Space awareness, persistence emerge as priorities

Experts urge space council to shift from expensive strategic platforms to agile tactical sensor networks.

Military space experts called on the Trump administration to refocus efforts away from expensive strategic space platforms to counter emerging low-tech threats through tactical tools such as real-time space situational awareness and the ability to reconstitute space assets as counter-space threats grow.

Testifying before the first meeting of the National Space Council, chaired by Vice President Mike Pence, a military space panel also stressed assured access to space and, according to former NASA administrator Michael Griffin, the need for "persistent, timely, global, land, sea, air and space domain awareness."

Retired Adm. James Ellis, former commander of U.S. Strategic Command, echoed calls for refocusing military space resources to counter emerging ground and space-based threats. "Not all threats to our space assets originate in space, and not all our defense, mitigation and deterrence efforts should be focused there," Ellis told the space council, which includes the secretaries of defense, state and homeland security.

Among the emerging threats are "the proliferation of low-tech jammers that can disrupt satellite communications links without touching the spacecraft," Adams added, along with cyber attacks on satellite and ground stations.

To function in this contested environment, the U.S. needs "enhanced and focused" space intelligence and space situational awareness, Ellis continued. "We also need dramatically improved technical and tactical capabilities for the warfighter built on a coherent architecture that specifies and quantifies resilience."

Ultimately, U.S. military space policy must articulate "what we stand for in space, and what we will not stand for," Ellis declared.

According to Pamela Melroy, a shuttle commander and former deputy director of DARPA's Tactical Technology Office, "Speed, the tempo of decision and information, is the problem because our adversaries have figured out how to move inside our military decision loop."

Melroy also stressed the need for real-time space awareness. "We have to have more sensors to get more frequent updates, but these sensors don’t have to be as precise or expensive as our current sensors," she told the space council. "The frequency of observations combined with our current sensor data makes up for the lack of precision."

Stressing new tactical capabilities, Melroy advocated deployment of constellations of small satellites to provide "persistence and re-tasking [of space platforms] on short time scales." Commanders in the field should have direct control of these tactical assets, she added. Melroy also called for greater use of onboard processing and collection algorithms along dissemination of data directly to air, sea and ground forces "without humans in the loop, enabling us to compress that 'kill chain' in a denied environment."

Ellis and Melroy also backed greater use of advances in distributed sensor networks and automation tools that can augment real-time situational awareness. "When you get a new piece of information, you need to be able to tell immediately whether something actually just happened on orbit or if one of your distributed sensors has been spoofed," Melroy explained. "It is possible to automate that."

Senior Pentagon officials reinforced the testimony as they scramble to prepare a space strategic framework over the next six weeks. "Command and control is inextricably linked to space awareness," noted Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

H.R. McMaster, the president's national security advisor, who has been charged with drawing up a new U.S. space policy, said it would account for emerging counter-space threats and growing demand for space access. "We will now begin to flesh out the strategic framework," McMaster said. "We have to emphasize speed, we have to move out quickly."

Outside space experts warned McMaster will have difficulty meeting the council's tight deadline. "There is no way in Heaven or on Earth that the council can put together a coherent package of regulatory reform in 45 days," asserted Theresa Hitchens, a senior research associated at the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland.