In October, Garrett Graff, the executive director of the Institute’s Cyber & Technology Program, spoke with US Representatives Mike Rogers and Jim Cooper, the chair and ranking member of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, at a Washington Ideas Roundtable Series event. The Republican and Democrat are the two leading congressional proponents of a space corps to address rising geopolitical threats in outer space.
GARRETT GRAFF: What made you so concerned about this area?
JIM COOPER: The first duty of Congress is to protect the nation, and we’re all more dependent on space than any of us recognize. With GPS, we have a global asset. Other nations have not only posed a threat to our assets but are also trying to develop their own rival to GPS. That way, if our assets were taken out, they could still communicate. It’s a vulnerability that could render us deaf, dumb, and blind within seconds. Our primary responsibility in Congress is to prevent war, which means you have to acknowledge your national interests and vulnerabilities, and do something about it. There have been 20 years of government reports about this vulnerability, and Congress and the Air Force have done almost nothing about it.
MIKE ROGERS: I want everybody to understand, we’re not talking about Star Wars stuff. These are national security satellites. A lot of folks are making fun of this because President Trump got behind it, but this is national security—satellites that we depend on, that we’re trying to protect. We aren’t talking about George Jetson getting on a rocket that comes out of his suitcase.
JC: The president’s unexpected intervention in this issue needlessly politicized it, because it shouldn’t be political. Then the Republican National Committee went one step further to commercialize it, to have a contest for the design of the “Space Force” patch. Well, Mike and I are not talking about uniform design; we’re talking about safer satellites.
To that end, we need more promotion opportunities for space professionals, because the Air Force’s traditional preference for piloted aircraft has made them reluctant to support drones, much less sufficient space capacity. We’re trying to get away from a culture that has promoted fighter jocks and leather jackets as opposed to space professionals, who are really on top of our satellite situation. China’s anti-satellite missile launch was in 2007. We gave the Air Force a decade to respond. What’s the response? Almost nothing. Other threats have materialized, some of them classified, what’s been the response? Very little. So this is an attempt to work cooperatively with the Air Force so that they can do their job better.
GG: Say a little bit more about the threat environment and what has changed in outer space over the last 10 years.
MR: The public ought to know how dependent we are on satellites. In the last decade, we’ve been made aware of an alarming vulnerability with them. But our country has become heavily dependent on these satellites to fight and win wars, to the point that our adversaries have recognized that and stepped up their game. Because Russia and China cannot compete with us head-on in a tactical war, they have to be smart. They recognize that space is where they can compete with us. That’s exactly what they’re doing. Both countries have deployed a much larger percentage of their defense budgets to space than we have. China set up their separate space force two years ago. Russia had already done so before that. And both have become more agile and effective at getting capabilities into space—whereas we have just gotten slower and slower. Literally, it can take anywhere from six to 10 years for the US government to get a new satellite up. Meanwhile, the private sector can get one up in 18 to 24 months. So we’ve got to be smarter. And what the Air Force is doing with this problem—well, the bureaucracy is beyond repair, and they’re in denial. The only way to get better capabilities and develop a cadre of space professionals is to make a new organization with a culture that’s wrapped around a mission of space dominance—a culture that recruits, educates, and promotes toward that goal.
GG: Talk about how you see the private sector shaping and changing the space environment over the next five to 10 years.
JC: What we’re talking about is military only. A lot of folks will confuse this with NASA. It’s totally different. I love NASA. There are amazing opportunities there for astronauts, space stations, moon stuff, Mars—that’s great. It is an amazingly stimulative thing, and it’s fantastic that they have been able to create capabilities that some of our Air Force friends haven’t done with government budgets for decades. It’s amazingly inspirational, and nations like ours need to dream big dreams. There’s a universe out there for us to learn from and explore. It’s the most exciting time since the ’60s, when the president promised the impossible, that man would set foot on the moon within 10 years—and by God, we did it. It’s incredible that even with lots of unproven technologies, that was the decade when we could get things done. Now we can’t even field a single satellite with existing technology inside of a decade. We’ve bureaucratized ourselves into inferiority.
MR: We cannot let this continue or let China and Russia go unchecked. We watch for intercontinental ballistic-missile launches with satellites. We use the cyber system to watch for the heat signature that comes from a launch.
For example, North Korea was testing aggressively for years. And we were watching. Now, according to published reports, North Korea has the capability to get an ICBM through reentry and hit California or Alaska. Let’s assume that North Korea wants to launch against California and that it will take 24 minutes for that missile to hit. A US satellite would detect the heat signature from the launch and immediately notify all of our radar systems to look at that location and get the trajectory so that we could respond. There are three parts to a launch: the boost phase, the midcourse phase in space, and the terminal phase back in Earth’s atmosphere. By the time a missile gets to the terminal phase, it’s going super-fast—and hard to hit. You need the trajectory so you can get to it with anti-ballistic missiles while it’s still in midcourse. We also know that China has the ability to “dazzle” our satellites, which basically means blind them. Let’s say that China wants to help North Korea attack us. If they were to dazzle our cyber satellite that’s watching North Korea, just for 10 minutes, by the time we saw the missile, it would be too late. That is not acceptable. We cannot let that continue.
The threat is not going away, and what we’ve been doing for the last 20 years is not getting it done.