WASHINGTON — As competition ratchets up for space dominance, adversaries are poised to challenge the United States, causing real concern among policy makers at the Pentagon.
“The threats are moving fast and we need to stay ahead of it,” said Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy Stephen Kitay.
“We absolutely need to move with urgency,” Kitay told SpaceNews in his first media interview since taking office. “Space is not a sea of tranquility.”
Kitay came to the job with a deep background in military space issues. In his previous post as a professional staff member on the House Armed Service Committee strategic forces subcommittee, he advised Chairman Mike Rogers and was closely involved in the oversight of national security space programs, policies and budgets. The strategic forces subcommittee over the past year has led a push for reforms in military space that are about to become law.
“What excites me now is the focus on space,” Kitay said. There is a growing recognition of the interdependence of space, national security and the global economy. “Our nation’s leadership understands the importance of it. And you see that both in the executive branch and the legislative branch.”
As U.S. dominance of space is challenged by other nations, the Pentagon has to rethink strategies and investment priorities, Kitay said. It’s not just about buying the latest and greatest technology but also about making sure U.S. systems can be defended from attacks.
“We do need to make sure we are prepared, that we have the right policies, and that our strategies are integrated into the broader national security strategies,” Kitay said.
The Air Force’s missile-warning satellites are one example of a critical space system that military officials worry may be targeted in the future. With global tensions rising over North Korea’s nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missile program, the Air Force has come under pressure to start designing a new system to replace the current missile-warning constellation.
Kitay said the modernization of missile-warning satellites has been a topic of recent conversations with leaders from U.S. Air Force Space Command, U.S. Strategic Command and U.S. Northern Command.
“Discussions are happening,” he said. “I believe it’s imperative that we innovate.”
Another area that the space industry is closely watching is how the Pentagon buys satellite communications. A study is under way to determine whether the military should buy more wideband communications services from the private sector. “DoD is in the process of analyzing alternatives,” said Kitay. “We are analyzing a full range of architectures — from fully commercial to fully DoD purpose-built, and combinations in between.”
Decisions will be made soon, he said. “We can’t study this endlessly. We have to move forward.”
Whatever moves the Pentagon makes on space investments will be seen as a litmus test of how DoD wants to work with the private sector. Unprecedented levels of private investments are pouring into the space industry and it is still unclear how the military will benefit from the emerging technological innovation.
“We do have to capture this new thinking,” said Kitay. “We do have to manage risk as opposed to avoiding it. We should take calculated risks to pursue those breakthrough technologies” while also “making sure we provide the capabilities needed by war fighters.”
While the military prepares to fight off enemies in space, the Defense Department is bracing for a major reorganization of space functions that Congress mandated in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018. The legislation — expected to be signed by the president in the coming days — strips key authorities from the Air Force and shifts duties to the deputy secretary of defense. The bill removes the Air Force secretary’s role as principal defense space adviser, and eliminates the Defense Space Council and the deputy chief of staff of the Air Force for space operations.
The leaders of the strategic forces subcommittee had pushed for even more drastic changes, including the creation of a stand-alone space corps within the Air Force. That language did not make it to the final bill, but the space corps conversation is still alive. The NDAA directs the Pentagon to conduct an independent study that will provide Congress with a “roadmap to establish a separate military department responsible for national security space activities of the DoD.”
Rogers has been insistent that a space corps is the only way to ensure the United States does not fall behind. The ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee Rep. Adam Smith told reporters last week that the HASC plans to revisit the space corps in next year’s NDAA.
Kitay did not want to comment directly on the space corps. On the upcoming reorganization, he said he is “confident that we will work holistic approaches in accordance with the law and the secretary’s guidance to take the right steps for the department and our country.”
Despite policy disagreements on space issues between the Pentagon and Capitol Hill, Kitay said he sees “commonality in the focus on space, in the importance of space to our national security.” How the NDAA language is implemented “will certainly be in accordance with the law and the defense secretary’s guidance.”
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has made military readiness, business reforms and international alliances top priorities — all areas that are directly relevant to space, said Kitay. “Space is not a sanctuary. It’s important that we don’t think about space in isolation. If there’s a conflict, we need to think about all the domains — air, sea, land, cyber and space. Our space strategies must be nested in those broader approaches.”
Strengthening international partnerships in the space domain are important, he said. “And we’re actively building those relationships.”
Kitay has met with officials from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Japan and South Korea. He said he “looks forward to continuing to work with our space-enabled international partners in the future.”
Part of the international conversation regarding space has to do with “rules of engagement.” The commander of U.S. Strategic Command Gen. John Hyten has warned that the U.S. military has no doctrine for operating in space, such as how it would retaliate if U.S. satellite signals were disrupted. He said part of the problem is the lack of international norms of behavior.
Kitay said this issue is gaining attention. Rules of engagement are among the topics that “we have discussed” with senior commanders, he said. He expects rules will be developed based on how the military operates in other areas of warfare. “I’m trying to learn from the other domains. How do we learn from our history to inform the way ahead rather than reinventing the wheel?”