Sean Gladwell

US Space Command Wants Red Phones With China, Russia

Global norms and mil-to-mil hotlines are urgently needed as the prospects for war in space rise.

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado — The world’s military space forces need to talk more, U.S. officials say, and that means everything from establishing norms for space operations to setting up red phones with Chinese and Russian space operators.

“I think it is definitely in our interest to have norms of behavior and ways to communicate with other operators in the space domain as to what's going on. And that can extend in the commercial level or it can extend between US and Russia and China, said Lt. Gen. John Shaw, deputy commander of U.S. Space Command.

“Right now, we don't have those avenues to communicate with them and that opens up the opportunity for misperception, miscommunication, and miscalculation,” Shaw told Defense One Wednesday at the Space Symposium.

Pentagon officials have stressed the need to prepare for conflict in space, but have been hesitant to define, mostly due to classification, what exactly conflict means in space and how it would retaliate if there was a kinetic or non-kinetic attack on U.S. satellites. 

In an effort to establish a level of transparency about U.S. military space activities, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin approved “eight specific behaviors” in February, providing more details on the Pentagon’s five “tenets of responsible space behavior.”

“The department—we really can't set what the worldwide responsible behaviors are, but we certainly can participate in those discussions and we do that,” Gen. James Dickinson, commander of U.S. Space Command, told reporters Tuesday. 

Russia has previously demonstrated aggressive space operations: conducting a hit-to-kill anti-satellite test in 2021, which created over 1,500 pieces of debris. China has proved its ability to grab spacecraft with its S-J 21 satellite, which recently took a defunct Chinese satellite and dropped it off past the GEO orbit. 

Dickinson said his command has planned for the possibility of China grabbing a satellite. 

“Within the command, like every other domain, we constantly exercise and plan for different events and different situations,” Dickinson said. 

The command is on track to reach full operating capability later this year, Dickinson said, after it was re-established in 2019 as the 11th combatant command and reached initial operating capability two years ago. 

"As USSPACECOM approaches FOC, the command has developed the capacity to synchronize effects with other combatant commands to achieve integrated operations in campaigning and contingency, a first for the command and the Department of Defense,” the command said in a statement. 

To avoid miscalculation and better understand what’s happening in space, U.S. officials have spoken of the need to have continuous location information, known as custody, for orbiting satellites.

LightRidge—a company created by private equity firm ATL by combining Geost and Ophir—makes sensors that detect and track satellites or spacecraft that might pose a threat. The technology, the company’s executives said, could help policy makers document nefarious actions taken against satellites.

“We’re quickly moving to an era where, whether it’s government systems or its commercial systems... the issues associated today with space domain awareness and not being able to maintain custody should be completely eliminated,” said Josh Hartman, a former Pentagon official who is chief strategy and growth officer of LightRidge and president of Geost. “Every asset that flies can become a host for space domain awareness sensors, particularly as things become more and more affordable.”

The company’s executives said its sensors can help the Space Force make “that positive identification necessary to attribute action,” Hartman said on the sidelines of the Space Symposium.

With that detailed information of where a threatening satellite or spacecraft came from and how it operated in proximity of the American satellite could then allow the Space Force to take appropriate action, Hartman said.

“Once I understand the behavior on orbit of things, which we don’t quite understand yet, I can start to build countermeasures that are short of the last full measure in the life of a satellite that still deliver the message or the effect that I need it to deliver,” Hartman said.

“I don’t believe the policy has been written, that I know of, that would say what is an action of war,” said LightRidge CEO Bill Gattle. “I think there’s people in military that would say, ‘You take out my satellite, that is a war act.’”

Marcus Weisgerber contributed to this report.