Getting Serious About Space Protection

One morning this past November, Chirag Parikh took the stage at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s enormous glass headquarters outside Washington to give an audience of a couple of hundred space professionals what he said would be “the shortest keynote ever.”

As director of space policy at the White House National Security Council, Parikh is rarely quoted, even in the trade press, preferring to stay behind the scenes in the tight-lipped world of national security space. When he does speak, it’s often in classified settings. This morning’s event, by contrast, was a small-satellite workshop that was open to the media. Two digital screens reading “unclassified” reminded speakers about the nature of the discussion.

“The president has expressed concern about the emerging anti-satellite capabilities and the possible threat to the U.S. mission,” Parikh said. Standing behind a lectern, he spoke of the need to reassess U.S. policy to focus on how critical U.S. space assets could survive an attack.

Among the White House’s goals, Parikh said, is to “substantially increase the level of resources needed by an aggressor to successfully interfere with critical U.S. military and intelligence capabilities.”

The message was nothing new. For the past two years, senior U.S. government officials, including Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, have regularly cited growing threats from Russia and China in calling for more resiliency in U.S. space capabilities.

Then, Parikh delivered the kicker: He was reciting a White House policy dated July 7, 1976.

By that time the Soviet Union had declared it had an operational co-orbital antisatellite weapon, or ASAT, designed to launch in the direction of a target satellite, close in on it after one or two orbits and then destroy it by force of explosion.

Parikh’s not-so-subtle point was that for all the hand-wringing over the past 40 years about the vulnerability of U.S. space systems — the high-water mark being a report led by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that warned of a Pearl Harbor in space — the U.S. posture hasn’t changed much.

Now, six presidential administrations removed from the 1976 policy, change is afoot. The most visible sign is what Pentagon officials are touting as a $5.5 billion, five-year investment program in space protection activities — mandated by President Barack Obama himself.

In interviews, U.S. government and industry officials traced that mandate to a late 2013 memo from Parikh to the president that put months of intelligence briefings on space threats into context. Earlier that year, the Chinese military launched a rocket in what U.S. officials believe was a nondestructive test of an ASAT designed to take out satellites in geosynchronous orbit, home to the Pentagon’s missile warning and nuclear command and- control satellites. The Chinese insist the mission was scientific in nature.

That incident was but one example.

“It was the time to strike while the iron was hot,” Parikh said.

The New Urgency

Douglas Loverro, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy, highlighted three somewhat related events as the impetus for the investment program: a Chinese military paper published in 2000 that advocated taking out U.S. military space systems as a way to neutralize a key American warfighting advantage; the Rumsfeld report; and China’s 2007 destruction of one of its own satellites using a ground-launched missile.

Since the widely criticized ASAT test, which created thousands of pieces of debris in a popular orbit, there has been what Loverro called a “drumbeat” of potentially threatening activity, much of it known only to those with security clearances.

“There are a certain number of physical and electronic and kinetic and optical ways to engage a satellite or to engage a satellite system, because it’s not just the satellite, it’s the whole system, and cyber as well,” Loverro said in an interview. “And adversaries are working on every one of those mechanisms, whether they be direct-ascent ASAT, which of course have gotten the most

press, lasers, co-orbital threats — all of these threats have been worked on by folks who want to deny U.S. space capability.”

Meanwhile, the way in which the U.S. military uses satellites has changed, Loverro said. Whereas satellites were, until fairly recently, viewed as strategic assets — effectively a sacrosanct extension of the U.S. nuclear deterrent — they are now indispensable tools of modern conventional warfare. Some trace that evolution to the first Persian Gulf War, when imagery was used to locate enemy troop concentrations, but Loverro said the true beginning was the U.S.-led campaign in Kosovo in 1999, when U.S. bombs were guided by GPS signals.

The integration of space with conventional military operations has effectively made certain satellites fair game in the eyes of adversaries, Loverro said.

In the new context, a satellite’s vulnerability makes it a target. “Space is only a tempting and irresistible choice to begin conventional conflict if space is the most vulnerable part of your network,” Loverro said.

Others have pointed out that when it comes to the nation’s high-end intelligence satellites, the one with the most to lose in any attack is their primary end customer: the president himself.

Brian Weeden, technical adviser for the Secure World Foundation, a Washington think tank, describes the impetus for change as “a series of shocks” and sees Iraq and Afghanistan as the first “real” space wars. In those battles, U.S. military satellites were used to find and fix targets, to operate drones and to allow for ever more precise use of guided munitions.

“Take space away and the U.S. cannot do any of that,” Weeden said. “So when the national security space community raised the alarm bell over the counterspace threats, I think the whole national security community took notice and became concerned.”

Another difference between then and now: With the withdrawal of the majority of U.S. forces from Afghanistan and Iraq, the Pentagon has more time and resources to devote to the issues raised in the Rumsfeld report.

Robert Work, deputy secretary of defense, speaking at a conference in Washington in June, said Obama found the situation “totally unacceptable.”

The president gave Parikh an order: Fix this.

The Fix

From Loverro’s perspective, fixing the problem first and foremost means disabusing potential adversaries of the notion that U.S. space capabilities can be taken out with a few well-placed attacks, whatever form they might take.

“The strategy is pretty clear,” he said. “No. 1 , we want to make it clear to anyone who is thinking about it that no matter what they do to deny our access to space systems, they will be unsuccessful. The second part of the strategy is if deterrence fails and war does break out, we want to make sure the systems actually do survive.”

This helps explain why government officials have been so vocal in touting the $5.5 billion investment program. Industry sources say the figure is closer to $8 billion when money for the intelligence community is included.

