Faster, Please!
Faster, Please! — The Podcast
🌐 My chat (+transcript) with defense policy analyst Todd Harrison on the US Space Force

🌐 My chat (+transcript) with defense policy analyst Todd Harrison on the US Space Force

🚀 Faster, Please! — The Podcast #42

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The US Space Force, the newest branch of the American military, takes national defense to a new frontier. Here on Faster, Please! — The Podcast, I sit down with AEI senior fellow Todd Harrison to discuss the state of the Space Force and its evolving mission.

Harrison has served as senior vice president and head of research at Metrea, a defense consulting firm, been a senior fellow for defense budget strategies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, directed the Defense Budget Analysis and Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and served as a captain in the US Air Force Reserve.

In This Episode

  • Creating the Space Force (0:53)

  • A New Kind of Warfare (9:15)

  • Defining the Mission (11:40)

  • Conflict and Competition in Space (15:34)

  • The Danger of Space Debris (20:11)

Below is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation

Creating the Space Force (0:53)

Pethokoukis: I was recently looking at an image that showed the increase in the number of satellites around the earth, and it's been a massive increase; I imagine a lot of it has to do with SpaceX putting up satellites, and it's really almost like—I think to an extent that most people don't understand; between  government, military, and a lot of commercial satellites—it's really like the earth is surrounded by this information shell. And when looking at that, I couldn't help but think, “Yeah, it kind of seems like we would need a Space Force or something to keep an eye on that and protect that.” And I know there was a lot of controversy, if I'm not mistaken, like, “Why do we need this extra branch of government?” Is that controversy about why we need a Space Force, is that still an active issue and what are your thoughts?

Harrison: To start with where you started, yes. The number of satellites in space has been growing literally exponentially in the past few years. I'll just throw a few numbers out there:  In 2023 alone, about 2,800 new satellites were launched, and in that one year it increased the total number of satellites on the orbit by 22 percent, just in one year. And all the projections are that the number of satellites, number of launches, are going to keep growing at a pace like that for the foreseeable future, for the next several years. A lot is going into space, and we know from all other domains that where commerce goes conflict will follow. And we are seeing that in space as well.

Like the Navy protecting the shipping lanes. 

Yeah, exactly. So we know that to a certain extent that's inevitable. There will be points of contention, points of conflict, but we've already seen that in space just with the military dimension of our space. Back in 2007, I think a lot of the world woke up to the fact that space is a contested environment when the Chinese tested an anti-satellite weapon, which, by the way, produced thousands of pieces of space debris that are still in orbit today. More than 2,600 pieces of debris are still in orbit from that one Chinese ASAT test. And, of course, that was just one demonstration of counter-space capabilities. Space has been a contested war fighting domain, really, since the beginning of the Space Age. The first anti-satellite test was in 1959, and so it has become increasingly important for economic reasons, but also for military reasons. Now, when the Space Force debate kicked into high gear, I think it took a lot of people who weren't involved in military space, I think it took a lot of people by surprise that we were having this debate.

Yeah, it really seemed like it came out of nowhere, I think probably for 99 percent of people who aren't professionals tracking the issue.

In reality, that debate, it started in the 1990s, and there was a senator from up in New Hampshire who had written a journal article basically talking about, “Hey, we need to separate space into its own military service.” You had the Air Force chief of staff at the time in the mid-1990s, General Ron Fogleman. He said that the Air Force should eventually become an Air and Space Force, and then one day a Space and Air Force. So you had the seeds of it happening in the ’90s. Then you had Congress wanting to look at, “Okay, how do we do this? How do we reorganize military space?” They created a commission that was led by Donald Rumsfeld before he became Secretary of Defense for the second time. That commission issued its report in 2001, and it recommended a bunch of reforms, but it said in the midterm, in five to 10 years we should create a separate military service for space, something like a Space Corps.

Nothing happened, even though Rumsfeld then became Secretary of Defense. We kind of took our focus off of it for a while, there were a few other studies that went on, and then in 2016, two members of Congress, a Republican and a Democrat, Mike Rogers and Jim Cooper, who were on the House Armed Services Committee, they took this issue up. They got so fed up with the oversight of looking at how the Air Force was shortchanging space in many ways in terms of personnel and training and funding and modernization, that they then put a provision into the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act that would've created a Space Corps, they called it: a separate military service for space. And that bill actually passed the full House of Representatives.

The Senate did not have a similar provision in their bill, so it died. It didn't make it into law—but then, all of a sudden, a couple of years later, President Trump, pretty much out of the blue floats this idea of creating a Space Force, and he did it at a rally that was at a Marine Corps base out in California, and, for some reason, it caught on with Trump. And then you already had the votes, a bipartisan group in the House of Representatives who had already pushed this, and so it started to gain momentum.

