Document created: 5 March 03
Air & Space Power Journal - Spring 2003

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Developing Space Power Building
 on the Airpower Legacy

Hon. Peter B. Teets*

*This article is based upon remarks delivered by the author at the Air Force Association Space Symposium in Los Angeles, California, on 15 November 2002.

TODAY WE FACE a challenge to our nation’s security perhaps greater than any other since the dawn of the Cold War. Unfortunately, this ugly threat of terrorism will not disappear anytime soon, and the global war on terrorism in which we are engaged will last years- perhaps lifetimes. There are other threats too. Today, our nation’s armed forces may be on the eve of yet another call to duty in the Middle East. We in the military-space business are part of the nation’s war-fighting team, and we will make a vitally important contribution to any conflict that we face.

In our work to deploy and maintain our nation’s space capabilities, we must remember that more than just money or schedules is at stake. Lives and victory hang in the balance. We need to step up the intensity of discipline in our operations and ensure that we do all we can to maximize the effectiveness of our space capabilities to meet national-security needs. The work we are doing now will make a very real difference in the outcome of our war on terrorism.

Coincident with the present national-security challenge, the Air Force has been given another challenge: the responsibility as the Department of Defense’s executive agent for space. I believe that these two challenges are intertwined and that the Air Force’s proud legacy of developing airpower over the last century can point the way to success for us all in space. We have heard- and will continue to hear in the months to come- that we are getting very close to celebrating the centennial of flight. In the relatively short span of military history in which we have wielded airpower, it has gone from a mere after-thought in military matters to center stage- and has become, arguably, the decisive form of combat power. How did we develop the capabilities of airpower for national-security needs? What did we do right? What did we do wrong? And- the real question for today- how can we apply those lessons of airpower to our development of space power as we move, as an air and space force, further into the twenty-first century?

I believe we can distill the success of airpower into three guiding principles that will serve as beacons to guide us as our nation’s space power matures: (1) gain and maintain control of the high ground, (2) apply capabilities of the new medium to all conceivable forms of war fighting, and (3) develop a new professional culture. Our greatest successes with airpower have occurred when we adhered to these principles. Our greatest failures have occurred when we ignored them. We need to take the legacy lessons of airpower forward with us as we work to shape our space activities to secure America’s future.

Gain and Maintain Control
of the High Ground

Controlling the high ground has been a rule of warfare ever since the dawn of time. But as war fighting moved from Earth’s surfaces into the air, the military advantages of control of the high ground became even more pronounced. We have traditionally kept air supremacy because we have a very rigorous and aggressive doctrine of control of the air. The first thing we do in any military campaign or combat operation is gain mastery of the skies and deny those skies to the adversary. A rigid adherence to this principle explains the amazing fact that we have not lost an American soldier on the ground to attack by enemy aircraft in 50 years. But it has also been true that an adversary confronted by superiority in the air will do his best to deny that control to the greatest extent possible. This drive to deny control of the high ground is nothing new.

For example, consider a story from the earliest days of airpower at work. At five o’clock in the afternoon, Brig Gen Fitz John Porter lifted off in his craft on a solo reconnaissance mission, which began without incident. He conducted his observations, noting the enemy positions and locations of heavy equipment. But then, due to circumstances beyond his control, he strayed too close to enemy lines. The adversary seized this opportunity to deprive General Porter of his high ground. First came the small-arms fire and then came the artillery. General Porter summoned every bit of his airmanship to put the craft back down safely on friendly territory- and he did. The date was 11 April 1862.

Yes, General Porter’s observation balloon had broken free of its moorings, and he nearly lost his life by almost falling out of the gondola while maneuvering the balloon’s hydrogen valve to change his altitude at the right moment to land on friendly ground. On the surface, this may seem an insignificant event from a conflict we normally consider outside the history of airpower. But the implications echo far into the future. General Porter had seized the high ground of the air- in the most primitive of fashions perhaps- but effectively nevertheless. The Confederate troops on the ground, aware of the valuable reconnaissance information he was gaining for the Union forces, seized the opportunity to try to deny him the high ground. It was truly one of the first examples of the tug-of-war for control of the air. And it was the start of a long tradition of adherence to the principle of controlling the high ground, of gaining and maintaining air superiority in the face of a determined adversary- the most central tenet of air-campaign operations today.

How must we apply this principle to space? Look at what we have been able to accomplish using space: collection of all kinds of intelligence, precision navigation, weapons delivery, and communication and transmission of information to users worldwide. How much time will pass before an adversary, realizing the tremendous benefit we gain from our space capabilities across the spectrum of war fighting, will seize an opportunity to deprive us of them? How long will we continue to assume 0 percent losses to our space systems during hostilities?

