WASHINGTON — Hotlines between heads of states have long been established to reduce the risk that an accident or miscalculation might trigger a nuclear war. During recent U.S. military operations in the airspace above Syria, a hotline was set up with Russia to ensure safety of flight. 

With space now considered a domain of war, hotlines between U.S. and foreign rivals might be worth contemplating, said Lt. Gen. B. Chance Saltzman, U.S. Space Force deputy chief of space operations, cyber and nuclear.

Before joining the Space Force, Saltzman led air campaigns at U.S. Air Forces Central Command in the Middle East. “We had a hotline to the Russians because we were very concerned that a miscommunication with aircraft flying in close proximity in Syria would lead to a problem,” he said Nov. 3 during a conference call with U.S. and European reporters.

“I don’t see any reason why a similar approach couldn’t work for the space domain,” Saltzman said. 

Saltzman is in Europe this week visiting allies. He said many of the conversations were about the “strategic competition” that is unfolding in the space domain between the U.S., China and Russia and the “lessons learned from history about miscommunication,” he said. 

During the air campaign over Syria, “the hotline that we used was to make as many of our operations as transparent as possible and attempt to avoid those miscommunications.”

The risk of a mischaracterizing what any country is doing in space is even greater than in the air because objects in orbit are “hard to see,” he said.  A civilian satellite conducting surveillance, for example, could be mistaken for a hostile counterspace weapon. “In space we literally can’t use our visual reference points. We have to rely on radar. We have to rely on telescopes, and that creates a level of uncertainty.” 

If there was a hotline, “at least we would have a discussion before we draw the wrong conclusions. And we currently don’t have that capability. But I think the idea merits a full scale discussion.”

Saltzman on Nov. 3 gave a keynote speech at the Global Milsatcom 2021 conference in London. He said one of the themes was the desire for greater cooperation on space security. “Establishing responsible norms and behaviors is really a global concern. No one nation can establish those independently, and there’s so much shared capacity that we could leverage.”

He said the United States remains “the most capable spacefaring nation in terms of the capabilities that we have on orbit.” But China poses a major challenge. “They can see that if they can take some of those capabilities from us, they can shift the tables in terms of of that strategic advantage,” Saltzman added. “And the most significant challenge isn’t any one system. It’s really the pace at which they’re developing all their systems. It’s such a broad array of counterspace capabilities that they’re pursuing and high end technologies, that what’s most concerning is just the speed at which they are going from ‘good idea’ to full scale capability that’s being demonstrated on orbit.”

For the United States, “our challenge is going to be matching that pace, making sure that we’re paying attention, keeping good situational awareness of their developments.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...