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updated 2/23/2004 10:13:04 PM ET 2004-02-24T03:13:04

The U.S. Air Force has filed a futuristic flight plan, one that spells out need for an armada of space weaponry and technology for the near-term and in years to come.

Called the Transformation Flight Plan, the 176-page document offers a sweeping look at how best to expand America’s military space tool kit.

The use of space is highlighted throughout the report, with the document stating that space superiority combines the following three capabilities: protect space assets, deny adversaries’ access to space, and quickly launch vehicles and operate payloads into space to quickly replace space assets that fail or are damaged/destroyed.

From space global laser engagement, air launched anti-satellite missiles, to space-based radio frequency energy weapons and hypervelocity rod bundles heaved down to Earth from space – the U.S. Air Force flight plan portrays how valued space operations has become for the warfighter and in protecting the nation from chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and high explosive attack.

Now to far-term needs
A number of space-related transformational capabilities are described in the document. While some of these are seen as needed in the near-term (until 2010), others are described as mid-term efforts in 2010-2015, while some efforts are viewed as far-term, beyond 2015.

Among a roster of projected Air Force space projects:

  • Air-Launched Anti-Satellite Missile: Small air-launched missile capable of intercepting satellites in low Earth orbit and seen as a past 2015 development.
  • Counter Satellite Communications System: Provides the capability by 2010 to deny and disrupt an adversary's space-based communications and early warning.
  • Counter Surveillance and Reconnaissance System: A near-term program to deny, disrupt and degrade adversary space-based surveillance and reconnaissance systems.
  • Evolutionary Air and Space Global Laser Engagement (EAGLE) Airship Relay Mirrors: Significantly extends the range of both the Airborne Laser and Ground-Based Laser by using airborne, terrestrial or space-based lasers in conjunction with space-based relay mirrors to project different laser powers and frequencies to achieve a broad range of effects from illumination to destruction. 
  • Ground-Based Laser: Propagates laser beams through the atmosphere to Low-Earth Orbit satellites to provide robust, post-2015 defensive and offensive space control capability.
  • Hypervelocity Rod Bundles: Provides the capability to strike ground targets anywhere in the world from space.
  • Orbital Deep Space Imager: A mid-term predictive, near-real time common operating picture of space to enable space control operations.
  • Orbital Transfer Vehicle: Significantly adds flexibility and protection of U.S. space hardware in post-2015 while enabling on-orbit servicing of those assets.
  • Rapid Attack Identification Detection and Reporting System: A family of systems that will provide near-term capability to automatically identify when a space system is under attack.
  • Space-Based Radio Frequency Energy Weapon: A far-term constellation of satellites containing high-power radio-frequency transmitters that possess the capability to disrupt/destroy/disable a wide variety of electronics and national-level command and control systems. It would typically be used as a non-kinetic anti-satellite weapon.
  • Space-Based Space Surveillance System: A near-term constellation of optical sensing satellites to track and identify space forces in deep space to enable offensive and defensive counterspace operations.

Rapid launch needs
The newly issued Air Force document makes the following point: "The U.S. space capability rests on the foundation of assured access." There is need to deploy, replenish, sustain, and redeploy space-based forces in minimum time to allow them to accomplish the missions assigned to them — through all phases of conflict.

In this regard, the Air Force is exploring various future system concepts to launch, operate, and maintain space assets responsively. These include the Air Launch System, a dedicated, weather avoiding, on-demand (within 48 hours) system that can rocket into the sky at a wide variety of trajectories and can loft a Space Maneuver Vehicle, Common Aero Vehicle, or a conventional payload.

As explained in the Air Force document, a Space Operations Vehicle (SOV) enables an on-demand spacelift capability with rapid turnaround. This SOV can be one of the vehicles that could deploy the Space Maneuver vehicle — a rapidly reusable orbital vehicle capable of executing a range of space control missions. In addition, the SOV can be utilized to deploy the Common Aero Vehicle, or CAV.

The CAV is an unpowered, maneuverable, hypersonic glide vehicle deployed in the 2010-2015 time period. The CAV could be delivered by a range of delivery vehicles such as an expendable or reusable small launch vehicle to a fully reusable Space Operations Vehicle. It can guide and dispense conventional weapons, sensors or other payloads world wide from and through space within one hour of tasking. It would be able to strike a spectrum of targets, including mobile targets, mobile time sensitive targets, strategic relocatable targets, or fixed hard and deeply buried targets. The CAV’s speed and maneuverability would combine to make defenses against it extremely difficult.

Directed energy beams
Given the growing number of nations that utilize space, Air Force strategists see that trend as worrisome.

"The ability to deny an adversary’s access to space services is essential so that future adversaries will be unable to exploit space in the same way the United States and its allies can. It will require full spectrum, sea, air, land, and space-based offensive counterspace systems capable of preventing unauthorized use of friendly space services and negating adversarial space capabilities from low Earth up to geosynchronous orbits.

The focus, when practical, will be on denying adversary access to space on a temporary and reversible basis," the document states.

Air Force scientists and technologists are busy in the labs exploring the possibility of putting a warning energy "spot" on any target worldwide that could be rapidly followed with varying levels of effects.

A possible breakthrough, the document adds, deals with a solid-state directed energy beam systems, operating at 100-kilowatt levels. "If the generation of large quantities of heat could be managed, the Air Force could develop highly effective, cheap, high power energy weapons."

For example, Air Force researchers are looking at ways to collect or generate large quantities of energy on orbit in order to rely on space-based platforms for more missions and provide a greater degree of true global presence. "This would change many equations about traditional ideas of rapid response," the document explains.

Sensor-to-shooter
The report emphasizes that space capabilities are integral to modern war fighting forces, providing critical surveillance and reconnaissance information, especially over areas of high risk or denied access for airborne craft.

Space capabilities also provide weather and other Earth observation data, global communications, precision position, navigation, and timing to troops on the ground, ships at sea, aircraft in flight, and weapons en route to targets.

Space assets are critical to achieving information superiority as they enable predictive and dominant battlespace awareness. As a result there can be a reduction in the "sensor-to-shooter" cycle to minutes or even seconds, the document explains.

Real-time picture of the battlespace would involve an initial space-based Ground Moving Target Indicator capability.

This capacity provides U.S. global strike forces with the ability to identify and track moving targets anywhere on the surface of the Earth. Also desirable is the ability to detect, locate, identify, and track a wide range of strategic and tactical targets that the United States currently has minimal capability to detect. These include weapons of mass destruction, hidden targets, and air moving targets.

A real-time picture of the battlespace enables a commander to know where all friendly forces are, not only to better coordinate operations and avoid fratricide -- accidentally injuring or killing your own troops.

Roadmap to the future
In a February 17 press statement issued from the office of the Secretary of the Air Force, the public document on Air Force transformation is described as "a roadmap to the future".

The Air Force flight plan is a reporting document that enables the Secretary of Defense to evaluate and interpret the Air Force's progress toward transformation.

"Transformation is using new things and old things in new ways, and achieving truly transformational effects for the joint warfighter," said Lt. Gen. Duncan McNabb, Air Force director of plans and programs.

The newly issued, publicly releasable report is the one unclassified document that presents an overarching picture of Air Force transformation, added Lt. Col. James McCaw, from the plans and programs directorate's transformation branch.

"It will help the reader understand where the Air Force is going, and why we chose this path," McCaw concluded.

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