« Go back

Please contact Kerrigan Media for a reprint of this article.

Military Aerospace Technology

Protecting America’s Space Interests

The contribution of space is critical to the United State’s strategic missile defense and intelligence community as well as homeland security, diplomacy and the economy. Emerging threats could challenge the nation’s space advantage.

By Rep. Terry Everett (R-Ala.)

The contribution of space is critical to our nation’s strategic missile defense and intelligence community as well as homeland security, diplomacy and the economy. However, emerging threats and internal challenges within the national security space community could challenge our nation’s unquestioned advantage in space, a crucial enabler for our strategic forces.

For our military, space has revolutionized the way we fight. I need only look at the number of sorties and bombs it took in World War II to hit one target versus where we are today. It took 1,500 B-17 sorties and 9,000 250-pound bombs in World War II. However, this past June, Al Qaida leader al-Zarqawi was targeted with one F-15 sortie and two 500-pound bombs. This successful mission relied heavily on space, which included the use of high-resolution satellite imagery and other intelligence to geo-locate the target within meters; satellite communications to the cockpit for real-time updates; and GPS-guided precision munitions to minimize collateral damage.

For intelligence and diplomacy, space will continue the vital role it has played since the Cold War. Among the more prominent threats we face today are the missile and weapons of mass destruction aspirations of nations such as North Korea and Iran. Recent events—the North Korean launch of seven missiles, including one long-range missile, and the ongoing confrontation with the Iranian regime regarding its nuclear program—only underscore these threats.

A cornerstone of our strategic posture to address these threats is a robust missile defense system that is heavily reliant on space capabilities. One of the best examples is the September 1 test of our ground-based midcourse defense system, which successfully intercepted a test target. Among the space assets used to support this test were Defense Support Program missile warning satellites, which provided launch detection and early warning data, satellite communications, and networked command and control connectivity between decision-makers and operators. In a real-world situation, space-based intelligence collectors would also be leveraged to provide early indications and warning of an impending missile event.

This test demonstrated how space–together with air, sea and land-based assets; data processing; communications; command and control; and trained operators—work together as a unified system to detect, track and engage a missile to intercept. I am encouraged by this test, but recognize the need for more testing. Because it’s more than just getting the interceptors to work; it’s getting all elements of our multi-layer missile defense system to work together.

The importance of space extends far beyond the military into our daily lives. However, I believe Congress and the American public are largely unaware of how space services contribute to our daily commerce and broader economic security. Satellites enable true global connectivity, media distribution, financial transactions, package deliveries, pay-at-the-pump services, weather tracking, and crop monitoring. Support to first responders, and planning for natural disasters and recovery missions also leverage space assets. They have also given rise to new industries and created new technology applications, such as Google Earth, in-car navigation, and satellite radio.

Clearly, we need to examine what the growing importance of space means to our national, and in particular, our economic interests. We must also strive to better understand the threats to our space assets and the consequences if we lost them.

This summer my subcommittee held a hearing on both the military and economic importance of space to the nation. I invited U.S. Strategic Command, as well as representatives from the Department of Commerce, industry and academia to present their views on this topic. Although difficult to quantify, witnesses discussed the extent and magnitude to which our military operations, homeland security and overall economy depend on space and the impact of a potential loss of key space assets. One witness noted, for example, that satellites contribute over 90 billion dollars to the global economy.

The subcommittee has also held several closed sessions and received a number of classified briefings to gain the greatest possible perspective on these issues. Unless our nation truly understands our dependence on space, we cannot understand the risks of having this capability impeded. The legislation we passed a few weeks ago includes a provision for the Air Force National Space Studies Center to examine exactly how dependent we are on space.

The ever-present and growing threat serves to reinforce, in my mind, a sense of urgency. These threats include: jamming, laser “dazzling,” micro-satellites, direct-ascent anti-satellites (ASATs), cyber attacks, physical attacks to ground stations, and possibly even a nuclear explosion. Additionally, our space systems are vulnerable to less malicious, natural threats, such as space debris, solar flares and severe weather damaging ground stations.

Our adversaries recognize the advantage space offers the U.S. and are more willing to attack that advantage using a wide range of methods. Space is no longer a sanctuary. During the Cold War, the Soviets had several anti-satellite capabilities, but they understood that an attack on our satellites was a possible prelude to nuclear war.

The environment has changed. In the past few years, we’ve seen a handful of satellite communications jamming incidents. In the early stages of Operation Iraqi Freedom, U.S. forces encountered a global positioning system (GPS) jamming situation. In this case, we hit these jamming sources dead-on and were able to quickly resume operations. Also, numerous reports have cited the growing abilities of several other nations, including China, to acquire capabilities that could threaten U.S satellites.

