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3 APRIL 2010/IN ORBIT, 200 MILES ABOVE EARTH
The first shots were silent.
No incendiary blast of explosives. No bombs exploding over a battlefield. No dramatic flash of a nuclear fireball to signal the onset of high-tech combat. Only a silent, single burst of electrons.
High above the Earth, drifting noiselessly in the black deep freeze of orbital space, a multimillion-dollar satellite simply died, a casualty of tiny but critical electronic circuits that failed when bombarded by a surge of electrons, exceeding the microprocessors’ design tolerances. There was a brief protest of overload, a signal, then silence.
The spacecraft’s final, automatic "Mayday" call—a short-burst scream that something was amiss in orbit—consisted of an innocuous stream of digital ones and zeros. Beamed to a ground station hundreds of miles below, that critical few-millisecond transmission of encrypted, coded blips would mean nothing to a casual observer. But it was the only clue that trained spacecraft engineer-detectives would receive. In its last electronic gasp, the satellite had done its part. Now its human creators would decipher the mystery, assigning meaning to brief, terminal spikes in receiver temperature measurements and power supply output voltages and currents. Nothing new there. Engineers and technicians had done that before, hunched over computer terminals in windowless rooms scattered across the U.S. mainland.
But this time, it would be several days before those on the ground could decode the subtle, sinister messages of those last digi-words from EarthView-4 and relay their chilling conclusions: the first shots of World War III had been fired.
4 APRIL 2010/STRATEGIC COMMAND HQ/OMAHA, NEBRASKA
United States Air Force General Howard Aster frowned, yet nodded. "Continue your briefing, colonel. We’ll get into the ‘hows’ and ‘maybes’ later." Interruptions from the civilians scattered around the room irritated him, and he was anxious to get back on track. He had been dreading this precise moment for months, the time when his recurring space nightmare would become hard reality.
As commander of U.S. Strategic Command, or STRATCOM, Aster occupied a high-backed leather swivel chair at the head of a long, carrier-deck–like table lined by his uniformed military staff, several gray-haired vice presidents from three commercial satellite companies, a squat and very round National Security Council representative, and J. D. Hart, a NASA technical troubleshooter. Behind them, lining the walls of a large STRATCOM headquarters conference room, sat and stood a multitude of lower ranking officers and civilians. An odd mix of people and skills, Aster thought as he scanned the crowd.
One of only a handful of four-star generals designated America’s "Combatant Commanders," the Air Force officer wielded considerable power within the U.S. military’s chain of command. Today, though, he was simply an aging former fighter pilot trying to understand jargon tossed about by an ad hoc group of staff officers, consultants, and corporate executives assembled to assess what was quickly turning into a technological nightmare. At least that’s what Aster hoped it was. Because if what was happening hundreds of miles above the Earth’s surface was not just a collection of random events, but something engineered by intelligent design, Aster knew he’d soon find himself in a world of shit.
At the opposite end of the table, Army Colonel Jim Androsin, a tall, thin, ramrod-straight officer, stood beside a big-screen, high-definition display that dominated an entire wall. He leaned over the long table, tapped the keys of a notebook computer, and the huge screen displayed a computer graphic of multiple satellites drifting above a crescent of blue-marble Earth.
"To recap the situation, sir," Androsin continued, "three Trans-America Satellite Company—TransAmSat, if you will—spacecraft have experienced technical problems over the past month, and a fourth had a similar anomaly early this year. TAS-5, a comsat, is the latest casualty. It appears to have a faulty battery that will force the company to shut off several transponders about one hour every day for a month during the spring and again in the fall."
"Why’s that?" Aster interjected.
"Those are the solar transitions, general," responded Jack Molinero, a conspicuously well-fed TransAmSat vice president in a poorly fitting pin-striped suit and food-stained tie. His taut white shirt flowed over his belt as he slumped in a chair, trying to compose his thoughts. The tired-looking company vice-president ran TAS operations. And, today, Jack was obviously not a happy man.
"In essence," he said, "there won’t be enough sunlight hitting the solar arrays each day to keep our remaining good battery charged up through the night portion of each orbit. So, we off-load the power system by selectively shutting down some of the least-critical transponders. We intentionally ‘brown-out’ the satellite."
Aster barely nodded his thanks and motioned with an eyebrow for Androsin to continue. Although he had been on the job as STRATCOM chief for a little over a year, the general was still getting up to speed on the finer points of this space business. As a fighter pi lot, he had spent his entire career below 50,000 feet. Space, so-called Information Operations, and missile defense were new games for him—and for a lot of other people in this room, too, he realized, glancing at the faces turned toward the colonel. Back in the early 2000s, STRATCOM had been reconstituted, absorbing the old U.S. Space Command, and was subsequently assigned a host of additional responsibilities. On top of its traditional nuclear-deterrence role, the command’s bulging portfolio had been a handful for his predecessors, a fact he appreciated more each day.
