The debate over the U.S. Air Force’s reliance on Atlas 5’s Russian RD-180 engine garners more headlines. But the Defense Department’s space leaders have spent much of the spring talking about another issue: the mechanics of a battle in space.
A true space shoot-out could be as quick as it is painful. A well-placed anti-satellite attack could significantly impair the United States war-fighting apparatus, which depends heavily on satellites for information dominance.
That’s why the Air Force has been focusing on the clock.
Lt. Gen. Jay Raymond, the deputy chief of staff of the Air Force, told me in March that the software that runs the Joint Space Operations Center at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, needs to be able to “provide decision quality information … in very tight tactical timelines.”
And in a new Commander’s Intent released May 9, Gen. John Hyten, the boss at Air Force Space Command, said one of his top priorities is to “identify the timelines and authorities required to successfully defend, fight, and provide effects in today’s and tomorrow’s environments.”
To paraphrase Vince Lombardi, timing isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.
At every level of DoD’s space enterprise, officials say they need to move faster. And it makes sense. A conflict in space would likely not stretch over days or weeks, like a build up of troops and tanks along a border.
New acquisition documents, posted to the Federal Business Opportunities website May 11, make clear exactly how fast the Defense Department wants to move.
The Air Force wants to know within two minutes of detecting a satellite on the move what its revised orbit will be and whether it poses a threat to friendly satellites. For commercial firms pitching space situational awareness services to the Air Force, that means they must stand ready to “detect, monitor, track and provide a detailed time history of all observable maneuvers” of 200 handpicked satellites within 120 seconds of initiating any deviation from their normal path through space.
The Air Force also wants to know within 15 minutes if a satellite enters, or is projected to enter, the area around another satellite. These timelines are what’s expected of any commercially supplied space situational awareness data bound for the Joint Interagency Combined Space Operations Center (JICSpOC) in Colorado Springs, where Air Force and intelligence officials are already busy mixing space warfare exercises with live operations.
The timelines also match up with what Navy Adm. Cecil Haney, the head of U.S. Strategic Command, told me: that the Defense Department needs to have a clear idea of what’s happening in space within minutes. And U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter, during a May 12 visit to the JICSpOC, told reporters that the operators there are “doing real world, minute by minute, no-kidding operations now.”
But the chronology also provides insight into why Defense Department space leaders — and even some lawmakers — have insisted the Pentagon develop a pre-planned set of outcomes in case of an attack. That’s why in February 2015 the intelligence community and the Defense Department kicked off a Joint Space Doctrine and Tactics Forum to develop these very plans.
In short, there’s no time.
“We must achieve a clear chain of command in space,” Rep. Mike Rogers, the chairman of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee said during a speech in February. “For example, who’s in charge if there’s a real shooting war in space? We don’t have anybody right now.”
The Air Force doesn’t want to find itself in the opening gambit of a possible on-orbit shooting war working through thorny chain-of-command issues before it can respond to an event already underway.
As if on cue to show how contested space has become, North Korea jammed GPS satellite signals near the South Korean border just last month.
The clock is ticking.