The U.S. Space Force enters its fifth year amid heightened threats to the nation’s space assets, rising geopolitical tensions and technological challenges.
Space Force chief of space operations Gen. Chance Saltzman set the tone for the year ahead in a keynote speech at the service’s first annual conference in December.
A central message from Saltzman is that guardians – the Space Force’s personnel – have to understand and communicate the intricate connection between space systems and earthly warfare, and need to fully grasp the role of space systems in military operations amid competition with China and Russia.
In this complex environment, the Space Force will need fresh thinking and innovation from all ranks, the chief insisted. The stakes are high as Chinese and Russian space weapons could threaten the United States economically and militarily.
A U.S. commission report submitted to Congress in November highlighted an intensifying “strategic and systemic competition,” and warned of China’s rapid advances in missiles, space, undersea and artificial intelligence capabilities. Of concern to the United States are China’s satellite jammers, directed energy weapons, dual-use “satellite inspection” spacecraft that could disable U.S. assets, and space-based nuclear weapons potentially capable of global strikes.
Since the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Russian forces have been jamming Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite signals to hinder Ukrainian military operations — disrupting communication, targeting and navigation for Ukrainian troops and drones. Russia’s use of GPS jamming continues to raise concerns about the vulnerability of U.S. military systems to electronic warfare.
In response, the U.S. Space Force intends to accelerate the deployment of next-generation satellites, harden current defenses, make constellations more resilient and engage private space innovators.
Beyond setting a strategic vision, the Space Force has to grapple with the nitty-gritty of procurement, a realm where goals often collide with cost overruns and technical hiccups.
Senior procurement executive Frank Calvelli’s “tenets” for responsible acquisition offer a framework for increasing the chance of success in acquisitions, but turning theory into practice remains a constant test.
Among the 2024 tech priorities are jam-resistant communications, in-orbit tracking and inspection satellites to monitor suspicious enemy activities. Hardware and software to modernize outdated information systems are also key items on the wish list.
Space launch looms large this coming year. The Space Force in 2024 is expected to select rocket companies for the high-stakes National Security Space Launch Phase 3 procurement which could reshape the launch market now dominated by SpaceX. Rival United Launch Alliance on Jan. 8 achieved a pivotal milestone with the successful first launch of its new Vulcan Centaur rocket. The certification of Vulcan — which requires a second successful mission — and getting it to fly on a regular cadence is of huge importance to the Space Force that selected the vehicle in 2020 to launch more than half of all national security missions.
Satellite firms also eagerly await more contracts from the Space Development Agency this year to continue building out the Pentagon’s proliferated constellation of low Earth orbit satellites designed to deliver tactical data to warfighters across the joint force.
Meanwhile, many guardians continue to have questions about what the culture of the Space Force should be as it weans itself from what used to be the Air Force Space Command. Saltzman, in his December speech, said those issues would sort out organically over time, noting that the cultures of the other branches took time to build.
He urged service members to learn and perfect their trade, highlighting professional opportunities opening up for guardians in career fields like satellite operations, intelligence, cybersecurity and acquisition. To attract talent, the Space Force submitted a proposal to Congress around a new personnel management system that offers more flexibility and is aligned with modern employment trends and the complexities of contemporary life.
Much work lies ahead to line up doctrine, technology, warfighter integration, and leadership development for this new branch still finding its place among military peers. With Congress and others still gauging the value of the newest branch, 2024 is shaping up as a year of opportunity and growth.
This article first appeared in the ‘On National Security’ commentary feature in the January 2024 issue of SpaceNews magazine.