Kevin Chilton threw down a challenge shortly after receiving his fourth star and taking over the top job at Air Force Space Command. Chilton told his staff that he was not satisfied with the Pentagon’s current level of understanding about other nations’ satellites, and called for dramatic improvements in space situational awareness.


Chilton challenged his staff to pursue the ability to detect whether a foreign satellite has the potential to be used as an anti-satellite weapon shortly after it enters space. Chilton is intimately familiar with the importance of protecting the Pentagon’s space assets, having represented space users in his previous post as commander of U.S. Strategic Command’s Joint Functional Component Command for Space and Global Strike. That organization, which has since been split into two groups that handle space and global strike separately, included space control in its mission.


Chilton also has first-hand experience in low Earth orbit, having flown on space shuttle missions in 1992, 1994 and 1996. One of his crew mates was Ronald Sega, who today serves as the undersecretary of the Air Force.

In addition to his experience in the space world, Chilton also helped develop Air Force budget plans during assignments at the Pentagon, which included stints as director of programs for the Air Force deputy chief of staff for plans and programs from April 2002 to August 2004, and acting assistant vice chief of staff from August 2004 to August 2005. During that time, Chilton dealt with Air Force-wide budget issues that covered acquisition, operations, infrastructure and personnel, and was well regarded for his ability to make tough and impartial choices, and communicate those positions to the service’s top leaders, a former Pentagon official said.

Chilton talked about the issues he is facing at Air Force Space Command during a Dec. 18 interview with Space News staff writer Jeremy Singer.


At what point does the Pentagon need to worry about threats to satellites that come directly from space, rather than from the ground?


The threat exists today. I’m focused on space situational awareness for both today and the future. I want awareness of the capabilities of systems on orbit, warning if they maneuver, and if they do maneuver I want to know why. Ultimately I would like to divine the intent of the owners of those systems. We also need robust space situational awareness to attribute any malfunction with a satellite — in its links, ground systems or the satellite itself.


What is your response to the nations that criticize the new White House space policy as a unilateral step towards space warfare?


It’s important that we always maintain the right for self- defense. The policy made it pretty clear that we would like to see the peaceful use of space and preserve the right of freedom of action in space, just like any other domain like land, sea and air. The policy was a good news story for Air Force Space Command, highlighting areas that we’re already working on like developing space professionals, leveraging commercial assets and bettering partnerships with industry. It was a natural evolution from the previous policy.


Are you concerned that the military today relies on commercial services for most of its satellite communications needs?


I look at the bandwidth in space we need from commercial services in the same way I view military airlift. We have enough C-17s and C-130s for critical military missions, but can rely on the Civil Reserve Airfleet for surge requirements during wartime.


I feel the same way about milsatcom. The C-17 needs to defend itself. It has secure communications links and other things that civilian airliners don’t have. Similarly, our military communications satellites feature stronger levels of protection than commercial satellites, but the commercial services play an important role.


Do you have any new ideas for improving the quality of the Air Force’s space personnel?


I’d like to find ways to make it easier for more Air Force space and missile professionals to gain advanced technical degrees on a part-time basis. Today the only way for space professionals to gain one of those degrees is to take a year away from their assignment. I am exploring the opportunity to team with the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, as well as other universities around the country on this, and distance learning could be a key component.


Would you like a common uniform for space professionals?


When I took command, I noticed that some people were wearing flight suits, and some were not, so I asked why that was the case. I’m standing by for the results. I’m all for building teams, and I was curious. However, what interests me most is what people wear on their chest — the Air Force space patch.


What’s your response to the advocates for Operationally Responsive Space who say that the Air Force has been slow to embrace the concept of using small satellites?


The Air Force has a great history of developing small satellites. We had three small experiments on the most recent space shuttle flight, and have done that for years. We’ve launched hundreds of ICBMs. No one knows how to do it better than the U.S. Air Force. We’ve had Minotaur launches from both coasts. The Space Test Program does a great job in rapid development of small- and medium- sized satellites, working on responsive launch range operations, faster on-orbit checkout, and common interfaces for small satellite platforms. I’m obviously enthusiastic about TacSats and moving forward in this area. I think it is important to integrate those assets into our operations to augment or quickly replenish assets — it’s what our combatant commanders are asking for and it makes a lot of sense.


Based on what you have seen thus far from the Alternative Infrared Satellite System (AIRSS), are you confident that it can effectively replace the third or fourth Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) High satellite?


I haven’t seen enough on AIRSS to weigh in with an opinion. It’s important that we always take advantage of advancement in technology in any mission area. It’s important to invest in AIRSS and see where that takes us.

However, the SBIRS program is back on track, and I have been incredibly impressed with its recent performance. At the end of day, I stay focused on uninterrupted capability for our combatant commanders. Our back-to-basics approach to space acquisition has helped on SBIRS to bring more focus to the program management and how we team with industry.


Given the schedule delays on nearly every program in the space portfolio, are you worried that the Air Force will face gaps in capability between the satellites on orbit today and their planned replacements?


I stay focused on uninterrupted mission support. It’s no more a major concern now than it ever is, but it’s always a factor.


Do you have any concerns from a policy or operational standpoint with the Missile Defense Agency’s plans to experiment with and possibly deploy space-based missile interceptors?


I’ll defer on what is the best solution to the Missile Defense Agency. As a military person, I’m in favor of meeting the mission in the best way possible — I don’t know the answer to that.