WASHINGTON — The widely held view across the national security spectrum is that U.S. satellites in space must be protected because they will be day-one targets in a future war.
Pentagon officials frequently remind audiences of the critical space-based missions on which the military depends for most of its activities — navigation, timing, weather, missile warning, surveillance and communications.
But in the age of propaganda warfare and of weaponizing information, the United States also has to worry about defending space-based communications from bad actors who might hijack U.S. networks to spread false information, cautioned a senior U.S. military official.
Satellites that are “defendable” are critical to having a resilient network to pass relevant information, said Gen. Stephen Wilson, vice chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force.
During a discussion at the New America think tank on Monday, Wilson was asked by strategist and futurist Peter Singer to project a decade out, on what war would be like in 2028.
Wilson was emphatic that the U.S. military will need “resilient information networks” — not only for the obvious reason that forces in the field must have communications — but also to ensure enemies are not able to steer satellite signals for nefarious purposes. “The enemy will try to deny us,” Wilson said of satellite-based communications. One of their tactics would be to cast a fog so people will start “doubting the truthfulness of the information,” said Wilson. “They will weaponize the information.”
“Knowing what truth is will be important in the future,” Wilson said.
Debates about the future of war are not just about next-generation lethal weapons. The world is undergoing a “period of disruption,” said Wilson, “politically, economically, socially and technologically. That’s happening globally. Any single one of those areas alone is tough, but when you combine them it makes for exponential disruption.”
The mindset now in the Air Force is that, regardless how events unfold in the coming years, it has to be ready to move fast. “Speed wins,” said Wilson. That rule applies to training, development of new systems and “owning the high ground in space.”
Space is now at the center of military efforts to prepare for conflicts. “We’re having lots of space discussions across the nation,” said Wilson. “What’s really healthy about it is that we’re all in alignment: The White House, Congress, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, our allies, industry,” he said. “It’s a contested domain. We need to understand that. I need to have the ability to defend my assets in space. We‘re going to build a force that does that.”
Accelerating the acquisitions of modern space technology is a big topic, he said. “Lots of effort in that. There is keen interest in how we build capabilities faster, how do we partner with industry, how do I push down milestone decision authorities, use other transactions authorities.” OTA is a faster contracting mechanism that the Air Force is increasingly using in space projects.
Singer pressed Wilson to be more specific about the future makeup of military constellations. Will there be large numbers of small cheap satellites, or a small number of more capable, exquisite ones?
“Maybe both,” said Wilson.
These are complex decisions, he said. “Are you designing something to last for 20 years or something to last five years? There’s a big price point difference in how you do that.”
Wilson acknowledged that the military has been guilty of dragging out decisions and keeping programs in limbo. “Speed wins,” he said. “I have to compress the timeline.”
Wilson is a member of the panel of four-star general officers that vets big-ticket weapon programs known as the Joint Requirements Oversight Council. “We need to change how we do requirements, acquisition, contracting, budgeting and testing.” Today it can take five to eight years to do the analysis “before I get to a milestone decision,” he said. “That is way too long.”
Speaking also at the New America conference, Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Michael Griffin echoed that point.
The Defense Department and national security agencies more broadly are being hit with a “cold water realization that we can either maintain our process or maintain our preeminence, but we can’t maintain both,” said Griffin. “Our adversaries are not burdened by the acquisition system we have.”
On the future space architecture, Wilson said, “we are getting buy-in and consensus across all our different departments on what that exactly looks like.” There will be mix of military and commercial systems, he said. “Look at what commercial is doing today.” Companies are putting up internet services in space and collecting intelligence using small, low-cost satellites. “We need to be a part of that,” said Wilson.
There is “no easy answer” on how to prepare for war in 2028, Wilson told Singer. “Adversaries are going to try and deny us the capabilities. Defending space is one of our big efforts.”