Although rumors claimed that Aster had been in the running for the Air Force’s vice chief of staff slot, the ser vice’s top general had asked him to take over as the nation’s number-one, four-star "space warrior." Obviously, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff had already given his approval, or the USAF chief would never have offered him the job. Aster had jumped at the joint-command opportunity, preferring to remain close to front-line operations and as far from Washington, D.C., as possible. Two previous tours in the Pentagon had bred a strong dislike for things political, and it showed, despite attempts to conceal it. Because he knew it showed, he finally stopped trying to play the game. He was a warrior, not a politician.
Evidently, he hadn’t irritated too many on Capitol Hill, though. After several meetings with the Joint Chiefs chairman, the secretary of defense, a slew of congressional staffers, and even the president himself, Aster’s confirmation had breezed through the Senate without a hitch. The Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman’s only proviso had been that Aster remain in the critical STRATCOM job a full four years. That was the same as pointedly telling him: "You’ll retire in the job. This is the end of your military career." That was acceptable, though, because he was now on the cutting edge, leading the nation’s most powerful combat forces. And his unofficial title—"Chief Space Warrior"— underscored the reason Aster had jumped at an opportunity to command STRATCOM. He was acutely aware that space was the new high ground of military matters, a theater of war. Now, his was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to help shape the battleground of the future, a rare opportunity for any military commander.
Unfortunately, as he stared at the table of officers and experts, listening to their somber, highly technical discussions, it was becoming increasingly obvious that the future had already arrived like a hungry wolf pounding on the front door with a vengeance. U.S. space assets were dying in orbit at an alarming rate, a pace well in excess of coincidence. And, for the moment, nobody understood why or what to do about it.
When Aster was a freshman, or "dooley," upperclassmen at the Air Force Academy had nicknamed him "Steve Canyon" thanks to his cartoon-like square jaw and blond hair. Aster was no longer that same young man. Today, the tall, prematurely white-haired STRATCOM general leaned forward, the weight of the world on his back, trying to assimilate all that the Army colonel was describing. He fought to keep his mind on the conversation in the room, but it drifted back.
Too tall to fly fighters, huh? He half smiled at the memory. What the hell did they know? Somebody had told him that nonsense as soon as he’d begun flight training as an Explorer Scout, while still in high school. Even the senator who’d interviewed him during his Air Force Academy application process had told him he probably couldn’t fit into a sleek fighter. "Better think about bombers or transports, son," the senator had advised.
But Aster had tossed off the advice of all naysayers. Good thing he had, too. There was nothing like flight in a powerful, single-seat fighter, cruising thousands of feet above the Earth, snapping your craft into a steep bank and watching the horizon go vertical through the canopy, then pulling the stick back until g forces threatened to crush your body, trying to drive your butt through the ejection seat. Nothing like it. And nothing like nudging your fire-control radar’s target-designation box over a hard-turning Iraqi MiG’s red icon, hearing the growl of the missile-locked tone in your helmet’s earphones and squeezing off an AIM-120 air-to-air radar-guided missile. Bad guys could run, but never fast enough to outrun an AMRAAM.
But that seemed a lifetime ago. Human voices intruded on the memories, pulling him back to the present. A buzz of techno-babble indicated the group was still trying to reason through what ever was killing America’s eyes and ears in space.
"Two similar TransAmSat birds, Nova 4 and Nova 7, experienced failures of primary spacecraft-control micro processors in just the last few weeks," Androsin said, pointing to a colored graphic of both satellites on the big screen. "Nova 7 is running on a backup processor, but Nova 4 lost its last backup in May. ‘Four’ is totally out of service now— which cost TAS the use of 48 transponders. That was most of the company’s spare transmission capacity for serving the U.S. market. TAS-5, the bird with this new battery problem, serves Mexico and Latin America. Finally, TAS-6 started having problems with solar arrays last year, and that’s forcing the company to gradually turn off its transponders as available power diminishes."
Androsin looked around the room and asked, "Questions about the TransAmSat birds before we move on?"
Adrian "Matt" Dillon, a no-neck, fire-plug-shaped Army colonel, the ser vice’s Colorado Springs–based space-operations commander, hunched forward, elbows on the big table. Anybody who’d followed college football in the late 1980s remembered Dillon’s end-around sweep during that certain Army-Navy game, shedding tacklers as he rumbled like a freight train toward the end zone. The guy had never been fast, but once he built up a head of steam, legs pumping like a pair of pistons, he could drag swarms of would-be tacklers along for the ride. The Denver Broncos had drafted him, but he turned down a promising NFL career, believing his duty was to serve as an Army officer. After all, American taxpayers had shelled out for his West Point education, and he’d damn sure pay them back, with sweat-and-blood interest.
