As U.S. adversaries continue to signal their intent to achieve superiority in the space domain, the American government and military must continue to invest and build out a resilient space architecture that not only has the capability to protect U.S. critical assets in-orbit, but also deter near-peer competitors from threatening moves in space in general.
Last month at a special Schriever Spacepower Forum, Congressman Jim Cooper, U.S. Representative for Tennessee’s 5th congressional district, sat down with Gen. Kevin P. Chilton (Ret.) to discuss the growing adversarial threat in space, how the U.S. needs to reestablish its deterrence capability in the domain, as well as the role commercial industry should play in the process.
U.S. Space Force as a deterrent force
To open the forum, Gen. Chilton asked Rep. Cooper about his thoughts on the Biden administration’s release of its U.S. space priorities framework and if he agreed with its positioning of the U.S. Space Force as a “support force” rather than a “deterrence and warfighting force.”
According to Rep. Cooper, he is on the side of deterrence. He stated that the U.S. should be able to have warfighting capabilities to defend its assets in space, while simultaneously projecting a strong deterrent presence that would prevent U.S. adversaries from making aggressive moves in the domain.
“Just few years ago, we’d let our deterrence capability in space go almost to zero,” said Rep. Cooper. “Which is pretty sad.” In his eyes, the space domain is the ultimate “infrastructure of infrastructure,” which the U.S. must be prepared to secure and defend.
He went on to explain that the country’s near-peer rivals have not delayed their technological innovations in the space arena. In areas where the U.S. military has been languishing, U.S. adversaries have made strides in their advancements. “We largely squandered that advantage,” said Rep. Cooper. “We’ve got a lot of catch-up work to do to reestablish deterrence.”
Reestablishing space dominance and deterrence
Rep. Cooper pointed to the ever-shrinking number of American STEM graduates as one of the main contributing factors to the country’s authoritative decline in space. “We gave up on much of big science,” he said. “Without a technological lead, our nation is doomed.”
He did acknowledge that there are signs that STEM is making a comeback in the workforce, and has hope that will give the nation a boost in reestablishing its technological lead. “We’re still head-and-shoulders above other militaries,” said Rep. Cooper. “But we’ve got to make sure that we’re always challenging ourselves to be the best. And sometimes I worry that we get distracted, or we rest on our laurels.”
As for the actual domain itself, one area that he believes could be a starting point to projecting a deterrent dominance in space is by rethinking the assets and satellites that the U.S. puts in in-orbit, explaining that they have to be more survivable and durable, and must have extremely robust capabilities.
“We got to do whatever it takes to have a severe capability,” said Rep. Cooper. “And that includes not only extraordinary defense, but also an offensive capability.”
Commercial sector can bridge the technological gap
Rep. Cooper noted that because threats in space are becoming more ubiquitous, the U.S. needs to prioritize the protection and security of its in-orbit critical systems. “We got to have a resilient, survivable architecture that can meet all our needs,” he explained.
He expressed concern around the speed of acquisition within the government and military, as well as emphasizing his concerns on the “quality” of acquisition. “We need to think about what really works, and what really can give us that 10-to-20-year leap…that our Pentagon needs to really meet and beat any other threat and establish deterrence.”
Rep. Cooper applauded the innovative technologies that are coming out of the commercial sector and expressed how he wishes that the U.S. government would match that level of innovation. “The first step is for the military to catch up with the private sector, because so much of the innovation has come from innovative small companies.”
“It’s incredible innovation that’s currently underway,” he said. “It’s innovation that we could currently be using with our Space Force and Air Force and other branches of the military.”
This sentiment of leveraging the commercial sector in order to advance the capabilities and solutions that are being employed by the U.S. military has lately been echoed by top military officials at the Pentagon.
Last January, the U.S. Space Force’s Chief of Space Operations, Gen. John W. “Jay” Raymond, spoke at a Mitchell Spacepower Forum where he emphasized the importance of establishing resiliency throughout critical systems in space and how the commercial sector has to play a role in making it happen.
“We have got to shift the space architecture from a handful of exquisite capabilities that are very hard to defend to a more robust, more resilient architecture by design,” said Gen. Raymond.
“But it’s not just about innovation. Integrating COMSATCOM services into an integrated MILSATCOM and COMSATCOM satellite architecture will have the added bonus of baking resiliency into the military’s networks.”
At another forum held last November, the U.S. Space Force’s Lt. Gen. B. Chance Saltzman also agreed that the satellite architecture currently in space is unprepared for combat capability and capacity, and he pointed to the commercial industry as a major player in not only providing the technologies, but also creating a resilient space architecture for the U.S. military.
“With the technology that’s being employed, I think we’re going to be able to leverage commercial capabilities to accomplish a subset of our missions,” explained Lt. Gen Saltzman. “And as we distribute those up, not only does it free up resources for us, but it creates a more resilient architecture because of the number of different places and pathways where we can get the information we need.”
It’s clear that the U.S. military needs to begin to source these commercial technologies as soon as possible in order to regain dominance in the space domain, as well as play a deterrent role against aggressive near-peer competitors. As Rep. Cooper put it, “We need the capability now. We needed it yesterday. And I’m worried that we’re not there yet.”
Click the video below to watch the Spacepower Forum in its entirety.