It was very controversial at the time. The secretary of the Air Force at that time was adamantly opposed to it. Eventually, Trump forced it on the civilian establishment at DoD, and Congress ultimately enacted it, and the Space Force became a military service in December… I think December 20th, 2019. Now, there was some question, will the Biden administration keep it?

Is this here to stay?

It is written into law, so a president cannot unilaterally take it away, and, at this point, it's got its own roots in the ground and the Space Force is not going anywhere.

A little bit off topic, but was there a similar debate when they separated the Air Force out of the Army?

There was, yeah, and it lasted for a long time. So you had folks like Billy Mitchell who were in the Army Air Corps way back before World War II—I think in the late ’20s, early ’30s—they were advocating for a separate military service for Air. And I believe Billy Mitchell actually got court marshaled because he disobeyed orders from a superior about advocating for this with Congress.

And so the idea of a separate service for Air pretty much died out until World War II hit. And, of course, that was a war that we were brought into it by an attack that came from the air, and that really brought air power into full effect in terms of a major component of military power. So then, at the end of World War II, the Air Power advocates got together, they created the Air Force Association to advocate for a separate military service and they got it in the National Security Reform Act in 1947, I think the Air Force actually stood up in 1948.

It took longer, I would argue, a lot more advocacy and it took a World War, a crisis, to show us how important Air was to the military in order for us to actually create an Air Force. Now, I think, thankfully, we did that in advance of a crisis in terms of creating the Space Force.

Right now, what the Space Force does, is it tracking satellites, tracking and space debris, is it a monitoring and tracking service? It's not a fighting service yet?

Well, yes and no. A lot of what the Space Force does on a day-to-day basis is they provide space-enabling capabilities to the other military services. So if you want to get intelligence, reconnaissance, surveillance from space, you can go to the Space Force. Separately, we have intel space that's run through the National Reconnaissance Office—that has not changed its organization. If you want to get GPS, the Space Force runs our GPS constellation of satellites, and they're responsible for defending it against all forms of attack, which it is attacked daily. If you want satellite communications, the Space Force delivers that. If you want missile warning… So the Space Force delivers lots of enabling capabilities for other parts of the military. At the same time, it is tasked with defending those capabilities, and it's not just against kinetic forms of attack where an adversary is literally trying to shoot a satellite out of the sky.

A New Kind of Warfare (9:15)

I guess that's the first thing that popped in my mind. Too much science fiction maybe, but…

Well, that is real, that's a real threat. The truth is there's not a lot you can do to actively protect against that—at least, we don't have a lot of capabilities right now—but the forms of attack we see on a daily basis are cyber, electromagnetic, and other forms of non-kinetic attack like lazing the sensors on a satellite. You could temporarily, or even permanently, blind the sensors on a satellite with a laser from an aircraft or from a ground station.

I'll give you an example: When Russia invaded Ukraine, at the very beginning of the invasion, one of the first attacks they launched was a space attack. It was cyber, and it was against a commercial space capability. What they did is they exploited a vulnerability, previously unknown, in ViaSat modems. ViaSat's, a commercial satellite communications company, they had some sort of a vulnerability in their modems. The Russians, through a cyber attack, basically bricked all those modems. They locked them out. The Ukrainian military relied on ViaSat for satellite communications, so it locked up all of their terminals right at the beginning. They could not communicate using Satcom. Incidentally, it locked up lots of ViaSat terminals across Europe in that same attack. So we see this happening all the time. Russian forces are constantly jamming GPS signals. That makes weapons and drones much less effective. They can't use GPS for targeting once they go into a GPS-denied environment.

But the Space Force has ways to overcome that. We have protected military GPS signals, we have ways of increasing the strength of those signals to overcome jamming. There's lots of things you can do with counter-space and then counter to the counter-space.

The problem is that we kind of sat on our laurels and admired our advantage in space for a couple of decades and did not make a concerted effort to improve the protection of our space systems and develop our own capability to deny others the advantage of space because others didn't have that same advantage for a long time.

Well, that has changed, and the creation of the Space Force, I think, has really set us in a positive new direction to get serious about space defense and to get serious about denying others the advantage of space if we need to.

Defining the Mission (11:40)

The Chief of Space Operation at the Space Force recently published a short white paper, which I guess begins to lay out kind of a doctrine, like, “What is the mission? How do we accomplish this mission?” Probably the first sort of Big Think piece maybe since Space Force became a branch. What did that white paper say? What do you make of it?