Dillon stared at Aster as if they were the only two in the room. "Sir, to get everybody here on the same baseline, I’d recommend having Jim summarize other commercial satellite losses over the last few months, before we discuss the loss of EarthView-4."
"Good idea, Matt. Could you do that real quickly, Jim?" the four-star asked Androsin. The demise a week earlier of EarthView-4—a commercial, multi spectral imaging satellite often used by the Pentagon to augment classified-spacecraft coverage around the world—had triggered this mass meeting, and sorting through its convoluted particulars and ramifications would take a while. Aster wanted all commercial satellite losses on the table before they tackled the latest imaging-sat problem.
The loss of EarthView-4 had clearly set off alarms in Washington, because the bird had constituted a critically important chunk of the nation’s remaining commercial eyes-in-the-sky fleet. Its demise had hurt private-sector customers, but—and more importantly from Aster’s viewpoint—it had left the intelligence community "blind" to activities in specific world hotspots. Bud get shortfalls over the past decade, plus considerable political pressure to underwrite a chronically struggling commercial remote-sensing satellite industry, had left the national security community far more dependent on private-sector imaging satellites than many believed was wise.
In short, as Congress confronted a dramatic run up of oil prices prior to the first skirmishes with Iran, it had turned to military R&D and acquisition bud gets, repeatedly slashing them with abandon. At the time, cutting military funds in favor of social programs had paid political dividends, but in the end, had proven extraordinarily costly in security terms. The Armed Services Committee still routinely rejected Pentagon attempts to build large, very costly but robust government-owned intelligence-gathering spacecraft, relying more and more on the commercial sector for high-resolution images of ground targets.
Damn! Now we’re paying for all that stupid money-saving! Aster fumed silently. Department of Defense satellites were far better protected from all sorts of threats, designed to weather everything from radiation produced by nuclear blasts in space to sunspots. Commercial birds weren’t. But they were much cheaper to build and operate than the DOD’s "Battlestar Galactica" spacecraft, as the antimilitary media had dubbed them.
Aster and his staff were under considerable pressure to deliver answers—and soon—because Congress and the White House were starting to ask hard questions about what was happening. So far, he didn’t have a hell of a lot to tell them, and what he did have was decidedly not good.
An Air Force major had handed a list to Androsin, who scanned it briefly, then continued. "Sir, we have EarthView’s loss of their Eagle Eye 1 commercial sub-meter imaging satellite in December 2008. That was the company’s first high-resolution image-sat, and it cratered . . . er, was lost . . . just days after a successful launch from Svobodny Cosmodrome in eastern Russia. Everything looked fine initially: stable, circular orbit and all key parameters were nominal, as were the communication links. Four days after launch, ground controllers lost contact with EagleEye 1 as a result of ‘an anomalous satellite undervoltage condition,’ according to EarthView. They tried to power down all noncritical equipment, then slowly recharge the battery, but failed. The bird was declared a loss a few weeks later," Androsin summarized.
"Bull!" a new voice, challenging and authoritative, bellowed.
Every head turned toward J. D. Hart, a NASA troubleshooter, who had developed a reputation for solving extremely complex on-orbit problems with government-operated civil and military satellites. Although he had little experience with commercial spacecraft, he stayed abreast of the rapidly changing technology they employed, and tracked every news account of on-orbit problems. Both Aviation Week & Space Technology and Space News reporters routinely consulted Hart about in-flight satellite glitches, because his explanations were more forthcoming, logical, and technically understandable, and generally superior to those offered by career-conscious bureaucrats. A no-spin guy whom the technical publications trusted, the casually dressed Hart also was viewed as a loose cannon by most of official Washington. And he was showing why as irritated military brass shifted in their chairs to see who had challenged the accepted groupthink. This was precisely why Hart was definitely not trusted by those in power, rarely consulted by them until the last possible moment, when everybody was ducking to avoid debris splattering from the proverbial fan.
"Hell, half the people in this industry know damned well that a receiver fried itself on EagleEye," Hart growled. "And that dragged down a power supply. They ran out of battery trying to command the bird back to life. Regardless of what the company says in public, their space geeks never did figure out why the receiver nuked itself in the first place. We gotta count this one as an unknown."
Hart glared back at the somewhat stunned stares around the table, his disheveled salt-and-pepper hair sticking forward like a prickly ledge above thick eyeglasses. A pinstriped dress shirt looked as though it had skipped an ironing board on its way to and from a suitcase. Hart’s knock-this-block-off-my-shoulder bearing had frightened more than a few rapacious defense contractors into revising their cost overruns before resubmitting them to the Pentagon’s procurement managers. Back in the day, Hart had been the go-to guy when the secretary of defense had a bud get gap to close and couldn’t figure out how to do it.
