Lt. Gen. James Kowalski, deputy commander of U.S. Strategic Command said the Defense Department should consider giving civilians responsibility for preventing collisions in space. CREDIT: U.S. Air Force

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Defense Department, the White House and Congress should consider giving civilians, rather than military personnel, responsibility for preventing collisions in space, a top officer with U.S. Strategic Command said June 16.

Currently, military personnel at the Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC) at Vandenberg Air Force base in California are responsible for space traffic management, providing services including orbital object tracking and collision avoidance warnings.

But speaking at a breakfast here June 16, U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. James Kowalski, deputy commander of Strategic Command, which oversees the JSpOC, said it is time to explore whether someone else could handle those duties.

“We spend a lot of time doing catalog and tracking and collision avoidance kind of things. If you think about who does that in air space, it’s not the really the military. It’s a civilian agency,” Kowalski said. “I think we need to revisit how we’ve allocated military personnel to do what may not be a military mission. Most of the satellites up there are not property of the Department of Defense.”

The idea of transferring that responsibility, Kowalski said, is part of a larger rethinking of the JSpOC, the nerve center for the Defense Department’s space operations.

U.S. Navy Adm. Cecil Haney, commander of Strategic Command and Kowalski’s boss, has organized several Joint Space Doctrine and Tactics Forums to discuss weaknesses in the Defense Department’s space capabilities. As part of that exercise, participants discussed “the joint space ops center in the future, if we’re going to be in an environment where we assume space is under threat,” Kowalski said.

In this scenario, military leaders would spend more time on possible wartime situations. For example, Kowalski said, instead of asking engineers what’s broken when a satellite malfunctions, officials need to first rule out the possibility that the satellite was attacked, he said.

“That’s really not where we’re at,” he said.

The notion of making space traffic management a civilian responsibility is driven in part by the long-term budget outlook.

“As we face budget cuts, as we face personnel cuts … doing air traffic control in space may not be the best use of” military space operators, Kowalski said. “If the answer is ‘we want you to keep doing this for the decade or more,’ then we’ll keep doing it but there may be other things we can’t do.”

The Air Force in June began a pilot program to embed representatives from commercial satellite operators in the JSpOC to help give Defense Department leaders a more complete and accurate picture of the space environment. That program includes sharing information about workflow and manpower.

Space traffic management is not the only military task that could one day be handed off to the private sector. Gen. John Hyten, commander of Air Force Space Command, has questioned whether military personnel should be devoted to operating the GPS positioning, navigation and timing and satellite communication constellations.

Meanwhile, Kowalski also said during the breakfast that the U.S. and Chinese militaries need to improve their “military-to-military engagements.” Chinese military space planning and applications currently are “opaque,” he said.

“China needs to be forthcoming about the tests that appear to be development of destructive space weapons,” Kowalski said. “We will have to plan to actively defend our access and fight to regain it. We have to deter in space.”

Mike Gruss covers military space issues, including the U.S. Air Force and Missile Defense Agency, for SpaceNews. He is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.