Senior Pentagon and U.S. Air Force leaders have insightfully recognized that international cooperation among governments and the satellite industry will be required to ensure the level of space situational awareness (SSA) needed to protect
and the rest of the world’s orbital assets. In recent months, a number of senior U.S. officials – from both the Defense and State Departments – also have been traveling abroad to discuss potential future data-sharing plans with U.S. friends and allies with an eye to creating a so-called “Neighborhood Watch” network.
Today, the majority of space actors receive orbital data from an Air Force-run program known as the Commercial and Foreign Entities (CFE) program. There is broad agreement in the government and commercial space communities that this program needs to be substantially revised. The Air Force, in fact, currently is undertaking a study of SSA needs and is attempting to develop a solid plan for improving its outdated approach to sharing data gathered from its global sensing network. But while nearly everyone agrees on the need for better data sharing to increase transparency in space, avoid collisions and monitor debris, the question of how that will be done is as yet unclear.
Thus, many of the major actors in the commercial satellite industry recently have banded together to begin examining new ideas for data sharing. One concept, known by the rather bland moniker of the “data center,” would seek to create a shared repository of information about satellite positions, using both carefully protected operator data and Air Force space surveillance data. Eventually, this center could provide an automated conjunction warning and assessment service for the geostationary belt. The idea is to establish an economical and trusted voluntary system that exploits current and emergent capabilities, rather than simply adding more operator data into the current decades-old system.
In addition, others in the international satcom community also are informally exploring the possibility of a truly global SSA database that would include inputs from a wide range of spacefaring nations – not just the United States – as well as industry. Indeed, there are a number of potential sensor assets in
that could contribute; French President Nicolas Sarkozy has pledged to spearhead the development of a collaborative European space surveillance network. The concept of a global database further is being considered as part of a larger effort to define cooperative measures to sustain the long-term use of space, launched by Gerard Brachet, the outgoing chairman of the U.N. Committee for the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space in
. Based on industry experience so far, this is a feasible goal – unless politics get in the way.
And, sadly, politics and bureaucracy seem to be impeding progress already. Despite industry attempts to engage the military space community in the ongoing commercial discussions, the Pentagon and Air Force Space Command so far have failed to fully and constructively engage. This is disturbing, as it is apparent that many of the needed improvements for data sharing, prediction of close approaches – or “conjunctions”- and methods for collision avoidance already could be implemented based on industry know-how. For example, the Center for Space Standards and Innovation, a space research group in
, actually has launched a process for data sharing and conjunction analysis that is significantly more responsive, both in time and specificity of output data, than current Air Force practice. Further, standards for uniformly reporting data among the owner and operators exist under the auspices of the international Consultative Committee for Space Data Standards.
Yet, those responsible at the Pentagon and within Air Force Space Command seem to be reluctant to consider using the private sector – despite the fact that the Air Force program is chronically underfunded, understaffed and often underappreciated by service leaders. While it is obvious that there are going to be issues of protecting the security of military and intelligence gathering satellites with any outside system, it is just as obvious that obsessive secrecy will come back to bite all satellite operators, including the military and the intelligence community. Further, it is not at all clear that the government “business as usual” model, which is focused on building new hardware and a new program around it, is likely to be the best answer to the problem at hand.
Instead of blindly forging ahead with plans for the future of the U.S. SSA program, the Air Force and the Pentagon should be paying much closer attention to the industry efforts and move to take advantage of what foundation stones already have been laid. There is too much at stake to allow knee-jerk secrecy and a “not invented here” attitude to delay progress toward improved space transparency.
Theresa Hitchens is the director of the World Security Institute’s Center for Defense Information (CDI) and chief of the CDI Space Security Project, which operates in cooperation with the Secure World Foundation.