Colonel Androsin stifled a grin. He had strongly recommended that Hart be included in this eclectic group, and not just for the man’s broad expertise. Hart was notorious for being brash and so non–politically correct that he had been banned from testifying on Capitol Hill. NASA still needed the aging troubleshooter, but tried to keep him well away from the D.C. spotlight. Androsin liked him for the very same reason, and had found him a refreshing counterbalance to traditional thinkers during wargames. Hart called the shots as he saw them, niceties be damned, and was one of the best engineering minds in the nation when it came to sorting out spacecraft conundrums.
The NASA expert was a pioneer of what had rapidly become a valuable and rare breed: multidisciplinary engineers who could dissect downlink bit streams to meticulously determine what had triggered a satellite’s death throes. A failed component? Poor systems engineering during fabrication? A burst of radiation from a solar flare, or maybe a grain-of-sand-size micrometeoroid slicing through a critical part at more than 17,000 miles per hour? Or had someone intentionally disabled the bird?
Androsin broke the awkward silence, returning to his list. "Although nobody can prove they’re related, sir, there’ve been other unknowns, as Mr. Hart mentioned. We lost a NASA remote-sensing Landsat last fall. It went into the drink after launch, a casualty of a launch vehicle’s staging failure, but we still don’t know why. And the Israelis lost their Ofeq-9 all-weather imaging satellite under suspicious circumstances. But they’re not talking, so we don’t have much to go on. There’ve been several other failures and losses, like a few of the Excalibur Big-LEO comsats, but no airtight link has been pinpointed to particular causes, either."
It took a long second for Aster to recall that "Big-LEO" referred to the many satellite constellations of communications birds crisscrossing the Earth in LEO, or low-Earth orbit. Once distinctly out of favor, "Big-LEOs" had quickly become the cornerstone of a resurgent global commercial space industry in the late 2000s. Eventually, more than a hundred Excalibur spacecraft would be in orbit, bringing high-bandwidth data and anywhere, anytime voice communications to subscribers in both hemi spheres. The promise of the now quaint, low-bandwidth, 1990s-era Iridium satellite constellation had finally come to pass.
Once the Excalibur space infrastructure was in place high above the Earth, customers could use tiny handheld, media-convergent personal communicators to call or access various types of data from any point on the globe. And do so without the exasperating dropped calls and fade-in-fade-out signals of first-generation cell phones, which had transformed on-the-go communications almost a decade earlier. Further, road warriors were already able to plug their featherweight notebook computers into those handheld communicators and have instant high-speed access to what was now being called by geek types the "Extranet." Excalibur would expand that capability to worldwide coverage.
Handheld communicators—combinations of personal data assistants, palmtop computers, and digital mobile phones, all with "nanopaper" touch-sensitive screens—had proliferated over the past five years, combining net-cam surfing with text messaging and conference-calling. The success of Apple’s iTunes online sales outlet in 2005 brought television and in de pen dent movies to these devices, turning WiFi-enabled commuter trains along the Washington-to-Boston corridor into rolling personal movie theaters. Millions of users across the globe now routinely accessed their own private Extranets anytime, anyplace.
Consequently, the loss of even one broadband communications satellite quickly overloaded already stressed digital pipelines. Businesses around the globe had come to depend on a robust, always-there satcom infrastructure, and they were suffering now. From boardroom execs to Washington Beltway wags and even sales reps in suburban Boise, comm-sensitive customers were well aware that something in space was going very wrong.
Excalibur and its copycat systems were the leading edge of yet another communications revolution, one that could reshape a nation’s demographics, tech-journalists were saying. After all, Excalibur would enable people to live and work wherever they chose, yet have the same high-speed wireless access to data and electronic files they previously could only get via their office’s internal high-bandwidth local area network, or scattered wireless "hot spots" in certain cities. Excalibur and its ilk would truly be freedom-sats benefiting millions.
IF the damned satellites are still up there and functional! Aster grimaced, stealing a look at an oversized pi lot’s chronometer on his wrist. Two bits says the SecDef and somebody from the White House will call in the next few hours, and I’d damned sure better have something smart to tell ’em. He sensed that the group around this table still had a lot of ground to cover. Aster thanked Androsin for his briefing and turned to three vice presidents at his right. "Would you gentlemen care to give us a brief rundown on your troubleshooting efforts, and your educated guesses about what’s going on here?" The general’s tone was courteous, but his look underscored "brief."
