DoD space policy nominee highlights complex security challenges facing U.S.

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DoD nominee John Plumb said he agreed with the Pentagon's call for a ban on kinetic anti-satellite tests

WASHINGTON — John Plumb, the Biden administration’s nominee to be assistant secretary of defense for space policy, told lawmakers Jan. 13 that the United States faces a complex security environment and has to prepare for the possibility of “conflict extending to, or originating in space.”

Currently an executive at the Aerospace Corp., Plumb testified at a Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing on Thursday alongside two other Defense Department nominees: Celeste Wallander, for assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs; and Melissa Dalton, for assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense and hemispheric affairs.

“As members of this committee are well aware, the security environment facing the United States at this moment in history is a challenging one,” Plumb said. 

China’s behavior “is a matter of grave concern,” he noted. “From its kinetic anti-satellite weapon test in 2007 that created a persistent debris cloud, to the uncontrolled reentry of a rocket stage last May, China has not yet demonstrated that it is a responsible spacefaring nation.”

Russia is another major challenge, said Plumb. “Russia views space as a key enabler of U.S. military power” and is developing technologies to “disrupt and destroy U.S. and allied space capabilities in crisis and conflict.”

In response to questions from Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) on Russia’s recent anti-satellite missile test, Plumb said both China and Russia have taken actions that are “deeply disturbing and a concern to me.”

Plumb told Manchin he could not comment on what DoD can do in response because he has not had access to classified briefings “on our ability to fight through a threat today. What I will commit to you is that, if confirmed, I will work to make sure that our architecture is more resilient so that this type of attack is less attractive to an adversary.”

Plumb said he agreed with Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks that the Department of Defense would support a ban on kinetic anti-satellite tests by all nations. “I think that would help. I also think making sure that we have constellations that are resilient so we’re not entirely dependent on one particular asset would also be helpful.”

Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), a former NASA astronaut, also pressed Plumb on how DoD would respond to debris-creating events like ASAT tests that endanger civilian and commercial space activities. 

The threat is “troubling and it’s in many different vectors,” said Plumb. It’s important to call out “kinetic destructive tests in particular because those would pose a long term enduring problem to all spacefaring nations.”

Space traffic management

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) asked Plumb about the transition of spaceflight safety responsibilities now carried out by U.S. Space Command to the Department of Commerce. The Trump administration ordered the transfer of responsibilities in a 2018 policy directive but the transition has been slow mostly because Commerce does not have the resources to take on space traffic management. 

Shaheen, who also sits on the Appropriations Committee, has pressed DoD and Commerce for details on the cost and specifics of the transfer. 

“There has not been a willingness on the part of the agency to be forthcoming on the cost. And that puts us in a really difficult position with respect to how much money we need to try and appropriate for the Department of Commerce,” Shaheen told Plumb. She asked him to commit to greater DoD transparency on this issue.

“I think space traffic management is absolutely essential and I I do agree that it should be conducted by a civil agency,” he said, assuring Shaheen he would help identify the resources needed to transfer these functions to Commerce. “It is a difficult shift, but I think it’s needed,” said Plumb.

Plumb would be the first assistant secretary of defense for space policy, a new post that Congress established in the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act.

He said creating this position “appropriately elevates the space portfolio within the DoD policy organization.” 

Since Congress created this new office, the portfolio for the assistant secretary for space policy has been expanded to include not just space but also nuclear weapons, missile defense, cyber, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Plumb these capabilities are closely integrated and “essential for the era of strategic competition the U.S. must now rise to meet.”