Air Force to Boost Budget to Prepare for Conflicts in Space
“We need to get our heads around the fact that space might not always be a peaceful sanctuary,” Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James said at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Space systems are facing “advanced demonstrated and evolving threats,” she said. There is a potential for “hostile actors” in the domain and the service must “have a new mindset when it comes to space,” she added.
The two primary space rivals mentioned most often by officials are China and Russia. Threats may come in the form of GPS or satellite communications jamming, cyber attacks on ground infrastructure or, even more alarming to the military, kinetic weapons such as anti-satellite missiles or killer spacecraft.
“The Chinese have continued to test [anti-satellite weapons] since the year 2007,” James said in a speech. That was when it destroyed one of its own defunct spacecraft with an anti-satellite missile and left a debris field with some 3,000 pieces that will remain in orbit for years to come.
Gen. John E. Hyten, Space Command commander, said Chinese anti-satellite weapons are still under development but “close to fruition.”
James said: “There have been additional tests that didn’t destroy a satellite since that time. The testing has continued, so that is an ongoing concern, something that we are watching.”
Russia is also a cause for concern, she added. In May 2014, it launched three communication satellites, along with a fourth spacecraft that is maneuvering between higher and lower orbits and sidling up to other objects.
So-called killer spacecraft could remove key components from another orbiter, place explosive charges on it or even ram into it kamikaze style.
“We need to be ready. We must prepare for the potentiality of conflict that might extend from Earth one day into space,” James said.
Last year, the Defense Department conducted a strategic review of the space portfolio. One conclusion was that current space systems were designed in an era when space was not contested or congested. “This is no longer the case,” James said.
“We need to ensure that our mission can get done despite what could be a very challenging environment in space to include challenges of one day having warfare effects in space,” James said. “We must not let potential adversaries ever deny us the use of space.”
The review also concluded that the Air Force must improve its space situational awareness.
“Knowledge is power and we need ever improved eyes in the sky,” she said.
Hyten said concern about the potential vulnerability of U.S. national security space systems goes all the way up the chain of command to the president. Because of that awareness, the administration is proposing about $5 billion in 2016 and over the five-year defense plan to develop technologies to answer the perceived threat.
Hyten and James both recently appeared on a half-hour long segment of 60 Minutes to deliver the same message to the general public.
Hyten said about half of the $5 billion will be spent on classified programs. Funding in the nonclassified category will go toward improving ground stations and space situational awareness so commanders can understand space threats.
The next-generation of satellites will have more defensive capabilities built in, he said. That might include real-time command-and-control capabilities that allow satellites to maneuver away from incoming missiles. That will require improvements to ground stations. “Processes will have to fundamentally change,” he said.
The joint space operations center at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California is in the middle of a three-phase improvement program. By the end of the second phase, “We are going to have a very exquisite situational awareness capability in what’s going on in all domains in space,” Hyten said. “What we won’t have is an embedded ability to do anything about it. That’s what we have to do next.”
Hyten said some of the funding will go toward accelerating phase three, which will give the center a real-time command-and-control system that will allow personnel to maneuver satellites, along with “a number of different options.”
The Chinese, according to Air Force officials who spoke in the television broadcast, have tested long-range rockets that appear to be heading toward geostationary orbit, which is a little more than 22,000 miles above the Earth’s surface.
“You don’t have to put everything in a geostationary orbit,” Hyten said. “There are other orbits you can use to conduct your missions. Other orbits add challenges to potential adversaries.”
Further, the Air Force is investing in defensive capabilities such as detecting satellite jamming in order to pinpoint where it is coming from, James said.
It is also important to boost space situational awareness, she added.
The Air Force now has two of its own maneuvering spacecraft to carry out that mission.
Two geosynchronous space situational awareness program vehicles, better known as G-SSAP, launched in July 2014. They are moving around observing other satellites and looking for unusual activity. “We think of this as our Neighborhood Watch program,” James said.
Some of the additional funding will go toward the next-generation of these maneuvering satellites as well as follow-on to the space-based space surveillance satellite known as Pathfinder. It has a gimbaled telescope that peers up at spacecraft in geosynchronous orbit.
The space fence, a ground-based radar system that can detect spacecraft and debris, should be completed by 2019, James said.
Hyten declined to speak about U.S. offensive capabilities in space. “We are not going to talk about offensive capabilities, but we will develop and continue to operate capabilities to defend ourselves.”
Less than one year after China demonstrated its ability to destroy a satellite in low-Earth orbit, the U.S. Navy shot down an errant National Reconnaissance Office satellite that was going to de-orbit. The government denied that it was a response to the Chinese test.
James said: “We will invest in our training, doctrine and tactics.” U.S. Strategic Command is creating a joint space doctrine and tactics forum to address this. “There will be investments in modeling and simulation, training and operational exercises.”
“People who are involved in other aspects of the military [are] probably thinking, ‘Modeling and sim? Training. Exercises. This is what we do in every part of the military.’ And you’re right. It is. We need to do this now increasingly in space,” she said.
This will be a substantial culture change, which can be the most difficult aspect to alter in the military, she said. “But we have to stick with it.”
Another threat may be directed toward ground systems, Hyten said. Adversaries are constantly probing space operation centers for soft spots in their cyber defenses. “There are millions of probes every year into our networks from every part of the globe,” he said.
In space, the cost of entry is still fairly significant. Only large nations could threaten U.S. systems on orbit. “The cost of entry into cyber is nothing so you have everybody and his brother coming into the cyber domain and it’s a big challenge to protect yourself,” Hyten said.
“We have taken cyber protection teams and put them against those networks to evaluate our strengths, weaknesses and vulnerabilities,” he said. “We are taking a hard look at our vulnerabilities to make sure we have defense in depth for” them, he added. One advantage Space Command has is that the Air Force’s cyber unit is under its auspices.
“But if you think you’re safe in cyber, when you wake up tomorrow, everything is different,” Hyten said.
As for jamming on battlefields, those kind of capabilities are not difficult or expensive for adversaries to build, Hyten noted. The next-generation GPS-III satellites will have a new M-code, which will make interfering with its signals more difficult.
One idea propagated by Hyten’s predecessors is the idea of disaggregation, or the spreading out of assets on smaller satellites or hosted payloads. Big satellites make big targets. In this concept, if one small satellite is destroyed, some capability remains on others.
Hyten said as far as communications satellites, depending on the day of the year, 70 to 80 percent of traffic goes over commercial satellite networks.
“We already have a disaggregated satellite communications architecture. We just don’t take full advantage of it,” he said. If one channel is jammed, users could move to another if their terminals will allow it. Too often, one terminal is assigned to one frequency.
“We’re working that issue really hard today. It’s one of those areas where you don’t have to go buy a bunch of new things. You just have to take advantage of the things that are already there,” Hyten said.