U.S. national security interests are inextricably linked with actions that occur in space. Our air, land and sea forces rely on critical capabilities delivered by systems on orbit. Our adversaries know this, and it is why they are fielding weapons capable of destroying U.S. satellites that deliver intelligence, navigation, missile warning and global communications to our forces.
Failure to address these threats would be catastrophic to our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines in a conflict, let alone the outcome of a war. It is long past time to recognize this reality and start treating the space domain like we do every other warfighting domain.
Initial actions undertaken by the Space Force and U.S. Space Command are pointed in the right direction, but more work remains. The highest levels of government must recognize that space is a contested domain. This may seem obvious given Chinese and Russian behavior, but some remain uncomfortable — let alone supportive — discussing of fielding the necessary offensive and defensive capabilities required to operate and survive in space. This approach, left unchecked, poses significant risk.
As recently as 2015, policy prevented our military from even talking about warfighting in space. We failed to recognize that our adversaries were pursuing a far different course by fielding capabilities designed to dominate space by putting our systems at risk.
It is unimaginable that we would intentionally fail to equip and train our Air Force, Army and naval forces with the authorities and tools necessary to gain and maintain superiority in the air, land and maritime domains. Deterrence is built upon credible power to act offensively and defensively — to threaten an adversary with unacceptable cost or denial of objective. Our first goal should be to deter adversaries from attacking our critical space assets.
This cannot be done from a position of weakness, nor can it be done with purely defensive strategies or international agreements regarding norms and behaviors. Our adversaries appear to understand this reality and took initiative to have force dominance in space.
To effectively deter attacks — and win, should deterrence fail — our Space Force commanders will need the very same capabilities that commanders demand in every other domain:
- Exquisite domain situational awareness to track friendly, adversarial and neutral activity.
- Robust, all-source intelligence to understand adversarial capabilities and intent.
- The ability to operationally command and control their forces.
- Weapon systems that can defend our assets and hold adversaries’ space capabilities at immediate risk.
Just as air power is used to support surface warfare and vice versa, the Space Force should expect the other services to field capabilities that will support the achievement and sustainment of space superiority.
Conversely, our Space Force has the opportunity to increase support to the other operational domains beyond the critical capabilities they already provide that enable global communication; precision navigation and timing; and missile warning.
Civilian companies have demonstrated that reconnaissance from space is not the sole purview of our national intelligence satellites. Indeed, the exquisite collection capabilities of the National Reconnaissance Office will remain important to national security, but the Space Force should be resourced to develop and deploy more numerous, less expensive, yet operationally relevant reconnaissance satellites that can satisfy the insatiable demand of terrestrial combatant commanders. Near instantaneous reconnaissance from space that is purposely designed to support terrestrial commanders will improve their situational awareness and the speed and lethality of their operations.
These fundamental tools must be underpinned by a cogent strategy and operational concepts. Air power advocates in the Army Air Corps developed the core tenets of U.S. air power strategy and associated operational concepts at the Air Corps Tactical School 20 years before the Air Force became a separate service. Their work chartered a course that guided American air power strategy in World War II and remains the bedrock on which today’s U.S. Air Force is built. The Space Force requires similar intellectual pillars that will resonate from the senior-most policy leaders to the most junior tactical operators.
We owe our guardians the same range and depth of training we provide for other domain operators. This means test and training ranges, along with advanced simulators that will ensure their readiness to decisively defeat our adversaries. The first time they encounter an enemy-driven challenge should not be in real life but in high-fidelity simulation and exercise against an aggressor force trained and equipped to emulate adversarial threats, as we do in Red Flag, Top Gun and the National Training Center exercises.
It is past time that we treat the space domain like all the other warfighting domains. We need to look at what the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps demand to get their jobs done, and then resource the Space Force with equivalent capabilities. This is not rocket science, it is common sense. It will take resources, talent, greater authorities and a focus on effective outcomes. The clock has already run too long with too little action. The time to act decisively with clear and equivalent requirements is now.
Retired. U.S. Air Force Gen. Kevin Chilton is the explorer chair for space warfighting studies at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. He previously led U.S. Strategic Command and Air Force Space Command, and served as a NASA astronaut.