Ready for War in Space

Sept. 27, 2016

North Korea launched multiple ballistic missiles into the waters around Japan in August. When North Korea conducted a nuclear weapons test in September, USAF quickly responded with B-1 and F-16 “show-of-force” flights with South Korean F-15s—to demonstrate solidarity between two democracies the DPRK routinely threatens.

If the situation on the Korean Peninsula deteriorates into open warfare, the Air Force response will rely heavily on spacepower. The Air Force could be tasked with providing missile warning and tracking information to deployed forces and command authorities. Vital military communications links are space-based. GPS guided weapons allow for accurate strikes in all weather conditions. Key command and control networks run through space.

For at least a dozen years, USAF has been busy telling anyone who will listen that space is not a benign environment: It is a congested and contested realm. Unfortunately, satellites can take 10 years to design and launch, then remain in service for decades more. The threat environment changed faster than Air Force Space Command’s equipment.

“Most US military space systems were not designed with threats in mind, and were built for long-term functionality and efficiency,” Gen. John E. Hyten, AFSPC commander, said in a speech explaining the problem in April. “Without the need to factor in threats, longevity and cost were the critical factors to design. … This is no longer an adequate methodology to equip space forces.”

North Korea’s aggressive actions show why USAF is making its military space community ever more combat-focused. Military space systems are vulnerable to enemy attack, and North Korea is one of 11 nations capable of putting rockets into orbit—or of attacking space-based assets where they reside. Others include Russia, China, and Iran.

These are not hypothetical problems. Over the past two years, both Russia and China reportedly tested anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons, and China in 2007 famously and recklessly destroyed a satellite in a test, creating a huge orbiting debris field.

“Why are nations spending so much money to counter our space capabilities?” Hyten asked in a recent interview with Air Force Magazine. “The answer is pretty simple—because they recognize it is a strength of our nation.”

In other words, America’s space assets are so valuable, other nations are willing to invest significant time and resources to threaten them. Military space is an American asymmetric advantage so important, potential enemies will not concede it. China’s ASAT test was “a hard problem to solve,” one space command official said, “and they solved it.”

It fell on airmen to make the most of USAF’s space systems, and the command adapted its tactics, techniques, and procedures to address the changing threats. “Training must shift,” Hyten wrote in a Space Mission Force white paper released July 15, outlining his vision for keeping space units ready to defeat real-world threats. Still rolling out, the Space Mission Force has AFSPC’s airmen alternate four-month operational periods with four-month training and education cycles (See “Making Space More Military,” August, p. 30.)

“Forces must demonstrate their ability to react to a thinking adversary and operate as warfighters in this environment and not simply provide space services,” Hyten wrote.

Realistic, intelligence-based threat assessments and improved training will be key. AFSPC must “determine the most likely and most dangerous scenarios posed by potential adversaries,” Hyten wrote. Other command officials have said operators will train to overcome capabilities, regardless of stated intentions. North Korea’s stated intentions contain a lot of bluster, but still must be taken seriously. China, on the other hand, is deliberately opaque.

What is China’s military trying to achieve? The Communist leaders aren’t saying, which is why the Air Force needs to prepare against its capabilities and not make assumptions about intentions. This summer, China announced it had launched a satellite with a robotic arm to clean up space debris. Perhaps that is its intended purpose, but this is clearly dual-use technology that could also be used for military purposes.

Space operators require “training beyond current expertise and limits,” the white paper reads, “perhaps even to mission failure, to foster learning and growth.” The paper states that space aggressors will provide “a professional, thinking adversary replicating known and predicted threats.” This will replicate the advanced training that has long benefitted USAF aircrews.

“At the end of that keystroke is a billion-dollar spacecraft. That billion-dollar spacecraft is critical to the lives and limbs of Americans and allies overseas in harm’s way right now, and if you make a mistake, that mistake could cost us a battle, a life,” Hyten said in the interview. Of AFSPC’s operators, “you can’t just say, “I’m a geek,’?” he added. “You can’t just say, ‘I’m a warfighter.’ You have to be both.”

Recent North Korean, Chinese, and Russian actions show why this dual focus is necessary. Fortunately, “nobody in Space Command five years from now will remember the way things used to be,” Hyten said. “Once we have established [the Space Mission Force], the folks that are there will never know that it was ever any different.”

The US does not want war in space and it has, by far, the most to lose in such a scenario. Space Command must institutionalize the shift to combat readiness to protect unique military advantages—so America’s enemies do not view US satellites as billion-dollar targets.