Will the Air Force have a Role in Deep Space?
by edward wright
Lieutenant Colonel Peter Garretson asks whether the US Air Force will have a role in planetary defense and asteroid mining, in the March-April 2014 issue of Air and Space Power Journal.
Lieutenant Colonel Garretson and other Air Force strategists have repeatedly raised the topic of asteroid impacts over the years. Nevertheless, the Air Force has not adopted planetary defense as a formal mission:
Despite its potential severity, few Airmen seem to have an appetite for a subject not perceived as “real” war fighting and considered a “low-probability event.” An earlier cadre of Air Force Space Command advocates [submitted] a package to the Joint Requirements Oversight Council to establish a formal mission requirement. In accordance with the wisdom of the time, the council denied it. Let’s repeat that: no requirement to protect planet Earth exists.
To achieve an initial operational capability against asteroid threats, Garretson argues that the USAF should complete a survey of Near Earth Objects using a space-based telescope in a Venus-like orbit (estimated to cost about $500 million) and develop ready-to-launch reconnaissance probes (about $150 million each) and interceptor busses (about $250 million each).
Garretson also argues that the USAF should prepare for a world economy that expands outward into the solar system as companies like Planetary Resources begin to mine the asteroids:
Developing the requisite technology allows the Air Force to play a role similar to its function in aviation, whereby the service’s investment in jet engines and large aircraft catalyzed intercontinental air transport—a mode of transportation that now accounts for 35 percent of global trade by value. By retiring the risk for deep-space transportation and noncooperative capture and deflection, we not only would advance Air Force and US security equities in concert with pursuing a global public good, but also would lay the foundation for a revolution in space transportation and wealth generation.
If we wish to become the visionaries who lead America toward becoming a true spacefaring nation—one that survives such long-term existential threats as asteroids—then we must pursue not simply narrow military power. Just as Rear Adm Alfred Thayer Mahan set us on the right course in naval power and as Brig Gen William “Billy” Mitchell did so in airpower, we need to invest in general spacefaring and its supporting industry. The Air Force is missing the boat (or spacecraft). If the service truly wants to be America’s Space Force, it can’t shy away from this “growth industry” and what will likely become the most essential defense mission of a space force / space guard: planetary defense — the single mission that provides a deep-space requirement. To cede this requirement is to fall into the same precedent as the Army Air Corps, which conceived of airpower as nothing more than a supporting function for land power. A space force cannot just look downward; it must look outward to the source not only of danger but also of wealth and opportunity.
Edward Wright is chairman of the United States Rocket Academy and project manager of Citizens in Space. You can find more articles by Mr. Wright at the Citizens in Space web site.