Untouchable: Fighting Forward in the Space, Cyber Domains

When you think about military threats, chances are you think about land, air and sea.  These tangible domains have been the source of battles and conflicts for centuries.  In the 1960s, we added space to the line-up.  The Cold War era introduced a new generation to space exploration.

Then, in the last few decades, we added a new domain.  A different domain.  A man-made one.

Cyber.

Here’s where it gets interesting. Threats are truly increasing in both the space and cyberspace domains.  Budgets are decreasing and our dependence on both of these domains has never been higher.  So when the stakes are high and the threats are increasing, who do we turn to for answers?

General William Shelton addressing the audience at the Air Force Association's Air and Space Conference.  (Photo provided by the Defense Media Activity)

General William Shelton addressing the audience at the Air Force Association’s Air and Space Conference. (Photo provided by the Defense Media Activity)

The guy in charge of protecting us in those arenas, of course.

General William L. Shelton is the Commander of the Air Force Space Command at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado.  According to his bio, he is “responsible for organizing, equipping, training and maintaining mission-ready space and cyberspace forces and capabilities for North American Aerospace Defense Command, U.S. Strategic Command and other combatant commands around the world”.

That means, essentially, that he’s the go-to general when it comes to space and cyber.

Which is no small undertaking.  Because for as much as the cyber domain isn’t as visibly formidable as, say, a heavily armed artillery force, it’s still a very real, very present danger.  Perhaps even more so because space and cyber forces are, in many ways, much less tangible.

They are almost like a utility you plug into; they’re always there.

Something General Shelton isn’t unaware of, I assure you.

“Space and cyber provide foundational capability to our nation and especially to our joint military forces,” he said at the recent Air Force Association’s Air and Space conference.  “There’s not an operation conducted anywhere at any level that is not somehow dependent on space and cyberspace.”

The grand challenge, he says, it really to integrate these across all domains to make sure all of our warfighters have access to the great capabilities of space and cyberspace.  That also means protecting against the obstacles and threats that those domains face.

So let’s take a look at some of the threats we have to our space assets:

Jamming.  “Jamming is relatively easy to do,” explains General Shelton.  “It’s cheap and trust me when I say it’s very proliferated.  We’ve got to find ways to fight through jamming.”

Lasers.  “I’ll tell you that blinding and dazzling lasers are already here,” he says.  “Higher-powered lasers that are destructive to our assets are in work.”

Attacking our ground sites.  “That’s always an option.  Early soft targets and going after those ground sites is certainly available to would-be adversaries.”

A nuclear detonation in space.  “That is what we would call the least likely with the most severe consequence of anything that’s out there.  Somebody that doesn’t have much to lose might be tempted to use that attack option, but we don’t think it’s all that likely.”

These threats are not to taken lightly, he says.  They need to be recognized for the dangers they are so as to be fought with the force that will be necessary.  That means recognizing that cyber and space domains are real, are prevalent, and aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.

“We can’t continue, in my mind, to operate with this big sky mentality,” General Shelton says.  “That certainly will not work for us.  Status quo?  It’s an option.  It’s just not a viable one.”

So what is the Air Force doing to mitigate these threats?  Oh I’m so glad you asked.  Let’s start with space.

Satellites.  The Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS) orbits at geosynchronous orbit 22,300 miles up in space.  It is literally watching all the time for the plume coming out the back end of a missile.

“We can tell when something’s launched,” General Shelton explains.  “We can tell you the launch point.  We can tell you what kind of missile it is and we can tell you the impact point.  It’s certainly critical to the defense of the homeland, deployed troops, and our allies.”

Advanced Extremely High Frequency Satellite.  (graphic illustration provided by the US Air Force)

Advanced Extremely High Frequency Satellite. (graphic illustration provided by the US Air Force)

Currently, the Air Force has two geosynchronous orbiting super satellites and two highly elliptical orbit satellites in orbit.  The Atlas 5 also recently launched, carrying the Advanced Extremely High Frequency Communications Satellite.  That satellite will provide survivable, global, secure, protected, and jam-resistant communications for high-priority military ground, sea and air assets.

GPS.  “You all benefit from the value of GPS, but it’s not just the navigation.  It’s the timing signals as well that provide high-speed data network timing, financial transitions, etc.  Guidance and navigation uses are widespread from a platform within the military, from platform navigation to munitions, including things like GPS-guided artillery shells. “

Facing the Cyber Threats

There are a variety of threats in the cyber domain.  The problem, General Shelton says, is the cost of admission in this domain is cheap that there is no shortage of threats.

“I call this an inconvenient truth for some, but cyber is increasingly a war-fighting domain,” he explains.  “It’s interwoven into everything we do in military operations.  It takes very specialized skill sets and it takes lots of training to become proficient as a high-end cyber operator, so we need to continue to invest in our people. “

From a war-fighting perspective it is absolutely essential that we have confidence in our data.  We need to get our data from point A to point B.  Anyone in the military will tell you that communication is vital to operations.  Adversary actions could make it very difficult for us to communicate.  To make sure the data we have is going where it should.

That calls for strong defenses, General Shelton says.  It calls for architectures that assure data will be authoritative and it will get to its intended user.  Even when we’re challenged in this domain.

What the Future Holds for Cyber and Space

“Space and cyber capabilities, I would submit to you, are must-haves in modern joint war-fighting.” – General William Shelton

There’s much room for improvement in our responsiveness to our threats, he says, but right now we’re shooting behind the rabbit in many cases.  “We must become more resilient to the threats, resilient to adversary action, resilient to hardware and software failures, resilient to the unanticipated.”

How do we do that?  By continuing to face forward.

“Fighting through the challenges, developing the next generation of systems that will assure our capability will be there when we most need it, facing the facts of the new normal in space and cyberspace.  That’s the right response.”

Jessica L. Tozer is a blogger for DoDLive and Armed With Science.  She is an Army veteran and an avid science fiction fan, both of which contribute to her enthusiasm for technology in the military.

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