• A Falcon 9 rocket carrying SpaceX’s Starlink L-23 payload launches from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida, April 7. As the United States increases its posture in space, it needs better space intelligence to support its missions, experts say. Credit: U.S. Space Force photo by Airman First Class Thomas Sjoberg
     A Falcon 9 rocket carrying SpaceX’s Starlink L-23 payload launches from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida, April 7. As the United States increases its posture in space, it needs better space intelligence to support its missions, experts say. Credit: U.S. Space Force photo by Airman First Class Thomas Sjoberg

Intelligence Takes On More Importance in Contested Space Environment

April 14, 2021
By Kimberly Underwood
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Leaders call for robust situational awareness and a highly trained space intelligence cadre for warfighting in the space domain.


The United States military has to broaden its space-based intelligence capabilities, to provide astute situational awareness and analysis to conducting space-related missions, as the threats to the domain rise. Those in the sector have been warning that space had become a threatened domain for the last decade, said Lara Schmidt, principal director, Strategic and Global Awareness Directorate, The Aerospace Corporation. Today there are about 70 nations operating in space in one way or another. The predominant threats come mainly from China and Russia, said Jeff Gossel, technical director, Space, Missiles, Force Modernization and Technology, National Air and Space Intelligence Center (NASIC); and Sean Kirkpatrick, deputy director of Intelligence and Department of National Intelligence (DNI) representative, U.S. Space Command (SPACECOM).

Schmidt moderated a panel with Gossel and Kirkpatrick at yesterday’s AFCEA International Partnering for Space Power in 2021 and Beyond event.

“Their weaponization of space, in the space domain, and to space from the ground, has really progressed significantly over the last 20 years,” Kirkpatrick says. “They have pursued nearly every type of counterspace weapon that you can think of and they have built them. They have tested them, and they are proliferating them in an operational environment. Everything from ground-based lasers to direct ascent antisatellite systems, to on orbit weapons, jammers, you name it, and if you can think of it, they've done it. And the fact that they are pursuing that really points to their understanding of the United States’ reliance on space in our daily lives.”

As the United States expands its U.S. Space Force and advances SPACECOM’s abilities to conduct missions in this atmosphere, additional intelligence is vital. However, the space domain naturally provides many challenges, the NASIC technical director said. 

“I think everyone understands that space is hard,” Gossel noted. “It is defined by the laws of physics—remember of course it's all about Keplerian dynamics—but it is also [difficult] as it relates to space intelligence.”

On Earth, intelligence that supports the terrestrial warfighting domains allows for direct human interaction, he stressed. Developing that intelligence involves relatively shorter distances than in space and provides opportunities to address capability losses within acceptable time and economic constraints. For the warfighting domain of space, however, distances are astronomically bigger. No humans can assess the situation first-hand. And reconstitution of any lost military assets demands significantly larger amounts of time and money, Gossel said, if recovery is possible at all.

“For all these reasons, intelligence carries much more significance in the space domain,” he stated.

As the operational command in space, SPACECOM is responsible for providing the associated intelligence and operational intelligence analysis of what is occurring in the domain and reporting to a wide range of national security space partners across the Defense Department, the intelligence community, U.S. allies and commercial and civil partners, Kirkpatrick said.

“To do that, we have got to be able to see, characterize and attribute everything that is going on in space that we are operating in,” he explained. “The biggest challenge for us is any threat that I can't attribute, and I can't see what is happening or where it's coming from, whether that's nanosatellite that we didn't see was coming or a directed energy weapon that we didn't know where it was, or a cyberattack, any of those can be catastrophic. And it can be really difficult for us to understand what is happening and then point to somebody and say they are the ones doing it.”

While the possibility of a missile launch by an adversary is a great threat, it is an action that is traceable, Kirkpatrick acknowledged. “They are going to launch it from someplace, I'm going to see it and it is going to be pretty hard for them to hide that,” he said. “And when it launches, we have an entire constellation of missile warning [systems]….so, we are going to see a launch. In space, if I can't see it, if I didn't know it was there, if China or Russia launches something on orbit that we didn't know was there and it snuggles up to one of our systems and does something to us, we are not going to know. I'm not going to be able to say that was China or that was Russia.”

Gossel added that the Air Force and more recently, the Space Force are just beginning to “fully address” the needed operational intelligence and that dedicated resources are only now officially being considered.

The space intelligence community also should address data gathering capabilities. “We must open our minds to get past evolutionary tendencies and embrace truly revolutionary ones,” he said. “This is true for all aspects of the space domain, including intelligence and how we will get the data we need to forensically describe space threats. Even before they become programs of record, can we infer intent from emerging and disruptive technologies for space and what the new phenomenology is that can be described can help us better understand things happening in the space domain. [We need] new approaches to gathering data and novel locations for deploying such data and gathering that can be imagined.”

Modeling and simulation technologies also can play a key role in assisting space intelligence, Gossel stated. “Modeling a simulation is tremendously important, maybe more than many people realize, and I think that in the digital service sense we need to think about that more broadly. It's a model of an adversary's ability to build technologies and systems, which allows us to recognize threats earlier.”

In addition, the space intelligence sector has to rebuild its personnel, Kirkpatrick noted. “We lost most of our intelligence cadre after 9/11 to industry, because their mission areas were no longer deemed important enough, and we scaled them back or they went over and did counterterrorism for a couple of decades and not space,” he observed. “That shift is now coming back. But you have got a whole mission area that is probably one of the most technically challenging mission areas that the intelligence community has to grapple with, and we have not reconstituted our workforce bench strength in both STEM skills as well as the necessary space-savvy skill sets.”

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