Eric Tegler | Aviation Week & Space Technology

The American military leverages and relies on an uninterrupted flow of data, communications and sensing like no other. The use of space-based assets to facilitate intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), precision navigation and targeting, and command and control is extensive, and the information is distributed widely to commands and platforms as well as devices.

This space-enabled toolkit is powerful. And like many tools whose use is so pervasive, there is a tendency to take this asset for granted. But lately the military is asking, “What if it got interrupted? How would U.S. forces fight and operate without information clarity?”

The possibility of gaps in the military’s space-linked connectivity is not a subject the Pentagon—an institution devoted to the study of worst-case scenarios—will engage with publicly.

Rather, the Air Force, which commands more than 90% of the overall space budget, contends  its infrastructure is too layered and agile to disrupt. For the past 2.5 years, it has conducted a strategic review assessing U.S. space architecture vulnerabilities, resilience and possible mitigation measures.

“We’ve used information from space to coordinate activities quickly, identify targets quickly and hit them with precision,” affirms Winston Beauchamp, deputy undersecretary of the Air Force for space. “That’s a capability that has been the sole province of the U.S. and its allies. But it is not the case anymore. Others have invested in both replicating our capabilities where they can and taken steps to deny us the use of space to enhance our operations on the ground. Much of what we are doing now is responding to the second of those things.”

The highest-profile example is undoubtedly China’s use of anti-satellite missiles to shoot down two of its moribund spacecraft in 2007 and 2010. But from low-end jamming and cyberdisruption efforts to space-based exploits using electronic warfare and directed energy, threats to U.S. defense (and civilian) space architecture are varied and multiple. An Air Force assessment that began in 2014 identified “areas needing significant work,” says Beauchamp. Subsequently, President Barack Obama granted $5.5 billion over the following five years to address space protection, underlining the urgency of the task.

Part of the U.S. military’s plans to maintain connectivity in space is the Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness program that tracks potential threats to U.S. assets in space. Credit: U.S. Air Force

In 2015, the Air Force analyzed long-term alternatives and allocated resources to develop greater situational awareness (SA) in space, including investments in new radars, optical telescopes and SA capabilities in-orbit. This year, the review shifted focus to satellite-missile-warning and communications systems, soon to be replaced by a new generation. Decisions on what new features to incorporate are being evaluated, and the Air Force has established a framework quantifying their relative effectiveness. Diversification by shifting capacity to civilian satellites is under discussion. And the Air Force secretary was made the central adviser for space protection across agencies and departments.

“We are far along in understanding the threat,” Beauchamp stresses. “We are at a good level of maturity in understanding what we need to do to change our architecture.”

Change extends to Air Force Space Command (AFSPC), which has adjusted its command-and-control constructs to mirror other Air Force combat units such as Air Combat Command. A new Space Mission Task Force within AFSPC rotates personnel in four-month cycles between standing watch and advanced training in a Ready Space Crew program akin to the flying community’s Ready Aircrew program.

New protocols for resolving satellite problems have been instituted, reflecting significant cultural change, says Col. Keith Watts, Space Command’s deputy director of integrated space, cyberspace and ISR operations.

“If you were a GPS operator in years past and something happened to your satellite, your first instinct was to step away from your console to call an engineer and find out what was wrong. Today, the first instinct is to ask yourself, ‘Is that an accident?’”

Recognizing that America operates in a contested space environment is an idea now embraced by students and faculty at the Air Force’s Air University (AU) at Maxwell AFB in Montgomery, Alabama.

“All things are under consideration from what systems we should acquire to what policies should be crafted to make it less attractive for an opponent to engage our advantages,” affirms an AU Air Command and Staff College instructor, Lt. Col. Peter Garretson. “What we can do operationally to mitigate threats by using parallel systems or just operating effectively without them is being considered as well.”

Contested space is receiving greater emphasis in AFSPC’s Schriever Wargames and there are strong reassurances that the U.S.’s space architecture is more resilient and difficult to disrupt than many realize. But details of countermeasures and contingency planning are muted.

“There are some things we are just not going to talk about,” Beauchamp acknowledges, “and we’re not going to give people the full picture of all the work we have underway. We do understand the threat. We’re taking steps in a methodical way to mitigate it.”