Naturally, a funding wedge of that size gets everyone’s attention, especially in a supposedly constrained budgetary environment, but Loverro points out that the Defense Department plans to spend some $60 billion on space over the next five years. And while some of the $5.5 billion is what the contracting community refers to as new money, most of it was already in the budget and merely redirected to space protection, he said.

Although the details of the investment program remain murky, it’s clear that space situational awareness programs are a primary beneficiary. These include an upgrade to the Joint Space Operations Center, which provides military authorities with a common operating picture of the space environment and supports activities including satellite maneuvers and space launches, and the Space Based Space Surveillance follow-on satellite, which had been in and out of Air Force budget requests but now enjoys an elevated priority.

As an example of a new program, officials point to the Joint Interagency Combined Space Operations Center, or JICSpOC, which has been described as a testbed for developing space warfighting techniques. The JICSpOC officially began operations at Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Oct. 1, Pentagon officials say.

When senior Defense Department leaders toured the site in September, they were shown a room with “nothing but an empty floor,” said Gen. John Hyten, commander of Air Force Space Command. By the middle of December, the site was operational and officials, including Work, returned for a briefing on the results of the first experiments.

“All in three months,” Hyten said in an interview. “I don’t think that would have happened two to three years ago.”

According to Hyten, Work was pleasantly surprised by the progress, but emphasized the need to move even more quickly.

Space Situational Awareness: A New Commercial Offering

Not surprisingly, when demand for anything — even space situational awareness data — appears to exceed to supply, industry looks to fill the vacuum. For the past two years, AGI of Exton, Pennsylvania, known primarily for its orbit modeling software, has been pitching what it calls the Commercial Space Operations Center, or ComSpOC, which relies on data from multiple sources including a network of privately owned sensors on the ground to provide space situational awareness to paying customers

This past summer, AGI, along with Intelsat General, the government services arm of satellite operator Intelsat, hosted U.S. Navy Adm. Cecil Haney, commander of Strategic Command, in Exton for a ComSpOC demonstration. Haney was accompanied on the visit by Air Force Lt. Gen. Jay Raymond, then head of the 14th Air Force and the Joint Functional Component Command for Space, who had already seen a ComSpOC demonstration.

During the meeting, AGI representatives walked through the company’s capabilities, including fusing space situational awareness data from different sources, sophisticated modeling and simulation techniques, and identifying potential courses of action in the case of a conflict. As an example, AGI officials described the movements of a small Russian satellite that had parked itself between two Intelsat satellites — much to the company’s discomfort.

The ComSpOC was able to provide precise and timely updates of the Russian Luch satellite’s movements while advising Intelsat on how these might affect the company’s own operations. Given its broad responsibilities, industry officials said, the Joint Space Operations Center likely would have been unable to devote the resources necessary to give Intelsat the assistance it needed, at least without commercial help.

“I appreciated the opportunity to work closely with the commercial sector and to see commercial examples of a space situational awareness capability that fuses satellite-tracking measurements from a continually growing global network of commercial sensors,” Haney said in a statement to SpaceNews. “I value visits and collaboration with both military and commercial partners. But integration on its own isn’t enough. Judicious and stable investments must continue to preserve the advantages we hold in this dynamic and increasingly complex environment.”

Haney’s visit, sources said, helped convince him that the Pentagon needed to move more quickly to develop tactics, techniques and procedures for conflict in space.

In August, Haney and National Reconnaissance Office Director Betty Sapp signed an agreement on what they called the Joint Space Doctrine and Tactics Forum. In a September memo, Work said the forum would establish “a warfighting culture within the DoD space community” and develop “new operational concepts and associated tactics, techniques and procedures needed for future space procedures.”

In an October memo, Work named Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James the Defense Department’s space control adviser, with responsibility for overseeing more offensive space capabilities.

The Future’s Hallowed Ground

“I don’t ever want to go to war in space. With anybody,” Hyten said in a speech in Huntsville, Alabama, in 2014. “That is bad for humankind. It’s bad for our military. It’s bad for the United States of America. It’s counterproductive for the amazing things that we do in space. … All that being said, the only way to avoid such a war is to always be prepared to defend ourselves. Always.”

Hyten is all too aware of the potential consequences of an orbital firefight. He spent part of his early career working on the Air Force’s ASAT program, arriving just weeks after a well-known 1985 test in which a modified tactical missile launched from Air Force F-15 aircraft destroyed an aging U.S. satellite by force of impact. The debris that test created in low Earth orbit has stuck with him, providing the inspiration for another story he’s been telling in recent months.

Before becoming a four-star general, Hyten said, he used to take leave during his trips to Washington, rent a car and make the 2.5-hour drive to the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania, where nearly 50,000 were killed or wounded during the Civil War’s bloodiest battle. Taking the lay of the land, he’d ask himself what he would do with the entire Confederate army coming toward him, the nation literally at stake.

“You realize, what a horrible, horrible place,” he said during a Dec. 8 breakfast in Washington. “You realize what that place must have been like. It had to be the most godforsaken view of anything ever. Bodies. Wounded. Horses. Just imagine what that was like.”

Today, Hyten said, the Gettysburg battlefield “is one of the most beautiful places in the world. Green grasses. Trees. Blue skies. It is just magnificent.”

The rubble from a battle in space, Hyten said, would prove far more durable. “One hundred years from now, it’s still there,” he said. “God forbid, if it’s in geo, it’s there forever.”

“I don’t ever want to go to war in space. With anybody. That is bad for humankind. It’s bad for our military. It’s bad for the United States of America.”

General Hyten, 2014