No Matter the Mission, Space Critical to Combatant Commands

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OMAHA, Neb. — Their missions are diverse, ranging from disaster response, to finding and destroying terrorist cells, to drug interdiction, to missile defense. But the U.S. military’s combatant commands share at least one thing in common: dependence on space systems for services including navigation, intelligence and communications.

This dependence was the underlying theme during a Nov. 3 panel discussion featuring senior officers from U.S. military combatant commands here at the Strategic Space Symposium. The participants agreed that it was not necessary for their respective combatant commands to own or operate space systems, which is the responsibility of U.S. Strategic Command. But they said that availability of space assets and expertise in space capabilities is critical to their missions.

And when it comes to space expertise, not all commands are equal. U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Harold Moulton, director of operations of U.S. European Command, said space expertise is sorely lacking within his organization. He said typically there are only one to two officers with space expertise assigned to the command at any given time and that oftentimes one of them is assigned to a function unrelated to space. This detracts from the command’s ability to perform its mission, he said.

By contrast, space expertise is plentiful at U.S. Northern Command, according to U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Steven Blum, deputy commander of that organization, whose mission is to protect the U.S. homeland. Northern Command, established as part of a military reorganization initiated in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, is located at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colo., which also is home to North American Aerospace Defense Command and Air Force Space Command.

Blum said space expertise is integrated throughout Northern Command, among both officer and noncommissioned officer ranks. Missile defense also is among the key missions of Northern Command, Blum noted. The U.S. military relies on satellites for missile warning.

The U.S. combatant commands have different missions, some with a regional focus, others with a global responsibility. And while all require space-based services, some capabilities received special emphasis during the discussion.

Army Lt. Gen. Francis Kearney, deputy commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, cited intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance, as well as communications, as crucial to the performance of his mission. While Special Operations Command is a global command, Kearney said most of its efforts these days are focused in the Middle East and Southwest Asia. Many of these regions lack ground-based communications infrastructure, making satellite links indispensable, he said.

Special Operations Command’s mission places a premium on persistent and highly accurate surveillance data that can be delivered to forces in near-real time, Kearney said. He expressed disappointment in the cancellation this year of the Transformational Satellite communications system, which was intended to dramatically increase the amount of bandwidth available to U.S. forces around the world.

Army Lt. Gen. P.K. Keen, military deputy commander of U.S. Southern Command, which counts interdicting illicit drug traffic among its missions, also emphasized communications and reconnaissance, along with navigation. He added that drug trafficking organizations are becoming more sophisticated, which increases the demand on space capabilities to counter them. Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance data are the command’s No. 1 need, Keen said.

Keen said many of the United States’ partners in Southern Command’s area of responsibility, particularly in South America, are developing their own space-based capabilities, often with the assistance of European countries, including Russia, as well as China.

Moulton said missile defense is becoming a major focus in Europe, meaning satellites for missile warning and tracking are critical.

Military as well as civilian space systems are as critical to the economic health of the United States as they are to national security, Blum noted.