The need to continue our thinking about space control is not just doctrinal rhetoric but military reality. Controlling the high ground of space is not limited simply to protection of our own capabilities. It will also require us to think about denying the high ground to our adversaries. We’re paving the road of twenty-first-century warfare, and others will soon follow. What will we do five years from now when American lives are put at risk because an adversary uses spaceborne imagery collectors, commercial or homegrown, to identify and target American forces? What will we do 10 years from now when American lives are put at risk because an adversary chooses to leverage the Global Positioning System- or perhaps the Galileo constellation- to attack American forces with precision? The mission of space control has not been at the forefront of military thinking because our people have not yet been put at risk by an adversary who uses space capabilities. That will change. The Space Commission members had these sorts of events in mind when they warned us about the possibilities of a “Space Pearl Harbor.” Not only do we need to think about the mission and implications of space control, but also it is fundamentally irresponsible of us not to. Space is the ultimate high ground. Our military advantage there must remain ahead of our adversaries’ capabilities, and our own doctrine and capabilities must keep pace to meet that challenge.

Apply Capabilities of the New
Medium to All Forms of
War Fighting

In the earliest days of airpower, there existed an unfortunate tendency to aim far too short of this ambitious mark. At first people believed that the airplane could do nothing to change the course of war fighting. One recalls the story of the British cavalry commander who wanted even friendly aircraft as far from his forces as possible because they frightened his horses. Indeed, President Calvin Coolidge, upon receiving a request from the War Department to buy more aircraft, replied, “Why don’t we just buy one airplane and let the pilots take turns flying it?”

But eventually military leaders began to integrate air capabilities into war fighting- unfortunately, due more to dire lessons learned than to vision. It started small: first as reconnaissance and then as support to ground operations in the form of close air support. Next it expanded to long-range interdiction and ultimately to the strategic strike and global mobility roles we knew in the Cold War and Operation Desert Storm. Perhaps the ultimate use of airpower happened during Operation Allied Force over Kosovo, where it strongly motivated the adversary to surrender. Noted British military historian John Keegan captured the significance of that campaign when he said, “Now there is a new turning point to fix on the calendar: June 3, 1999, when the capitulation of President Milosevic proved that a war can be won by airpower alone.”1

What a shift in the history of warfare! In a mere several decades, the exploitation of a new medium produced completely new war-winning capabilities. This, then, is the principle of applying the capabilities of a new medium- not only integration into other existing forms of warfare, but also development of entirely new ones conceivably capable of winning wars on their own.

How do we apply this principle to space? At its earliest stages, space power was treated much as airpower was in its earliest days- relegated to a relatively small reconnaissance role for a small set of strategic users. Clearly, we have made significant progress since then at integrating space capabilities into land, sea, and air operations. Achieving effective integration is still the primary challenge we face today. We are not there yet, and we need to keep working it hard. But if we limit our efforts only to applying space technologies to existing modes of war fighting, we have undershot. If space capabilities in the form of overhead imagery help platoon leaders on the ground direct their squads, then that is good. If space capabilities in the form of precision navigation guide an F/A-22 and its bombs to target, then that is good too. But if that is all they do, if that is all we envision space can do over the next few decades, then we have missed the boat. It is no different than all the ways our armed forces once found for airpower to support ground operations- and do no more. Are there ways we can scarcely imagine today of space capabilities supporting global strike operations? Are there ways we can use those capabilities to affect the decision-making cycle of an adversary or produce other effects to achieve campaign objectives in ways air, land, and sea forces cannot?

Finding answers to these tough questions is one of the main reasons Brig Gen Simon P. “Pete” Worden is working for Lt Gen Brian A. Arnold in the new Space and Missile Systems Center’s Office of Transformation. One challenge General Worden is taking on is the rapid demonstration of responsive launch- finding ways to get a vehicle rapidly off the pad to any orbit on short notice. It is easy to see how such a responsive capability could be useful for rapid constellation replenishment and sustainment. But we must leave it to General Worden’s- and others’- imagination to find additional ways to employ such a capability to achieve desired war-fighting effects.

I suspect the day will come when space capabilities alone will achieve a campaign victory- as was the case with airpower over Kosovo on 3 June 1999. It is possible that we can no more perceive what such a victory would look like than military leaders of World War I could envision the Kosovo conflict of 1999. But everything we have learned about capabilities in a new medium- especially our own experiences with airpower- tells us that day is coming.

