CHANTILLY, Va. — As the Pentagon eyes increasing threats in space — from on-orbit debris to enemy spacecraft flying too close for comfort — U.S. Space Command wants its surveillance satellites to be more maneuverable.
SPACECOM’s Deputy Commander Lt. Gen. John Shaw said during a Jan. 24 National Security Space Association conference that need for mobility is driving the command to explore options for what he called “dynamic space operations.”
The need, he said, is most evident in the Space Force’s fleet of surveillance satellites that observe activities in space from geosynchronous orbit, about 22,000 miles above the Earth. Ideally, those satellites would move around their orbit to view new areas or to dodge debris or adversary spacecraft. However, because they have a limited amount of fuel and need to stay active until the end of their service life, they’re relatively static.
“We’d like to move around and look at as many things in the geosynchronous sphere as — as much as we possibly can,” Shaw said. “But . . . they’ve got a finite amount of fuel that’s constraining us in a significant way.”
The command is developing requirements to meet this demand for more mobility in space, and Shaw said he’s open to a number of possibilities — whether it’s on-orbit refueling, satellite servicing or launching smaller, more affordable satellites on a faster cadence, so that fuel use and mission life is less of a concern.
Shaw spoke with C4ISRNET on Jan. 24 about SPACECOM’s mobility and launch needs, its strategy for integrating more commercial capabilities and efforts to reduce overclassification in the space domain. This interview was edited for length and clarity.
What is U.S. Space Command doing to define requirements for dynamic space operations?
We’re trying to do our job on translating what we see as operational needs, both now and in the future, into requirements that then the services can act upon. We think that we’ll need more and more future platforms like GSSAP, the Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program, that are not Earth-facing, that operate within the domain.
And we want to operate them as freely as we possibly can and not be constrained by technology or design and such. How do we express those requirements and what are the possible practical solutions that can result from that? I think there are solutions to those to those challenges. We’re trying to refine that and we’ll kind of wrap it into our broader requirements that we’re continually bringing to the services across our spectrum of missions.
The Space Force has been developing a strategy for a tactically responsive space capability that would allow it to quickly develop and launch satellites to augment or replace systems on orbit. Space Command has been studying its needs to inform that work. Can you speak to what needs you’ve identified and how you think a responsive space capability would help?
When we look across our mission set and how we think we will need to be doing operations in the future, one hindrance to all that is that it takes a long time to put something on orbit. We know that from an operational need perspective, we’re going to need to be able to do a lot of things faster.
Reconstitution is one of those things. It might be augmentation of an existing constellation in particular need with a new capability. But I think that tactically responsive space is an opportunity to meet a lot of our operational needs which require a higher tempo of operations.
This could help in a number of ways. It isn’t just reconstitution. It might be augmentation. It might be something new that we see another actor do that we want to respond to. We want to be more responsive. We can’t wait years to respond. We want to be responsive on much tighter timelines.
There’s a been an influx of new small launch providers, some with novel ideas about how to meet a more rapid launch cadence. Do you think the industrial base is positioned to meet rapid launch timelines?
I like what I’m seeing, I hope it’s sustainable. A question I have is, are the business cases going to close for a lot of these launch providers? I hope they do because it’ll give us a whole other capability set. I definitely like that capability set. The Space Force needs to follow through and have good dialogue with the providers to make sure business cases close.
I do think that we’re seeing a convergence of things across sectors that is getting us to a new point with regard to responsive space. We have more launchers. We have reusable launchers that are cheaper. We’re finding ways as a nation to make satellites faster and smaller. All of these changes in our space industry are spiraling us towards more and more responsive capability. And we’ve just got to keep pushing.
Last spring, SPACECOM Commander Gen. James Dickinson announced a new commercial integration strategy that Space Command has developed. What progress has been made on that strategy over the last year?
There are two primary ways that U.S. Space Command engages with commercial partners. One of the ways is the way we normally integrate industry — see what services they can provide and there’s a contractual arrangement.
A second way that we partner with industry is embodied in the Commercial Integration Cell out at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, where it’s not contractual, it’s actually a mutually beneficial agreement which involves shared awareness of what’s happening in the domain. So, the partners there, if we see electromagnetic interference, we share with them. If they see electromagnetic interference — and satellite communication companies are really good at doing that — then they share it with us.
I would just say that those are two primary ways that we are engaging with commercial companies. People tend to think of that first one, maybe not as much of the second one. The idea of that commercial integration strategy was actually realizing there’s value in those, but is there more we can do together in ways we haven’t explored yet.
We’ve used that strategy as a way to engage new commercial partners and explore relationships. I can’t speak to any specific company, but it’s enabled us to have another platform for discussion.
One element of the strategy called for exploring more options to lease commercial services. Is this something Space Command has pursued?
We have an effort within Space Command called Joint Commercial Operations, the JCO. That is a more targeted partnering with companies that can give us good space domain awareness capabilities and services and we work with them on that.
More broadly when it comes to other space capabilities, we’re going to rely on the Space Force. For example, satellite communications. We’re not in the business of signing leases for SATCOM agreements. The Space Force is going to do that and what we’ll do is work with them.
Along the lines of leveraging commercial capabilities, the Space Force has talked about the idea of creating a Commercial Augmentation Space Reserve, modeled off the Air Force’s Commercial Reserve Air Fleet, that would allow the department to take advantage of commercial capabilities in an emergency situation. What do you see as the value of that? And how is Space Command participating in the discussion?
Absolutely, those partnerships with commercial space companies are helpful. It’s helpful to us in terms of being able to go fast and for capacity. What the Space Force is going after with that initiative is to see where commercial can provide additional capacity when we need it — and doing it upfront and realizing that when a war happens and we’re going to need that capacity, that’s the wrong time to start negotiating.
We’ve heard from you and other senior officials that overclassification of space programs and activities has, in some cases, created obstacles for sharing information with international partners. What is the department doing to make progress on this?
We are making progress. I can’t share details about it, but we are making breakthroughs in certain areas with certain partners. We’re just not moving as fast and as broadly as we really need to. It’s a concern, so we need to keep pushing.
This is going to have to be a whole team effort across the Department of Defense and the government. Some of the progress has to be made at the system and platform level and some of it has to be made at the intelligence level and some of it has to be made on the strategic level.
Courtney Albon is C4ISRNET’s space and emerging technology reporter. She has covered the U.S. military since 2012, with a focus on the Air Force and Space Force. She has reported on some of the Defense Department’s most significant acquisition, budget and policy challenges.