The broad issues of space protection, survivability, and how we protect our capabilities warrants a serious discussion and debate. There are a whole host of options and courses of action to consider—hardening, redundancy, distributed architectures, alternatives such as unmanned aerial vehicles, active prevention and denial, non-material solutions, and rapid replenishment.Each of these solutions has its advantages and disadvantages, employment scenarios, and associated costs.

First and foremost, we need to develop robust space situational awareness (SSA) capabilities. As we learned on 9-11, seemingly benign systems can have offensive capabilities. An object that appears to be orbital debris or a research satellite may, in fact, be an ASAT targeted at U.S. or friendly assets. Similarly, noise in a data link may be accidental interference or intentional jamming.

SSA and all options for protecting our space interests must be examined and weighed as part of a comprehensive space protection strategy. This strategy should encompass the desired mix of active, passive, material and non-material capabilities, as well as our priorities for protection.

I recognize we will not be able to protect, nor can we afford to protect, all systems to the same level. Therefore, risk management, informed by our knowledge of threats and vulnerabilities, should be our guide.

We have real challenges before us that affect the way we do the business of national security space. Our success in space hinges on four areas in particular:

  • Identifying opportunities for collaboration;
  • Fostering new and innovative approaches through initiatives such as Operationally Responsive Space;
  • Improving the business of space acquisitions; and
  • Cultivating our people.

The significant demands being placed on all the services and agencies will require us to think jointly and across communities, and reward collaboration and integration. Therefore, I encourage government and industry to identify capabilities they can leverage from other areas. For example, I believe there could be numerous opportunities to leverage systems, data, and expertise across the space and missile defense domains. A logical starting point is to identify ways to better share data and information across mission areas.

We must also embrace innovative ways to advance our strategic enterprise. One such approach is Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) which will get key space capabilities into the hands of our military forces. Specifically, ORS is an effort to develop smaller, less expensive satellites that can launch on short notice to meet the immediate needs of the warfighter. In this year’s National Defense Authorization Act, Congress created a joint ORS program office, bringing together science and technology, acquisition, operations and combatant command support elements. With this effort, I see a stronger national security space portfolio in which ORS systems complement, not replace, large traditional space programs.

For this office to be successful it must retain a strong joint core, bringing together leaders and participants from across the services, agencies, research labs, and industry. It must also create an environment that expects and rewards innovation. The strain of rising costs will continue to put pressure on our space and defense programs. At the same time, technologies are evolving at much higher rates than our current ten-year or longer acquisition timelines.

ORS must first get simple, low-cost solutions rapidly on-orbit to meet the dynamic needs of our combatant commanders and second, provide more frequent opportunities to prove innovative concepts and technologies at a lower cost. This must be done while strengthening our industrial base and technical workforce.

For space capabilities to be available when we need them, we must improve space acquisition. They are part of a much larger defense-wide architecture, such that delays in critical space programs can have ripple effects on multiple other systems. The importance of space requires that we be successful in our acquisitions and deliver on what is promised. I am concerned that the current track we are on is unsustainable: the Space-based Infrared System (SBIRS)-High and National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) have just emerged from Nunn-McCurdy breaches. GPS 2-F and Advanced EHF are behind schedule, and the Transformational Communications Satellite System (TSAT) and Space Radar have undergone or are undergoing major program restructuring.

Government and industry must increase confidence in cost estimating, mitigating risk, quality control and improving systems engineering. Congress must do better to provide constant and reliable funding for these programs. If we are ever to see the benefits of Operationally Responsive Space, we must have a responsive acquisition infrastructure. I am encouraged by Dr. Sega’s “back-to-basics” approach and look forward to seeing its implementation in the larger national security space strategy.

Finally, let’s look at what should really be at the top of the list—people. It starts with people. This is my priority and a Congressional priority. Everything we do and want to do in space requires top-notch individuals. I am deeply concerned with the Air Force reductions in personnel to pay for modernization. I am even more concerned that these cuts will affect the science, engineering and acquisition workforce—the very people whose technical savvy and creativity we depend on for modernization. If the Air Force goes forward with these cuts, then I expect to see a detailed strategy of how we plan to make the force we have even smarter, better equipped with the tools they need to be successful, and how we shape their careers to enable them to be the next generation of leaders in strategic space and defense.

I am committed to advancing U.S. leadership in space. But we have real challenges to work through if we are to maintain this edge and assure space assets are available to support our nation’s strategic missions.