WASHINGTON — Lt. Gen. B. Chance Saltzman — President Biden’s pick to serve as chief of space operations of the U.S. Space Force — told lawmakers Sept. 13 in a confirmation hearing that China’s aggressive pursuit of advanced technologies is “the most immediate threat” to U.S. satellite capabilities and ground infrastructure. 

The Senate Armed Services Committee held a confirmation hearing for Saltzman, who is poised to get a fourth star and become the second chief of space operations, or CSO, succeeding Gen. John “Jay” Raymond. 

Saltzman has served as deputy chief of space operations since 2020 and is expected to be swiftly confirmed. SASC Chairman Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and other members of the committee told Saltzman that they looked forward to supporting his nomination. 

Many of the questions posed to Saltzman during the hearing were about the current and future capabilities of the Space Force to defend U.S. satellites from increasingly advanced anti-satellite weapons that China and Russia are developing. 

The Space Force is an independent military service under the Department of the Air Force. It has nearly 8,000 uniformed members known as guardians, and about an equal number of civilian employees charged with operating and protecting U.S. satellites — including GPS, communications and missile-warning constellations — and supporting systems that provide critical services to the armed forces.

“We are still the greatest spacefaring nation on the planet,” Saltzman said. “The Space Force’s capabilities, what we can provide to the joint force, are extremely capable and I still put us at the head of the table.”

“Unfortunately, our adversaries are investing heavily to close that gap and supersede us. I’m worried about the pace with which they are making those changes,” he added. “China first amongst them, but Russia is also committed to investing heavily in the kinds of capabilities that are going to disrupt, degrade and even destroy our on-orbit capabilities. And so it’s that pace of change and their commitment to disabling it, that’s most concerning to me,”

Cyber attacks like those seen during the Ukraine war are worrisome, he said. “We see how important it is to defend our cyber networks, because those cyber networks create vulnerabilities, if attacked, to actual space capabilities. And so when I look across what we’re seeing in that Ukrainian theater, I see some important lessons that we should take to heart in terms of building our Space Force design.”

Saltzman said one of his top priorities “is to make sure that we’re on track to build and field effective capabilities and then train the guardians to operate in a contested domain so that we can counter this activity by our strategic competitors.”

The Biden administration adopted a self-imposed ban on anti-satellite (ASAT) tests that create debris in orbit, and plans to seek a UN resolution that could compel more nations to join the ban. 

In response to questions about the U.S. policy on ASAT tests, Saltzman said anti-satellite missile tests are “the most dangerous” because of the damage that the debris can cause. In adopting that ban, he said, “we don’t give up much because we have other ways to test our capabilities. But we lead by saying we’re not going to intentionally create debris in space … Building a coalition of like minded spacefaring nations around a set of responsible behaviors will create peer pressure, if you will, for the international community to deem certain activities professional and responsible and other activities to be irresponsible.”

Use of commercial space technologies

The Space Force will need to tap the commercial market for innovative technologies to supplement government systems, said Saltzman. 

The procurement culture favors bespoke purpose-built systems but now the Space Systems Command is trying to change that, he said. “They’ve adopted a mantra about exploiting what we have, buying what we can and only building what we must. And I think having that open thought process for how best to bring capabilities to bear will actually streamline the process and make us do a better job.”

“It’s a top priority as CSO to get the most we can from the private sector,” he said. 

To make satellite networks more difficult for enemies to attack, for example, the Space Force will use lower cost commercial-type small satellites, Saltzman said.. “We’re doing distributed architectures because they’re more resilient,” he added. “We’re trying to think about ways to to disaggregate our payloads so they’re not easy targets.”

Some technologies that the Space Force currently doesn’t have and will need are modern training tools.

“We don’t have simulators that allow our operators to practice their tactics against a thinking adversary, even if it’s a simulated adversary,” said Saltzman. “We don’t have good simulators. We don’t have ranges where they can routinely practice their tradecraft. We don’t have the ability to link multiple units together so they can practice the coordination that’s necessary to do large force deployments.”

The U.S. military “has been operating in a benign environment for so long, we didn’t need to necessarily have those kinds of capabilities. And so I think over the next few years, we’re going to have to look at that and be as specific as we can, and provide that kind of training and experience to our operators.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...