COMMANDER, U.S. AIR FORCE SPACE COMMAND
quick Google search on the term “GPS jammer” turns up literally dozens of gadgets touted as being able to block the ubiquitous signals from the U.S. Air Force satellite navigation system. The Air Force is no doubt leaps and bounds ahead of these technologies – as demonstrated by Iraq’s failed attempts to jam GPS signals using Russian-made equipment during the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. It is Gen. Robert Kehler’s job to make sure it stays that way.
Protecting U.S. space capabilities has always been among Air Force Space Command’s responsibilities, but the proliferation of technology is making that task more complicated with each passing year. Kehler credits China’s January 2007 test of an anti-satellite weapon for bringing attention to the issue, even if most of the threats are far less dramatic – signal jamming being just one example.
Buying and operating space systems is of course the other big part of the job, and one of Kehler’s agenda items is finding out whether the Air Force can get certain capabilities into the field sooner than traditionally has been the case. The jury, he says, is still out on that one, with the only certainty being that change won’t come easy.
Kehler, who has spent most of his 33-year military career in space- or missile-related positions, and previously served as deputy commander of U.S. Strategic Command, spoke recently with Space News Editor Lon Rains and staff writer Jeremy Singer in his office at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo.
Are you concerned about the cost of space systems?
I’m concerned about the cost of space systems. I’m concerned about the cost of everything by the way, not just space systems. And I think we’re finding in the U.S. Air Force that that is an issue for us in trying to recapitalize. And so the recapitalization of the United States Air Force, of which space is a part, is an enormous issue for all of us. So yes, I am concerned.
I believe that we get great value for the investment that we make in the Air Force and in space. And so I’m not concerned that the platforms, when they get on orbit, are not valuable. They are. And I believe that we get good return on that investment.
But we need to do better.
What are you doing about it?
I’ve gone to our advisory group
asked them to come back and give me an alternative strategic approach to getting capability in the hands of the warfighters sooner.
I believe we have a lot of strategic ingredients here, but no strategic recipe to get onto orbit faster, with increased capability, at what I have been describing as the speed of need. Because the needs today –
in the warfighting environment we find ourselves in
based upon the information age and how quickly technology proceeds – I believe
are driving us in a direction that
for much of our space capability, we can no longer afford the cost or time of these long 10-, 12-, 15-year development and acquisition cycles that get us on orbit, in some cases anyway, maybe a little bit too far in the future for our warfighters.
So, we’re going to get at this. I don’t know if there’s a better answer by the way.
Has the advisory panel given you any interim briefings?
I met with them about three weeks ago, and what they said to me was, “This is hard.” And I said, “Yup, that it is.” But I will tell you they’re on the right track. … I would argue that
we’ve been on one strategic path, basically, the same strategic path since the 1970s
. And that path is a relatively small number of very high value, multi-purpose, large payloads on orbit, whether those are intelligence collectors or whether they are communications devices or whether they are missile warning platforms – a relatively few number of very high value, technically difficult platforms, which drives you to infrequent launches
. I believe that we have some other alternatives here, and we need to go investigate those.
Again, I’m not saying you won’t have to do that kind of a strategic approach for some platforms. But I don’t know if that technique applies across the board. And it’s time for us to go figure that out. By the way, Operationally Responsive Space wraps into that as well, as a national strategic capability.
Can you give any examples of what you’re talking about?
One example here of different approaches is the block build approach for GPS 3, which I think is exactly right. I’ll also tell you that commercially, today, there are remote sensing satellites that a number of countries like Germany, Canada, Israel and others have put up in a relatively short amount of time that I think have some very, very good capability.
So it isn’t just about size to me, and that smaller is somehow better. It’s
also about finding rides to space that we can get for little or no money on a secondary payload adapter ring on an Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle. It’s about partnerships with industry and maybe with our allies, like we’ve seen on the Wideband Global Satcom program.
It may even be about more platforms that are single mission. So these are all the ingredients that are out there. I’ve asked the advisory group to come back with a recipe. Tell me how to use these things, and then we’ll go forward and see when and how we can make some adjustments.
You have said that some of your concerns regarding space situational awareness go back to the Cold War. Is it Russia that you are worried about?
I’m not overly concerned about the threat from any military. You know, people ask me that about the Russians or the Chinese. I’m not trying to paint either one of those as our enemy. But what we are paid to do is watch very carefully. And as I watch the capabilities that emerge around the world from folks who are potentially adversaries in some scenarios, our National Space Policy says that we have got to be prepared to deal with a contested environment.
And rather than say that’s any one thing, in my mind, it’s a combination of all of those things. The proliferation of some types of jamming capability, for example, is very concerning to us. And certainly it’s very concerning regarding GPS. And so whether we will be in a conflict where GPS is jammed or not isn’t the point. The point is the potential is out there for jamming to occur, and the U.S. military is expected to be able to deal with those kinds of scenarios. Therefore, we’ve got to be ready to deal with a contested environment.
Are you doing anything diplomatically to discourage proliferation of Russian jamming equipment?
We are working with Strategic Command, and through Air Force channels, to raise these concerns. We also talk with our allies and others about these concerns.
Do you think you are making any progress?
I don’t think we have to work as hard to make the case that this is a real problem. One
thing that the Chinese anti-satellite weapon test did was it showed some evidence that is very difficult to show when you are talking about jamming, even when we experienced it from Saddam Hussein.
We’ve encountered GPS jamming. We believe we have a handle on how to deal with it. But this is something that we will continuously have to be engaged in to make sure we can stay ahead.
Have you seen more-sophisticated GPS jamming attempts since those early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom?
I’m not aware that we have actually experienced any more sophisticated jamming. But if you go out on the Internet and look for GPS jammers, you will find commercially available products that are GPS jamming – everything from plugging into a cigarette lighter in your car, in case you’re worried about somebody tracking you through your cell phone, to sophisticated military-grade jamming. And so it’s out there. I was surprised when I went and looked the other day.
Did you notice whether these devices were coming from this country or not?
I noticed that some were not. And I did notice that, at least on one, there’s a caveat about legality. It talked about the legality of some of these things. But, go out and do a search, because it was very surprising.