The Real Star Wars

The future of space warfare doesn?t seem that far off. Already the U.S. Air Force calls itself an ?integrated aerospace force? and says its responsibilities extend from the surface of the Earth to distant orbital regions.

The long-term plan of the military?s Space Command talks about negating enemy assets in space someday, if necessary. Defense futurists envision space lasers that shoot down enemy missiles or satellites. They imagine basing weapons in low Earth orbit so they can quickly attack targets on the ground, perhaps with as little as 10 minutes? notice. They contemplate future planes that would be a hybrid of aircraft and rockets, bouncing along the top of the Earth?s atmosphere with enough speed to circumnavigate the globe in three or four hours.

Which of these dreams might come true by 2012? In fact, probably none of them, even if the United States decides to pursue space weapons in the face of considerable international opposition. The pace of innovations is the issue, not costs. The next decade may not prove to be particularly revolutionary. But laboratory work will begin to develop technologies that may someday turn the above science fiction into reality. And some simpler technologies, such as small ?hunter-killer? satellites that home in on an enemy asset and then destroy it explosively, may wind up being deployed—whether or not the public hears about it.

Meanwhile, the U.S. military will continue to improve its uses of communication and navigation satellites to rapidly identify, target and destroy enemy forces. It has had ?spy satellites? to take pictures of ground targets for decades, as did the Soviets, to monitor arms treaties and prepare plans for a possible nuclear conflict. Such capabilities are now spreading to other countries. But the real development for the U.S. military is that satellites now help with actual war fighting. Two capabilities are key: high-precision navigation signals and lots of bandwidth for communications.

High-precision navigation, provided mostly by two dozen Global Positioning System satellites, now helps guide bombs to targets even through bad weather, smoke or light foliage. GPS guidance has helped cruise missiles strike their targets for a decade. But only in the Afghanistan war did it become mainstream, helping steer at least 5,000 weapons (primarily the Joint Direct Attack Munition, or JDAM) to within about 10 yards of their targets courtesy of a cheap, $20,000 guidance package added to an old-fashioned iron bomb. Wide-bandwidth communications also showed their worth in Afghanistan, where video shot by unmanned Predator aircraft was viewed instantaneously back in the United States, helping to track Tali-ban and Qaeda assets.

Starting in the 1999 Kosovo war, commanders also began to carry out frequent real-time videoconferences with Washington using satellite links. The growth in available bandwidth has allowed targets to be identified by one person, such as a Special Forces soldier on the ground, then attacked by a totally different system like a B-52 bomber—all within the space of 10 to 20 minutes. In the 1991 Persian Gulf War, involving 500,000 troops, the U.S. military used satellite-communications bandwidth equivalent to what is needed for about 40,000 simultaneous phone calls. In Afghanistan in 2001, for an operation involving one tenth as many troops, it used about five times as much bandwidth.

Delays of 10 to 20 minutes between detecting a target and destroying it will seem achingly slow by 2012. What the U.S. military really wants to do is get the right information about enemy forces not just to top-level commanders, but to the pilot in an airplane or tank gunner on the ground or infantry soldier in a city or the woods, in real time. The idea is to spot and instantly kill enemy tanks, artillery tubes or jeeps, before the enemy is even aware they?ve been spotted. The military uses terms like ?dominant battle-space knowledge,? ?information superiority? and ?battlefield transparency? to describe its goals. If available bandwidth doubles or triples again within a decade, they will be even easier to attain.

Looking beyond 2012, many more far-out developments are possible. Consider:

Space-based lasers. They were big in Ronald Reagan?s Star Wars vision of the 1980s and are big in the eyes of space futurists today. But these weapons—essentially a combination of a huge telescope, large laser and large fuel source in space—are a long way from prime time. The Pentagon continues to spend a few tens of millions of dollars a year right now on such things, but that?s a small amount given the size of its purse. Any laser weapons capable of reaching the atmosphere or beyond in coming years will be based on airplanes, not satellites.

Space-to-ground kinetic weapons. Some military futurists would like to place large numbers of relatively short, thin rods, made out of a material like tungsten, in space. From there they could be quickly launched (by remote firing of their rockets) to attack stationary or slow-moving targets on Earth, destroying them through overwhelming force of impact. An attractive option, perhaps, for some settings, but hard to make accurate, and not much of an improvement over current ICBMs.

Constellations of tracking satellites. Today?s imaging satellites take very precise pictures or radar images of targets on Earth. But they overfly a given spot on Earth for only a few minutes every couple of hours, and there aren?t many of them. Someday the Pentagon would like to develop a constellation of two dozen to three dozen radar tracking satellites that could monitor targets continuously. Leaving aside the software challenges, however, the Pentagon thinks such satellites would have to be produced for about $100 million apiece to be affordable—and today similar devices cost $1 billion. Getting costs down that much may be implausible, even after 2012, but the basic concept should not be.

That?s hardly the end of it. Other visions include putting more sensors and defensive weapons on our own satellites, so they can fight back if attacked; developing cheap and reusable rockets that would bring down the cost of putting satellites into orbit from $3,000 or more per pound to $500 or less; replacing today?s huge imaging satellites with ?swarms? of smaller satellites, avoiding the risks of relying on a few super-expensive targets. By 2012 most of these ideas will probably be stuck on the ground in one form or another. But who knows? Invention is an unpredictable business.