SPACE

New Space Strategy Focuses On Combat Readiness, Resiliency

12/14/2023
By Josh Luckenbaugh
A Space Force tactical satellite terminal.

Space Force photo

The Space Force this fall adopted a new mission statement and released a comprehensive strategy outlining its objectives and how it plans to achieve them as its domain of operations becomes more contested and congested.

In the “Comprehensive Strategy for the Space Force” — dated August 2023 but not released publicly until October — Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall noted the United States’ “dependency on space has only grown over time.” Today, “the entire Joint Force is designed and postured around the assumption that space capabilities will always be readily available,” the strategy stated.

At the same time, “potential adversaries” such as China and Russia “have operationalized space to enable attacks on our forces and to deny those forces the services from space that they depend on to execute global military operations,” Kendall wrote. The strategy identified China as the Space Force’s pacing challenge — as it is for the rest of the Defense Department.

Chief of Space Operations Gen. B. Chance Saltzman said China has rapidly built a “very exquisite kill web that is space enabled.”

China’s capabilities range from traditional radio frequency jammers “that can cause disruption on a mass scale” to directed energy weapons “that will have effects on orbit,” Saltzman said during a recent Center for a New American Security event. “And they’ve definitely mastered the missile technology to shoot down satellites,” he added, 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. (For more on the Space Force’s debris remediation efforts, see page 40)

The strategy stated that “the most significant challenge for the [Space Force] is staying ahead of strategic competitors’ growing arsenal of space and counter-space weapons.” While the United States is “currently postured to deter and, if required, defeat these potential threats,” maintaining this advantage “will require the Space Force to outpace the accelerating threat trajectory by relentlessly pursuing innovative and decisive operational capabilities.”

The key capability the Space Force is focused on developing is a resilient space architecture, ensuring that systems in orbit “can be protected, degrade gracefully under attack and be reconstituted in a reasonable time, if necessary,” Kendall wrote in the strategy.

In September, a month before releasing the strategy, the Space Force debuted its 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, 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. “So, we have to be able to — in domain — achieve and protect our nation’s interests.”

In the past when developing space systems, the United States did not have to consider combat attrition on orbit, he said. “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.”

Currently, the nation on offense has the advantage in space, he said. “We just aren’t built to defend ourselves because we didn’t think we had to, there’s nothing to hide behind in space, the orbits are very predictable, and so there is a first-mover advantage.”

The way to mitigate that advantage is resiliency, he said. “You change the nature of how you do your missions from four or five satellites in [geosynchronous orbit] to 400 satellites in [low-Earth orbit], [that] changes the targeting calculus. Now, they may not have the magazine depth to go after the satellites, they start to say, ‘Well, we can’t really shoot down all those satellites, so why would we even start that conflict?’ More resiliency, more deterrence.”

The conflict in Ukraine has proven “that proliferated, low-Earth orbit constellations are resilient against attack,” Saltzman said. “We knew that to be the case theoretically, [but] it’s nice to get 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.”

One such investment Saltzman highlighted is the Space Development Agency’s Proliferated Warfighter Space Architecture, a constellation of small satellites in low-Earth orbit that will provide data transport and missile warning for the Joint Force. The agency began launching its initial “tranche” of demonstration satellites this year, with the “first operational generation” of the constellation scheduled to be fielded in late 2024, according to an agency release.

Building a resilient space architecture is key to the Defense Department’s Combined Joint All-Domain Command and Control, or CJADC2, initiative, the goal of which is to build a network that can connect military assets across all operational domains. Space is particularly important to this endeavor because all-domain command and control “will require worldwide distribution of data, shared situational awareness, sensor data on tactical timelines and global communication with decentralized units,” the strategy said. “The Space Force’s unique capabilities will be crucial features that enable the Joint Force to realize the [CJADC2] vision.”

While its focus is on orbit, the Space Force must have adequate systems on the ground as well, the strategy noted. “It is important that the [Space Force] has synchronization between satellite and ground systems to ensure delivery of a comprehensive operational capability that integrates effectively to accept, discern and fuse data from national, defense and commercial sources and share it across multiple security boundaries.”

In its fiscal year 2024 budget request, the Space Force asked for $4.7 billion in procurement funding, which — along with space vehicles and terminals and launch services — would go toward new ground control systems, according to Department of the Air Force budget documents.

Kari Bingen, director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in an interview the space community has “historically underfunded” ground systems and terminals, “lagging behind the satellites that have been put on orbit.” Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Space Acquisition and Integration Frank Calvelli has made it a priority to invest in ground systems and has emphasized that those systems should be in place before space capabilities are launched into orbit, Bingen said.

Overall, the Space Force requested $30 billion for fiscal year 2024, a nearly 15 percent increase from its 2023 enacted budget of $26.1 billion.

“The Space Force budget since we started has doubled — I mean, that’s not inconsequential,” Saltzman said. “I know no other service can say that, and you say, ‘Yeah, they’re smaller numbers,’ but it’s still somebody saying, ‘This is not wasted money, doubling the investment in [the] Space Force is worth it to the taxpayer.’”

Bingen said the Space Force’s budget is expected to continue growing “to match what is being expected of them. But they will have to do so, I think, in a smart, measured way,” as it is competing with the other services for funding from “a Congress that I don’t think has the appetite to significantly increase defense spending. … Their budget needs to grow, but they’re facing headwinds.”

And while the strategy made clear that innovation is paramount to the Space Force meeting its objectives, the service is not taking full advantage of the commercial industry’s investments in space, she said.

Resources for commercial space are “notably absent” from the 2024 budget request, “which is a marked contrast from the … declaration” in the 2022 National Defense Strategy that the Defense Department would be a “fast-follower where market forces are driving commercialization of militarily-relevant capabilities,” Bingen said.

“The government needs to better understand what these commercial capabilities and services can do and not do,” she said. By not investing more in commercial space, the Space Force is missing “a great opportunity for leveraging the private capital that is going into these companies beyond taxpayer dollars. … The research [and] development is the most costly part of the lifecycle,” and since companies are investing their own money to develop space capabilities, all the Space Force would need to spend money on is procurement.
Saltzman said the Space Force is working on a commercial space strategy, but said he wasn’t satisfied with the first draft of the document.

“I didn’t think it provided the necessary specificity that would really help industry get us what we need,” he said. “Let’s provide some more specificity, some tangible guidance that I think industry is looking for from us … do we procure data the same way we procure software? Are we looking for commercial services, or are we looking for commercial assets to be given to the government?”

The Space Force is still determining “what are the inherently governmental functions” that it needs to manage itself, “versus what services could I outsource and let industry do for us, and I just pay as I go?” he said. While the Space Force is comfortable with industry providing launch services, for other missions such as space domain awareness, “do we want a commercial entity to do collision avoidance determinations? They’re capable of it, but that might be an inherently governmental function if you start thinking about hostile kinds of actions that might” require an avoidance maneuver.

“I just felt like it was important that we answered those questions first, so that when we say what we need to industry, we can say it with enough specificity that we can really get what we’re looking for,” Saltzman said, adding that he is “pressing” to have the commercial space strategy completed by the end of the year.

With space becoming an increasingly crowded and complex domain, the Space Force must move with urgency to ensure it has the systems and partnerships needed for a potential conflict, Bingen said.

“Satellite systems still take a while to procure,” she said. “The Department of Defense could be in a position where we have to fight with the toolkit that we have — and that includes space capabilities — so there should be a premium placed on integration. How do I integrate the kit that I have” with commercial capabilities and services, as well as allies and partners, because “that is a distinct competitive advantage that the United States has that China and Russia do not.” ND

Topics: Global Defense Market

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