What Does the US Military Need For A War In Space? It’s Hard to Say

Air Force Gen. John Raymond, speaks at a White House ceremony for the establishment of U.S. Space Command on Aug. 29, 2019.

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Air Force Gen. John Raymond, speaks at a White House ceremony for the establishment of U.S. Space Command on Aug. 29, 2019.

The plans for war above the atmosphere remain so tightly classified that industry can’t start building the things that will be needed.

It’s no secret that Pentagon leaders believe that future wars will be fought in space. But operating concepts and battle plans remain under such tight wraps that it’s hard for the defense industry to start making the satellites, spacecraft, and materiel that will be needed for the fight.

That’s a problem, acknowledged U.S. Air Force Gen. Jay Raymond, who leads the 3-month-old U.S. Space Command.

“We have a concept of operations on how we’re going to operate [in space]. I invited industry to come in and say: ‘OK, we’re going to give it to you,’” Raymond said Monday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “The problem was, it was so classified that very few could come in. We’re working very hard to reduce the classification on issues that allow more conversation back and forth.”

In recent years, Pentagon officials have said future satellites need to be able to defend themselves and be more maneuverable. Most military satellites orbiting the Earth — collectively worth many billions of dollars — are unable to do that, which has prompted military officials to warn that China and Russia could easily shoot them down, jam their signals, or blind their cameras.

“From my perspective, the scope, scale and complexity of that threat is alive and well and very concerning,” Raymond said. 

“If you look at the requirements going forward, it’s not good enough just to be able to get a satellite up in orbit and have an exquisite satellite that provides exquisite capability,” he said.  “You have to also be able to protect and defend it. Balancing that, the mission, cost and being able to defend it are all things that we’re looking at in our requirements.”

The creation of U.S. Space Command to oversee military operations is space, is one in a series of steps that the Trump administration has proposed to streamline many fragmented activities in space. 

There are several Pentagon organizations that oversee the buying of satellites, the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center, Space Rapid Capabilities Office, the new Space Development Agency, DARPA, Army Space and Missile Defense Command and others. Raymond said the creation of Space Command is a step toward streamlining buying priorities.

“As a combatant command, you have a stronger voice in joint requirements,” he said. “I think that’s going to be very helpful for the space community.”

But not all see it that way, at least right now.

“When the requirements come out of the combatant commands and they go to the acquisition agency, they then come out as requirements that we in industry respond to,” said one attendee who identified himself as a Northrop Grumman employee. “Those two don’t align. The requirements that we’re responding to as industry and the expectation that you have as a combatant commander, they don’t align. That’s a challenge.”

Oftentimes, companies make their own investments to develop technologies that the military wants. These research-and-development investments could better position a company to win Pentagon business. It also could lead to the Pentagon getting a technology or a new weapon faster.

Raymond, who also heads Air Force Space Command, said the creation of U.S. Space Command should help better align requirements.

“We think it’s extremely positive because it is creating a voice around requirements,” Tony Frazier, executive vice president of global field operations at Maxar Technologies, said of the stand up of Space Command in an interview earlier this year.

The House and Senate have each included language in the fiscal 2020 National Defense Authorization Act that would create a Space Force, a new branch of the military, within the Air Force. That legislation is stalled on Capitol Hill because lawmakers are at odds over funding Trump’s southern border wall. Still Raymond, threw his support behind the Space Force.

“I’m really eager for Congress to pass this NDAA so we can have a Space Force,” Raymond said.

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