TransAmSat’s Molinero stood up and almost wearily shuffled to the front of the room, where he poked at the computer Androsin had been using. He quickly flipped through several PowerPoint slides, occasionally pointing to a graphic projected on the big screen to illustrate subtleties of often arcane, non-intuitive orbital mechanics. Finally, he faced the assemblage and carefully aligned fingers of both hands along the edge of the conference table before speaking. "The bottom line is, we can’t find anything—anything—in the design of the satellites, the systems engineering, the prelaunch test data, or anything else that would explain the anomalies on TAS-5 or the two Novas."
"So, what’s your best guess, Jack?" Aster urged, after a strained-silence pause.
Molinero didn’t relish what he had to report. Aster noted how the man shuffled his weight from one foot to the other before continuing, appearing to consider how the group would accept his conclusions. "General, we think . . . ," he hesitated, lips pursed, "we think somebody is interfering with our birds. No other explanation makes sense."
The room’s skepticism was palpable, hanging in the air like steam.
"What evidence supports that?" The question came from a one-star general, the U.S. Air Force Space Command (AFSPC) director of operations, who had flown to Omaha that morning for the troubleshooting session. As the command’s senior representative, he spoke for the bulk of America’s military space force. The Army and Navy also boasted space commands, but the USAF’s was the largest. The service had been tapped as the nation’s executive agent for military space based on an investigative commission recommendation. And that one-star was now responsible for "Space Control," a mission that encompassed protection of spacecraft, military or commercial. This crap is happening on the good brigadier’s watch, and he isn’t happy, Aster smiled watching the one-star squirm.
"Only circumstantial. No proof," Molinero conceded. "On the other hand, to be frank with you, sir, we’re worried sick that we’ll lose more of our birds. And you Air Force guys had better do the same! Yours could be next!" he barked at the general.
Aster smiled, unable to resist an opportunity to lighten the darkening mood. "Jack, this isn’t an inquisition. Take it easy!"
A titter of uncomfortable laughter fluttered around the table, and Molinero winced. "Yeah, yeah. I guess we’re all in this mess together. But we’d better figure out what the hell is going on, and try to stop it before we collectively go completely deaf and blind in space. Look, when Nova 4 died a few years ago, something like 43 million pagers in the U.S. went stone cold dead. Doctors couldn’t get emergency pages inside their own hospitals, for crissake! The loss of just that one satellite, Nova 4, knocked out banking networks, automatic teller machines, gas-pump credit-card verifications, and a few specialized corporate comm networks."
Molinero paused to let that sink in. "As you all know," he continued, his hand sweeping the room. "Every one of the space craft this industry lost around that timeframe had the same kind of symptoms that have been discussed here today, at least what we’ve talked about so far. You might think we’re just revisiting an old situation. But this time, my gut tells me it’s not a manufacturing—"
Aster interrupted. "You’re right, Jack. This smells different. I think we all agree on that," he said, standing abruptly.
"Look, I have to step out to make a call, so let’s take a ten-minute break. My handheld is still working, and it’s squawking right now." To polite laughter, the general nodded and headed for the door, a muscular uniformed aide in close trail.
Aster’s communicator text message flashed the number of a staffer for Senator C. I. Creighton, an outspoken populist from the decidedly liberal Santa Monica area of southern California. She was demanding to talk to the STRATCOM commander right now.
This had better be damned important, Aster thought, already more than irritated by the interruption. Politicians were not his favorite people, and Creighton’s elitism and arrogance were particularly distasteful. Besides, Aster had a pretty good idea what the pompous chairman of the Senate’s primary military space or "milspace" oversight committee wanted to know.
Minutes later, a land-line phone receiver clamped to his ear, the general’s jaw muscles were flexing in double time. Always an unmistakable indicator that an Aster mini-explosion was in the making, his aide noted. The blue-suited lieutenant colonel stood and silently motioned that he’d leave the spacious, yet simply furnished STRATCOM commander’s office, ensuring the general’s privacy. Aster impatiently waved the aide back to a leather couch. Lt. Col. Thad "Burner" Burns, a powerfully built African American B-2 Spirit bomber pilot turned STRATCOM commander military aide, sat and pointedly focused on sorting a stack of paperwork he always carried, trying to feign he wasn’t hearing the general diplomatically skin some young, self-important Capitol Hill staffer.
Burns concentrated on the memos that Annie, Aster’s executive assistant, had given him for the general to sign before the day ended. This was always a challenge, given the boss’s grueling, nonstop schedule. The ex–bomber pi lot hated this memo-carrying part of the job, but it went with an aide’s territory.
