Commander: Potential Adversaries Gaining on U.S. in Space

By Allyson Versprille

The United States’ lead in space is shrinking as other countries advance their capabilities, the leader of U.S. Strategic Command said Oct. 22.
Although the Defense Department is not yet falling behind, the technological progress of potential adversaries is worrisome, said STRATCOM Commander Adm. Cecil Haney.

“The United States has held a significant advantage in space for many years,” he told reporters at a breakfast in Washington, D.C. “The more concerning piece is that gap is shrinking. … Russia and China have been vocal in terms of developing their counter-space capability associated with ours.”

Other nations have demonstrated an ability to perform “on-orbit complex and unscheduled maneuvers” of their assets, he said. Beijing’s anti-satellite tests in recent years are a major concern, partly because the collision of two objects in space can create dangerous debris that threaten U.S., allied and private sector-owned satellites.

“You look at things like the 2007 anti-space kinetic kill vehicle that was launched by China and created some thousands of pieces of debris up in space — we’re still dealing with [and] dodging” them, Haney said. 

Damage to space assets could have far-reaching implications because approximately 170 nations depend on them, he said. “Having anything that threatens that access will have significant ramifications, not just for the United States of America but for the world … given our dependencies in space both economically and of course on how we’ll use space to support our joint military apparatus.”

To counter the growing threats, the Defense Department is taking several steps. The STRATCOM chief highlighted efforts to improve the joint space operations center mission system, which is designed to take feeds from a variety of different sensors and fuse them to create better space situational awareness and common operating pictures.

“There is funding invested in the program in order to enhance that capability,” Haney said. “Today we have a capability of periodically looking at areas in space, and I would put it in more of the cataloguing piece [category] and not a more continuous ability to dynamically track and look at many things simultaneously.”

The U.S. needs the latter tool to avoid debris and “be able to attribute any malicious activity that occurs in space and, quite frankly, to be able to be in a better defensive posture with the assets that we have in space so that we can continue to assure their capability,” he added.

This year the Defense Department and the intelligence community created a joint space doctrine and tactics forum and a joint interagency combined space operations center to think through how to improve capabilities and operational procedures. The latter organization was stood up earlier this month, Haney noted.

“We are looking really hard at how we can get better at being able to command and control our assets collectively together in space,” he said. We need to “be able to understand quickly what’s going to happen … in space or what just happened; be able to attribute it; be able to maintain better custody on things in space and what you have so that we have that dynamic picture and then we can provide options” for responding.

A key area being examined is how best to quickly fuse information together so that decisions about what to do with critical space assets can be made in a timely manner. Agencies are conducting tabletop exercises and wargames as they consider these issues, Haney said. “I think we will be sharpening our pencils and working on this for some time to come.”
Defense officials need to sound the alarm about current and future threats, he said.

 “Right now, I see our biggest piece is working to ensure we have a cultural understanding that we have challenges in space today,” he said. “It’s not as free and assured as what we have had in the past … as these nation-states are developing more and more of their capability.”

Topics: International, Space

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