The Evolving U.S. Military Space Paradigm: Lynchpin for a Global C4ISRD Enterprise

Delta II Launch
Delta II Launch. Photo credits: Boeing Co.

The more than 40 year history of US military space has entered a new phase. The US military space system was built as a unique overlay for the US intelligence community and the US military to provide for strategic deterrence of the Soviet Union. It has evolved over time into a global enabler for the transformation of the US military into a truly global force. It is now the lynchpin for what is emerging as a global C4ISRD enterprise enabling the global security and defense capabilities of the United States.

What began as a unique military “high ground” has become one of the four key nodes of the evolving C4ISR system. Space, air, naval, and ground platforms are becoming interconnected in a system to provide digital content for the US military. This digital content encompasses communications and sensor systems distributed over space, air, naval and ground platforms. The core platforms were historically built separately and “stovepiped.” Now the strategic requirement is to shape interoperability across the enterprise whereby synergy, leverage and redundancy are the goals. Synergy comes from the ability to operate throughout the various domains; leverage is generated by the ability to have a synergistic system whereby the unique competence of each element of the US forces can use digital tools to provide for their mission sets. Redundancy is increasingly crucial to the survivability and sustainability of US forces. The changing strategic context for US military space (notably, the emergence of China) places a premium on redundancy of space assets, and assets across the C4ISRD enterprise.

The Evolution of US Military Space: A Pragmatic Approach to the Future

The US has more than 40 years experience in the use of military space. This experience forms a unique asset guiding further evolution of the US military space paradigm. Each phase of development has left behind its core structures, capabilities and systems based upon which the overall structure of US military space has been further developed. No architecture guided the construction of the system; key elements were put in place similar to geophysical eras and then the next era emerged in interaction with the past.

The core US space system was built with the Soviet Union in mind. The closed nature of Soviet society and the shooting down of the U-2 led to a priority focus on overhead reconnaissance as the initial core space requirement. With nuclear deterrence as a core and continuing mission, the US focused on space for early warning of Soviet launches, communications and data links among dispersed naval and air assets to ensure secure second strike, and an ability for the national command authority (NCA) to be able to conduct war even under the stress of nuclear exchange.

This baseline reconnaissance and communications capability was hierarchical organized to provide for NCA control. The intelligence community’s focus on hierarchical support has only been modified in recent years as the focus has shifted to support for deployed warfighters.

The introduction of what became known as GPS was part of the counter-Soviet effort. It was originally designed to provide for linkage among U.S. forces to augment deterrence. But over the 30 year history of the program GPS has evolved more rapidly and innovatively than any other US military space program. It has been the thread of continuity from the counter-Soviet days to the current emphasis on a global C4ISR enterprise.

The next major shift in the US military space program was built around the Reagan initiatives to provide for missile defense. Star Wars was an ambitious program which sought to connect a system together to defeat ballistic missiles and to provide for strategic defense. The emphasis on data management and new command and control mechanisms within the project became part of the more decentralized focus of the current military space system.

The Clinton Administration added two new impulses to the US military space system.

First, the Clinton Administration sought to create a new partnership with the private sector. And the Administration’s policies coincided with the rise of a significant commercial space sector, most notably in communications but increasingly in earth observation as well. The current military space system has been significantly refocused with the availability of significant commercial communications towards providing for ISR data to the warfighter.

Second, the Clinton Administration began the post-Soviet era effort to recapitalize the historically inherited space constellations. A persistent problem since the mid-1990s has been the need to replace aging single purpose constellations with more flexible multi-purpose constellations. The Space-based infrared system (SBIRS) was a key example of how the Administration sought to replace many satellites (notably defense warning satellites) with a new multi-purpose constellation which could provide data for many military purposes. The program has had many problems of getting untracked and has proven very difficult to execute technologically. And the negative experience of SBIRS among other programs has led to a simplification of current space acquisition efforts.

The post-Clinton efforts have focused upon the transformation of space. Here the Bush Administration sought radical changes in space constellations whereby much of the data and communications activity necessary for C4ISR would be put onto space-based platforms. Both space-based radar and TCS or the transformational communications system (based on laser communications) has proven more advanced in concept than in technological feasibility.

