Space Command defends far reaches of cyberspace
Interview with Gen. Robert Kehler, Air Force Space Command
Gen. Robert Kehler is commander of Air Force Space Command at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo. He oversees Air Force network and cyberspace operations; manages a global network of satellite command-and-control, communications, missile warning and launch facilities; ensures the combat readiness of the United States' intercontinental ballistic missile force; and is responsible for space system development and acquisition. He leads more than 43,000 personnel who are assigned to 86 locations worldwide. He recently spoke with Defense Systems contributing editor Barry Rosenberg about challenges of defending cyberspace, Global Positioning System capabilities and space assets.
DS: What does it mean for the Air Force Space Command to take on the responsibility of cyber warfare for the Air Force?
Kehler: The Air Force mission is to fly, fight and win in air, space and cyberspace. Therefore, the Air Force must be ready to conduct operations in the cyberspace domain in the nation’s defense.
Cyberspace is a physical domain in which the joint force conducts military operations. It is critical to today’s fight as well as to the future of U.S. national security. Securing cyberspace is vital to all joint activities. As the Air Force lead for the cyberspace domain, Air Force Space Command must organize, train and equip cyberspace forces like those of the other domains for presentation to joint force commanders, just as we have been doing with our space and strategic deterrence capabilities.
Without a doubt, the fight is on in cyberspace. When we come to work and log in, we are entering a digital zone which can be used for good or for ill. Our cyber capabilities are too important and too tempting a military target for the Air Force to ever take for granted. All the aspects of military operations rely on or reside in cyberspace, in one form or another. Therefore, it is our responsibility to ensure continuity of mission operations.
DS: The recent collision between the Iridium satellite and the Russian Cosmos satellite had to set off alarm bells at the Air Force Space Command. How do you protect critical U.S. space assets from this type of chaos?
Kehler: Protecting space assets begins with space situational awareness (SSA). A commander must have information about what’s in space and ensure freedom of action in space.
SSA underpins our ability to protect our critical space capabilities from natural, man-made and hostile threats. It’s more than cataloging what’s up there. It’s also about being aware when a satellite maneuvers, when something is deployed off a satellite or bus, and ultimately determining the capabilities of the satellite and intent behind its use.
The U.S. operates the world's most sophisticated and comprehensive SSA capability. This capability includes a worldwide set of ground-based radars and telescopes; space and ground-based environmental sensors; support from the intelligence community; and redundant centers to integrate, correlate and fuse data to create an SSA picture for a wide variety of space operators; ground, air and sea-based users; and senior decision-makers. The Air Force Space Command recently awarded contracts to design a “space fence” that will track objects 5 centimeters wide and larger in medium- and low-Earth orbits. This will be a significant improvement to the United States’ current Space Surveillance Network.
As recent history has shown, space debris has longevity and inhibits every space-faring nation’s freedom of operation. Just as airspace hazards emerged and evolved, we cannot afford to be passive about orbital risks. As conscientious stewards, we apply debris mitigation standards to our launch and satellite programs and are evolving space traffic management standards and criteria. We do this hand in hand with the FAA and NASA.
Nonetheless, the nation's SSA capabilities require significant improvements. Our future plans include the ability to make better use of existing data sources; improve data exploitation and integration systems; sustain those legacy sensors that will continue to support the mission; and develop, field and operate new ground- and space-based sensors. As an example of the last element, we are planning to launch the Space Based Space Surveillance telescope to help track satellites in deep space. Our Joint Space Operations Center Mission System at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., will replace multiple legacy data integration systems and dramatically increase our SSA and space C2 capabilities.
DS: A Government Accountability Office report recently released states that the Air Force's GPS constellation is at risk and implied that users might lose capability. What is the Air Force doing to ensure this does not happen?
Kehler: Since the beginning of the GPS program, the Air Force and Air Force Space Command have been conscientious and competent stewards dedicated to the operation and maintenance of this system. Starting in the 1970s, the Air Force nurtured the initial concept of a space-based navigation system into the global standard for positioning, navigation and timing (PNT) operations we have today. For many years, GPS has provided reliable and increasingly accurate PNT data to the global community free of charge.
