Space Force leaders concerned about quality of threat intelligence

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Thompson: “We need intelligence to understand what the threat is and what it does.”

WASHINGTON — A central responsibility of the U.S. Space Force is to defend the nation’s satellites from deliberate or accidental aggression. That will require much more sophisticated threat intelligence than is currently available, said the vice commander of the Space Force Lt. Gen. David “DT” Thompson.

There are capabilities today to monitor outer space and detect potential threats but “it’s not what it needs to be for space as a warfighting domain,” Thompson said March 11 at the Satellite 2020 conference.

Existing surveillance systems were designed to track objects, monitor traffic and try to prevent satellites from colliding in orbit. The Space Force will need more advanced surveillance technologies and human operators to help military commanders figure out the nature and the source of potential threats and make decisions on how to respond, Thompson said. “We need intelligence to understand what the threat is and what it does.”

The National Air and Space Intelligence Center at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, provides air and space threat analysis to the Defense Department.

Thompson said the Space Force needs a space-focused intelligence organization and a “uniformed intelligence corps for space.”

DoD has assured Congress that the Space Force will not duplicate capabilities that already exist in the Air Force. One of the options would be to reorganize NASIC, which employs about 300 full-time analysts. The Pentagon’s 2020 budget includes $182 million for a new NASIC headquarters building at Wright-Patterson.

Thompson said last month at the Air Force Association’s symposium in Orlando, Florida, that a space intelligence center would be recommended as part of the broad organizational design of the Space Force that will be briefed to Congress in the coming weeks. Any restructuring of the NASIC would have to decided collectively by DoD, Congress and the intelligence community. The specifics have yet to be determined, Thompson said.

“There’s no question we need a core set of space intelligence officers,” he said. “We need capabilities for space intelligence in the form of a center or something but exactly how we put that together” has yet to be decided.

The demand for space intelligence will only grow, said Thompson. “We have threats in space. Things that are taken for granted in other domains — like knowledge of enemies’ tactics and doctrine — none of that is really resident in the space intelligence enterprise today … If you need to defeat those tactics, how do you do that?”

In the Wednesday speech at the Satellite conference, Thompson said the Space Force will be looking to invest in analytical tools to test, for example, how satellite constellations would cope with an attack.

“We don’t have testing capability on how these things will stand up under threat,” he said. If satellites were taken out by an adversary, it would be important to know exactly how that would impact a military campaign, Thompson said. There are analytical tools to assess the performance of satellites in response to natural hazards but more data is needed on how they would hold up against electronic jamming or strikes by kinetic weapons.