Space domain awareness is top priority for USSPACECOM – SpacePolicyOnline.com

The commander of U.S. Space Command told a Senate committee today that his top priority is to establish “exquisite” space domain awareness capabilities to ensure the United States knows exactly what is going on in the space. space and why. USSPACECOM reached initial operating capability in August 2021 and he assured senators that “your space command is ready.”

Gen. James Dickinson, Commander of US Space Command, testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, March 8, 2022. Screen capture.

USSPACECOM Commander General James Dickinson and US Strategic Command Commander Admiral Charles Richard testified this morning before the Senate Armed Services Committee as part of the Defense Budget Review for the 2023 financial year by the commission, although the budget request has not yet been submitted.

All agreed that any discussion of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine would be deferred to a confidential session after the public hearing, so statements and questions and answers were limited to broader topics.

Citing growing threats from China and Russia, Dickinson’s main theme was the need to know not only how many space objects there are and where, but also their purpose. The DOD calls this Space Domain Awareness (SDA).

“The SDA remains my top priority for the mission,” Dickinson told the committee, because it “provides the backbone of US Space Command’s strategy to accomplish our mission.”

“The SDA helps us analyze, not just identify, what’s going on in space, which, combined with information from our intelligence agencies, helps develop an understanding of why things happen, characterize intent and provide decision-making benefits to our leaders.”

He repeatedly referred to China’s 2007 and Russia’s 2021 anti-satellite tests against their own satellites that created thousands of pieces of debris as indicative of the challenge. They are among the growing number of space objects in Earth orbit. When USSPACECOM was created in 2019, it tracked 25,000 space objects. Today it is “almost 44,000”.

“I need to have excellent domain knowledge…to be able to interpret what’s going on so that I can make recommendations and take the actions I need.”

Dickinson said he found that ground-based ballistic missile defense sensors, such as TPY-2 radars, are useful for the SDA. They “were not required or expected to have space-based research capability”, but it turns out that they do and data from these systems is integrated with other SDA sensors.

Dickinson pointed out that even with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China remains the main threat to the United States today.

“China remains our stimulus threat. The current development of the PLA aims to create a multi-purpose, professional and lethal joint force capable of projecting power on a global scale and the space layer is critical to their efforts,” Dickinson said. China now has more than 500 satellites, five times more than ten years ago. In 2021 alone, it increased its “in-orbit assets by 27%”.

China also has counterspace weapons. He pointed to China’s direct-ascent anti-satellite system, the October 2021 hypersonic glide test, as well as the “dual-purpose” SJ-21 satellite which docked with a former Chinese satellite in January this year. and moved it to another orbit.

Russia’s Nudol anti-satellite test in November 2021 also underscores that country’s threat, but “lack of funding, trained personnel and other resource shortfalls have hampered” their efforts while China’s space program has “resources sufficient financial and human resources,” he said. wrote in his prepared statement. However, Russia has “valuable experience” that China lacks and the two could “try to combine their respective strengths on joint projects in certain areas”.

Asked by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) what would constitute an armed attack on a satellite and what would be a proportionate response since there are no internationally adopted standards of behavior in space, Dickinson pointed to the five principles of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. responsible behavior in space as a starting point. But he quickly got back to his main message — he needs Space Domain Awareness to figure out what’s going on and hopes Congress will authorize and fund these programs.

President Trump reinstated USSPACECOM in August 2019 after a 17-year hiatus. Dickinson informed Austin that he had reached Initial Operating Capability in August 2021 and was ready to “address threats and take advantage of opportunities across the spectrum, from competition to conflict.” Full operational capability is not expected for “a few, three years,” Dickinson told the committee, but “I assure you here today that your space command is ready.”

Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on US Space Command, March 8, 2022. Screen capture.

One thing he needs for full operational capability is permanent residency. USSPACECOM is temporarily headquartered at Peterson Air Force Base, CO, near other military space installations and many supporters want it to stay there. Days before leaving office, however, Trump chose Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, AL. Critics have accused the decision of being politically motivated, and the DOD inspector general and the Government Accountability Office are investigating.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) asked why “we’re going to spend money and time moving” Space Command given the urgency of other issues. Dickinson just wants an answer. “For me, it’s not necessarily a question of location, it’s a question of decision. …I need a decision and based on that decision I will do whatever I have to do to make sure I can complete my mission.

USSPACECOM is often confused with US Space Force. Space Force is one of six military services that “organize, train and equip” personnel who are then assigned as needed to the Unified Combatant Commands that fight wars. USSPACECOM is one of 11 Unified Combatant Commands, along with US Strategic Command.