US Air Force is preparing to fight in space 'in a matter of years'

The Air Force already faces extensive operational obligations on Earth, but the service is shifting focus to prepare for what many see as the growing potential for conflict in space.

In a speech at the Air Force Association’s air-warfare symposium in Florida in late February 2018, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said it was, “time for us as a service, regardless of specialty badge, to embrace space superiority with the same passion and sense of ownership as we apply to air superiority today.”

It’s not the first time Air Force leadership has underscored the importance of space.

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Goldfein outlined the Air Force’s preparations for space operations in a February 2017 op-ed. In October 2017, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson emphasized the interests the US has in space and stressed the Air Force’s obligation to prepare for conflict there.

“We are the ones, since 1954, who are responsible for everything from 100 feet below the earth in missile silos all the way up to the stars,” she said at an event in Washington, DC. “We need to normalize space from a national-security perspective. We have to have all of our officers who are wearing blue uniforms more knowledgeable about space capabilities and how it connects to the other domains.”

The Air Force’s 45th Space Wing supported NASA’s launch of Orbital ATK’s Cygnus spacecraft on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, April 18, 2017. (US Air Force)

US national-security officials have said space will become a venue for a range of state and non-state actors with the continued expansion of the space industry and increased availability of technology, private-sector investment, and proliferation of international partnerships for shared production and operations.

“All actors will increasingly have access to space-derived information services, such as imagery, weather, communications, and positioning, navigation, and timing for intelligence, military, scientific, or business purposes,” Daniel Coats, the director of national intelligence, said in a Worldwide Threat Assessment delivered to the Senate Intelligence Committee early 2018.

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“As if we don’t have enough threats here on Earth, we need to look to the heavens — threats in space,” Coats told the committee.

In his February 2018 speech, Goldfein said the question was not if, but when the US will be fighting outside Earth’s atmosphere.

“I believe we’re going to be fighting from space in a matter of years,” he said, according to Space News. “And we are the service that must lead joint warfighting in this new, contested domain. This is what the nation demands.”

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein prepare to testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee, June 6, 2017. (US Air Force/Scott M. Ash)

Goldfein has been a proponent of multi-domain operations, which draw on air, cyber, ground, sea, and space to provide a full picture of the battlefield. Fighting outside the earth’s atmosphere will require new training as well as investment in new technologies, he said.

“We must build a joint, smart space force and space-smart joint force,” he told the audience in Florida.

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Asked March 2018 about congressional concerns over the Air Force’s preparations for operations in space, Wilson outlined specific moves the force is making to ready itself.

“I think it’s harder for people to understand [space] because it’s not where we normally breathe and live, but for the Air Force it is an area of tremendous emphasis — just look at the budgets,” she said at the Heritage Foundation.

The fiscal year 2018 budget had a 20% increase in funding for space programs, Wilson said, and the fiscal year 2019 budget proposal — which requests $8.5 billion for space programs — added more than 7% on top of that.

The Air Force launched the ninth Boeing-built Wideband Global SATCOM satellite on a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, March 18, 2017. (US Air Force/United Launch Alliance)

“We have shifted to next-generation missile warning — so a rapid change there to cancel two planned satellites and shift to a defendable missile-warning architecture. Jam-resistant GPS, so GPS III, is in this budget,” Wilson said, referring to the next set of satellites needed to keep the global positioning system operational.

The “National Space Defense Center is now set up and established so that we have a common operating picture of what’s going on in space, because unless you known what’s going on you can’t defend it,” she added. “Our budget also includes simulators and war-gaming to train space operators to operate in a contested environment. So there is a lot in this budget.”

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In the next five years, the Air Force plans to put $44.3 billion toward space systems, according to Space News — about an 18% increase over the five-year plan submitted in 2017. The new total includes $31.5 billion for research and development and $12.8 billion for procurement.

“The top-line numbers, I think, tell a story,” Wilson said at the Heritage Foundation. “But I think when you get down into the programs, there’s a real recognition that space will be a contested domain and that we are developing the capability to deter and prevail should anyone seek to deny the United States operations in space.”