Develop a New
Professional Culture

The professional culture we see in our Air Force today developed from the blending of several profound influences: the love of technology and a new frontier, perhaps personified best by none other than the Wright brothers; the vision of airpower as a decisive form of war fighting, as espoused by legendary figures such as Gen Henry “Hap” Arnold, Gen Curtis LeMay, and Gen William “Billy” Mitchell; and adherence to the belief that airpower must be centrally controlled by airmen who understand its unique capabilities and uses, as espoused in our doctrine today. All these traits have combined to produce the airpower professionals who, today, wield airpower with devastating effectiveness.

How shall we apply this principle- the need to develop a new professional culture- to space? The Space Commission gave us a strong push in this direction. Gen Lance W. Lord, commander of Air Force Space Command, has described the significant progress we are making towards developing our future space professionals. But all of us must think about the implications of this step. We are not talking about creating a mere career field or sculpting a field of expertise. We are talking about an entirely new breed of war fighters who will ultimately transform the scope of war fighting in the same way airpower professionals have done in the past century. This development and nurturing process entails great responsibility on our part.

At the end of the day, adhering to this principle of developing a new professional culture- a space cadre- may prove the most decisive of them all. Every technological capability in the world will prove useless unless we have the leadership, vision, motivation, and skills to employ those capabilities effectively. We cannot produce these qualities overnight. It will take time to nurture and develop this space cadre and allow it to mature- just as it took time for the cadre of airpower professionals before it.

Implications and Conclusion

These three principles will guide us as we work to shape our nation’s space capabilities. But there is one more lesson to learn from this discussion. The United States wields airpower more effectively than any other fighting force in history precisely because it has embraced these three principles. We jealously gain and maintain control of the air even though others may try to deny us that control. We aggressively apply airpower in every conceivable manner to achieve our war-fighting objectives, from global vigilance to global reach to global strike. We proudly and actively support and nurture a culture of airpower professionals. We do all this better than anyone else.

We must do the same in space! If we do not pursue control of space, then someone else will. If we do not exploit space to the fullest advantage across every conceivable mode of war fighting, then someone else will- and we allow this at our own peril. If we do not develop a new culture of space professionals- a new form of war fighter- then someone else may do so first, with dire consequences awaiting our first engagement with such an adversary. Our success at wielding airpower has come with a realization that we need to do it before- and better than- anybody else. Let us do the same for space.

As both Air Force members and air and space professionals, we have great reason to be proud of the legacy of airpower. We also should know, better than anyone else, both the challenges and rewards of exploiting a new medium in the interests of national security. This is an exciting time to be working to shape our space activities to secure America’s future.

Each of us also faces a challenge. Military officers need to think the new thoughts, to find ways to control the new high ground of space, and to conduct war fighting in space effectively. They need to lead and inspire those who follow them and develop a new generation of air and space professionals who, when their time comes, will shape the future. People in industry need to combine the resources of today with a spirit of innovation- to produce the technologies we will need tomorrow to preserve our nation’s security. Regardless of our responsibilities, we all have a stake in the future- a stake in our success or failure to properly equip and employ space capabilities for our nation.

That goes for me, too! I intend to exert every effort in my duties to fulfill the Air Force’s responsibility as the Department of Defense’s executive agent for space- to do whatever it takes to ensure that our nation’s space capabilities can perform every conceivable mission needed to conduct effective war fighting.

The challenge- is now. The time to act- is now. The United States has a proud history of successfully wielding land, sea, and airpower in the protection of our nation and its freedoms. It must be our goal that the United States will carry this legacy of success into the medium of space. With your help, it will. 


1. John Keegan, “Please, Mr. Blair, Never Take Such a Risk Again,” London Daily Telegraph, 6 June 1999, on-line, Internet, 15 January 2003, available from uk/htmlContent.jhtml?html=%2Farchive%2F1999%2F06%2F06%2Fwkee06.html.


The Honorable Peter B. Teets (BS, MS, University of Colorado; MS, Massachusetts Institute of Technology) is undersecretary of the Air Force, responsible for all actions of the Air Force on behalf of the secretary of the Air Force; he is acting secretary in the secretary’s absence. In that capacity, he oversees the recruiting, training, and equipping of more than 710,000 people, and a budget of approximately $68 billion. As director of the National Reconnaissance Office, he is responsible for the acquisition and operation of all US space-based reconnaissance and intelligence systems. He is the retired president and chief operating officer of Lockheed Martin Corporation, a position he held from 1997 through 1999. Mr. Teets is a Fellow of both the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and the American Astronautical Society, as well as a member of the National Academy of Engineering.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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