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Space Growing More Contested for Military, Experts Say

‘A few dragons have been replaced by 100 snakes,’ one said

The space shuttle Discovery hitches a ride in 2012 on NASA’s Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, a modified Boeing 747, on its way to be displayed in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia. (Bill Clark/Roll Call File Photo)
The space shuttle Discovery hitches a ride in 2012 on NASA’s Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, a modified Boeing 747, on its way to be displayed in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia. (Bill Clark/Roll Call File Photo)

Space is becoming an increasingly contested military domain, and U.S. assets may be increasingly at risk without a comprehensive strategy, experts told members of the National Space Council.

The council, chaired by Vice President Mike Pence, met for the first time during the Trump administration on Thursday at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. The council includes five Cabinet secretaries — State, Defense, Commerce, Transportation and Homeland Security — as well as the national security adviser, director of national intelligence and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, among others.

Seated in front of the Space Shuttle Discovery, part of the museum’s permanent collection, council members heard testimony about the state of play in space. Although space plays a vital role in supporting military capabilities, notably networked communications and precision weapons, America’s competitive advantage is eroding, witnesses said.

Michael Griffin, a former NASA administrator, said the country’s adversaries fully understand the importance of space to America’s ability to fight and win. To fully protect assets and project power against potential threats, the U.S. must improve its situational awareness in space, he said.

“The U.S. must know what is being launched, from where it originates, to where it is going, what are its characteristics, what are its likely purposes, everywhere, all the time, to a level of accuracy sufficient for targeting and fire control should that be required,” he said.

The type of threats have multiplied as have the number of bad actors, and it is no longer just nation state that are capable of striking U.S. equipment in space, said retired Adm. James Ellis, former head of Strategic Command. The threats include the electromagnetic pulse associated with a nuclear weapon, anti-satellite weapons, devices that jam communications or blind sensors, and cyber or terrorist attacks on ground stations used for satellite control, he said.

The proliferation of threats has not been matched by advances in protection capabilities, loss mitigation strategies and a clearly articulated set of national policies on space, Ellis said.

“Not all threats to our space assets originate in space, and not all our defense mitigation and deterrence efforts should be focused there,” he said. “A few dragons have been replaced by 100 snakes.”

The U.S. needs to make clear to the international community what it will and will not tolerate in space, he said.

Col. Pamela Melroy, a retired Air Force officer who commanded the Shuttle Discovery as a NASA astronaut before serving as the deputy director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s tactical technology office, told the council’s members she is “deeply concerned” about the U.S.’s ability to maintain its military edge in all domains enabled by space-based assets.

“Speed — the tempo of decision and information — is the problem,” she said. “Because our adversaries have figured out how to move inside our military decision loop, and our existing precision kill chain is inadequate to address many new and pressing threats.”

The panelists’ remarks echoed observations made in a new report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies released on Oct. 4, the 60th anniversary of Russian satellite Sputnik orbiting the Earth and initiating the space age.

During the Cold War, the U.S. and the former Soviet Union were the dominant powers with the ability to access space, making most issues largely binary, said Todd Harrison, director of CSIS’ aerospace security project and a co-author of the report.

Now, space is more diverse. There are more disruptive players and technologies, there is a lack of widely accepted norms for behavior, and there are many tempting targets for the proliferation of counterspace capabilities, he said.

During the Cold War, many space assets were associated with command and control of nuclear weapons, and both the U.S. and former Soviet Union would have interpreted any action against them as a huge stride down the path to war, he said. Today, with many commercial assets performing a variety of functions, that deterrent is no longer credible, he said.

“Nearly all space systems that we use today were designed for a relatively benign environment,” he said.

Asked about a proposal contained in the House version of the fiscal 2018 defense policy bill to create a new independent space corps within the Air Force, analogous to the Marine Corp’s relationship to the Navy, Harrison said the plan would not solve all the issues confronting the U.S. in space. It wouldn’t create any new money to address the Pentagon’s budget crunch, he said, although it would give space issues a new prominence by adding a member dedicated to space to the Joint Chiefs.

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