When the U.S. Air Force and the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) were ordered to shoot down objects over American airspace earlier this month, the U.S. military sent a message to the rest of the world that it is capable and ready to defend its homeland. But accompanying this message were two other revelations: that the U.S. government has had some blind spots as it pertains to monitoring the air domain, and that adversarial nation-states like China are aggressively pursuing the development of technologies designed to undermine our nation’s position on the international stage.
And these advancements do not stop at the air domain. According to Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy, Dr. John Plumb, China is gearing up and developing a wartime space architecture and is tirelessly working towards having the capability to deny U.S. offensive and defensive actions in orbit.
Dr. Plumb recently sat down with Gen. Kevin P. Chilton (Ret.) during a special Mitchell Institute Schreiver Spacepower Forum, where he discussed China’s pacing threat in the space domain, our nation’s expanding awareness of the threats adversaries pose in space, and how commercial satellite solutions are advancing the military’s mission of deploying a resilient space architecture.
China as a pacing threat
Dr. Plumb made it crystal clear from the start that one of the U.S. Department of Defense’s (DoD) primary concerns is keeping pace with the threat China poses in the space domain. And though this adversarial threat is a top concern for the DoD, Dr. Plumb explained it has actually catalyzed a synergy within the Department which is allowing all agencies to push in the same direction as it pertains to protecting U.S. interests in space.
“Where we are now is that the entire government understands the value of space,” said Dr. Plumb. “And the Department and the [Intelligence Community] are really focused together on the threat, which kind of pulls people along.”
Dr. Plumb also pointed out that adversaries like China and Russia have had years to observe how the U.S. military relies heavily on space as a lever arm. And though this type of adversarial reconnaissance and information gathering is not new, Dr. Plumb says that the adversaries’ aggression and pace of technological advancement are new.
“China has really accelerated their space systems…And it’s a wartime architecture…We have to be able to detect and attribute hostile acts in space.” -Dr. John Plumb
“They’ve been working hard on it,” said Dr. Plumb. “We know [China and Russia] have direct-ascent ASAT missiles…and continue to find different ways to try to come after our systems. We have to be ready to defend against that. And I think we’re making some good strides there.”
He explained that to counteract the advances China and Russia are making in the space domain, the DoD must focus on the mission assurance of U.S. space systems. “The warfighter absolutely needs our space systems to be able to fight,” said Dr. Plumb. “So how do we assure those systems? We have two main lines of effort. One is resilience…And the second part is we have to be able to defend our systems against these counter-space threats.”
He then stated that China is currently developing a “wartime architecture.” “And they’re doing it in a much different way,” said Dr. Plumb.
Decades ago when the U.S. began construction on its space architecture, space was primarily viewed as a benign, neutral domain. According to Dr. Plumb, that is no longer the case in today’s environment.
“China has really accelerated their space systems with a massive number of satellites going up every year,” explained Dr. Plumb. “And it’s a wartime architecture…So when we talk about how we’re going to defend U.S. national security interests against both space and counter-space threats… we have to be able to detect and attribute hostile acts in space…You have to know what’s happening in your domain.”
Harnessing industry to produce resiliency
Dr. Plumb told a brief story about how 10 years ago the DoD briefed then-Vice President Biden on how the Department was working towards achieving a resilient architecture. Fast forward a decade later, when the DoD tells now-President Biden that they are working to create a resilient architecture, the President replies that he was told that 10 years ago and that the government “needs to get going.”
One viable solution to advance the mission of deploying a resilient space architecture, according to Dr. Plumb, is the commercial industry. “The explosion of available commercial services for space clearly increases resilience for some mission sets,” explained Dr. Plumb. “SATCOM is a perfect example. There’s a tremendous amount of SATCOM bandwidth available. We can buy that kind of bandwidth…Our resilience plan should include the ability to access different commercially available pieces when needed.”
What Dr. Plumb says is true. The latest next-generation SATCOM technologies emerging out of the commercial satellite industry have proven they can fulfill the DoD’s mission set of achieving resiliency in space. However, if COMSATCOM and MILSATCOM solutions are going to be leveraged in tandem as part of a joint satellite architecture, the military needs a way to see its entire network on a single pane of glass. It also needs the ability to easily and seamlessly move communications and workloads across a multi-band and multi-orbit satellite ecosystem.
“The ICT Portal will be a window that will enable visibility into the network’s capabilities, how it is built, and how it is operating. This will deliver complete resiliency to military networks, and support the DoD’s JADC2 initiative.” -Ram Rao, SES Space & Defense
Solutions like the SES Space & Defense (SESSD) ICT Portal, a recently-released capability that can enable military users to see their entire network – including both space and ground assets – on a single pane of glass, have demonstrated they can support the DoD’s mission of staying ahead of the adversary advances, while also denying their capabilities in the domain. And recent testing with satellite antenna and terminal providers have illustrated the ability to roam seamlessly across a multi-band, multi-orbit satellite architecture.
According to SESSD’s Director of Business Development Engineering, Ram Rao, “The ICT Portal will be a window that will enable visibility into the network’s capabilities, how it is built, and how it is operating,” said Rao. “This will deliver complete resiliency to military networks, and support the DoD’s JADC2 initiative.”
To watch Dr. John Plumb’s interview in full, click the video below: