STRATCOM commander: Threats from space are real

While the U.S. military concerns itself with terrorist groups in the Middle East and elsewhere and cyberattacks from around the globe, it can’t forget about the potential threats from space, the commander of U.S. Strategic Command said this week.

At a briefing with reporters at the Pentagon, Adm. Cecil Haney, said the United States faces myriad threats from space. From Chinese intercontinental ballistic missiles to Iran’s “recently launched space vehicle that could be used as a long-range strike platform,” to North Korea’s space-launched vehicles, strategic deterrence in the space domain is as important as ever. 

While Haney lauded how “[f]or 70 years, we have deterred and assured… For decades, we have sustained while others have modernized… developing and utilizing counterspace activities,” he also said the threat in space is real.

For one, there is a debris issue, which has developed over time, but also through various tests such as China’s 2007 launch of its anti-satellite kill vehicle and anti-satellite test last year, creating “thousands and thousands of pieces of debris.” Satellites, which while orbiting the Earth and providing vital geospatial intelligence and signals intelligence, are traveling at about 17,000 miles per hour. Collision with debris could decimate these constellations, which is why Haney stressed the importance of increased space situational awareness as it applies to readiness in dealing with space threats.

In fact, STRATCOM recently partnered with Germany to share space situational awareness services and data. Aside from Germany, the U.S. already entered into similar sharing agreements with the United Kingdom, South Korea, France, Canada, Italy, Japan, Australia the European Space Agency and the European Organization for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites.

Haney noted, however, that effective space situational awareness does not just include cataloging things, but “really being able to monitor and attribute any mischief that is detected in space.”      

Haney also addressed efforts regarding counter-space capabilities. “I believe the president's budget in 2016 provides adequate funding associated with where we need to invest in, associated with our capabilities for space protection,” he said. “And enhancing our awareness in space, as mentioned through the Space Situational Awareness Program and in both working to develop responsive capabilities in space -- tactics, techniques and procedures, more flexibility and agility there, just as much as maneuvering on the ground and what have you -- is part of our calculus, are also building resiliency in our architecture and resiliency in our concept of operations.” 

Congress also has begun to take the threat of counter-space capabilities from other nations seriously within the last 20 years. Congress established a law requiring both the secretary of Defense and the director of National Intelligence submit reports to Congress regarding the counter-space programs of foreign countries. Adm. Haney expressed wariness regarding China’s capabilities in this vein. “But just seeing the nature of [anti-satellite kill vehicle testing] show how committed they are to a counter-space campaign. So we have to be ready for any campaign that extends its way into space.”

When asked about U.S. offensive capabilities in space, Haney demurred, offering a coy response. He simply stated that the military has to continue working on cross-domain solutions as outlined in their space strategy stated in 2011.

About the Author

Mark Pomerleau is a former editorial fellow with GCN and Defense Systems.

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