global Positioning Service and Satellite Communications. Beyond these forms of interference, lasers and cyber-attack are also potential non-kinetic threats. On the kinetic side, similar to ground-based anti-aircraft missiles, countries like China and Russia are developing anti-satellite missile systems. In the future, satellites may be used in co-orbital engagements for defensive counter-space in a similar manner that aircraft are used today in a defensive counter-air role. The parallels between air and space systems coupled with the U.S. reliability on both necessitates a change to the traditional Integrated Air Defense System model.
In order to maintain information and space superiority the joint force requires a renewed focus on degrading an adversary’s Integrated Defense System. We prefer this term “Integrated Defense System” because it is more versatile than the traditional Integrated Air Defense System, which needlessly excludes the land, maritime, space, and cyber domains.
This methodology is useful for more than personnel working exclusively in space-related careers. Conventional force planners can and should use the surveillance, battle management, and weapons control framework to perform target development and red teaming on critical space capabilities they require respectively to be degraded or protected. Furthermore, if a conventional Air Force fighter or bomber unit identifies a particular space-based asset as necessary to conducting its mission, then defense of that space asset should become a priority. Changing this mindset, getting fighter and bomber war fighters to understand and appreciate how space-based assets affect their own missions is an important step toward Secretary Wilson’s call to normalize the relationship. Her call could even be fruitfully extended to the U.S. Air Force’s joint partners in the Departments of the Navy and the Army, and to a certain extent has already done so.
In evaluating and countering these threats, it is important to note that we are not advocating for the weaponization of space. Our recommendation is to employ a methodology focusing on the terrestrial components of the network before an adversary attacks U.S. assets in space. This approach allows the joint force commander to be more proactive rather than retaliating after an adversary has attacked critical U.S. space assets.
In conclusion, for too long the Air Force has viewed space operations as a subset of the service as a whole. In order to bridge this reticence, Air Force Chief of Staff General David Goldfein stated to an Air Warfare Symposium audience, “It is time for us as a service, regardless of specialty badge, to embrace space superiority with the same passion and sense of ownership as we apply to air superiority today.” To get from here to there, we suggest the Air Force treat the quest for space control similar to the pursuit of air superiority –– treat space systems’ component parts like a traditional air defense system, an Integrated Defense System.
Beyond the Air Force, the joint force should articulate in joint doctrine the Integrated Defense System model described above. By applying a similar model used in the air domain, operational-level planners can evaluate their own strengths and weaknesses as well as those of their adversary’s and better anticipate future contingencies and requirements. The traditional “IADS takedown,” which has become a central tenet of a successful air campaign now must also contain a plan to suppress or negate an adversary’s entire Integrated Defense System while also protecting our own critical capabilities. The joint community’s reliance on space makes this an imperative — never again will a joint force commander fight a conventional adversary that does not exploit this dependence. We must not wait for the 21st century equivalent of the Italo-Turkish war to demonstrate we are unprepared for an adversary’s capabilities.
Frank Bednar, Jim Davitch, and Cara Treadwell are U.S. Air Force officers. The views and conclusions expressed in this article are theirs alone and do not reflect the official position of the Colorado National Guard, the U.S. National Guard Bureau, the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
Have a response or an idea for your own article? Follow the logo below, and you too can contribute to The Bridge:
Enjoy what you just read? Please help spread the word to new readers by sharing it on social media.
Header Image: Launch of the third Mobile User Objective System (MUOS) satellite from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. (U.S. Air Force/United Launch Alliance)