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Q & A

Space Command adapts


MAJ. GEN. DAVID THOMPSON, SPECIAL ASSISTANT TO THE COMMANDER OF AIR FORCE SPACE COMMAND

An Air Force maxim says that space is increasingly congested and contested. With that in mind, Maj. Gen. David Thompson led a team that created an Air Force office in the Pentagon to focus specifically on the budgetary and training needs arising from what the U.S. has called provocative acts in orbit by China and Russia, and also a spike in the number of privately owned satellites. This new office will advise the Air Force chief of staff on military-related space matters. Before this office was established in August, there had been only an Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Space Policy. Thompson’s Air Force career dating back to 1985 ranges from rocket propulsion engineering to launch oversight. I spoke with him by phone about a wide range of issues, from North Korea, to telecommunications bandwidth to threats to U.S. satellites.

In his words

North Korea missile capability

The biggest challenge that comes with a warhead, depending on the range you are going, is as much re-entry as it is launch and the incredibly high physical environment, the extreme acceleration and the extreme heat that is generated. The ability to survive that environment and then land precisely, that’s really the biggest challenge when it comes to a long-range rocket with a warhead on top. Those are things we haven’t seen demonstrated yet from North Korea. Who knows whether or not they have truly created a warhead, number one, small enough [to fit on a rocket] and, number two, that could survive that process? It’s a lot harder problem than most people think.

Risk of an anti-missile launch being misinterpreted as an attack

If [U.S. Ground-based Midcourse Defense interceptor missiles] ended up missing [North Korean rockets] and flying into somebody else’s airspace, something has gone terribly wrong. We set up the architecture, the engagement zones and the fallout zones to not even make that come close to being a fact. We don’t have [deconfliction measures] set up as a routine procedure for that reason because we don’t make it a potential issue. We know how to do that in other areas. I’m sure we could do that for missile defense if and when that ever became a requirement. You have to think about physics and either the results of a successful hit or the results of a miss. Understanding what you’re defending, understanding the trajectory of where the missile is going to come, you then place your defense assets in a position to be able to conduct a successful engagement such that violation of a potential adversary’s airspace is just never going to be a factor, physically and kinetically.

Rules of engagement in space

There hasn’t really been a well-established set of norms of behavior and standards of conduct and rules of engagement in space since [the U.N. Outer Space Treaty of 1967]. I definitely believe there is a need to take the next steps. I’ll leave it to the diplomats and the highest level national leaders to decide. There are rules of engagement and norms of conduct by which you engage with each other when ships encounter each other in international waters, or aircraft encounter each other in international airspace. And those don’t really exist in space today. The Outer Space Treaty really only says two things of significance from a military perspective: The first is you don’t put weapons of mass destruction in space or on any celestial body, and you can’t claim the moon or any celestial body to be your sovereign territory.

Defending satellites

Would somebody likely go after those things kinetically? It’s possible but less likely, I would say, just because to try and attack one satellite kinetically that’s a commercial vendor, there’s a whole host of other options. First and foremost in a jamming sense, because that’s relatively easy to do. That’s also why we need to work more with the commercial industry on how we would together protect the information that we’re using. [The Wideband Global SATCOM constellation] has a little bit of extra jam resistance built in. We also have a capability on board that identifies sources of jamming and allows us to shape the beam to avoid accepting energy from that region.

Military-owned satellite benefits

There are a couple of reasons why you want some of your wideband communications on a dedicated military satellite. Some are those sensitive communications you want to provide extra protection to. When you compare operating a substantial portion of your wideband communications in a wholly owned system, you can do that as cost effectively and, in many cases, more cheaply than you can by buying it from the commercial market. It’s specialized areas, times when you have surge requirements for wideband communications, either a surge for over a couple of years or specific geographic locations that you may not serve routinely, that you may not need military capability there but you can get it from the commercial market.

Improving military telecommunications

I think our biggest obstacle in making commercial satcom more effective for the Department of Defense is the Department of Defense. The biggest struggle is the way the Department of Defense goes about procuring its commercial wideband services. We don’t really have a holistic approach to our global needs. We haven’t aggressively negotiated for the types of things we need. We generally tend to lease transponders and bandwidth rather than looking at it in a service-based approach, or trying to buy services and capacity that we might apply globally rather than one-by-one individual sense. That’s part of what the Wideband Analysis of Alternatives is supposed to tie together. The purpose of that analysis of alternatives is to look at the optimal mix of commercial and military systems for a future capability after Wideband Global SATCOM.

National Space Council

I think the National Space Council has a lot of great potential and is going to get involved in a lot of important things early. But I think the best thing it can do for us is make sure we have an understanding from that national level led by the vice president [about] how we can best coordinate, synchronize and integrate the activities of all executive agencies with common interests in space.

Space Corps proposal

I don’t know that that’s a National Space Council matter. There are two versions out there of the National Defense Authorization Act still on the table. The House version talks about a Space Corps. The Senate version does not. They will determine together what will appear in the final legislation and what they will tell the Department of Defense to do in that regard.

Related Topics

Unmanned SpacecraftCommunicationsInformation, Command and Control Systems

Maj. Gen. David Thompson

POSITIONS: Special assistant to commander of Air Force Space Command since July 2017; in this role, he plans strategy and budgetary needs for Air Force space operations; Air Force is keeping him on staff for a new assignment yet to be announced. Previously vice commander of Air Force Space Command.

NOTABLE: Received his second star in 2013. Told in April by Air Force to create the Office of Deputy Chief of Staff for Space Operations, which will be filled by  three-star general. That directorate became active at end of August. Up to 120 people will eventually work in directorate to ensure defense-related space needs are met. Thompson says launch dates are most memorable of his career. From 2002 to 2004, he commanded 2nd Space Launch Squadron, which launched Titan 2, Titan 4 and Atlas 2 rockets from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

AGE: 54

RESIDES: Colorado Springs, Colorado

EDUCATION: Bachelor of Science degree in astronautical engineering from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1985; Master of Science degree in aeronautics and astronautics from Purdue University in 1989; Master of Science degree in national security industrial policy from the Industrial College of the Armed Forces in 2005.

Space Command adapts

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