Sitting at the controls of a Boeing space-flight simulator, "docking" the company's planned "Starliner" craft with an imaginary space station, you begin to understand why the Pentagon is so focused on such advanced systems.
Space is the new frontier of warfare. That was the theme of a "Space Symposium" here this week that gathered thousands of military and corporate experts from around the globe. A version of the Boeing simulator may someday be training the 21st-century version of fighter pilots.
The future battle may be in the heavens. But you can already see a turf war developing over who should control U.S. space-warfighting capability — with the White House, Congress and the military services jockeying over how to allocate hundreds of billions of dollars and scores of senior Pentagon command positions. But let's start with the threat, as described by U.S. military officials here.
Since the glory days of the first moon walk in 1969, Americans have had a benign view of space, as an area of uncontested U.S. dominance. When we thought about adversaries, they were from another planet. But animating nearly every military presentation here was the message that China and Russia are now aggressively challenging U.S. primacy in space — potentially threatening satellites used for military communications, targeting and battlefield management.
"I cannot think of a military mission that does not depend on space," Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson told the symposium, warning that "Russia and China are developing capabilities to disable our satellites." Gen. Dave Goldfein, the Air Force chief of staff, repeated like a mantra the phrase "Always the predator, never the prey," in describing how his service views its mission in space.
An arms race in space, as dreadful as that sounds, is already underway. As the throngs at the symposium attest, it will be a bonanza for the Pentagon and its contractors. But there's broad agreement among analysts that the vulnerability of U.S. systems to attack is real.
"The threat is quite serious," says Bob Work, who was deputy defense secretary in the Obama administration. He notes that Russia and China have demonstrated the ability to jam space communications, blind optical sensors with lasers, launch direct-ascent anti-satellite weapons, and operate co-orbital anti-satellite weapons. Work says that when the Pentagon first described space threats to President Obama in June 2013, officials warned him that the space-arms race "has already started."
"For the last 10 years, our competitive advantage in space has eroded steadily," argues John Hamre, a former deputy secretary of defense who heads the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "There is genuine alarm at the scale and momentum of the activities of our adversaries," he says.
Though there's broad agreement that the U.S. needs to defend its space-based assets better, there's a political argument about who should have responsibility for that mission. The Air Force, not surprisingly, insists that it should take the lead. Goldfein told the symposium that the Air Force now is responsible for 90 percent of the military's space activities, and that it will bring to future space operations "the same passion and sense of ownership we apply to air."
But some skeptics in Congress and the Trump administration argue that the U.S. needs a new "space force" to oversee the emerging domain of battle. The House proposed last year that this space component should be quasi-independent of the Air Force, the way the Marines operate alongside the Navy; the Senate disagreed. President Trump seemed initially to favor a separate space force, but officials say the administration is studying the issue.
The Air Force lost credibility with Congress over the past decade, Hamre argues, because of concerns that it was slow to recognize the threat from adversaries and was "unwilling to sacrifice other programs to fix the increasingly obvious shortcomings in the space program." But Work argues that because of the bureaucratic confusion and delay involved, creating a new force probably isn't sensible.
The Air Force's best argument for retaining primacy is that it's ready to take risks, and even tolerate failures, in building the systems that will quickly reduce U.S. vulnerability. Wilson told me that in her office, she displays some artifacts from the first U.S. spy satellite program, known as "Corona," to remind herself and Air Force colleagues that "good failure" can be essential. Corona failed 12 tests in a row before it finally succeeded.
"We built exquisite glass houses in a world without stones," Wilson told the symposium. But the old era of uncontested space appears to be over.
David Ignatius writes a foreign affairs column. He has also written eight spy novels. "Body of Lies" was made into a 2008 film starring Leonard DiCaprio and Russell Crowe. He began writing his column in 1998. To read more of his reports, Click Here Now.