The U.S. space sectors – military, civil and commercial – will need to work together more closely to combat emerging and quickly multiplying threats from peer competitors, a senior DoD space civilian said Oct. 12.
“We need to get ourselves together to work as one big family, because we are looked at in that way by our adversaries,” said Jeff Gossel, senior intelligence engineer for the space and missiles analysis group at the National Air and Space Intelligence Center (NASIC) at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. “They will target us no matter who bought the platform.”
Russia and China are developing an array of systems that can better track, detect and possibly destroy U.S. space assets, and those adversaries will not distinguish between a national security space system or a commercially deployed vehicle, Gossel said during a Mitchell Institute breakfast event at the Capitol Hill Club in Washington, D.C. “They just want to target our capabilities, period,” he added.
NASIC is the Air Force unit tasked with gathering information on other countries’ weapons, assets and personnel in the air and in space. It collects what Gossel called “functional intelligence,” which can then be used by senior DoD officials to inform their own operational intelligence.
The United States as an entity must work to counter the rapidly increasing and innovative challenges from Russia and China, and continue to gather intel as more assets are regularly launched into space, he said.
“Our adversaries are working on many, many more space capabilities … to observe us,” he said. “These are important to understand because we need to know what they can see, what they can hear, and what we might need to do to affect their capabilities.”
New technologies such as smaller satellites, or smallsats, and more rapid space launch vehicles are an opportunity for the nation to launch more resilient systems at a reduced cost, but also require that units like NASIC must keep tabs on many more assets, he noted. The reduced size makes smallsats harder to detect, track and target, and the Defense Department must determine whether conventional means can counter a threat made up of thousands of systems instead of 10 or 20, he added.
Space debris continues to be an issue and will be a “problem for the future” as more spent rocket bodies and non-functioning satellites will remain on orbit after their service life is complete, he added.
Russia and China are hard at work on new capabilities that could potentially target and destroy U.S. assets, Gossel said. In 2017, Russia launched what the country called an inspector satellite in public releases, he noted. Such a system is capable of closely approaching a satellite in orbit to assess any possible damage, fuel levels and other maintenance issues.
“This is a very useful capability from a commercial perspective,” he noted. “But an inspector satellite also has the role of getting up close to do those missions. And if it gets too close … it could be a problem if you’re paranoid, like I am.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin has described some of his country’s space system developments publicly, “and I don’t think that was a mistake on his part,” Gossel added.
China is developing a co-orbital satellite weapon that would also have the ability to move up close to a neighboring satellite, Gossel said. That could in theory be used to collect signals intelligence, physically alter a satellite’s trajectory, or tamper with it in some fashion, he noted.
The U.S. space sector must also be aware of efforts to target domestic assets via a cislunar orbit, Gossel said, adding, “the potential for an adversary to fly something around the moon and come back at us from a different angle is of great concern.”
Gossel would not comment on the plausibility or benefits of building a new DoD branch dedicated to space, as President Trump has directed for the Space Force, though he said that Russia has stood up its own separate agency to focus on the domain. The notion of increased deterrence in the space domain “is definitely a part of the discussion set happening in the government,” he noted.
“Whether it will take a United States Space Force to do that, I can’t comment,” he said. “There are many ways to provide deterrence, [and] it is not necessarily a fact that it will take a Space Force to do that.”
The U.S. government is much more transparent about its plans than its adversaries, which is both “a problem and a benefit,” he added. “It’s killing us in some regards. … It’s useful in some regards too, and some of that is messaging,” he said.
The Pentagon is already moving forward with plans to stand up a new U.S. Space Command and field a space development agency out of the current Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, he noted.
“All of these things are public, all of them can be seen by whomever as a deterrent or not,” Gossel said. “Is it going to take a Space Force? I don’t know, I don’t think anybody knows, that’s why we’re having a debate.”