WASHINGTON — As the Space Force works to revamp the current force structure to meet future challenges, the Biden administration’s nominee to lead the new service has pointed to Ukraine’s use of satellites in the war in courses with Russia for some examples to imitate.
“[W]When I look at what we see in this Ukrainian theater, I see important lessons that we should take to heart in terms of our Space Force design,” Gen. Chance Saltzman told the Senate Armed Services Committee today during a hearing on his appointment to the post of Chief of Space Operations (CSO).
If confirmed, Saltzman would become the second Space Force chief, taking over from General Jay Raymond.
Space Force, as Raymond told the Hill in May, is engaged in an effort to “pivot” to a more resilient force design by 2027. This new posture will include more satellites in more orbits and an increased reliance on commercial systems, to complicate the ability of adversaries to seriously degrade or destroy critical US space capabilities.
Ukraine does not directly own or operate satellites, but has leveraged assistance from friendly satellite operating governments as well as the commercial sector to inform its actions on the ground. Saltzman, whose call sign is, predictably, “Salty,” said that while it “may be a bit early to tell all the lessons learned,” it’s clear that , on the one hand, Ukrainians have widely and successfully used trade capabilities.
“[T]Using commercial space capabilities to augment military and national decision-making capabilities has proven effective for Ukrainians,” he said.
This includes the use of commercial satellite communications systems, such as SpaceX’s Starlink, to ensure leaders’ ability to maintain command and control capabilities. It also includes Kyiv acquiring massive amounts of commercial remote sensing imagery to help it keep tabs on Russian troop movements and the disposition of its own fighters. Indeed, Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., noted that Ukraine’s acquisition of commercial remote sensing was heavily assisted by the US intelligence community (IC).
“During the Russian invasion of Ukraine, our IC doubled its purchases of commercial satellite imagery to help prepare and supply Intel to our Ukrainian allies,” he said, adding that spy agencies have also leveraged radio frequency geolocation satellites operated by Virginia-based Hawkeye360 to detect Russian jamming.
“It’s not the first time that commercial technologies have been leveraged effectively, but I think it’s really reaching warp speed,” Kaine added.
In response to Kaine’s question about the importance of trade to future Space Force operations, Saltzman replied, “It’s critically important.”
Saltzman said another consideration is that many of the satellite constellations supporting Ukraine are made up of many small satellites — rather than like the current US force structure, which is made up of constellations of a few high-end satellites.
“The disaggregated and proliferating nature of some of the constellations they use has shown a level of resilience to degradation attempts that I think is remarkable,” he said, explaining that Ukraine has hammered that the “large single satellites” are easier to attack than a “distributed architecture”.
Finally, Saltzman said, cybersecurity and the protection of satellite networks have also proven critical in Ukraine.
“I think we see how important it is to defend our cyber networks, because those cyber networks create vulnerabilities, if attacked, to actual space capabilities,” he said.
While Saltzman declined to comment directly on Russia’s “operational deficits”, it is clear that so far, despite sophisticated jamming and hacking, Moscow has been unable to make a significant impact on the Kyiv’s ability to use commercial space systems to its advantage.
Asked by Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., about the U.S. military’s ability to withstand attacks on satellite systems from Russia and China, Saltzman pointed out that currently no country could paralyze operations – a situation which he undertook several times during the hearing to maintain if confirmed.
“I think the best way to say that,” he replied, “is that the current attacks we’re seeing aren’t enough to suppress our abilities. We are resilient [as of] today.”
However, Saltzman worried that today’s force structure might not be up to snuff in a future all-out conflict.
“As soon as we go into a crisis contingency, I don’t believe we’ve designed our system to operate in that level of a contested environment. And so we have to change… [the] architecture to accommodate the fact that space has evolved from a benign environment to a more contested combat domain.
Pressed by Hawley, Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and other senators on whether Space Force has sufficient offensive capabilities, including anti-satellite weapons, Saltzman waltzed around all the details, noting the public nature of the hearing, but expressed willingness to discuss the situation in a classified setting.
“When I think of space superiority, which is kind of the phrase we use to mean we’re going to challenge that [space] domain to ensure that we have access to capabilities, it also means that we will protect the joint force from adversaries’ ability to use space to target them,” he said.
“I think the best way to do that is through deterrence, to prevent a war from spreading into space by depriving us of those capabilities. But the best way to deter is to have a resilient capability, and to have offensive and defensive capabilities that create a credible force. That’s where you really get your real deterrent,” he said.
Regarding generic hardware and software challenges for Space Force as it attempts to revamp the force structure, Saltzman said the resilience of ground systems against “malicious cyber actors” is something the service s try to understand. Another challenge being assessed, he said, is how to deal with “gaps” in the number of space surveillance sensors needed to provide global space domain awareness, and what software tools on the ground are needed to transform the information collected from space surveillance sensors into “decision quality information”.
Predictably, Saltzman has been met with a deluge of questions on the burning political issue of the need for a National Space Guard from a number of senators who represent states with large ranger populations. , such as Hawaii, Florida, Colorado and Alabama. And just as predictably, he followed Defense Department talking points closely, highlighting only the service’s ongoing review.
Overall, the hearing passed without major fireworks — despite (equally predictable) snipers from a number of hawkish Republicans, such as Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, in about what they say are too soft space policies for the Biden administration. And SASC members seemed largely well-disposed toward Saltman’s nomination.
“We look forward to your confirmation…as soon as possible,” said SASC President Jack Reed, DR.I.