NATIONAL HARBOR: The Air Force vision is of a seamless global network, swiftly spotting threats and taking them down with smart bombs, computer viruses, or (one day) lasers as the situation demands. The reality? Not so seamless.
Air Force Space Command, for example, houses both the military’s space operations center and a new cyber ops center — but these two parts of AFSPC cannot exchange data with each other, let alone with the theater ops centers around the world.
“Today…we are not very good at multi-domain operations,” sighed AFSPC commander Gen. John Hyten at the Air Force Association’s annual conference. “Multi-domain” is the Air Force term for operations where capabilities from different domains — cyberspace and outer space, for example — act together on a single target.
“In my own command, can I share data between the cyber operations center and the space operations center? No,” Hyten said. “Can I share between the cyber operations center and any CAOC [Combined Air Operations Center] around the world? No. D’you think every CAOC in the world has a need for cyber situational awareness of everything that’s going on in their network [e.g. enemy intrusions]? Yes, they do. We have got to figure out how to work that.”
Yes, airmen in the Joint Space Operations Center (JSPOC) are talking to the airmen in the theater CAOCs all the time, Hyten said, but that’s on the phone. They’re not able to directly transmit masses of data in real time without human intervention, so that any intelligence visible to one ops center automatically and immediately pops up on the others’ screens.
“That picture has to be in the CAOC and the CAOC’s picture has to be in the JSPOC,” said Hyten, and likewise between both and the cyber ops center.
Why does this matter so much? Because a threat may arise in space that’s best dealt with from the air or via cyberspace, said Hyten, or vice versa.
The best way to stop a satellite-killer missile isn’t by maneuvering the targeted satellite out of the way: It’s by crippling the missile before it can launch, whether by blowing it up on the pad or downloading malware into its targeting systems. Conversely, if US ground forces or aircraft are having their line-of-sight radios jammed, they’d better have satellite communications available ASAP.
But we’ve taken satcoms for granted, Hyten warned. Regular military radios can hop frequencies and take other measures to avoid being jammed, he said, “but when we think about satellite communications, somehow we assume we can just assign a channel and a transponder on a satellite and everything’s going to be fine. What if someone takes that channel or that transponder away? That is not difficult to do!”
When people talk about space threats, the sexy and obvious thing is the Chinese blowing up satellites in orbit. But, said Hyten, “the orbits are a very small part of what we have to defend.” Satellites are no good if our radio uplinks and downlinks are jammed, if our communications networks crash from enemy hacking, or our command centers are smoking holes in the ground.
“We have to defend our ability to command and control,” Hyten said. “Right now today we really have just one primary command and control node,” the Joint Space Operations Center. (A facility in Dalhgren, Va. could continue monitoring the situation in space, he said, but without any ability to issue commands to satellites).
To better coordinate space data about the locations and status of spy satellites and Air Force birds — and to study how to defend our space assets, the military and the intelligence agencies are creating a Joint Interagency & Coalition Space Operations Center — JICSPOC, in contrast to the long-standing JSPOC. “Some day that may turn into a backup,” Hyten said, but for now, “it’s just a place where we can go to experiment.”