JUST IN: U.S. Must be Ready for ‘Combat Attrition’ in Space

By Josh Luckenbaugh
Space based infrared system satellite rendering

Space Force / Lockheed Martin illustration

The Space Force is focused on not only putting capabilities in orbit, but also building the architectures in space necessary to defend those systems if and when an adversary attacks, the service’s leader said Oct. 18.

In September, the Space Force debuted a new mission statement — “secure our Nation’s interests in, from and to space.” The “in” part of the statement is a major shift for the service, Chief of Space Operations Gen. B. Chance Saltzman said.

“We have to be able to protect our interests in space, protect our assets and then more importantly, deny space assets that our adversary is using to target our joint force,” Saltzman said during a Center for a New American Security event. “So, we have to be able to — in domain — achieve and protect our nation's interests.”

Over the last few decades, the United States has built up capabilities that were “very, very good at providing specific services to the joint force from space,” such as missile warning, satellite communications and precision navigation and timing, he said. “We thought very deeply about how to make those capabilities last forever — I mean, honestly, in some cases that was the time horizon, because it was so expensive to launch, and it took so much … money and energy to put them on orbit.

“We weren't thinking about combat attrition. Now, we have to shift to an architecture that's going to have to stand up to an adversary that's committed to denying us those capabilities,” he said.

As is the case with the rest of the Defense Department, China is the Space Force’s clear pacing challenge, Saltzman said.

“We have to take our cues knowing that we will have to respond to them in space, both protecting our assets and then denying this very exquisite kill web that is space enabled, that the PRC has put on orbit,” he said. It is concerning not only how fast China put together this space-based “threat array,” but also the variety of systems that make up this arsenal, he added.

These capabilities range from traditional radio frequency jammers “that can cause disruption on a mass scale” to directed energy weapons China is developing “that will have effects on orbit,” he said. “And they've definitely mastered the missile technology to shoot down satellites,” Saltzman said, pointing to the Chinese anti-satellite missile test in 2007 that created thousands of pieces of space debris, which the Space Force is still deconflicting. 

But “most concerning for those of us that have to deal with in-orbit threats is what they're doing in space, the co-orbital threats that we face now,” he said. “We saw them use a grappling arm to take one of their own satellites and pull it out of its operational orbit into an unusable orbit. If you can do it with one satellite, you can do it with another. And so those are the kinds of threats that we're trying to counter, mitigate and create resiliency against, and it's a daunting proposition.”

However, Saltzman said he is “really proud of the shift we've made to more resilient architectures,” highlighting the Space Development Agency launching Tranche 0 of its low Earth orbit Proliferated Warfighter Space Architecture this year, going from order to orbit in “just over two years.”

Tranche 0 is “going to be the tech pathfinder to reduce the tech readiness levels and mature the technology, build the assembly lines to put hundreds of satellites on orbit to do both data transport and missile warning,” Saltzman said. “That's a big shift, both in terms of process and timelines, but also in capability.”

The conflict in Ukraine has proven that “proliferated low Earth orbit constellations are resilient against attack,” he said. “We knew that to be the case theoretically, [but] it's nice to get kind of combat feedback that says, ‘Yep, you're on the right path.’ And so, we are investing heavily to take our no-fail missions like missile warning, nuclear command and control, and making sure that we are putting together resilient architectures that create targeting problems that our current capabilities don't have.”

Saltzman also lauded the Victus Nox mission, which in September set a new responsive space launch record by lifting off 27 hours after receipt of launch orders.

“This is going to be one of those things that I think makes it in the history books when we look back on what the Space Force added” by having a “service-level focus on producing tactically responsive space,” he said. “How fast can we respond with a launch and an on-orbit capability?

“I'm so proud of [Victus Nox] because it's one thing to kind of walk through that timeline,” to think through the airlift needed, the infrastructure and telemetry of the launch facility, the safety checks, the payload integration, “these are massive checklists that have to be run,” he said. “And for those that haven't been in the launch business, I don't think you can fully appreciate all of the work that goes into that, and on that timeline, amazing accomplishment.”

Now the question becomes how to take advantage of that capability, Saltzman said. 

“Chuck Yeager breaks the sound barrier — big deal. It's like one airplane, what are you going to do with it? It opens the door, because it shows the capability, it shows what you can do, it shows how you do it,” he said. “Now you start talking about how do you build a unit that can do this on a repeatable basis? How do you do the training? How do you put contract vehicles in place … how do you put all that together so it's operationalized, not just a demonstration of the capability? 

“That's what we're going to get to next, and that gets you to maybe a force that you could start talking about as re-constitutable because you have those capacities in place,” he said.


Topics: Space

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