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US Space Command Does Not Provide Blanket Protection for Commercial Satellites, If Attacked

By Frank Wolfe | July 20, 2023

      Army Gen. James Dickinson, head of U.S. Space Command. Photo: SPACECOM

      The 133 commercial space companies that provide systems for U.S. military use do not have automatic protection for those systems from U.S. Space Command (SPACECOM), the head of SPACECOM said on July 19.

      “I do have a mission area of protecting and defending assets on orbit, and that’s widely known,” Army Gen. James Dickinson told an Aspen Security Forum session in response to a question on whether SPACECOM has a responsibility to protect commercial systems being used to aid Ukraine, if they come under attack.

      “But to be frank with you, those [responsibilities] have to be directed to me by my boss and my boss’ boss eventually, if that were to happen,” Dickinson said. “But we work with those 133 commercial companies every day sharing information to help them understand what’s happening on orbit and how they can properly defend themselves, if they so choose. No direction by us, but the opportunity is that we share information.”

      Such collaboration comes under a space situational awareness (SSA) sharing agreement that SPACECOM has with each of the companies.

      Dickinson’s statement means that the secretary of defense and the president would have to approve SPACECOM’s protection of commercial satellites, if attacked.

      Last October, Konstantin Vorontsov, the head of Russia’s U.N. Office for Disarmament Affairs, suggested that U.S. commercial satellites used by Ukrainian forces “could be a legitimate target for a retaliatory strike” by Russia.

      Ukraine has used SpaceX Starlink satellites for communications and commercial electro-optical data from BlackSky Technology and Planet Labs satellites. In addition, Maxar Technologies has received contracts under the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s (NGA) Global Enhanced GEOINT Delivery program to integrate synthetic aperture radar data from commercial satellites. NGA has provided unclassified access of the integrated SAR data to aid the Ukrainian effort to repel the Russian assault.

      Last month, Lt. Gen. John Shaw, the deputy head of SPACECOM, said that the command plans to expand its Commercial Integration Cell (CIC) at Vandenberg Space Force Base, California, beyond the 10 companies in the CIC–an expansion that may aid DoD in the protection of commercial satellites.

      The 10 CIC member companies are SpaceX, Maxar Technologies, Eutelsat Communications’ Eutelsat America Corp., EchoStar’s Hughes Network Systems, Viasat, and Viasat-owned Inmarsat, Intelsat General Communications, Iridium Communications, SES Space & Defense, and XTAR.

      Last fall, Lt. Gen. Stephen Whiting, the head of U.S. Space Force’s Space Operations Command, said that electromagnetic interference, the jamming of GPS signals, and directed energy dazzling of U.S. satellites ”are all threats that we now face, and it’s not just the Space Force, or U.S. Space Command, that faces those threats, and so when commercial industry accounts for the fact that their satellites — their space-related systems — may face those kind of threats and starts to build in hardening and ways to operate through those kinds of threats, that only accrues to our benefit because, as we go to commercial industry to potentially contract for those services or buy those capabilities, much of the things that we’re going to be interested in are now being accounted for by commercial industry.”

      President Biden has nominated Whiting to succeed Dickinson as the head of SPACECOM.

      Space situational awareness is of increasing interest to military space leaders.

      At the time of the establishment of Space Force in December 2019, “we tracked about 25,000 objects in space — anything from an active satellite to a defunct satellite, to debris, to a paint chip,” Dickinson said on July 19. “That number has grown. I think it’s close to 50,000.”

      The increase — most of it in Low-Earth Orbit — comes from the deployment of new commercial satellites and debris caused by the Russian Nudol direct ascent-antisatellite weapon test in November 2021, Dickinson said.

      This story was first published by Via Satellite sister publication Defense Daily