Thad Burns’s "real" job rested next to his spit-shined, low-quarter right shoe. In that innocuous briefcase, Burns carried the no-joke, go-to-war codes that Aster would use to launch the nuclear holocaust that every soldier, sailor, airman, and marine in uniform hoped and prayed would never happen. If the president’s military "shadow," a Burns counterpart who never strayed far from the commander in chief’s side, ever opened the "football" he always carried, and the president used its contents to transmit a nightmare "go" message, Aster would follow suit. Consequently, Burns and his innocuous "football" were Aster’s shadow, and that proximity meant he carried directives, memos, and other bureaucratic make-work paper to be signed, as well.
Tagging along behind a four-star wasn’t exactly what Burns had expected when he signed up for flight training years ago. Given a choice, he’d rather be up there, at the edge of space, winging his way to a target, his B-2 Spirit deflecting enemy radar pulses and remaining a phantom, invisible to electronic probes. But the Air Force’s arcane assignment system had seen fit to put this "football" at his feet. Friends said that it meant he was one of the five most trustworthy people in today’s military. Maybe, but he wasn’t convinced.
"Miss Peloni, let me first clear up a critical point, then I’ll try to answer the senator’s specific questions," Aster stressed, his tone icier now. "The United States—in fact, the whole developed world—is incredibly dependent on space these days. There’s something like eight hundred billion dollars’ worth of hardware in orbit now, and more’s going up every week. We have a huge financial investment in space, and that investment has now become vital to our national and economic interests. Space is a national center of gravity, contrary to your last comment. And I’m sure the senator appreciates how absolutely critical our military space platforms are. Without them, this nation simply cannot fight a major war today. They’re critical force multipliers, compensating for the huge cuts our forces took in the nineties, after the Cold War ended. Space is our eyes and ears, our link between command centers here in the States and forward-deployed forces throughout the world. It’s the heart of our missile defense capabilities, too. It’s absolutely essential to our ability to navigate—to find our way through jungles and deserts and across oceans—and to guide precision weapons without causing . . ."
Interrupted, the general nodded a couple of times, but those jaw muscles twitched even faster. Four-stars weren’t accustomed to being interrupted, and really didn’t appreciate it when done so by young, self-important Washington lightweights, Burns knew. The aide now held his breath, waiting for the explosion he expected to come, oftentimes aimed at his own head.
He’d heard Aster say the same things about space during recent speeches, expressing a surprising level of candor for someone in his position. Before he’d taken over as STRATCOM chief, few uniformed space professionals in recent years had dared utter the politically volatile words "space control" or "space superiority" in public forums, fearing a predictable backlash and outcry from powerful congressional and Europe an doves who clung to the amusing, naive view that Earth-orbital space could forever remain free of confiict.
The current White House had displayed surprising pragmatism as well as guts, Burns thought, by making it very clear that the ultrasensitive space superiority mission had been danced around long enough. Aster, as the top U.S. space commander, was responsible for it and other, more traditional space-support activities, and it was time to reduce theory to practice, the president had said. Until that directive, space superiority had been largely ignored by Washington—and STRATCOM, as well, because there had been no political support for working the issue. Although Air Force officers had been sounding the alarm for years, and Congress knew it would be important someday, "space superiority" had simply been relegated to the too-hard-to-do category, much as the threat of terrorism had been kicked downstream prior to that horrible day in September 2001. However, that lapse in space-related concern was starting to bite the nation in its overexposed butt, Burns thought.
"Yes, ma’am. You can tell the senator that, one, we’re narrowing the range of possible causes for EarthView’s loss, and I expect to have something for him and the president within a day or so. Two, we have an excellent team here, working very hard, going through a logical process of assessing several potential causes.... I’m sorry, say again? I didn’t catch that . . ."
The general glanced toward his aide, waving him over. Quickly scratching a note, Aster ripped a light-blue sheet topped by four stars from a pad and shoved it across the desk. A.— GET SPEED @ WH HS ON PHN!! it read. Burns stifled a grin and headed for the door. Creighton’s staffer had pegged the boss’s "delta-sierra" meter, pi lot talk for "dumb-shit" political nonsense exceeding the general’s daily limit. Annie, the general’s perennially poised, ultra-efficient gatekeeper and executive assistant, took no time in rescuing her STRATCOM-commander boss. Burns returned and pointed to the phone’s base unit, where a new light blinked.
"Miss Peloni, I’m terribly sorry, but I’ll have to... Crap, the White House?" Aster feigned surprise, winking at Burns. "Okay; I hear you. Please tell Senator Creighton that I’ll definitely get back to him as soon as we have something nailed down here.... Absolutely. Always great to hear from the senator . . . Roger that. Will do, ma’am. Bye." The general punched another button, switching from the senator’s staffer to a National Security Council staffer on hold. This one, in stark contrast to Creighton’s Ms. Peloni, Aster knew and trusted implicitly. After all, the two generals had flown F-16 fighters together when they were mere fast-burner captains with the "Wolf Pack" wing at Kunsan Air Base, South Korea.
