NEWS | March 6, 2009

Change sparks review

By Sebastian Sprenger Inside the Air Force

Officials at U.S. Strategic Command have begun studying the potentially sweeping implications of a little noticed provision in the 2008 Unified Command Plan that puts the Omaha, NE-based command in charge of monitoring the flight paths of both U.S. military and commercial satellites for potential collisions, according to Defense Department officials and documents.

Former President George W. Bush approved an update to the Unified Command Plan in mid-December, Pentagon officials said at the time. A summary of the changes over the last iteration, included in a Dec. 23, 2008, press release, makes no mention of STRATCOM's expanded role in what military officials call ""space situational awareness. ""

But an internal one-page summary, sent to Bush by Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Oct. 3, 2008, along with the actual plan, noted a change in STRATCOM's ""space operations"" section of the document.

Specifically, the plan puts the command in charge of conducting ""space situational awareness operations for the U.S. government, U.S. commercial space capabilities, and services used for national and homeland security purposes; civil space capabilities and operations, particularly human space flight activities; and, as appropriate, commercial and foreign space entities. "" obtained a copy of the 2008 Unified Command Plan late last year. The document is marked ""for official use only. ""

The plan's formal requirement for STRATCOM to consider non-military and commercial satellites in their space situational awareness operations has sparked a review of what kinds of new resources and personnel are needed, command spokeswoman Air Force Maj. Regina Winchester wrote in an e-mail to

""STRATCOM is working toward going from tracking and cataloging man-made objects in space to providing more robust SSA,"" Winchester wrote. ""That means being able to characterize the who/what/where/why on objects in space, and teaming with the intelligence community, whose role in providing SSA is pivotal. ""

Military officials consider space situational awareness a prerequisite for safe space operations. Collisions between satellites could cause a domino effect involving rapidly multiplying space debris that could knock out U.S. military and civilian satellites providing crucial services.

A detailed knowledge of where objects are located in space also is key for any kind of defensive or offensive operations in space, officials have said.

Last month, a collision between an Iridium commercial satellite and a defunct Russian spacecraft sparked renewed calls from industry and military officials for improved situational awareness and information sharing about space objects.

""It's a field of debris out there that's going to be out there for many years,"" Gen. James Cartwright, the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and former STRATCOM chief, said two days after the Feb. 10 crash. ""The good news is once it's stabilized, it's relatively predictable. The bad news is it's a large area. If we're denied that large area for use, it becomes a problem. ""

STRATCOM, through its Joint Space Operations Center, already monitors space objects as small as five inches in size, but the tracking of objects related to ""safety of manned flight and national security assets"" has priority, according to Winchester.

The Iridium satellite collision was ""not something the JSpOC was assessing ahead of time,"" she wrote.

The Air Force is a key player in providing space object positioning data to commercial satellite operators. Air Force Space Command officials manage a congressionally mandated pilot program under which satellite companies can obtain positioning data from the service.

Congress created the Commercial and Foreign Entities Pilot Program in the fiscal year 2004 National Defense Authorization Act. Lawmakers originally intended the program to last three years, but subsequent legislation extended it to the end of FY-10.

Industry officials, none of whom agreed to speak on the record, said the data provided by the Air Force under the CFE program is too imprecise to avert collisions.

Satellite companies have begun setting up a common data-sharing mechanism for cases in which two commercial spacecraft could come dangerously close. But for potential collisions with non-cooperative objects, like space debris or Russian and Chinese satellites, companies must submit a special request to the military for more detailed data, which can take days, said one industry executive.

As part of DOD's efforts to consolidate space situational awareness functions, Pentagon officials are working on a directive that would transfer management of the CFE program from the Air Force to STRATCOM this October, defense officials said.

Pentagon spokesman Navy Cmdr. Robert Mehal said a memorandum to that effect ""is being coordinated,"" but he declined to provide details.

Air Force officials are expected to deliver recommendations to STRATCOM as to what personnel, resources and technologies are needed at the Omaha, NE-based command to begin managing the CFE program, according to Winchester.

Whether the CFE program transfer would improve SSA data sharing with commercial satellite companies is unclear, in part because some at DOD believe the military should not get too involved in that area, the industry executive said. ""They are at best ambivalent about becoming the world's global air traffic controller,"" the executive added.

According to Winchester, the new Unified Command Plan mandate only goes so far. ""UCP 08 does not direct STRATCOM to manage collision avoidance for all active satellites,"" she wrote.