The Next Battleground: What Do We Really Know About What Adversaries Do in Space?

Jeffery Gossel

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As the Pentagon moves to stand up a U.S. Space Command and Congress debates whether it makes sense to create a Space Force, a central focus is to defend satellites from orbital weapons that would seek to damage or destroy U.S. assets in space.

Washington policymakers are gripped by the prospect of enemies shooting missiles or lasers at U.S. systems. But that is only a small piece of the puzzle, says Jeffrey Gossel, senior intelligence engineer at the Space and Missile Analysis Group of the National Air and Space Intelligence Center.  [Trump's Space Force Plan Revealed by VP Mike Pence

More attention should be paid to the larger space infrastructure that Russia and China are putting on orbit, Gossel argues. Many space systems are not weapons but still provide powerful capabilities for watching what the United States is doing and developing strategies to counter U.S. advantages.

"[A]s we think about space as a warfighting domain, it's not those weapons that are as important as what our enemies have on orbit," Gossel says during a recent Mitchell Institute event on Capitol Hill. His office is part of the intelligence community but supports the Defense Department. He anticipates that the future U.S. Space Command will be his largest customer.

"The sexy thing in Washington for years has been those offensive capabilities that our adversaries are building."
Jeffrey Gossel, Space and Missile Analysis Group

His point is that if a military conflict extended into outer space, it's imperative the United States knows in precise detail the type of satellites and sensors that other countries have on orbit because those would be potential targets for the U.S. military.

'Know Everything About the Satellite'

The weapons "aren't the things that we are going to have to shoot down," Gossel says. "When we start to do military operations in space, the intelligence community has to spend more time looking at what enemies have on orbit in a forensic way, to understand everything about that satellite — the materials, the power source, every intricate little detail of the spacecraft, we need to know." [The Most Dangerous Space Weapons Concepts Ever]

"If we wanted to put a cyber effect, shoot a laser, you only want to cause a specific effect and you don't want anyone to know you did it, you need to know a lot about that satellite and sensors. From an intelligence perspective we have to concentrate more on those things, not on the guns they're shooting."

The U.S. government also should have a deeper understanding of what intelligence foreign powers are getting from space that they provide their military operators, such as signals intelligence, optical and radar imagery, Gossel says. "That's what's important. We want to keep them from having that data."

Gossel cautions that he was only speaking generically about space threats as the specifics are classified.

'What Can They See and Hear?'

"The order of battle for space is greatly increasing, it has tremendously increased over the last decade," he explains. Order of battle is military-speak for how many weapons platforms adversaries have at their disposal. What this means in space is that enemies might have co-orbital weapons to destroy satellites but of greater concern is their deployment of satellites that collect intelligence.

"We need to know what they can see and what they can hear," Gossel asserts.

Space was militarized decades ago but it wasn't until China tested a weapon that shot down its own satellite in 2007 that Gossel saw any reaction in D.C. That event began the conversation about the national security ramifications of other countries moving to challenge the United States is space. The Pentagon since then has increased spending on space systems and technologies to defend U.S. satellites. But Washington's focus on the use of weapons in space misses the larger picture. "We need to shift our thinking to what our adversaries have on orbit. Understanding that might be what we should spend our money on."

This story was provided by SpaceNews, dedicated to covering all aspects of the space industry.

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Sandra Erwin
SpaceNews Senior Staff Writer

Sandra Erwin covers the military and national security beat as a Senior Staff Writer at SpaceNews. Sandra, based in Arlington, Virginia, specializes in Defense Department and Intelligence Community space programs, policy, budgets, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She joined SpaceNews in October 2017. Before coming to SpaceNews, Erwin covered the U.S. military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for over two decades as editor of the National Defense Industrial Association's National Defense Magazine and Pentagon correspondent for Real Clear Defense.