Fifty years ago this summer, when Apollo 11 landed on the moon, space was the realm of peaceful human exploration, budding commercial development and growing but comparatively limited military use. Today, space is the engine of global commerce and vital to American military operations on land, sea and in the air.
So it is fitting that on April 11, for the first time ever, I met with 11 air chiefs from around the world to begin mapping out our future as space allies. The work was timely and vital. Many of them are riding the wave of commercial and military launches to position their nations for business growth and a military posture that will promote the peaceful use of space.
Our meeting comes at a critical time. There is no significant military activity that does not depend on the communications, timing and navigation and real-time coordination that space provides. Our rivals know that and are attempting to quickly close the gap. A recent Defense Intelligence Agency report noted that Russia and China view space as a key to harming U.S. military effectiveness now and in the future. In fact, they are developing their own space capabilities to track all of our satellites, jam them and monitor the movement of U.S. forces around the globe, the report concluded.
As space becomes more congested and more contested, it’s important not to lose sight of an important goal for America and our allies: We must maintain space as a peaceful domain where common interests can align and flourish. In the period following World War II, our new European and Pacific alliances developed similar goals, resulting in unprecedented peace and prosperity for much of the world.
This moment is ripe with possibility. My fellow air chiefs and I see three distinct areas where we can make a difference right now: We will work on space interoperability – ensuring our technologies work together — and align our future cooperation. We will develop common areas and partnerships, to include honing our collective situational awareness. And we must work toward developing and encouraging a set of norms to govern conduct in space, much like the modern rules we have for militaries operating on land, sea and in the air.
One way to understand why space is so important is to look back about 100 years. It was during World War I that the great powers realized airplanes could be weaponized and used to attack enemy troops, ships and factories. That epiphany led to the need for what became known as “air superiority,” or the control of the air in battle. At this moment, we and our allies recognize the opportunity to use space superiority for the global good.
Our intentions are clear but we are not naïve. At some point, our adversaries must know we possess the capability to hit back hard if peace in space is challenged. So we will rapidly develop and field the technology needed to counter adversary systems – from any domain and at the time and place of our choosing. Make no mistake, our goal is to prevent and deter conflict. To that end, last week will energize a new era in which new space alliances took flight and extended the promise of space as was so eloquently voiced by the Apollo 11 astronauts a half century ago when Neil Armstrong took one giant leap for mankind.
Gen. David Goldfein is the Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force.