TCS Daily

Will X-33 Decision Boost U.S. From Air Superiority To Space Hegemony?

By James Pinkerton - April 23, 2001 12:00 AM

Maybe President Bush really meant what he said about changing the Pentagon. During the 2000 presidential campaign, he promised to "skip a generation" of military acquisition. Today, Washington is abuzz with rumors about old programs about to be skipped over, most notably, the Cold War-era Crusader mobile artillery system. And so news of potentially even greater consequence - - the Air Force's effort to pick up funding for the X-33, the next-generation space shuttle recently cancelled by NASA - - has been neglected.

Yet the fate of the X-33 could be the biggest news of all, because the question of who controls space in the next century is the central security question the nation faces. The unanswered question is whether Americans will learn from history, making the investments necessary to maintain peaceful dominance. A look backward suggests that enduring military power comes from the bold work of daring visionaries, not from the cautious nitpicking of bean-counters.

A dozen years after the end of the Cold War, the US enjoys air superiority - - although not unchallenged air superiority, as the Chinese just demonstrated off Hainan Island. Arguments about whether the current government of the People's Republic of China is a "strategic partner," a "strategic competitor," or something in between miss the point; China is a great power, and as such has its own interests and objectives that will surely collide with those of the United States in the next century. And a dozen other countries, too, bear careful watching.

The US military is properly developing contingency plans for any number of threats, but the greatest contingency plan of all is strategic superiority so enormous that no potential foe even thinks about striking at America. And that's where air and space power comes in.

The 19th century equivalent of such power, of course, was sea power. In those days, Britain was the leading maritime nation, measured in terms of commercial shipping as well as military might. Indeed, the two sectors, civilian and military, reinforced each other. As an example, in 1858, the visionary engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel launched The Great Eastern, the most spectacular ship of its day. It was a passenger ship, made of iron, almost 700 feet long and weighing 20,000 tons, boasting both a paddlewheel and a screw propeller. Sparing no expense, Brunel gave his ship a double hull and honeycombed it with 50 watertight compartments. Thus when The Great Eastern struck a rock in Long Island Sound, tearing an 83-foot-long, 9-foot-wide gash in its outer hull, the inner hull held, and the ship steamed safely into New York Harbor.

The military advantages of such sturdy shipbuilding were obvious. Inspired by Brunel, the French launched La Gloire in 1859, a wooden-hulled warship with armor plate. The French effort was a distant early warning to the British Admiralty that other nations could and would compete for sea power.

So in 1860 the British christened the first all-iron, all-compartmented battleship, the HMS Warrior. As Michael Vlahos, a defense guru at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, puts it, "The British were on top in the mid-19th century, but they didn't stop there. They used their wealth to experiment with all sorts of radical ship designs. Some worked, most didn't. But out of that robust civilian-military mix came naval superiority for the rest of the century."

The 20th century analogy, of course, is air power. US air supremacy is so unchallenged that its reality goes mostly unnoticed; the last US casualties from enemy aircraft occurred during the Korean War.

The US possessed a vibrant aircraft industry as early as the 20s, but it wasn't until World War Two that we gained aerial hegemony. The big bombers that helped beat Hitler and Tojo - - notably the B-17 and B-29 - were soon succeeded by a bravura profusion of new, even weird, designs. For example, the B-36, from the late 40s, carried in its belly a little fighter plane - - the XF-85 Goblin - - that could be released for air defense and then scooped up again. And the big breakthrough was the faster and stronger swept-wing design, which enabled the B-47 and then the B-52 to project overwhelming force worldwide.

Today, US air power is based on the investment and procurement decisions of 20, 30, even 40 years ago. And future US air supremacy depends not only upon such in-the-pipeline planes as the F-22 and the Joint Strike Fighter, but also, perhaps, the prototype X-43 - - not to be confused with the X-33 - - an air-breathing plane that can fly at Mach 7.

But the lesson of history is always to think ahead, to the next frontier. And that requires going not only faster, but higher. Hence the X-33, the NASA plane the Air Force wants . A true spacegoing war plane would not need delicate stealth technology, because even if it were spotted, it would be flying too high to be shot down. And it wouldn't need a nuclear payload, because a big brick "dropped" from outer space would bring with it enough kinetic force to create an "Armageddon"-like "Deep Impact."

The X-33 also promises pre-eminence in the emerging arena of ASAT - anti-satellite warfare. The so-called "revolution in military affairs" is based on information and communication, mostly via satellites; if the X-33 could work to protect US orbiters and destroy enemy satellites, then the US would be the only military-revolutionary power.

What else could the X-33 do? Nobody knows. And that's the point. As Vlahos argues, successful military programs usually begin with a vision - - controlling the sea, controlling the air, controlling space. After that, it's a question of getting the right amount of resources to the right people; the results thereafter will be a pleasant surprise.

Echoing Bush, Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld has pledged to "leapfrog" the status quo. The X-33 could be the biggest leap of all, a quantum jump into the 21st century, to a new era in which American power is so enormous that we will win our wars in the best way possible - by being so strong we never have to fight them.

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