'Space as a contested environment' debuts

  • Published
  • By Capt. Ben Sakrisson
  • Air University Public Affairs
A new special area of emphasis, or SAE, titled "Space as a Contested Environment," was introduced by U.S. military officials here March 30 at the 25th National Space Symposium.

SAEs are established by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to address topics of great importance to the joint military community.

Adm. Mike Mullen established this SAE to highlight the space domain's emergence as an environment where U.S. operations and superiority maybe challenged.

"America's way of life is dependent on space," said Col. Sean D. McClung, the director of Air University's National Space Studies Center, or NSSC. "Many decades ago space was thought of as a sanctuary. We are entering into a new era where space is a contested environment."

The forum introduced the SAE which is expected to impact joint professional military education curricula and teachings at military education institutions across the entire Department of Defense.

"We have to think about what we would do if our systems in space were attacked -- how we determine attribution for the attack, and respond in appropriate manner," Colonel McClung said. "We also must consider how to create a strategic environment that makes attacks and their consequences unacceptable -- a new thinking on deterrence."

Space assets are vulnerable to a variety of threats beyond attacks by weaponry: from electronic jamming and debris fields from collisions between other satellites to interruptions of ground sites and launch infrastructure. The SAE is intended to address those threats to space operations as well.

"President Obama stated that his administration will seek a worldwide ban on weapons that interfere with military and commercial satellites," Colonel McClung said. "As a military we have to consider what happens in the worst case scenario if someone does not respect that ban; the SAE by the chairman will allow us to explore all of these issues in greater depth."

The scope of the SAE reaches beyond the Department of Defense, seeking to catalyze thought on the effect of space operations on the interdependent trio of civil, commercial and military end users.

"Not only the military needs to understand the implications of space as a contested environment, but civil and commercial organizations as well need to understand the impact on their ability to do business as usual," Colonel McClung said. "But, above all other communities, the military needs to understand implications of space as a contested environment and how to protect America's interests."

The nominal level of attention by the U.S. military to the nation's dependencies upon and vulnerability of space capabilities drew congressional attention in 2006. This led to self-examination of space education by Air University officials in 2007, which noted internal deficiencies requiring revisions of space curricula in Air Force professional military education.

Similar deficiencies were found in space education across the Department of Defense by an Air War College study. This disturbing trend culminated with NSSC officials initiating the effort to have the JCS chairman establish an SAE on space in 2008.

Experts in Air University's NSSC and AWC, in concert with the Air Force Space Command chair to AU, and specialists in the National Security Space Institute worked for the past year with military educators and the Joint Staff at the Pentagon to introduce a space-focused SAE into military education programs, eventually leading to the issuance of "Space as a Contested Environment."

The forum was attended by individuals across the space spectrum from members of the DOD and space industry to educators and government officials.

This event leads into an Air Force Research Institute Symposium on "Space as a Contested Environment," at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala., in November.