Brigadier General Hank "Speed" Griffin hadn’t climbed into star ranks quite as quickly as Aster, his former flight lead, thanks to a few "lost" years at the USAF’s Test Pi lot School and as a test pi lot assigned to a "non existent" Air Force facility in northern Nevada. The still highly classified "system" Griffin helped develop there had only recently been revealed to Aster, a system the latter just might need, and damned soon, the STRATCOM commander reflected. The president’s National Security Advisor had spotted Speed’s talents and tapped the one-star for NSC duties a few months ago.
"Speed! Hey, thanks for rescuing me from that little twit.. . . Say again? . . . Oh, one of Creighton’s dumbass staffers. She and her boss didn’t give a flyin’ frap about space until EarthView-4 went quiet, and now they’re demanding action ASAP. Listen, how about making sure the boss and your NSC folks stay abreast of what we’re doing here, ’cause a few Senators on the Hill are apparently going to use these space glitches as political ammo against the administration. I don’t know what they’re up to, and I don’t give a damn about stupid political games—you know that—but I can’t let the commander in chief be blindsided with a shit-storm from Congress. If he is, that’ll really slow us up out here, and I damned sure can’t afford to deal with that B.S. right now. We may be—it’s not certain yet—but we may be in some serious space doo-doo, bud. I need you to buy us time to sort this shit out."
Aster was pacing across his carpeted office in long, slow strides, one hand jammed deep in a pocket of dark-blue slacks. He quickly gave Griffin a capsulized update of what the mixed group of experts—probably now returning to the conference room down the hall—were discussing, and what Aster hoped to do in the next hour or so.
"Just buy us some time to get a plan together out here, okay? . . . Thanks, Speed."
He clicked off, slipped the phone into its cradle and headed for the door, briefly checking his small handheld communicator. Aster grimaced, but jammed the device back into its belt-mounted holder. What ever the general had seen on that colored mini-screen, Burns noted, it was going to wait. For a few months, the boss had refused to carry one of the new do-everything communicators, a quirk that aggravated his bosses in D.C. The Joint Chiefs chairman had finally "suggested" the STRATCOM general "get with the twenty-first century" and start carrying a communicator, like all the other combatant commanders did. Aster complied—hell, he really had no choice—but chose to ignore the damned thing whenever he could.
"So, where do we go from here?" Aster asked nobody in particular a few minutes later, while settling into the high-backed swivel chair in his conference room. All the key players had returned to the long table minutes earlier.
"Maybe we should tap some of the national sources, just to see if the spooks have anything to support Jack’s theories," the STRATCOM operations director, Army Lieutenant General Dave Forester, suggested. "National sources" was still an accepted euphemism for "spy satellites," electronic snooper aircraft and other information-gathering platforms operated by super-secret U.S. intelligence agencies, or "spooks," a term intel types actually relished as a strange badge of honor. Aster agreed, gave a clipped order to an officer standing nearby, then turned back to the group.
"Folks, I’m being asked some hard questions. I think we’d better start narrowing the potential causes of, and options for dealing with, what ever’s going on out there in orbit," Aster said. "Because of the short timeline we have for providing answers to people back east—and what, to me, sounds like a huge matrix of ‘maybes’ and ‘could-bes’ we’re dealing with—I want to start homing in on specific issues, but doing it in parallel. We have to take the fastest route to get at the heart of these problems, so let’s attack ’em all at once. Let’s get some multidisciplinary teams going here, spreading the expertise you all bring, then focus on developing causes and options for response. If you think we can rule out basic technical problems, then zero in on Jack’s theory that someone is intentionally taking these birds down." He studied the big chronometer briefly.
"Let’s reconvene at 0730 tomorrow, but in the STRATCOM Wargaming Center. And we need to bring some answers, okay?" Aster’s hard blue-eyed stare swept the room, taking note of more than a few bobbing Adam’s apples. The general stood, prompting a flurry of olive-drab, white, khaki and blue uniforms to jump to attention.
"Carry on," he clipped, brushing past Burns, who held the room’s door open.