GPS was created for the warfighter and has revolutionized our warfighting capabilities, ranging from accurate munitions delivery to faster search and rescue [and] Blue Force tracking for our sister services and the joint warfighter. Through the years, GPS has grown to become a cornerstone in our civil and commercial sectors as well. GPS is more than just an acronym; it has become a branded, household name recognized on an international scale. Today, GPS creates an irreplaceable advantage to our warfighters, civil communities and economic infrastructures.
I am highly confident we will sustain at least the current performance standard the public expects to ensure a predictable, accurate service continually available to users. Our performance specification requires we maintain a 95 percent probability of 24 operational satellites.
Today we have 30 operational satellites contributing to the PNT mission, plus three residual satellites and one being readied for operational use. This is the largest and most capable constellation in history, much more robust than the 24-satellite requirement.
We have actively pursued and implemented procedures and processes to minimize any impact to GPS service. Our space operators at Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado and our acquisition experts at the Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles are committed to maintaining the current level of service to GPS users, while striving to increase and improve service and capability through ongoing modernization efforts. We are executing a growth path, with new acquisition approaches, to maintain GPS as the premier provider of positioning, navigation and timing for military and civilian users around the world.
The Air Force has been a good GPS steward, continually providing better-than-expected service to our GPS users. We're committed to sustaining the system and making it as effective as possible for military and civilian users.
DS: You talked about providing space-based capabilities to joint warfighters around the world. What are a few examples?
Kehler: The Air Force Space Command mission is to provide an integrated constellation of space and cyberspace capabilities at the speed of need. All of our space programs contribute to the efforts of joint warfighters in various capacities, all around the world, at every moment of the day.
We’ve already discussed cyberspace and GPS capabilities provided by Air Force Space Command. In addition to those capabilities, we operate and maintain other satellite constellations that provide communications; weather forecasting; space surveillance; missile warning; and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities that are critical to warfighting operations. We have witnessed a shift in understanding during the last decade. Today, the joint warfighter has a far greater appreciation for the decisive, precise combat effects that satellite constellations such as the GPS bring to the battlefield. Space capabilities are no longer nice to have; they are indispensable.
Space-based ISR assets provide critical support and are integral to the joint fight. Some of those assets include the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program, Defense Support Program and Space-Based Infrared Systems (SBIRS). ISR systems were not designed specifically to support battlefield operations as their primary mission, yet their services have become essential to warfighting capabilities. The battlespace awareness mission is an area where we can use sensors in ways different from their original intent but deliver capability to the warfighter that can make a difference in the outcome on the battlefield. For example, the SBIRS High sensor can detect heat or hot gases from missiles and other man-made objects, as well as terrestrial events like volcanic eruptions and wildfires, and weather data from clouds and storms. This data is of tremendous use to the warfighter.
In the area of satellite communications, the Wideband Global Satcom system provides essential communications services for combatant commanders to command and control their tactical forces. Once the entire constellation is in place, it will provide a quantum leap in communications bandwidth to infrastructure users: soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines. In the same vein, the Advanced Extremely High Frequency system will provide more survivable, jam-resistant, worldwide, secure communications with a tenfold increase in capacity and more than five times the data rate of Milstar, our current protected Milsatcom platform.
Our weather satellites are vital to joint operations because they provide awareness of the space environment for events such as solar flares and solar flux, as well as conditions on the ground. These satellites provide an overall picture that gives our planners greater fidelity in planning worldwide operations and establish parameters for critical products, such as air and space tasking orders.
Finally, I’d like to point out that the Air Force Space Command will become even more responsive in developing and delivering capabilities to the warfighters. We are keenly aware of how quickly requirements can change. It is our goal to be agile and responsive in the development and acquisition processes. We must develop ways to field new systems that meet or exceed performance, cost and schedule goals while providing decisive war-winning advantages. In addition, we must plan and invest wisely, while being mindful of growing resource constraints.