At the same time, several years of significant warfighting experience in Afghanistan and Iraq have completely transformed the warfighting approach of American forces whereby the role of the air-breathing assets and changes in the ground forces have augmented the role of non-space systems within the C4ISR global enterprise.

The Obama Administration has not yet shaped its approach to civil or military space. But what is clear is that programs have been cancelled such as TSAT, and civil space programs will be significantly re-shaped. The key question will then be how the Administration deals with its space assets and how it shapes an explicit or de facto architecture for C4ISRD assets. What is likely is a significant downturn in spending for specifically military space assets, with a concurrent demand to get what is funded right in terms of delivering capability to the warfighter,

In short, US military space assets are no longer unique, sui-generis tools for the intelligence community in assessing a peer competitor. They are now embedded in the overall evolution of US military forces and reconfiguring of how the US will execute its role in the global system. From being unique to embedded assets now means that space is part of a global digital enterprise, which the US military uses to deploy and sustain force, and in which space and air-breathing systems can alternate dependent upon the mission and geo-physical location of operations.

The Nature of the C4ISRD Enterprise

The “crucible of war” has reshaped the role of military space and with it forged a new paradigm. Rather than advancing a purely proprietary military space sector, now the emphasis is upon space’s crucial role in enabling a global C4ISR enterprise.

The military deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan have underscored a new approach to the use of C2 and ISR by the military. These operations have relied on air-breathing and ground-based platforms to provide significant C2 and ISR. The USMC is relying on what they call “non-traditional” ISR for their operations. The USMC means by this “on-demand” ISR by ground and sea-based decision makers to shape outcomes, which they determine are realistic and close to the operational environment. Air-breathing platforms, whether manned or unmanned, are increasingly central to these ISR and C2 operations. And the USMC and US Army have worked closely to share data across ground-based systems as well.


With the dramatic enhancement of the role of C2 and ISR generated by the ground-air partnership, the role of space is changed. Space becomes a significant layer within the communications and data spheres, not itself the repository of the network. Space systems become relay elements, coordinating nodes, and participants in a collaborative system, not the dominant layer shaping the network. This means that the U.S. military can shift from building complete military communications and ISR networks in space to leveraging the evolution of air-breathing and ground systems as well as global commercial systems as well in shaping its future military space system.

Also, the operations associated with the “overseas contingency operations” (to use the Obama Administration’s language) have underscored the changing nature of the balance between kinetic and non-kinetic systems. For example, now the US Air Force’s primary operational missions are largely non-kinetic within which kinetic strike is a core capability to be exercised only as appropriate to the mission. The classic role of military space has been to provide C4ISR for kinetic strike against moving or static tactical or strategic targets. With the “overseas contingency operations”, there are fewer targets and significantly more events that need to be shaped on the ground or at sea. Data and communications need to be provided close to the point of decision-making, not stored in Washington data vaults. As such, the military and security players in the global security enterprise are relying more on a collaborative and “on demand” networks than on the data provided from distant GEO satellites.

For joint and coalition operations which empower “overseas contingency operations,” communications and data need to be capable from the outset to be shared. This means that a premium is placed from the outset on shared capabilities, not proprietary data provided by U.S. military systems, which then is laundered through a tortured intelligence sharing process with allies. By then events are beyond the relevance of the data provided. Proprietary U.S. military systems are at the core of shaping kinetic capabilities for the joint U.S. force; they are not at the heart of the shared data and communications capability central to the shared operations.

This means that relying on shared systems with allies and the commercial sector is becoming more important for the U.S. military space system. On the one hand, data can be purchased from partners and allies. On the other hand, relying on commercial networks and systems to provide for capabilities is increasingly important.

Another way to understand the current functioning of the US military space system is to analyze the context within which reliance on space is highest and those contexts in which reliance on the unique space systems is significantly reduced. Heavy reliance on space systems is crucial for short burst high intensity insertion of forces. Here the air arm of the US military relies on space to provide for kinetic strike support and air integration to provide for maximal offensive military impact. As the duration of operations increases, the size of the deployed joint force goes up and the intensity of operations drops, space becomes an embedded element within others to provide for the communications and ISR support necessary for continued operations.

