To Deter Enemies, US May Eventually Flex Space Muscle

Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson emphasized the importance of the US maintaining its dominance in space during a speech April 9, 2019, at the 35th Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colo. Air Force photo by A1C Michael Matthews.

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo.—Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said Wednesday the US may eventually demonstrate its offensive space capabilities in order to deter potential threats.

“That capability needs to be one that’s understood by your adversary,” she told reporters at the Space Foundation’s Space Symposium here. “They need to know there are certain things we can do, at least at some broad level, and the final element of deterrence is uncertainty. How confident are they that they know everything we can do? Because there’s a risk calculation in the mind of an adversary.”

The service explored those capabilities, though Wilson declined to offer specifics, in a nearly four-month space strategy study that wrapped up in February. The analysis provided the first update in two years on the military’s ideas of how to rule the space domain.

“We looked at all of our missions in space, from missile warning to communications and intelligence collection,” Wilson said Tuesday. “We took the best estimates of the threat and presumed a thinking adversary who would respond to the actions that we take.”

The study, which validated the Air Force’s fiscal 2019 budget, pulled in the Joint Staff, combatant commands, and agencies like the National Reconnaissance Office and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

“Red teams” tested the service’s assumptions over thousands of iterations of wargames and 25 tabletop exercises that simulated different phases of conflict and envisioned how future space architectures could function. In particular, the service considered ways to capitalize on low-cost, commercial systems in low Earth orbit like the new Space Development Agency is planning, Wilson said.

They found “one size does not fit all,” she continued, so different missions will require different solutions. Simply launching large numbers of satellites isn’t the only answer.

“Space missions that are not well-aligned with commercial low Earth orbit satellites are actually better off staying where they are or making other changes to protect themselves,” she added.

“The United States Air Force is funding the development of low Earth orbit systems and commercially based systems for some of our missions. But launching hundreds of cheap satellites a year as a substitute for the complex architectures where we provide capabilities to the warfighter will result in failure on America’s worst day if we rely upon them alone. The analysis shows that clearly.”

She also sees significant opportunities in partnering with the commercial satellite communication industry, arguing all services need to drive toward low-cost, multiband satellite communication terminals for all equipment.

Wilson said the service will fully brief out its results in the coming months.