Saltzman Unveils ‘Competitive Endurance’ Theory to Guide Space Force

AURORA, Colo.—Chief of Space Operations Gen. B. Chance Saltzman offered a new working theory of space operations, calling it “Competitive Endurance,” and defining it as a means of ensuring U.S. access to space and ensuring competition with space powers like China and Russia does not devolve into conflict or crisis. 

Speaking March 7 at the AFA Warfare Symposium, Saltzman said his theory expands on the “Theory of Success” concept he unveiled two weeks ago and the Lines of Effort he outlined in January, which combined make up his fledgling service’s intent to develop doctrine, operational concepts, and tactics. 

“I intend Competitive Endurance to be a starting point for a dialogue I believe is critical—absolutely critical—to the success of our young service,” Saltzman said. “The goal of this theory of success is to maximize our ability to deter a crisis or conflict from extending into space and, if necessary, allow the joint force to achieve space superiority while also maintaining the safety, security, and long-term sustainability of the space domain.” 

Undergirding “Competitive Endurance,” he added, are three core tenets. 

Avoiding Operational Surprise 

The first step to endurance in space is “comprehensive and actionable” awareness of the domain, he said. 

“Space forces must be able to detect and preempt any shifts in the operational environment that could compromise the ability of the joint force to achieve space superiority,” Saltzman said. 

Space domain awareness has been a key mission for U.S. Space Command and the Space Force’s Space Delta 2, but the Pentagon has also been responsible for space traffic management, monitoring tens of thousands of commercial and civil satellites as well as debris. With that mission set to transfer to the Commerce Department in the future, the Space Force will be freed up to focus more on monitoring potential threats in the domain. And Saltzman indicated the service will bolster that capability in the years ahead. 

“We are investing in new sensors, we are investing in advanced data management and decision support tools,” Saltzman said. “We are exploring commercial capabilities to augment this mission area and partnerships with allies to expand our information sharing.” 

Deny First-Mover Advantage 

While the Space Force has to be able to track changes in the operating environment, awareness alone won’t deter an adversary, Saltzman said—in fact, the current reality encourages aggression.  

“The visibility, predictability, and reconstitution timelines associated with current military space architectures favor the actor that goes on the offense first,” Saltzman said. “This is an unstable condition that works against deterring attacks on space assets. We can’t have that.” 

Saltzman’s warning echoes what many leaders focused on space have said in the past few years: The Pentagon’s satellite constellations are not resilient enough, and an adversary would only have to take out a few to have an outsized impact. 

“The Space Force must shift this balance by making an attack on satellites impractical and self-defeating, thus discouraging an adversary from taking such actions in the first place,” Saltzman said. 

That planned shift is at the heart of Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall’s Operational Imperative to build a resilient space order of battle, and Saltzman said the service will do so by designing its future force to be more proliferated, maneuverable, and disaggregated among orbits. 

“All of this creates deterrence,” Saltzman said. “If an adversary has little chance of denying space missions through attack, the incentive to attack at all, much less first, will be reduced.” 

Responsible Counterspace Campaigning 

Deterrence is also boosted by the ability to hold an adversary’s assets at risk—which is at the core of Saltzman’s final tenet of “Competitive Endurance.” 

But compared to other domains, space presents unique challenges to offensive or counterspace activities, Saltzman said. 

“Counterspace activities may be necessary to prevent adversaries from leveraging space-enabled targeting to attack our forces. But we will balance our counterspace efforts with our need to maintain stability and sustainability of the orbits we are required to use,” Saltzman said. “Space forces must preserve U.S. advantages by campaigning through competition without incentivizing rivals to escalate to destructive military activities in space.” 

To that end, the Space Force will work with the Pentagon, other government agencies, and allies to encourage responsible behaviors in space and confront those who do not follow them, Saltzman said. 

Beyond that, though, the service is also “investing in capabilities that protect our joint force from space-enabled targeting while understanding that we cannot have a pyrrhic victory in this domain,” Saltzman said. 

The Space Force’s counterspace offensive capabilities have long been a closely guarded secret—though leaders have pushed to declassify some of those capabilities in order to deter adversaries. And while Saltzman did not detail exactly what the Space Force is investing in, he did indicate that “efforts to control the domain cannot inflict such a devastating toll on the domain itself that our orbits become unusable for follow-on operations.”