Yeah, so I think one of the criticisms of military space for a while has been that we didn't really have space strategy, space doctrine, we didn't have a theory of space power that was well developed. I would argue we had some of those, but it's fair to say that they have not been that well developed. Well, one of the reasons you need a military service is to actually get the expertise that is dedicated to this domain to think through those things and really develop them and flesh them out, and so that's what this white paper did, and I think it did a pretty good job of it, developing a theory of space power. He calls it a “theory of success for competitive endurance in the space domain.”

And one of the things I thought was really great that they highlight in the paper, that a lot of US government officials in the past have been reluctant to talk about, is the fact that we are under attack on a daily basis—gray zone-type aggression in the space domain—and we've got to start pushing back against that. And we've got to actually be willing and able to exercise our own defensive and counter-space capabilities, even in the competition phase before we actually get to overt conflict, because our adversaries are doing it already. They're doing it to us. We need to be able to brush them back. We're not talking about escalating and starting a conflict or anything like that, but when someone jams our satellite communication systems or GPS, they need to feel some consequences. Maybe something similar happens to their own space capabilities, or maybe we employ capabilities that show them we can overcome what you're doing. So I thought that was a good part of the theory of success is you can't just sit by and let an adversary degrade your space capabilities in the competition phase.

How much of the focus of Space Force currently, and maybe as that paper discussed what the department's mission is, focused on the military capabilities, protecting military capabilities, the military capabilities of other nations, versus what you mentioned earlier was this really expanding commercial element which is only going to grow in importance?

Today, the vast majority of the Space Force's focus is on the military side of providing that enabling military capability that makes all of our forces more effective, protecting that capability, and then, to a lesser extent, being able to interfere with our adversaries’ ability to use space for their own advantage.

They are just now starting to really grapple with, “Okay, is there a role for the Space Force in protecting space commerce, protecting commercial space capabilities that may be economically important, that may be strategically important to us and our allies, but are not directly part of a military capability?” They're starting to think through that now, and it really is the Space Force taking on a role in the future that is more like the Navy. The Navy does fight and win wars, of course, but the Navy also has a role in patrolling the seas and ensuring the free flow of commerce like we see the US Navy doing right now over in the Red Sea: They're helping protect ships that need to transit through that area when Houthi Rebels are targeting them. Do we need that kind of capability and space? Yeah, I think we do. It is not a huge priority now, but it is going to be a growing priority in the future.

Conflict and Competition in Space (15:34)

I don't know if such things even currently exist, but if you have satellites that can kill other satellites, do those exist and does the Space Force run them?

Satellites that can kill other satellites, absolutely. That is a thing that exists. A lot of stuff is kept classified. What we know that's unclassified is, back in the 1960s and early ’70s, the Soviets conducted many tests—a couple of dozen tests—of what they call a co-orbital anti-satellite system, that is a satellite that can kill another satellite, and there's still debris in space from some of those tests back in the ’60s and ’70s.

We also know, unclassified, that China and Russia have on-orbit systems that appear to be able to rendezvous with other satellites, get very close. We've seen the Russians deploy a satellite that appeared to fire a projectile at another Russian satellite—looks like a test of some sort of a co-orbital weapon. So yes, those capabilities are out there. They do exist. We've never seen a capability like that used in conflict, though, not yet, but we know they exist

Looking forward a decade… One can imagine a lot more satellites, multiple space platforms, maybe some run by the private sector, maybe others not. One could imagine permanent or semi-permanent installations on the moon from different countries. Are plans being made to protect those things, and would the Space Force be the one protecting them? If you have a conflict between the Chinese military installation on the moon and the American, would that be in the Space Force domain? Again, it seems like science fiction, but I don't think it's going to seem like science fiction before too long.

Well, that's right. We're not at that point today, but are we going to be at that point in 10, 20, 30 years? Perhaps. There are folks in the Space Force, like in the chief scientist’s office that have thought about these things; they publish some papers on it. There's no real effort going into that right now other than thinking about it from an academic perspective. Should that be in the mandate of the Space Force? Well, I think it already is, it's just there's not a need for it yet, and so it's something to keep an eye on.

Now, there are some rules, if you will, international agreements that would suggest, “Okay, some of these things should not happen.” Doesn't mean they won't; but, for example, the main treaty that governs how nations operate in space is the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. The Outer Space Treaty specifically says that you can't claim territory in space or on any celestial body like the moon or Mars, and it specifically says you cannot put a military installation on any celestial body.

So, should China put a military base on the moon, they would be clearly violating the Outer Space Treaty. If China puts a scientific installation that happens to have some military capabilities on it, but they don't call it that, well, you know, what are we going to do? Are we going to call them before the United Nations and complain? Or if China says, “Hey, we've put a military installation in this key part of the lunar South Pole where we all believe that there is ice water, and if anyone tries to land anywhere near us, you're going to interfere with our operations, you might kick up dust on us, so we are establishing a keep-out zone of some very large area around this installation.”

