At last week’s international air chiefs conference, “every country talked about their space launch business.”
WASHINGTON — Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein on Thursday hosted in Colorado Springs the first-ever conference of international air chiefs focused on space issues.
“A large part of our discussion was on how do we work together in space, because we’re far stronger together than we are individually,” Goldfein told SpaceNews on Friday aboard a military plane flying back from Colorado Springs.
The conference, held at an Aerospace Corporation’s classified facility, included the air chiefs of Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway and the United Kingdom. Goldfein said the idea of a space-focused air chiefs meeting came up during last year’s Space Symposium in Colorado Springs and he expects it to become an annual event.
Every country said they need more intelligence about what is happening in space, he said. “Our number one focus area leaving the conference was space situational awareness.”
Although the United States has significant space surveillance capabilities, space security efforts are more successful when countries work as a coalition, he said. In SSA, one of the problems is the attribution. “If something bad happens and we’re the only ones who see it because we’re the only ones who have exquisite intelligence and we haven’t shared that information, it’s going to be pretty tough for us to communicate and convince the international community that this nefarious activity is occurring.”
Goldfein’s big takeaway after the air chiefs meeting is that “sharing information is foundational to our success in the future.”
Another concern is rules of behavior in space. “We had a robust discussion about norms,” said Goldfein. “As airmen, we believe we need norms of behavior in space as we have for airspace. The United States should play a leading role in this dialogue but it’s important to work a a coalition, he said.
Space is a shared commons and more countries rely on satellites for essential services, he noted. “If a war actually starts in space, everybody loses. So how do you deter that? By having norms of behavior, by having communication lines that are established so that you minimize the opportunity for a miscalculation or uncertainty,” Goldfein said. “We want adversaries to always want to deal with the Secretary of State and never want to deal with the Secretary of Defense.”
The air chiefs spoke enthusiastically about their countries’ burgeoning commercial space industries. Goldfein said he was struck by how much space activity is happening everywhere and believes it would benefit the entire group of nations to share technology and intelligence about threats.
Analysts from the Air Force’s National Air and Space Intelligence Center gave the chiefs a classified intelligence briefing of current and anticipated space threats. “That set a foundation for us to talk about what we’re up against,” said Goldfein.
In an unclassified report released in January, NASIC analysts said the U.S. and allies face a common threat as China and Russia develop more sophisticated anti-satellite weapons. For Goldfein, now is the time to figure out how to better share intelligence and prepare for “this transition from space being a benign environment to a more contested environment.”
Goldfein said it was fascinating to learn about what the other air chiefs are doing in space. “Every country talked about their space launch business,” he said. “Every one of them is talking about establishing the ability to do launch, not just vertical but also horizontal launch,” such as Virgin Orbit’s plan to air launch small satellites from a Boeing 747. The United Kingdom and others are building spaceports with runways in addition to launchpads, Goldfein said. “Every country is now looking to increase their competitive market for launch, which I think is a winner for all of us.”
“And the other thing they’re all into is satellites,” he said. “Satellites are smaller, cheaper, you build more of them. Every one of them is in the satellite business,” Goldfein added. “So it was instructive to me to hear how far along every country is in the space business.”
The question now is how to apply this fast-moving innovation to the security challenges that the U.S. and allies face in space, he said. “How do we start, with a sense of urgency, to make military elements of space that we’re responsible for more interoperable and how do we share information?” Goldfein asked. “And because we’re so early in the discussion, this presents us opportunities to actually become more interoperable faster,” he said. “We had a lot of discussions on that.”
The details of what specific technologies and data will be shared, and how, have yet to be hashed out, said Goldfein. “We had a good conversation with the air chiefs about using information from a variety of sources and using artificial intelligence technologies,” he said. “We need greater fidelity … so we can go from looking at a softball to looking at a marble,” he said. If countries work together, “if we’re challenged or threatened, we have more options available,” he added. “We’ve got to build our systems so they’re interoperable.
He noted that the Air Force Space Command is expanding the Combined Space Operations Center at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. The center was stood up a year ago to coordinate space intelligence among allies and commercial space companies. Current participants in the CSPOC include Australia, Canada, France, Germany, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. “I just think we’re going to see it grow over time,” said Goldfein.
Goldfein said he plans to work with the U.S. intelligence community to make it easier for allies to access data. “One of the challenges we have is that we over-classify things and that gets in the way of information sharing.”
What’s next for the U.S. Space Force
While Goldfein hosted the conference of air chiefs, concurrently on Capitol Hill members of the Senate Armed Services Committee grilled Pentagon officials about the Trump administration’s proposal to establish a Space Force as a separate military branch.
Goldfein’s take on the hearing is that there are still details to be refined in the Pentagon’s Space Force proposal but that it’s a good first step. “I agree with chairman Dunford [Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford] that we’re at the 80% solution,” he said. “Let’s move out now and there will be plenty of opportunities for Congress to provide oversight going forward.”
Dunford told the committee that, given the importance of space, an 80% solution should be enough start the process of standing up a Space Force and that the plan should be refined as things move along.
“Five years from now it’s going to look different than what it looks like today,” Goldfein said.
He agrees with Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson that the Air Force does a good job as the service responsible for space. “But it’s an absolutely appropriate discussion to be having on whether we’re organized for success in the future,” he said. But right now, “we just don’t have the answers to the thousand questions that are absolutely appropriate for Congress to ask.”
The Space Force proposal was put together in a short time and many details have yet to be worked out, he said. “The specifics [that the committees are asking about] don’t exist because we just started planning. And so that’s going to be the challenge for us, to ask Congress that given the planning that’s been done, which is weeks old, is Congress comfortable allowing us to move forward with the 80% solution?”
The Air Force quietly for several years has been preparing for space being a contested domain, said Goldfein. “It’s only been really since this president openly declared space as a warfighting domain — stating that it’s not enough for us to just be in space, that we have to be able to dominate the space — that it opened up an opportunity for us to actually talk about what we had been doing rather quietly.”
Goldfein acknowledged that DoD and the Air Force still have some work to do in defining the problems that the Space Force would solve. The issue reminds Goldstein of his favorite Einstein quotes: “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I would use the first 55 minutes to define the proper question to ask, and once I knew the question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.”
The challenge in articulating the problem is that there is no immediate crisis that needs to be fixed. “You’ve heard that we are the best in the world at the space, but our adversaries know it, and so they’re investing in capabilities to take that away from us and it’s our job as military leaders just to ensure that can’t happen,” he said. “We are competent and we are in the position we are in because of what primarily the United States Air Force has been doing. But we have to have a discussion on whether we’re organized for success in the future.”