Shelton announces new space situational awareness satellite program

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Zachary Vucic
  • Air Force News Service
The commander of Air Force Space Command announced a new satellite program during a speech about the importance of space and cyberspace at the Air Force Association Air Warfare Symposium and Technology exposition, Feb. 21, here.

General William Shelton told the audience about the new Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program with two satellites being launched on the same launch vehicle later this year.

“GSSAP will present a significant improvement in space object surveillance, not only for better collision avoidance, but also for detecting threats,” Shelton said. “GSSAP will bolster our ability to discern when adversaries attempt to avoid detection and to discover capabilities they may have, which might be harmful to our critical assets at these higher altitudes.”

According to a new fact sheet on GSSAP posted on the AFSPC website, the program will be a space-based capability operating in near-geosynchronous orbit, supporting U.S. Strategic Command space surveillance operations as a dedicated Space Surveillance Network sensor. GSSAP will allow more accurate tracking and characterization of man-made orbiting objects, uniquely contribute to timely and accurate orbital predictions, enhance knowledge of the geosynchronous orbit environment, and further enable space flight safety to include satellite collision avoidance.

Shelton announced the program during a speech that conveyed concern about the increasingly complex and contested space and cyber environments. He said space and cyberspace are very much a part of everything we do. The dependence on, and demand for, space and cyberspace is higher than it’s ever been, he said, noting the changes that have occurred over the years, with 170 countries now having a tangible interest in space to include 11 countries with indigenous launch capability.

He said there are no midterm alternatives to the capability provided by space.

“If we’re going to be a global power, we want global coverage, we want global access and we want it at a time and a place of our choosing,” Shelton said.

Speaking specifically about space, Shelton said despite the increased dependence, the declining budget creates challenges to meet the rising demand. The demand for space includes surveillance, tracking and communication.

In addition the focus and actions the Air Force and the nation are taking on space situational awareness, he discussed need for survivability and resilience of our satellite constellations. With the additional challenge of declining budgets, Shelton said, “What we’re really looking for is the nexus of required capability, affordability and resilience” for the nation’s space systems.

“The study work we are doing right now will be effectual for new solutions in the mid 2020 timeframe,” he said. “But we’ve got to get that work done now.”

Shelton closed the space portion of his presentation by talking about the Space Security and Defense Program, a vital program that helps find ways to protect the Air Force’s spacecraft. SSDP looks at available intelligence and adversary counter space programs, and recommends solutions. He said the program has been a “big plus” for situational awareness and has tangible results in many other areas, even in its early stages.

“(Air Force Space Command) is working very hard to get it right for the future,” he said. “(Space) is a vital capability for the nation, for the joint force. We can’t let them down, and we won’t.”

Moving on to cyberspace, the general said it is very different than any other domain as it’s man-made and unlike the physical domains people have learned to use over time. Cyberspace more and more defines modern life in the 21st century.

He said cyberspace creates a big advantage in regards to how many people the military has to put in harm’s way, however the country’s adversaries know cyberspace is the nation’s lifeline. Because of this, high-end operators are constantly threatening U.S. systems.

“We’ve got a lot of cyber enabled weapons these days,” he said. “If an adversary can get in and make that weapon system ineffective at the worst possible time – think about that.

“As we’ve grown our dependence on cyberspace for all the right reasons, it has become an increasingly contested environment for all the wrong reasons. The threats have grown in both sophistication and in number.

A laptop, the right skill set and an internet connection is all one needs to become a player in cyber warfare, making the low “cost of admission” a major complication.

“We can spend a great deal of treasure on defenses, only to be overtaken by the exquisite talents of a high-end cyber operator who has very little capital invested,” Shelton said, noting anonymity makes attribution of these attacks difficult.

Though the cyber domain is different from any other domain, the application of standard military process is doing well to mitigate a lot of the risk, he said. Air Force Space Command is developing several tools to conduct cyberspace operations including the potential for offensive cyber capability.

“Our Airmen and industry partners are facing up to these cyber challenges each and every day, and they are ensuring the mission gets done in the ‘wild west’ of cyberspace,” Shelton said. “We’ve come a long way in space and cyber these last few years. We continue to provide game-changing capabilities to the warfighter … I think the future of warfare really depends on us having the best, most secure and most capable space and cyber systems.”

U.S. Cyber Command recently established a cyber-mission force concept to conduct full-spectrum cyber operations across the Department of Defense, he said. Over the next three years, the Air Force will provide 39 teams, roughly 2,200 Airmen, to contribute to this cyber mission force.

“We must be prepared as a nation to succeed in increasingly complex and contested space and cyber environments, especially in these domains where traditional deterrence theory probably doesn’t apply,” he said. “We can’t afford to wait … for that catalyzing event that will prod us to action.”