Air Force space commander warns the military needs better intelligence

Space

If satellites in orbit become targets during a conflict, will U.S. forces have adequate intelligence to prevent and thwart attacks?

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — The U.S. military is busy reorganizing space forces. It recently re-activated U.S. Space Command, and it is preparing for Congress to enact a Space Force as a new branch of the armed services.

While all the attention is given to the bureaucratic shuffle, not much is being said about the skills and capabilities that space forces will need to defend satellites from enemy lasers and missiles.

Maj. Gen. John Shaw, deputy commander of Air Force Space Command, says one key concern for the military is having reliable intelligence about what is happening in space.

“Intelligence support for Space Command is a big thing,” Shaw said on Thursday at the Intelligence and National Security Summit.

During a panel session with officials from the intelligence community, Shaw said the Air Force Space Command “is looking really hard at how to set up the Space Force for success” and that will require filling a huge demand for intelligence about orbital threats.

“The challenge we’ve been facing at Air Force Space Command is how to make the shift to space as a warfighting domain,” Shaw said. That means preparing for a conflict that may extend to space if anti-satellite weapons were deployed.

Being ready for a Space Force to join the armed services is “not just the organization, but also what are the capabilities that we need to develop, and more importantly, the human factor on the intelligence side,” said Shaw. “We have to grow space professionals for the space domain.”

The topic of space and intelligence is usually associated with spy satellites that collect intelligence and send it down to Earth. Shaw, a career space operator, grew up in a culture that views space intelligence that way. But in a scenario where satellites in orbit become targets, the concern is whether the United States will have adequate intelligence to prevent and thwart attacks aimed at spacecraft.

“We need to think really hard about intelligence for space,” said Shaw. “Where is that intelligence expertise? What are the processes we need to understand what is actually happening in the space environment?”

Shaw said the intelligence community will become a central player in future space operations. U.S. Space Command already is aligned with the National Reconnaissance Office at the National Space Defense Center, a space monitoring hub located at Schriever Air Force Base, Colorado. “The intelligence community is a vital component,” said Shaw.

When the Space Force is formed, it will have to develop its own intelligence professionals, he said. Currently the top experts reside at the National Air and Space Intelligence Center, at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. “We need to scale that up,” Shaw said. That means putting more emphasis on “operational intelligence support.”

The Space Force will rely on the NASIC for the time being. Conceivably there could be a separate National Space Intelligence Center but that is not in the cards right now, Shaw said.

One of the issues for the Air Force trying to stand up a Space Force is that the legislation is still in flux. There is a Senate and a House proposal, and they have to be reconciled. “We are pretty sure it’s coming,” Shaw said of the legislation. “We just don’t know how aggressive that language is going to be with regard to the timeline and scope. But we’re laying the groundwork.”

Shaw predicts both the Space Force and U.S. Space Command will have to rely more on the private sector to provide intelligence for space operations. “The economic engines have been unleashed,” he said. “I hope that they are sustained, and that we can leverage the best.”

Private companies are building sensors and developing analytics software in the burgeoning space situational awareness, or SSA, sector. The military prefers to use the term “space domain awareness,” said Shaw.

Commercial satellite operators are increasingly becoming adept at the intelligence business, he noted. “Satcom providers have amped up their game. They manage global networks. They have developed an awareness, an understanding of potential intentional and unintentional interference, and where it is coming from,” Shaw said. “These are the things we want to do on the government side.”

New study on the future of space

To help prepare for a time when space will be a major engine of national political, economic, and military power, the Air Force Space Command held a workshop with NASA, NATO and private industry titled “The Future of Space 2060 and Implications for U.S. Strategy.”

A report on the results of the workshop was released Sept. 5 and distributed to think tanks and news media.

“We have not seen anything like this out of Air Force Space Command before,” commented a space expert.

Eight future space scenarios were developed, and the implications for civil, commercial, and military organization were explored in the workshop.

Among the key conclusions:

  • The U.S. faces growing competition from both allies and adversaries for leadership in the exploration and exploitation of space.
  • China is pursuing a long-term civil, commercial, and military strategy to explore and economically develop the cislunar domain with the explicit aim of displacing the U.S. as the leading space power. Other nations are developing similar national strategies.
  • A failure to remain a leading space power will place U.S. national power at risk. To avert this, the United States should promote the combined civil, military, and commercial exploitation of space.
  • The U.S. military must define its role in promoting and defending the expanded military, civil and commercial U.S. activities and human presence in space.
  • The United States must increase investments in technology, and develop policy and regulatory strategies.

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