The Invisible Force Behind American Military Might

by Lt. Gen. John E. Hyten

Every minute of every day, dozens of national security satellites circle the globe providing essential capabilities to Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines who require them to perform their demanding missions. American taxpayers have invested billions of dollars to build this critical infrastructure, and these game-changing capabilities have permanently affected the nature of international conflict.

Military space capabilities provide a critical asymmetric advantage for our forces, help reduce casualties for American and allied forces, reduce the risk to civilian non-combatants, and remain critically important for advancing American security objectives. A quick overview of recent military history teaches us why space capabilities are so important, and why they must be an integral part of the American defense strategy going forward.

For the better part of the last century, warfare was based on the industrial might of nations, and the fundamental strategy that developed was often referred to as annihilation. In both World War I and II, casualties soared into the millions, causing both sides to emerge bloodied and ravaged from the devastation of this kind of warfare. After World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union embarked on the ultimate industrial age strategy of annihilation: mutually assured destruction.

In the years following the fall of the Soviet Union, a new strategy emerged, one underpinned by our ability to create massed effects without the requirement to mass forces. Precision attack supported by assured global command and control became the norm. Piloted and remotely piloted aircraft employed weapons guided by GPS satellites and controlled through satellite communications—sometimes from over the next hill, and sometimes from halfway around the globe. These aircraft, along with new missiles and artillery, now have the ability to strike targets at the time and place of our choosing.  Many of these targets are identified by constellations of surveillance and reconnaissance assets watching from hundreds or thousands of miles up in space.

The strength of our military is still found in our Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines, but our ability to leverage this quantum leap in technology dramatically reduced the number we have to put in harm’s way. It also significantly reduced the risk of civilian casualties. In the first Gulf War, coalition forces destroyed the world’s fourth largest military in a matter of days with less than 1,000 total casualties as opposed to hundreds of thousands on the Iraqi side. Not as dramatic—but still significant—are the benefits of space in a protracted counterinsurgency. From 1954-1962, the French faced an insurgency in Algeria similar to our recent experience in Afghanistan. In those eight years, they suffered nearly 100,000 casualties, over 25,000 fatalities, and inflicted significant civilian casualties. Over the course of twelve years in Afghanistan, U.S. and coalition forces, aided by today’s latest spaced-based technologies, have suffered nearly 20,000 casualties with almost 2,000 fatalities—a significant reduction. Civilian casualties still occur, but they are few and far between, and each case is treated as an anomaly.

All war is horrible. Every loss of life is a tragedy, but the ability to project power precisely, while limiting the risk to our men and women in uniform, shifted Western society’s expectations for armed conflict. Today, if military power is used, our nation expects it be conducted in a manner minimizing risk to the lives of American forces as well as civilian non-combatants. This demand for precision in warfare drives the demand for global, real-time information and the exceptional dependence on U.S. space capabilities.

However, history teaches us today’s asymmetric advantage can be tomorrow’s critical vulnerability. Future adversaries are learning from our successes. For thirty years, our superiority in space has gone unchallenged; but today, at least eleven nations possess the ability to launch objects into orbit while dozens of other nations look to contract these boosters to launch their own space-based capabilities. We can no longer count on an uncontested space domain.

We need to transform our space capabilities to make them more effective, resilient, and affordable. We must partner with industry to find cheaper, more innovative ways to put our space capabilities in orbit. We need to explore the opportunities that commercially hosted payloads offer and continue to encourage competition in our space launch industry. We must ensure unfettered access to space and strive toward proliferated and disaggregated architectures that complicate an adversary’s targeting calculus. While this will certainly help us retain our distinct advantage in space, it will also open up opportunities for America’s space industry to provide innovative solutions and reduce the cost of delivering these game-changing capabilities.

Over the next several years, this country will face many decisions about our role in the world and how we use the military. For thirty years, space has been the invisible force enabling America’s military might. We must continue to advance, mature, and modify our space capabilities to ensure we retain that asymmetric advantage. Military leaders in the future will certainly develop new strategies to confront emerging threats, but the simple objective will remain the same: victory. It will be achieved by the heroism and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform, but it will be enabled by space capabilities most will never see.

About the Author

Lieutenant General John E. Hyten is the Vice Commander, Air Force Space Command, of Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado. With more than 42,000 space and cyberspace professionals within the command, he assists the commander in organizing, equipping, training, and maintaining mission-ready space and cyberspace forces and capabilities for North American Aerospace Defense Command, U.S. Strategic Command, as well as the other functional and geographic combatant commands.

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