U.S. Military Officials Discuss Military Space Agenda

By | September 1, 2009 | Government, Supplement

The United States remains the global leader in space-based military capabilities. However, with more nations than ever looking to develop these capabilities, the United States wants to foster greater cooperation when using these assets. In separate discussions, U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Susan Helms, director plans and policy, U.S. Strategic Command, and Brig. Gen. John Hyten, director of requirements, Air Force Space Command, spoke about some of the issues in terms of military space policy and encouraging more cooperation around the globe.

VIA SATELLITE: What are the key challenges for U.S. Strategic Command over the next two years?

HELMS: Some of the key challenges with regards to space for the United States Strategic Command include ensuring the spaced-based capabilities that are essential to our nation and armed forces remain available all the time. We do pay close attention to the satellite constellations that carry these capabilities and the launch schedules that provide replacement satellites.
The recent collision of the Iridium-operated satellite and the dead Russian satellite and the International Space Station maneuvers to avoid space debris highlight another challenge for the command. This is the need for improved space situational awareness. Our Joint Space Operations Center is tracking more than 19,000 man-made objects in space today. That number continues to grow.

VIA SATELLITE: Has the issue of space debris has been under-estimated?

HYTEN: It is important that the people of all nations understand that debris is a significant risk to all space operations in the future. I understand that the space environment is huge. If you look at the space between the geosynchronous belt and the Earth, it is 6,000 times larger than the global airspace around the world. Currently we track approximately about 20,000 items, including active satellites, but there are things that we aren’t tracking right now that could create debris numbers up to 200,000. While the debris we track tends to be focused in certain areas, those same areas are where we and the international community operate satellites. Hopefully the Kosmos-Iridium collision serves as a warning that we need to take every possible international action we can in order to mitigate the debris problem. Again, this is something that the State Department will need address with the international community so that we can avoid collisions in the future and mitigate debris when avoidance fails.

HELMS: The satellite collision in February and recent International Space Station near misses continue to highlight the critical need for heightened space situational awareness. The space debris issue is one that is not going to go away and it affects all nations which operate in space. We must expand our cooperation and information sharing with other nations and industry to improve this space situational awareness and information sharing.

VIA SATELLITE: Why has it taken so long to have a vision which embraced international partners?

HYTEN: Air Force Space Command cannot act upon its own behest. Our international partnerships are vetted through the Secretary of the Air Force after they have gone through the Department of Defense and the State Department. In Space Command, we have developed a cadre of space professionals who understand the space business very well. There are 40,000 men and women in Air Force Space Command who are experts in the space and missile arenas. There has never really been a significant space cadre in other air forces around the world for the United States Air Force to work with. As time has moved forward, however, other nations have slowly but surely become more involved in the space business as well. For example, France is now looking in establishing their own Joint Space Command. There is also substantial space expertise in the Royal Air Force. There are now numerous active partners for us to deal with. Our commander decided we need to have an aggressive, positive approach in how we want to deal with the international community. So that is why, for the first time, we wrote it down, so we have a formal plan. That way we can work through the process and make sure we can partner with all the new capabilities coming on in Europe and around the world.

VIA SATELLITE: What impact will the new administration and the economy have on U.S. space policy?

HYTEN: I think that at any time you have a change of administration there will be a fresh perspective of where the country needs to go as well as well as different ideas of how we partner with the international community. New perspectives are part and parcel anytime there is a change in leadership. What I have found most interesting with regards to space situational awareness is that many of the initiatives have been championed both Democrats and Republicans who have recognized the incredible importance of improving space situational awareness. While there is a significant desire by the current administration to figure out what we should do in terms of space situational awareness, the current economic conditions have placed increased fiscal constraints on all space systems. We will have to make hard decisions regarding the allocation resources.

VIA SATELLITE: How can space situational awareness be improved?

HYTEN: I think the most important thing to consider when you look at the environment of space is the realization that it encompasses the entire globe. Although this might seem obvious, this realization forces one to look at the space environment from a global perspective. While the United States only occupies a small portion of the globe, our allies are dispersed worldwide. Those allies may have insight into elements of the space environment that we don’t. It makes sense to partner with them to take advantage of their capabilities while sharing some of our capabilities with them.

VIA SATELLITE: How do the space aspirations of countries like India and China affect the United States?

HELMS: Space is a domain that every nation has the right to operate in responsibly. There are now 61 countries operating in space and approximately 10 countries and consortia that are able to launch payloads into orbit and over 40 countries that own assets on orbit, so it is a busy place that will continue to get busier. It is in everyone’s best interest to maintain good space situational awareness.

VIA SATELLITE: What impact will Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) will have on U.S. operations?

HYTEN: Although it is too early to tell, I am inclined to believe that ORS can be a game changer. We see ORS as a national strategic capability that can provide us with a real game-changing response to any kind of event. If for example we lost a satellite in a collision and it happened to be a communications satellite, it would be ideal to have developed a national strategic capability that would allow us to quickly replace the lost system with another system. While the replacement system may not be as robust as the system that was lost, it would be good enough to handle any crisis that we might face in the world and do it quickly.

VIA SATELLITE: What are the major issues facing the United States in terms of taking its military space capabilities to the next level?

HYTEN: We are recapitalizing our entire fleet of satellites from precision navigation and timing to military satellite communications and missile warning. The biggest challenge we have is recapitalizing our entire fleet at the same time while operating our on orbit fleet. We have to continue to do our operations today and then deliver the new capabilities without missing a beat. Throughout this recapitalization it is imperative that we maintain our course and deliver the capabilities that we have promised. We need to make sure we deliver on the commitments we have made, not only to the warfighters around the world but to the American people.

VIA SATELLITE: Do you expect enemies to start using more space-based capabilities?

HELMS: We would suspect that any organization with the funds would try to purchase or procure whatever space capability they can from whomever they can for products such as commercially available satellite imagery. The protection of spaced-based assets and freedom of movement in space is the right of all nations. There is a threat for nations that operate in the space domain and it will take cooperation and a defense in depth to protect all aspects of space operations.

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