Bringing Space Threats into Greater Relief

Nearly every time he’s given a speech in the last year, Gen. John Hyten, the head of U.S. Air Force Space Command, has said the Defense Department needs to better prepare for a war in space.

He paints a vivid picture of what’s at stake.

“Space Command is going to become a big user of the aggressor force as we go into the future.”

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But when it comes to illustrating what needs to change, Hyten and other DoD leaders, have tended to work in rather broad strokes.

That’s starting to change. In recent weeks the Air Force has offered greater detail on the kind of attacks it is training to defend against.

Example No. 1. In December, the Air Force asked for a show of hands from contractors ready to assist the 527th Space Aggressor Squadron based at Schriever Air Force Base, Colorado. The service wants help in mounting realistic attacks on U.S. and allied space capabilities during military exercises. Specifically, the Air Force is looking for contractors with the expertise to jam communication and GPS satellites, attack satcom networks at other vulnerable points, and use maneuverable satellites to harass friendly satellites.

Makes sense, considering that a Russian military satellite caused considerable heartburn in Washington last year by spending five months — with little explanation from Moscow — parked between two Intelsat spacecraft before cozying up to a third.

“Space Command is going to become a big user of the aggressor force as we go into the future,” Hyten said in an interview. “We haven’t been that big of a user because we haven’t been operating in the threat environment.”

The Air Force, in short, is training space operators to think more like warfighters.

Instead of calling an engineer or shutting down the satellite — what Hyten described as the previous go-to move for Air Force satellite operators — starting this spring, as part of a re-training known as the Space Mission Force, an airman’s primary focus will be battling through a contested environment, not just flying the satellite.

Example No. 2. The Air Force’s annual Schriever War Game last month focused on a 2025 conflict with a “peer” space competitor (a common Pentagon euphemism for China or Russia) seeking to “exploit” U.S. national security satellites.

The Air Force said the seven-day exercise confronted war-gamers — some 200 experts drawn from two dozen military and civil agencies — with “a full spectrum of threats.” During congressional hearings last year, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper used the same phraseology, code for everything from jamming and cyber attacks to using lasers and missiles to destroy satellites.

Ok. So what? None of these drips and drabs of information are surprising by themselves. But, every bit offers a little more clarity about which space threats truly worry Pentagon leaders. And each piece helps improve public understanding of what that threat entails.

Military leaders need agreement — within the Defense Department, Congress, the White House and industry — to change the status quo.

But if military leaders can’t discuss the looming threat in an unclassified or public forums, that consensus never develops.