U.S. Air Force Gen. Kevin Chilton


Strategic Command

U.S. Air Force Gen. Kevin Chilton returned to the service in 1998 after a dozen years at NASA where he flew three space shuttle missions including one as commander. Since then, a lot has changed: Space has become more critical to
military operations and more intertwined with the
economy, and has become a busier place with more international actors and objects to track.

After a year as commander of Air Force Space Command, Chilton in 2007 was tapped to lead U.S. Strategic Command, where he is responsible for integrating space capabilities with his other missions of strategic nuclear deterrence, missile defense and cyberspace operations.

While much of what Strategic Command does goes unnoticed, it did have the lead in the high-profile Operation Burnt Frost, where 16 government agencies last year worked together to shoot down a failed U.S. spy satellite with a full tank of toxic fuel that U.S. officials said could have posed a hazard had the spacecraft re-entered the atmosphere on its own. Another Strategic Command responsibility that has gotten a lot of attention recently – particularly in the wake of the orbital collision that destroyed an Iridium satellite – is space situational awareness. Money to improve
capabilities in this area is beginning to flow, but more progress still must be made in sharing information with commercial entities and
allies, Chilton said.

Chilton also argues for changing the way the
United States
fields space assets. Too often, he says, critical space systems are replaced at the very end of their lives, which in some cases leaves constellations a launch failure away from a gap in capability. One notable example is missile warning. With the on-orbit failure of a Defense Support Program (DSP) missile warning satellite last fall and a new generation system years behind schedule, Chilton has pushed for an interim satellite to hedge against a gap, something he says needs to be considered for other capabilities.

Chilton spoke recently with Space News staff writer Turner Brinton.

With more international actors in space and more satellites than ever before, how much harder has it gotten to keep an eye on everything up there?

When I came to Air Force Space Command from NASA in 1998, there were about 10,000 pieces of debris Space Command was tracking at the time, and now we’re at 19,000 pieces of debris, so the trends are not in the right direction. When you add that with more than 1,300 operational satellites on orbit, the problem gets even more complex. During that time period we didn’t see a lot of advancement in sensor technology being fielded to observe the heavens, and we continue to rely on the Cold War legacy systems that we have. So we need to keep the momentum going here on sustaining our current space situational awareness assets and improving our capabilities so that we can understand what is up in space and fuse that data at the Joint Space Operations Center (JSPOC) at Vandenberg Air Force Base,

Does the

military have adequate capabilities to perform this mission?

No, we don’t have adequate capabilities to perform that today. We need more and better sensors to give us opportunities to observe the environment and refresh our database of positions more rapidly, whether the objects are new or existing objects up there changing because of drag. If the refresh rate isn’t rapid, you get error ellipses around these pieces that make you uncertain of where they actually are. And geography matters here – we need to have those sensors spread out around the world. Also, there are a lot of data we collect today that we can do a better job of exploiting. We have missile defense sensors out there today, and I think we can find more opportunities to fuse those data along with what we’re collecting with space surveillance sensors.

Today, the commander at JSPOC has to put all those pieces together with his brain. I think we can do better than that with computer technology to display a common operating picture in space and with automated systems that would enhance our ability to predict potential collisions. I also think we can do better with our relationships and linkages with commercial operators in space. They know where all their satellites are, so if we can get that information into our common operating picture, then we don’t have to spend as much energy tracking the location of those satellites with our space surveillance sensors.

What is your assessment of the acquisition troubles that have plagued military space programs over the years?

I don’t think anyone can deny the acquisition troubles, and they have not been just in the military space programs but also in intelligence space programs, and quite frankly across all military programs. I think the acquisition hole we are in was dug back in the 1990s, not out of malice but just a series of things that happened along the way, and it’s going to take a while for that expertise to be regrown in the services and intelligence agencies to go forward. That piece is important and eminently fixable in my view.

What is the status of the DSP constellation, and is there a looming gap in missile warning coverage?

I can’t speak to the current health or operational status of the DSP constellation. But in terms of critical capabilities, missile warning is right at the top of my list, both for defense of the
United States
from a strategic perspective and to provide our deployed forces with regional missile warning. So this is a constellation I just can’t envision us gapping in the future. My concern is a gap could develop, and what I would like is a solution that looks not only at missile warning, but at every one of our critical constellations including GPS, communications and weather satellites.

We’ve kind of gotten used to managing critical systems with a gap management philosophy. We will plan and program for replacements knowing full well our acquisition process is not likely to achieve what we want on the time schedules we need. We take it right up to the razor’s edge in replacing constellations as they wear out, and predicting wear-out is more of an art than a science. The other thing we’ve become reliant on is fantastic launch success rates, and congratulations to Space Command for that. But I don’t think planning on 100 percent launch success to maintain constellations or prevent gaps in any of these critical capabilities is a good plan. We need more robustness in our planning and the way we think about launching and repopulating. We need to have a plan if we have a launch failure.

How important to you is having a space-based radar capability, and how can it be acquired?

When I think about the various ways of getting radar imagery, we have fairly robust airborne platforms that can do that when the airspace is not denied. Beyond that, you need some space-based capabilities. We’re seeing a growth in commercial space radar products, so I think there’s opportunity to leverage that. But there’s still a need for a national space-based radar system.

Is the

United States
pursuing offensive counterspace measures?

Clearly space is an operational domain that is both necessary to
military operations and the
and global economy. When we think about any domain, whether it be land, sea, air or space, one thing that the United States would like, as any nation would like, is freedom of action in that domain. We have the inherent right of self-defense, and so we need to be prepared to defend the critical assets. A good defense also demands a good offensive capability to deny the adversary the advantage – just as we do in the air, land and sea. One final point is that people often get overly focused on the satellite element. Offense and defense also requires us to pay attention to ground stations and the electromagnetic spectrum that provides the link between the ground station and the satellite.

Should there be an international treaty or agreement governing behavior in space?

There’s clearly a need for responsible behavior in space. There’s no formal agreement signed, but the United States and Russia agreed back in the 1990s that they would take efforts to minimize the likelihood of upper stages exploding after they had been on orbit for a while by adding vent valves, and we agreed that we would either plan on boosting satellites in geosynchronous orbit up to disposal orbits to make room for future satellites or deorbit satellites in low Earth orbit at the end of their lives to prevent a hazard. These are all good things to do, and I think the
United States
needs to continue to lead the community of spacefaring nations. There’s no advantage to any spacefaring nation to have debris increased on orbit. But there are clearly national security concerns that we and other nations will have to work through and come to an agreement on how to be responsible in space. We first have to sit down with each other and talk, and that’s something I advocate.