Head of Strategic Command Seeks New Solutions for Congested Space Environment

By Vivienne Machi
Panelists including U.S. Strategic Command Commander Gen. John Hyten at the 2017 Halifax International Security Forum

Photo: Halifax International Security Forum

HALIFAX, Nova Scotia — The U.S. military is pursuing more resilient satellite architectures as space becomes more populated and adversaries push to develop anti-satellite capabilities, Air Force Gen. John Hyten said Nov. 18.

"I don't want to buy any more fragile, un-defendable satellites," the U.S. Strategic Command commander said at the annual Halifax International Security Forum in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

The Air Force and the National Reconnaissance Office have adopted a new "space enterprise vision" that calls for a mix of capabilities to help the U.S. military operate differently and better defend its assets in space, Hyten said during a panel discussion at the forum. "In that vision, you won't find any of those bigger, exquisite satellites," he said.

The military's current space constellations were built for a benign environment and are not nearly as resilient as they need to be, he warned.

The Stratcom chief isn't looking for "a Battlestar Galactica" to defend the nation's space systems, he said. "You can't build that. You can't afford to build that," Hyten said.

Smaller assets that are easier to reconstitute would be favorable, he said, adding "I won't support, as the combatant commander, to develop any further large, fat, juicy targets. … We're going to go down a different path [and] we have to go down that path quickly."

Not everybody in Washington, D.C. agrees that the Defense Department should steer away from large space systems, he noted. But a failure to do so would be foolish, he suggested. "If you build a capability that you can't defend, what are you doing?" he said.

As the head of Stratcom, Hyten spends a lot of time thinking about how to keep U.S. satellites — and those of its allies — protected as they provide internet, GPS, communications and other benefits to militaries and civilian populations all over the world. 

The operating environment is growing more threatened as adversaries are "moving quickly into the weapons domain" and advancing their anti-satellite capabilities, said Hyten, who previously served as Air Force Space Command commander. 

"We have a huge capacity in space right now that pretty much overwhelms anybody, but when the adversary is building up significant capabilities that can threaten that, I have to figure out how to respond to that," he said.

Many countries around the world have a growing interest in space technology, said Rajeswari Rajagopalan, senior fellow and head of the nuclear and space policy initiative at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi. Though Russia and China have long been pushing development in this field, India is also looking to build assets for intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and communications, she said. 

"A number of national security-dominated functions are beginning to appear in Asia," she said. The pace of that is going to accelerate, she added.

As more countries bring their own assets into space, common rules of behavior and rules of engagement must be developed, Hyten said.

"I want space to be available for everybody to use," he said. "But as a military officer, I have a primary job to defend the nation and defend our allies. And when I see our adversaries moving … very, very fast and I see our country not moving fast, that causes me concern."

Global militaries and the private sector must also focus on developing a solution for space debris, the panelists noted. About 1,700 satellites are currently operational in space, said Theresa Hitchens, a senior research scholar at the University of Maryland's Center for International and Security Studies. Companies are expected to launch new constellations with dozens or even hundreds of assets apiece. Over 10,000 new satellites could be operational in the next decade, she added.

"That is going to be a huge problem when all of those satellites are going to need to cross over the poles in their orbits," she said.

In 1985, the United States used an ASM-135 anti-satellite missile to shoot down one of its space assets for the first time. It took over a decade to remove all of the debris from that test, Hyten said, noting "it was something we had to work to avoid all the time." The International Space Station must be maneuvered two to three times a year to avoid Chinese space debris, he added.

Any collision of space assets "is as problematic as a kinetic event" in war, he said. 

Hitchens said the technology to clean up space debris has not been perfected yet. "Up to this point, we have no such thing as a space hoover or space vacuum," she said.

There is also the legal issue that a country can only clean up its own debris, she noted. "Unfortunately, a lot of that debris is ancient and we don't know who it belongs to," she said. 

Developers must also keep in mind that any technology that removes debris could also damage their active satellite, she said. "We have to be very careful about this."

Topics: Acquisition, Air Force News, Space Resiliency

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