Saltzman Pushes Need for ‘Actionable’ Space Domain Awareness

The Space Force is ramping up its investment in domain awareness to stay ahead in the increasingly contested space environment, and Chief of Space Operations Gen. B. Chance Saltzman described the effort as essential to his “Competitive Endurance” theory meant to guide the entire service.

“We cannot, as a country or a service, miscalculate the capabilities, force posture, or intentions of our potential adversaries,” Saltzman said at the Mitchell Institute’s Spacepower Security Forum on March 27. “We must have timely and relevant indications and warnings to help us avoid operational surprise in crisis where appropriate to take defensive actions. This means we need to have access to and invest in actionable space domain awareness.”

Space domain awareness includes the monitoring of space objects and activities, tracking environmental conditions, detecting adversary operations, and ascribing intent to actions. That missions has grown vastly more complex—Saltzman noted a 700 percent surge in active satellites since 2008, with many of those satellites possessing new technology and capabilities. That’s in addition to the increasing possibility of collision and space debris.

“We see an incredibly sophisticated array of threats, from the traditional SATCOM and GPS jammers, to more destabilizing direct-ascent anti-satellite weapons across almost every orbital regime, to on-orbit grapplers, optical dazzlers, directed energy weapons, and increasing cyberattacks both to our ground stations and the satellites themselves,” Saltzman said.

As Russia and China advance and demonstrate such capabilities, experts have warned the U.S. space infrastructure, designed to promote the peaceful use of space, is left largely defenseless and exposed to potential attacks from these nations, underscoring the urgency to strengthen domain awareness.

 “Specifically, the PRC has more than 470 ISR satellites that are feeding a robust sensor shooter kill web,” Saltzman said. “This new sensor-to-shooter kill web, it creates an unacceptable risk to our forward deployed forces.”

The sensor-to-shooter kill web network system streamlines the process of launching attacks by enhancing data sharing and automating processes, with an aim to enable strikes within seconds.

Although the Space Force’s fiscal 2025 budget request is decreased by 2 percent compared to the previous year, there is notable growth—nearly 30 percent—in the allocation for space domain awareness systems, from $373 million to $484 million.

“We have to make sure we have a sensor network, so you’ll see investments in putting new sensors, Deep Space Advanced Radar Capability that we have and we’re developing, is in the budget,” Saltzman said. He also pointed to the need for a sensor network to maintain data flow and work with allies and partners to bolster surveillance.

Deep Space Advanced Radar Capability (DARC) is a ground-based system that detects and tracks deep space objects around the clock. In December, the U.S., the U.K., and Australia announced a joint DARC initiative, leveraging wide coverage locations to improve object detection and tracking in deep space.

“But I think there’s another important piece and that’s ‘Do we have the tools that pull that data together and contextualize it, so decision-makers can make timely, relevant operational decisions?’” Saltzman said. “And I think that’s where we’re also trying to invest, is to get those tools together that actually make the most out of the data that we are collecting and will be able to take on even more data and make more sense of it faster.”

The service’s FY25 R&D budget outlines plans to complete research on laser-enabled real-time space domain awareness, particularly for imaging satellites during Earth’s shadow periods, and eventually transferring this capability to Space Operations Command.

In addition, it aims to improve technologies for continuous optical and infrared imaging of objects near Earth and in GEO orbit. This includes identifying timelines for tactical purposes and spotting small satellites near important space assets. The plan also seeks to enhance daytime detection of satellites, allowing for tracking and imaging even when ground-based optical systems can’t see them.

Space domain awareness will also be powered by commercial capabilities, as noted by SpOC commander last month. Miller emphasized the importance of balancing commercial advantages with government-owned systems, stressing affordability, reliability, and meeting mission timelines. The service is on the brink of unveiling its long-awaited commercial strategy within the next month, which will offer a path forward for enhancing collaboration with the private sector.