Moving Forward

The first key development shaping the next decade of U.S. military space efforts will be responding to the growth of the middle-layer of the C4ISR geo-physical architecture. Namely with the emergence of the F-35, a true revolution in ISR capabilities will be available to US and allied forces. The F35 has significantly greater processing power than current aircraft and has an open-chip architecture. With this level of processing power available, the F35 will be capable of simultaneous multi-mission operations, rather than current combat aircraft’s approach to sequentional multi-tasking. Additionally, unmanned aircraft developments are exploding with a significant diversification of high-mid-low altitude C2 and ISR capabilities. Additional introduction of dirigibles and other assets will contribute as well to an expanded mid-layer role in the C4ISR or C4ISR D (shared decision-making) enterprise.

The second key development will be the need to deal with space competitors by putting some capabilities deeper into space and by diversifying the ability to move digital content around the C4ISR enterprise. Here a new approach to GEO-satellites is to be envisaged. As Former Secretary of the USAF Wynne underscored:

“I have wanted to get away from ‘BattleStar Gallactica’ combination satellites into a streamlined set of distributed functionality. I have seen resources wasted after pasting up a satellite with disparate payloads to save incremental launch costs; and watched as the cost of integration, and the software to manage the various payloads ate up the proposed savings and schedule leading to calls for cancellation, and a fall off in reliability in the eyes of a patient customer. Now there may be an opportunity. Over the past several years, with DARPA support, the opportunity for Formation Flying, or as some put it proximity operations has been tried and found to be workable. In the same period a lot of work has been done to perfect Wireless, broadband communication, which allows for local area networks among the formation. I see this as laying the foundation for distributed operations in space. This concept is not new, but what is new is the near term capability for achievement. But there is more, and that is the recent refueling mission that DARPA has demonstrated. This can profoundly alter design requirements for satellites, and if there is distributed functionality, it then allows for modular replacement; and continuation of the remaining elements in orbit, refueled. Then, as we have seen with the GPS ground station changeout, a broad plan for updating/upgrading can be systematically applied.

“Long life for deep space remains an issue; and NASA and DARPA continue to seek solutions; but for the Air Force; the above described engineering breakthroughs need to be fully exploited. We need to have a steady and achievable schedule for modernization of the constellations. Given the current state of space; and the now realized vulnerability; distributed functionality leads right into Operationally Responsive Space. Frankly, smaller and distributed satellites are both easier to protect, and easier to replace. The communication across space is already a proven commodity; though the concept of distributed Local Area Networks and Downlinks provides redundancy, and robustness.”

The third key is to leverage current constellations and new systems to more effectively reshape the C4ISR paradigm. In other words, working through how the evolution of space systems can reshape the C4ISR paradigm, which in turn allows that paradigm to reshape space requirements.

In short, the pragmatic evolution of US military space has put it at the heart of the further evolution of the US military. It has gone from being a specialized “high frontier”to becoming one which finds its identity from serving the evolution of the C4ISR enterprise. And that enterprise includes dynamic interaction from the ground, sea and air sides of the equation. Indeed, the next decade, spending on the ground systems is likely to take prominence as the holy grail of interoperability is pursued.


In short, the US uses military space in a number of ways to facilitate a global C4ISR enterprise.

First, it enables a global strike and reconnaissance force. Uniquely able to operate with global reach and in support of high intensity operations, military space assets allow the US Navy and US Air Force to operate with force packages beyond normal operating range.

Second, the communications part of military space operates the most secure elements for worldwide operations. Security is an essential part of any kinetic operations. But for non-kinetic operations, the US relies on significant commercial satellite capabilities. And learning to make the two work together is a key part of the global communications effort.

Third, US military assets provide unique ISR assets with global reach, global refresh and provide for global connectivity. But increasingly these assets are simply part of an overall ISR effort within which air breathing assets provide the bulk of ISR data. The ground processing side of the effort is receiving increasing attention to provide for as much interoperability of data, which can be transferred throughout the enterprise. As a result of significant changes in the ISR data approach, the US is thinking about a transition to GEO satellites as transmission and data relay elements and less as the originators of sensor data.


***Posted September 18th, 2009