I think that there are some concerns that we could be headed in that direction, and that's one of the reasons NASA is pushing forward with the Artemis program to return humans to the moon and a set of international agreements called the Artemis Accords, where we've gotten, I think, more than 20 nations now to agree to a way of operating in the lunar environment and, to a certain extent, in Earth orbit as well, which will help make sure that the norms that develop in space, especially in deep space operating on the moon, are norms that are conducive to free and open societies and free markets. And so I give credit to former NASA administrator, Jim Breidenstein and the Trump administration; he came up with the Artemis Accords. I think it was wonderful. I would love to see us go even further, but NASA is still pursuing that and still signing up more countries to the Artemis Accords, and when they sign up to that, they can be part of our effort to go back to moon and the Artemis program, and right now we are on track to get there and put humans back on the moon before China. I just hope we keep it that way.

The Danger of Space Debris (20:11)

Let me finish up with a question based on something you've mentioned several times during our conversation, which is space debris and space junk. I see more and more articles about the concerns. How concerned are you about this? How should I think about that issue?

Yeah, it is a concern, and, I mean, the physics of the space domain are just fundamentally different than what we see in other domains. So, in space, depending on what orbit you're in, if something breaks up into pieces, those pieces keep orbiting Earth indefinitely. If you are below about 600 kilometers, those pieces of debris, there's a tiny amount of atmospheric drag, and, depending on your mass and your surface area and solar weather and stuff, eventually things 600 kilometers and below are going to reenter the Earth atmosphere and burn up in weeks, months, years.

Once you get above about 600 kilometers, things start staying up there much longer. And when you get out to geostationary orbit, which is 36,000 kilometers above the surface of the earth, those things aren't coming down, ever, not on their own. They're staying up there. So the problem is, imagine every time there was a shipwreck, or a car wreck, or a plane crash, that all of the debris kept moving around the earth forever. Eventually it adds up. And space, it's a very large volume, yes, but this stuff is whizzing by, if you're in low-earth orbit, you're going around 17,000 miles per hour constantly. And so you've got close approach after close approach, day after day, and then you run the risk of debris hitting debris, or debris hitting other satellites, and then creating more debris, and then increasing the odds that this happens again and again, the movie Gravity gave a dramatic effect to this.

I was thinking about that scene as you're explaining this.

Yeah. The timeline was very compressed in that movie, but something like that, the Kessler Syndrome, is theoretically possible in the space domain, so we do have to watch out for it. Debris is collecting, particularly in low Earth orbit above 600 kilometers, and ASAT tests are not helpful at all to that. So one of the things the Biden administration did is they instituted a unilateral moratorium on antisatellite testing by the United States. Well, it's easy for us to do. We didn't need to do any anti-satellite tests anymore because we already know we can do that. We have effective capabilities and we wouldn't want to use kinetic anti-satellite attacks anyway, ’cause it would hurt our own systems.

We have been going around trying to get other countries to sign up to that as well, to a moratorium on ASAT testing. It's a good first step, but really you need Russia and China. They need to sign up to not do that anymore. And India, India conducted a kinetic ASAT test back in, I think, 2019. So those are the countries we really need to get on board with that.

But there's a lot of accidental debris production that happens as well. When countries leave a spent rocket body up in orbit and then something happens. You know, a lot of times they leave their fuel tanks pressurized or they leave batteries on there, after five, 10 years in orbit, sometimes these things explode randomly, and then that creates a debris field. So there's more that we can do to kind of reach international agreements about just being smart stewards of the space domain. There are companies out there that are trying to work on technologies to clean up space debris. It's very hard. That is not something that's on the immediate horizon, but those are all efforts that should be ongoing. It is something to be concerned about.

And actually, to circle back to the chief of space operations and his theory of success in his white paper, that's one of the tensions that he highlights in there, is that we want to use space for military advantage, including being able to deny other countries the ability to use space. But at the same time, we want to be good stewards of the space domain and so there's an inherent tension in between those two objectives, and that's the needle that the Space Force is trying to thread.

I have one final question, and you may have no answer for it: If we were to track a large space object headed toward Earth, whose job would it be to stop it?

So it would be NASA's job to spot it, to find objects like near-Earth orbit asteroids. Whose job is it to stop it? I think we would be figuring that out on the fly. First of all, we would have to figure out, can we stop it? Is there a way to stop it? And it would probably require some sort of an international effort, because we all have a common stake in that, but yeah, it is not in anyone's job jar.


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Faster, Please!
Faster, Please! — The Podcast
Welcome to Faster, Please! — The Podcast. Several times a month, host Jim Pethokoukis will feature a lively conversation with a fascinating and provocative guest about how to make the world a better place by accelerating scientific discovery, technological innovation, and economic growth.