The U.S. advantage in space is eroding and the military must move faster to maintain a lead in this critical warfighting domain, defense officials said at the Reagan National Defense Forum in California today.
Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson and Air Force Gen. John Hyten told CBS News reporter David Martin that the United States is prepared to fight a war in space today, but not in the future.
Adversaries saw the U.S. advantage during the first Gulf War and have spent the decades since developing ways to overcome the huge U.S. lead in warfare, and that includes space dominance, Hyten said. The U.S. advantage today is in the mass of capabilities placed in orbit over the years, he said, but that does not mean the advantage will last decades more.
The idea of space as a domain of war is relatively new, the general said. “I believe that any domain that humans move into will be subject to conflict,” Hyten said. “Conflict will move into space. If it does move into space, our job will be the same as it is in any other domain: to deter that conflict to make sure that conflict never happens, but if it does happen, to figure out how to fight it, and win.”
He said that, in particular, China and Russia have been watching what capabilities the United States has in orbit and investing in their own capabilities to jam the information coming from the platforms or to shoot them down with lasers or missiles. “They have built these capabilities to challenge the United States, to challenge our allies and to change the balance of power in the world,” the general said. “[We] can’t let that happen.”
The United States needs assured access to space, Wilson said. “We need to move quickly, we need to accelerate acquisition, [we] need to innovate and prototype new systems faster,” she said.
The authority to develop space capabilities has moved out of the Defense Department and is in the Air Force now, Wilson said, adding that she is pushing the decision-making process down to the lowest possible level.
She agreed with Hyten’s assessment that the Air Force needs to move more quickly, noting that the service needs to “stop studying things to death and get capability in orbit for the warfighter.”
Space has been viewed as a demilitarized zone by some, Wilson said. Satellites orbiting the Earth were thought to be immune to attacks from the ground or via other satellites. Technology has changed this, but U.S. platforms have no defenses, she said.
“The U.S. built a glass house before the invention of stones,” Wilson said. “The shifting of space [from] being a benign environment to being a warfighting environment requires different capabilities.”
These include near real-time space situational awareness, command and control and the creation of both offensive and defensive effects that would nail down deterrence in orbit, the secretary said.
Reforming Acquisition Processes
“Where we need most focus is how do we continue to reform defense-wide acquisition processes in order to move quickly and take advantage of experimentation and prototyping and to push authority down to the lowest level and to tighten up schedules to move faster than the adversary,” she said.
Hyten couldn’t agree more. “I don’t know how it happened, but this country lost the ability to go fast,” he said. “And we have adversaries who are going fast. We take four years to study a problem before we do anything. We do four years of risk reduction for a technology we built 50 years ago. Why?”
The United States no longer has the luxury of time. “We have the advantage today, but five years from now that advantage — if we don’t do something different — will be gone, and 10 years from now we could be behind,” he said.
Wilson said she couldn’t think of a warfighting capability that isn’t somehow tied to space.
While some have proposed forming a Space Corps within the Air Force, she believes a different way is more appropriate. “We need to integrate space and elevate space as part of a joint warfighting force,” she said. “Anything that separates space from the joint fight is moving us in the wrong direction.”