Linking allied military space capabilities

18 mins read

The United States and its allies are extending military space cooperation beyond information sharing to include joint exercises, wargames and network integration.

“If we are to be effective teammates, we need to link our capabilities so that we can support joint and combined operations, and realize the full potential of our combined capabilities,” U.S. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said at the 36th Space Symposium. “In my view, the United States has struggled to achieve interoperability with our allies, even our closest allies. It’s time to break down those barriers in space, air, land, sea and cyber domains collectively.”

Leaders and representatives from 23 international military air and space agencies attended the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs Aug. 23-26. During speeches and panel discussions, many of the leaders highlighted existing bilateral and multilateral agreements, and shared goals for further military space collaboration.

“We have a huge field of cooperation regarding space operations from strategic communication to the ability to operate together, which requires a common vision of threats but also compatible doctrines, interoperable procedures and capabilities, and a shared space domain awareness,” said Maj. Gen. Michel Friedling, Commander of the French Space Command.

Space Domain Awareness
As people around the world rely increasingly on space-based communications, navigation and precision timing, “there’s a lot to defend in space,” said Maj. Gen. Pasi Jokinen, Air Force of Finland commander. “Cooperation and partnership are required because nobody can do space alone. To maintain freedom of access, situational awareness, readiness and communications, we need to collaborate with our partners.”

Many allied efforts center on creating a common understanding of commercial, civil and military space activities along with potential threats.

“The growing number of spacefaring nations, growing ambitions of international space programs and the rise of commercial actions that are profit-oriented will not make this task easier,” said Lt. Gen. Klaus Habersetzer, commander of the German Air Operations Command.

Space operators from allied nations collaborate at Lockheed Martin’s Center for Innovation in Virginia during Global Sentinel 19. Credit: U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. J.T. Armstrong
Japan’s Air Self-Defense Force “needs to understand not only the orbital location of space objects but also their capabilities and intents,” said Chief of Staff Gen. Shunji Izutsu. “Japan has difficulty completing this mission by itself. So it is indispensable to work closely with allies and friendly nations at all stages from peacetime to armed contingencies.”

Space domain awareness “becomes the most important building block of how we share that understanding of what’s going on in space and how we better secure and make it safe and accessible for all, ‘’ said Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Wigston, head of the U.K. Royal Air Force.

One campaign to bring allies together in space defense is the Combined Space Operations (CSpO) initiative, which involves Australia, Canada, France, Germany, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Another vehicle for cooperation is Operation Olympic Defender, a multinational effort led by U.S. Space Command to enhance the resilience of space systems, deter hostile acts in space and reduce the spread of orbital debris.

To deter hostile acts in space, the United States and its allies must first recognize them.

“What are hostile acts? How do we define them?” asked Friedling. “How do we react to them?”

The U.S. Defense Department is “working closely with the Department of Commerce and with the intelligence community to strengthen space domain awareness and improve our ability to identify and attribute threatening behavior,” said John Hill, who is performing the duties of the Assistant U.S. Secretary of Defense for Space Policy.

At the same time, nations are seeking to clarify norms of responsible behavior in space. The United Kingdom proposed a United Nations resolution in 2020 aimed at forging agreement on responsible behavior.

“Our governments and our diplomats are working in the United Nations at the moment to establish rules and norms of responsible and safe behavior in space, because there’s activity going on that is increasingly reckless,” Wingstrom said. Countries and organizations are “fielding systems that are overtly designed to interfere with, harm or destroy space platforms.”

Gen. John “Jay” Raymond, U.S. Space Force chief of space operations, added, “In every warfighting domain, there are rules for safe and professional behavior. We don’t have that today in space. It’s the wild, wild west.”

As a result, U.S. military space leaders are increasingly vocal about activities they deem unsafe or unprofessional. “Over the course of the last year or so, we have had that dialogue publicly when we see behavior that is less than safe and professional,” he added.

In 2020, for example, Raymond spoke with reporters about orbital maneuvers conducted by a Russian satellite that threatened a U.S. satellite. Raymond said the Russian satellite deployed a small “inspector” satellite that approached a U.S. reconnaissance satellite.

At the Space Symposium, Hill cited China and Russia as two nations seeking “to leverage space-based capabilities for their own military advantage while developing the means for denying the benefits of space to others.”

Hurdles to Clear
Even among allies, there are obstacles to close military space cooperation.

“I think we would all recognize that there are some aspects of what goes on in space that have probably been too highly classified for too long and there is a need to share that information, and in particular share that information around domain awareness,” Wigston said.

In addition, the allies “have not yet found an effective way to collaborate on equipment programs,” Wigston said. He added, however, that “good people” are working hard on the issue in the CSpO.

The United States and its allies also seek to enhance collaboration through wargames and joint exercises like Global Sentinel, a space situational awareness exercise established by U.S. Strategic Command and carried on by U.S. Space Command.

Germany, Italy and the United States participated earlier this year in AsterX, the first military space exercise led by the French Space Command.

“We will open AsterX to many more partners next year,” Friedling said.

France established a Space Command in 2019. Germany followed suit in July, a move that acknowledges “the relevance of a military use of space in the context of our national military capabilities,” Habersetzer said.

In addition to highlighting the relevance of space, the new space commands are establishing ties with partners.

The new German Space Command “is a perfect platform and prerequisite for personnel exchange, the development of common procedures, exchanging of lessons identified and lessons learned, and last but not least, creating a common space situational awareness,” Habersetzer said.

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