The world first saw the power of space to transform warfare in the 1991 Gulf War. In the years since, the U.S. military has come to depend heavily on space throughout its peacetime and combat operations. Satellites acquired by the Department of Defense (DOD) principally provide protected communications; data for position and timing, terrestrial and space weather, missile launch warning and tracking, and space situational awareness; and experiments and other research and development activities. Satellites for reconnaissance and surveillance are the domain of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), under the Director of National Intelligence (DNI).
Today's capabilities emerged over five decades of changing technologies and threats, factors that are now forcing earlier plans for legacy systems to be reconsidered. Technology has extended space progressively deeper into warfare, while potential adversaries are developing capabilities that could extend warfare into space. The former demands finding new arrangements to provide tactical space reconnaissance; the latter demands seeing more clearly how space is essential to the emerging joint fight. Exploiting the advances in technology calls for new capabilities, authorities, and processes; countering the advances in threats calls for assessing architectures, plans, and options to set priorities for mission assurance.
The mission that needs to be assured depends on what is needed for the joint fight, and is not necessarily a space system. (1) Some satellites enable terrestrial capabilities; some are integral components of those capabilities; some may protect those capabilities by denying enemy use of space; some may be important at first contact, while others contribute later. But, in every case, the measure of military merit and the significance of space is the contribution to the joint fight. The importance of space systems, like the importance of fighters, tanks, or submarines, derives from their role in winning the war--what General James P. Mullins, USAF (Ret.), called "the only truly meaningful measure of merit, enhanced combat capability." (2)
This measure establishes priorities for investment and protection. It also corrects the common but misleading demand that we build and maintain a space force "second to none," or "the best in the world." What is wanted, more precisely, is a military capability that can assure national interests against any and all attackers. Space can be essential to that capability, and what the space force needs to do is determined by how the U.S. military plans to fight the war, not by what other countries might build and launch. Whether that would also include war in space depends on the military context and how U.S. commanders plan to defeat the plans and capabilities of others.
That said, in practice, military space programs have been planned and acquired somewhat apart from the planning for future combat forces. For varied technical, programmatic, and bureaucratic reasons, they do not fit conveniently into the procedures by which conventional force acquisition plans are adjusted by anticipated resources. At any given time, therefore, there is likely to be only a rough synchronicity between development programs for space and those for other force capabilities. Particularly when reduced budgets bring program cancellations and stretch-outs, there are likely to be some space programs in which there is too much investment, others in which there is too little, and perhaps one or two that may be superfluous relative to the force development programs they are intended to support.
Deciding which space programs to cut, delay, or accelerate is not simply a matter of mirroring budgetary developments for major weapons programs. Space systems almost never serve a single need or customer, and they have often provided capabilities and met needs that were unanticipated when they were designed and launched. …