Defense officials, including Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, met with lawmakers last week to discuss the ways in which the United States military is preparing for the future of warfare in orbit high above the earth’s surface.
The United States military has seen a dramatic increase in its reliance on orbital assets for everything from navigation to communication in recent decades, though until recently, very little emphasis has been placed on the defense of those assets against peer and near-peer level opponents.
“I believe we’re going to be fighting from space in a matter of years,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said last month. “And we are the service that must lead joint war-fighting in this new contested domain. This is what the nation demands. We must build a joint, smart space force and space-smart joint force.”
The interim report mandated by the 2018 defense budget, which Defense Department spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis characterized as only “as comprehensive it can be” provided the short timeline, is particularly critical of the Defense Department’s acquisition programs, laying the blame for the slow progress America has made in orbital defense on the processes mandated by the system.
The biggest challenge we face is the acquisition system, which needs to improve dramatically,” Davis noted. “Congress has diagnosed the problem correctly, and we are making significant changes already on space throughout the government, and within DoD.”
The accompanying report cites the natural barriers created by the structure of the Pentagon’s space efforts, which divides the overall enterprise into four individual mission areas: Precision, Navigation, & Timing, Military Satellite Communications, Remote Sensing, and Space Control/Space Situational Awareness.
This structure creates natural barriers to developing alternative ideas, exploring different concepts, and ultimately, providing competitive forces to create substantial improvements in speed, cost, and performance,” the report says.
The Defense Department has already gone about making a number of changes to how it perceives orbital operations, though many have voiced concerns that it may be too little, too late to bridge the operational gap that is developing between the United States and orbital competitors like Russia and China.
In another report produced by the Defense Department earlier this year, concerns were raised about foreign nation’s ability to block, jam, or otherwise interfere with America’s access to the satellites troops rely on in combat.
Advances and proliferation in advanced electronic warfare (EW), kinetic, space, and cyber capabilities threaten our ability to maintain information superiority,” the report said, noting “under severe stress situations, jamming can render all commercial satcom and most defense satcom inoperable.”
“This reality should be considered a crisis to be dealt with immediately,” the report warned.
A new effort to launch a hardened GPS satellite constellation is already underway, and a National Space Defense Center has been stood up to track potential threats from above. Overall, the budget for space-oriented defense has increased by over 20% over 2017’s budget.
The National Space Defense Center is now set up and established so that we have a common operating picture of what’s going on in space, because unless you know what’s going on, you can’t defend it,” Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said. “Our budget also includes simulators and war-gaming to train space operators to operate in a contested environment. So there is a lot in this budget.”
“We are the ones, since 1954, who are responsible for everything from 100 feet below the earth in missile silos all the way up to the stars,” she added. “We need to normalize space from a national-security perspective. We have to have all of our officers who are wearing blue uniforms more knowledgeable about space capabilities and how it connects to the other domains.”
Image courtesy of the U.S. Air Force