OMAHA, Neb. — The United States is decades behind where it needs to be when it comes to keeping track of objects in space, but money is starting to flow toward improving these capabilities, U.S. Air Force Gen. Kevin Chilton, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, said Nov. 3.
At the same time, the United States’ ability to develop and launch space systems is in far worse shape than it was 10 years ago, and the nation must get back to a position where a single launch failure would not result in a gap in capability, Chilton told attendees of the Strategic Space Symposium here.
The collision of an Iridium communications satellite with a defunct Russian satellite this year crystallized what most in the space world already knew: better knowledge of what is going on in an increasingly crowded orbital environment is a critical national security priority, Chilton said. The Air Force is moving toward better space situational awareness, he said, but more must be done.
“Space situational awareness should give [military leaders] the ability to plan in advance and act in advance, and not just to be reactive,” Chilton said. “You’re always going to have to react, but good space situational awareness will help you make the right decisions. Without it, none of this is possible.”
The Air Force has expanded a pilot program for sharing orbital data with U.S. commercial and foreign satellite operators, and Strategic Command will take over that program this year. The Joint Space Operations Center at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., has gone from analyzing around 100 potential orbital conjunctions, or potential collisions, to more than 800 each day, Chilton said. But the analysis is a laborious process that should be better automated.
More also must be done to pull in space situational awareness data from new sources, Chilton said. The Space Based Space Surveillance System and upgraded Space Fence are essential programs that must be kept on track, he said.
More U.S. Missile Defense Agency radars could be used for tracking objects in space. But since most of these radars were deployed during the Cold War to watch for Soviet attacks coming from the north, the United States has very little ability to track satellites as they pass over the Southern Hemisphere. The nation needs better collaboration with allies around the world to remedy this, he said.
Improved space situational awareness also will require hiring more intelligence analysts to help turn data into actionable information and to determine the capabilities of any given satellite before it is launched.
“We have shrunk our intelligence analyst capability to an inadequate level for even one adversary, and regrowing it will take time,” he said. “Commanders need to know what’s going up into space before it is launched. The time to improve space situational awareness is now.”
In the domain of building and launching satellite systems, the United States has none of the margin of error it enjoyed just a decade ago, Chilton said. In 1999, for example, the Air Force had 27 GPS satellites on orbit — more than were required — and 20 more satellites built and ready to launch within 45 days of call-up. The Defense Support Program missile warning constellation, meanwhile, was healthy, and several satellites were on the ground awaiting launch. The Air Force had four operational weather satellites with another five satellites ready to launch. Three Milstar secure communications satellites were on orbit, two more were nearing completion, and work had begun on the next-generation Advanced Extremely High Frequency system. At least 30 Delta 2 rockets were ready to go on 30 days’ notice.
Today, there are no such margins for U.S. space systems, Chilton said. There are no more Defense Support Program satellites left on the ground, and the program’s successor, the Space Based Infrared System, is still 12 to 18 months from the launch of its first satellite.
Launch of the first Advanced Extremely High Frequency communications satellite is still nine to 12 months away even though the last Milstar satellite launched nearly a decade ago. And there is a minimum of two years’ advance notice to launch a satellite on an Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle.
“Over the last 10 years, we have gotten into the practice of managing to an efficiency that is working against us. Now space is even more important to us.
“My Christmas wish is for us to move away from this gap management strategy. I’ll give up improvements in capability for that assurance,” Chilton said.