HALIFAX, Nova Scotia — Asked to rate the seriousness of threats to U.S. military spacecraft, Air Force Gen. John Hyten gave it a “five but moving to 10 quickly.”
As head of U.S. Strategic Command, Hyten is responsible for the global command and control of the nation’s nuclear forces, and the possibility that U.S. satellites could come under attack worries him considerably. Hyten was previously at the helm of U.S. Space Command and is one of the military’s most respected authorities on all matters related to national security and space.
“I watch what our adversaries do. I see them moving quickly into the space domain, they are moving very fast, and I see our country not moving fast, and that causes me concern,” Hyten said Nov. 18 at the Halifax International Security Forum.
One problem that needs fixing is how the Pentagon procures satellites, Hyten said. The Air Force spends too much money and time developing large satellites that make attractive targets, he said. “We have huge capacity in space right now that pretty much overwhelms anybody.” But he worries that the military may not be able to defend those assets.
As one of nine U.S. combatant commanders, Hyten has a say in how the Pentagon plans investments in new technology. With regard to military satellites, STRATCOM will advocate for a change away from “exquisite” costly systems that take years to develop in favor of “more resilient, more distributed capabilities.”
This is the thinking of the new “space enterprise vision” adopted by the Air force and the National Reconnaissance Office, Hyten said. “That vision is about defending ourselves. In that vision you won’t find any of those big, exquisite, long-term satellites.”
“I’ve made a call at U.S. Strategic Command that we’ll embrace that as a vision of the future because I think it’s the correct one,” he added. STRATCOM will “drive requirements,” Hyten noted, “And, as a combatant commander, I won’t support the development any further of large, big, fat, juicy targets. I won’t support that,” he insisted. “We are going to go down a different path. And we have to go down that path quickly.”
Not everyone in the Defense Department or in Congress supports that shift, Hyten said, but it’s clear to him that “we have to go in a different direction.”
Most military satellites were designed for a “benign environment, just like commercial satellites,” said Hyten. Continuing to do that would be a “mistake,” he asserted. “I don’t want to buy any more fragile, un-defendable satellites.”
People often interpret his statements to mean “I want a Battlestar Galactica” that can defend itself, but that is not what he’s talking about. “You can’t afford to do that. You can’t put all the weight in space to do that.” He would favor constellations of cheaper, smaller satellites that would be harder to take down and easier to reconstitute.
Hyten’s criticism of the military’s satellite acquisitions echoes comments made last week by Fred Kennedy, director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s tactical technology office. He called on the Defense Department to embrace faster-paced developments and use of commercial technology like small satellites that can be launched quickly and replaced if attacked.
When he ran U.S. Space Command, Hyten regularly reached out to “new space” entrepreneurs Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, and he likes the way they think. “They are great partners, they have a great vision of the future,” Hyten said. “Talk about going fast, they’re going fast. And it’s always awesome to see companies that embrace a different vision of the future, that invest and go fast.”