In an era of great power competition and increasing global reliance on space-based assets, the U.S. military is trying to harmonize seemingly competing demands for security and sustainability.
As a branch of the U.S. military, the Space Force is tasked with preparing for potential conflicts. But its leaders frequently remind audiences that a shooting war in space must be avoided in order to ensure the sustainability of the domain.
U.S. Space Command is the Pentagon’s combatant command responsible for space operations. “Space security is our problem, but it’s your problem, too. It is everyone’s concern today,” the command’s deputy chief, Lt. Gen. John Shaw, said June 14 at the Secure World Foundation’s Summit for Space Sustainability.
The U.S. faces threats to its assets in orbit and needs to defend them, Shaw said, but space sustainability is now a front-burner issue when planning military operations.
Shaw acknowledged that, for decades, the U.S. military conducted space activities with little regard for how they polluted orbits with debris that posed threats to existing and future space-based assets.
In the past, the focus was primarily on achieving military objectives, with not much consideration given to the long-term sustainability of the space environment, he said. “We littered all the time … And we didn’t care.”
The U.S. Air Force in 1985 launched a projectile from an F-15 fighter aircraft and struck a small, orbiting American satellite. At the time, Shaw said, the goal was to test a U.S. anti-satellite weapon, and not much thought was given to the debris it would create.
“We learned from that, that we shouldn’t do that. And so we stopped,” he said.
The United States in April 2022 became the first country to adopt a voluntary moratorium on the destructive testing of direct-ascent anti-satellite missile systems. That was five months after Russia was widely condemned for conducting such a test, destroying a defunct satellite and creating thousands of pieces of debris.
To date, 13 nations have joined the anti-satellite missile test ban. “I hope we keep adding people to that,” Shaw said.
“We need to think about sustainability,” he insisted.
DoD in July 2021 adopted a set of “tenets of responsible behavior in space” that include limiting the creation of long-lasting debris.
The U.S. military has been gradually adopting sustainability practices, Shaw said. For example, it is moving out-of-service geosynchronous satellites to graveyard orbits and modernizing the way satellites deorbit from low orbits. And it plans to acquire technologies to extend the life of aging satellites.
One way to look at the role of the Space Force is less as an army and more like a coast guard, “looking for hazards, understanding what’s going on the domain, sharing that with others and making a safe and secure place to operate,” Shaw said.
Commercial space assets also under threat
“Much of what we do is really focused on transparency and understanding what’s happening in the domain to ensure safe and secure operations, not only for our capabilities, but for everybody’s,” he added.
In response to Ukraine’s reliance on Western satellite services, the Russian government declared last year that commercial satellites may become a legitimate target for retaliation.
Whether it’s sustainability, space security or defense, everybody’s in it together,” Shaw said. “We’re all interdependent: commercial, scientific, civil and national security.”
“The Coast Guard worries about unauthorized ocean dumping, oil and chemical spills. It wants a sustainable environment. It helps them do their job better. And I would just say that same spirit infuses what we’re trying to do in U.S. Space Command: keep the domain sustainable.”
Of note, Shaw said it’s one of Space Command’s responsibilities to provide security in the space domain so economic activity and investment can flourish. And for that to happen, space has to remain available for all to use.
This article originally appeared in the ‘On National Security’ commentary section in the July 2023 issue of SpaceNews magazine.