5 APRIL/STRATCOM WARGAMING CENTER
Colonel Jim Androsin surveyed the few people scattered around the tiered wargaming amphitheater, a cross between a college lecture hall—but with computer consoles at each station—and a high-tech multimedia facility. Androsin was mentally checking off what he knew was already there, but kept scanning the hall just to make sure. He sipped a steaming cup of Don Francisco’s Vanilla Nut coffee, hoping it would clear the dull fuzz of fatigue that had settled between his ears. Aster’s crash effort to explore high-potential causes of seemingly unrelated satellite losses, as well as options for replacing the military and commercial communications bandwidth, imagery, and classified capabilities the nation had lost, had forced Androsin’s STRATCOM wargaming division to scramble. Unlikely as it might seem, his people were the experts Aster had tapped to work up feasible scenarios— hypotheses, really—for the growing number of satellite losses, because that’s what they normally did in creating major command-level wargames. Last night, though, their talents had been challenged to the corners of their abilities to frame evolving real-world problems into reasonable scenarios. Working closely with experts from the companies, NASA, and the intelligence community helped, but the knowledge that this was no longer a "game"—it had become the real thing—added considerable stress to the entire process. This time, there were real-world consequences.
Working through the night, aided by J. D. Hart and the commercial companies’ technical experts, Androsin’s wargaming specialists had formulated four logical scenarios that might explain why a number of satellites had gone dead. Fortunately, the division had already been planning a wargame with astonishingly similar precepts for weeks, a response to a growing command-wide concern about how, in the future, they’d handle precisely what was occurring now: a surge of satellite fatalities accompanied by little hard data for troubleshooting. Consequently, they had drawn some key ideas from the "Deadsat" play book, a wargame that had been conducted years earlier. But the margin for error of a traditional wargame had vanished. America’s space resources, they’d learned, could be in serious jeopardy.
After a brief discussion, the mixed group of bleary-eyed commercial, civil, and military space specialists had broken up into small knots of people now scattered around the center. Arriving promptly at 0730, Aster had quickly set the stage for the day’s techno-sleuthing, reemphasizing the pressing need to get at the heart of admittedly knotty problems, then turned the floor over to Androsin for a status update. Nothing had improved overnight, the colonel had reported. If anything, there were even more unknowns to deal with, thanks to commercial companies’ engineers diligently scrutinizing those last-second data streams transmitted by dying spacecraft hundreds of miles above the Earth. Now the brain-numbing, grind-it-out, top-level problem-solving was under way.
Aster joined one group huddled around a powerful Silicon Graphics high-definition workstation. "I’d appreciate getting a better picture of the geometry, timing, and other factors that might be involved in these satellite losses," the general said. A young civilian contractor nodded, then maneuvered his electronic stylus, tapping a screen to open successive colored windows on the display. A bar of data and virtual control buttons lined the screen’s left side, bordering an image that appeared to put the viewer high in space, looking back toward a slowly rotating Earth.
"This is an Analytical Graphics STK visualization of where satellites were when most of the failures were detected," the young contractor explained, shifting the viewing angle effortlessly. "These white ovals on the Earth’s surface, like, show geo graphical areas that had those satellites in sight when we . . . ya know, when the space-birds died. You can see they cover millions of square miles, above and below the equator..."
"What’s the green patch right there?" a Navy commander interrupted, pointing to the screen’s center.
"That’s where all the white satellite-in-sight patches intersect," the contractor said. "Now, if we show what areas of the sky were visible from that green area, and do some time correlation... ," he paused while a few more clicks adjusted the image, "we can get a feel for, ya know, where any interference might have come from—if there was any interference, I mean," he added, recalling Androsin’s admonishment to stay open to any possibilities. The patch of green now covered an area of the Caucasus, reaching into northwestern Afghanistan.
"Can you blow that green part up?" asked the Navy commander, leaning closer. The contractor scribed a circle around the area, tapped the screen, and several observers nodded slowly as the commander voiced what they all noticed. "Covers some of Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and... whatever those other ’Stans are."
Aster’s communicator vibrated again. A glance at its glowing screen caused the tall general to stiffen and those jaw muscles to tighten, Lt. Col. Burns noticed. Aster turned, made eye contact with his aide and stood. Burns had seen that look before. Oh shit. This can’t be good, he thought. The "football" suddenly seemed heavier as he followed Aster from the room, vaguely aware that the general hadn’t bothered to explain his abrupt departure. Members of the group he’d been with seconds earlier exchanged puzzled glances.
After a short break, the small groups reconvened in the center and again turned their attention to Androsin, standing at a podium this time. Aster had tapped him to facilitate the session in the commander’s absence. The colonel’s face was grim, lips pressed to a thin line. "Okay, people, here’s the situation. General Aster was just informed that, over a six-hour period last night, we lost several military satellites. I can’t share the details here, but suffice to say that some very, very important capabilities have been lost. Let me recap the situation now, as a result of this latest information." A list of bulleted items appeared on the big screen; he circled the first with a transient ring of red from a laser pointer.
Excerpted from SPACE WARS by William B. Scott, Michael J. Coumatos, and William J. Birnes
Copyright © 2007 William B. Scott, Michael J. Coumatos, and William J. Birnes
Published in April 2007 by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.