‘No One Wins if War Extends Into Space’
The newly reestablished U.S. Space Command will focus on preventing, not fighting, a conflict in space.
When U.S. President Donald Trump called for a separate Space Force in the summer of 2018, the American public imagined a force of spacesuit-clad officers fighting terrorists above the earth. The reality is much less exciting.
The proposed Space Force, which would fall under the Department of the Air Force, and its associated combatant command, the newly reestablished U.S. Space Command, will be responsible for all U.S. military space operations. But rather than fighting a war in space, those operations are primarily focused on preventing such a conflict, says Brig. Gen. Thomas James, the director of operations for Space Command.
The focus for the brand-new command is defending U.S. assets in space—the satellites that provide critical communications and navigations capabilities to U.S. and allied armed forces—and deterring potential adversaries. James spoke with Foreign Policy about his new job, and the emerging threats from Russia and China that Space Command must counter. This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Foreign Policy: Why do we need a separate Space Command right now?
Thomas James: We’re at an inflection point today in the idea of space being developed as its own domain. When you look at the threats that we have today, there’s some similarity to what we had in the ’80s. That waned in the ’90s and that led us to the idea of space as an uncontested area, so we designed space architecture based off the fact that we wouldn’t really be threatened in space. Today you’ve got a pretty much more aggressive threat. So that space area of operations is the area that we focus on for protecting and defending critical assets as we look at the growing threat from our adversaries.
FP: There are a lot of myths out there about Space Command and Space Force—for example that the United States will be fighting the Islamic State in space. What will Space Command actually do?
TJ: We are working closely with the Department of Commerce as they take on the role of space traffic management, so that allows us to focus more on what we call “space domain awareness.” Think of it like maritime or air domain awareness: Can we understand what’s occurring in this area of operations that we have responsibility for? A big part of that is debris, so trying to understand debris patterns, what risk do they potentially cause to satellites. We want to be able to alert all countries of potential hazards to their satellites.
Overall, we have three primary missions: No. 1 is to deter conflict to extend into space. Then, if it does extend into space, are we able to defend our assets? And the third is our ability to defeat an adversary, and that could be through any means, not just in space but through multidomain operations.
All that is, again, to keep conflict out of space. Our take is no one wins if war extends into space. Because of debris patterns, it can last for hundreds of years. So that’s our focus: to deter. We do that only if we can approach that from a position of strength.
FP: What new threats are we seeing from adversaries like China and Russia that Space Command must combat?
TJ: In the 1980s there was a focus on some of the threats to satellites in space, but with the fall of the Soviet Union space was more benign than anything else. That’s changed in recent years: In 2007, China demonstrated a capability on one of their defunct weather satellites that they could hit it, and that caused a huge debris pattern. What we’ve seen since then is continued growth in China in developing anti-satellite technology.
We also see Russia developing that same capability. It’s not just those kinetic kill vehicles—it’s terrestrial-based jammers. We’ve seen that grow significantly from both China and Russia as they understand the significance of satellite technology to the way the U.S. and coalition plan and conduct warfare.
You also see both China and Russia are developing lasers that have the potential to blind and maybe damage satellites.
FP: Many Americans don’t grasp just how important space is to everyday operations. Can you tell me a bit about how critical space is for the military?
TJ: Space is in the DNA of every military operation that we do. You can’t describe a major military operation that the U.S. military or allies plan and conduct that doesn’t rely on unfettered access to information from satellite communications.
So how do we take advantage of what’s going to change in the near future? The fact is that we will see constellations very different from what we’ve seen for the last 20- to 30 years. In the last few years you’ve seen launches in the hundreds maybe, for a year you are going to see launches in the thousands, and in the next three to five years you could see an additional 10,000 satellites on orbit. They are smaller, cheaper, designed to not last that long. So the key is understanding not only how do we use that for our economic advantages, but how do we use that for security advantages and how do our potential threats use those systems.
FP: Space has traditionally been the domain of the Air Force. How will Space Command incorporate a broader swath of the armed forces?
TJ: Space command is a joint command. I’m an Army officer, and we are growing the Army part, and we have Navy folks here as well, although the preponderance is Air Force. It’s not even just space experts: Right now a large part of the Army and even the Air Force folks that we are bringing into space command, it’s their first space assignment. This is a change of culture.
FP: What are the next steps for Space Command?
TJ: Manning is an absolute priority for us, because having the right people in place as soon as we can helps us move faster. Then, a big part of what we’ve done is we continue to expand and link into the intelligence community. We want to continue to grow that partnership and understand what it means to operate together. Also, right now we are dispersed across several different locations, so we want to get all those folks into one location.
The key thing is that we stay ahead of our adversaries and that they know it, that we have superior domain awareness in space, that we have the capabilities to defend our assets and defeat their ability to extend conflict into space. Through all of that, when they look into the heavens and think that today is our day to extend conflict today and they see strength—that they say, “Not today.” Our job is to continue to stay ahead of them so that day never comes.