Space Situational Awareness
Together We Stand, Divided We Fall
By Major General Juan P. Sánchez de Lara, SP AF, Commander in Chief Canary Islands Air Command
Space as an Operational Domain
Space operations have arrived to stay. The later we realize it, the later we will be organized, equipped, trained and therefore ready to respond to any incident affecting the access to our National space services or capabilities. These services or capabilities, many of them dual-use (civilian/military), are very expensive and are considered as both strategic assets and as a ‘question of sovereignty’.
However, the threats to our national strategic space assets are already there. Being a satellite operator is becoming a risky business because of the so-called ‘democratization of space’, which has taken advantage of the lack of regulations in this arena at both the international and national levels. This is making space more accessible to public and private users, but that increased access comes at a price.
Traditionally, space debris is considered as a risk to space assets. Since the launch of Sputnik 1 until today, 8,400 tons of space objects of many different sizes have found their way into orbit around the Earth1; with speeds up to approximately 7.8 km/s (28,000 km/h). One can imagine the consequences of an impact of any object, no matter its size, at these speeds.
The number of active satellites orbiting the Earth (currently estimated at around 2,000)2 will significantly increase with the launches of new mega-constellations within the next ten years. Most of these new satellites are planned to be launched in the Low Earth Orbit (LEO), which is already the most crowded and polluted orbit.
Consequently, the risk of collisions will increase, and the risk of accidental collision will be compounded by the knowledge that a satellite can be manoeuvred to impact another targeted satellite. These risks are becoming security threats, and the number of passive control measures, such as collision avoidance manoeuvres, will surely intensify.
However, collisions in space are not only what nations should focus their efforts on avoiding. Space is becoming more contested and disputed, and this type of competition brings into this new theatre of operations intentional threats to different national capabilities, turning them into easy targets and, therefore, changing the nature of space, theoretically used for peaceful means, as expressed in the United Nations (UN) Outer Space Treaty.
Recent documented examples of incidents with satellites, specifically constructed to harass the operation of other satellites, include the incident between the Russian Louch-Olymp satellite and the Franco/Italian Athena-Fidus, in 20173 and the use of anti-satellite armament, as demonstrated by China in 2007 and by India in 2019, both of which produced a vast increase in the number of space debris. There are other threats, such as cyberattacks, the use of directed energy weapons against sensors or platforms, kinetic capture systems and jamming or spoofing that are also becoming of increasing concern.
These threats can be used by near-peer or peer states, as well as by terrorist or like-minded groups, in events or actions not necessarily associated to warlike conflicts, even in day to day activities.
The Spanish Air Force Approach to Space Defence and Security
Spain, like many other countries, has reason to enter this new theatre of operations. We care about our space assets (military, civilian, dual) and we want to play a bigger role in defending our interests and freedom of access to our space assets. Being a ‘question of sovereignty’, our objective is to reach and maintain a certain level of self-sufficiency to guarantee our strategic autonomy.
And of course, the role of the Spanish Air Force in protecting our interests in space has been already delineated, as in other countries.
Spanish Air Force doctrine considers operations in the third dimension (Air and Space), integrated, as a continuum, from the ground, through the air until outer space. This is not just because of historical and traditional reasons, being the space-oriented service from its origin and having already some ‘aerospace’ units (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance, Training and Education, Medical, Command and Control), but because operations in outer space, up until Geostationary Earth Orbit (GEO), are interrelated with the use of airspace. This includes missile defence, anti-satellite operations, hypersonic missile defence, stratospheric platforms and space traffic control.
The recently released National Aerospace Security Strategy (April 2019), signed by the Spanish Prime Minister, considers both domains in a single strategic domain requiring a unified action.
In 2018, the Chief of Defence (CHOD) assigned the Spanish Air Force with the standing mission of ‘Space Surveillance’. This is what Spain is currently doing; but building this capability now has an urgent requirement. The origin, in Spain, of the space capability is characteristic of its dual vocation, (civil and military), as in most of the countries.
The Space Situational Awareness (SSA) programme, which started as a European Space Agency (ESA) programme lead by Spain, is the ESAs initiative designed to support Europe’s independent space access and utilization through the timely and accurate delivery of information regarding the space environment and, particularly, hazards to both in orbit and ground infrastructure. One of the segments of the SSA programme is the Space Surveillance and Tracking (SST) segment, built to track active and inactive satellites and space debris.
In 2015, five European Member States (France, Germany, Italy, United Kingdom and Spain) formed the SST Consortium to implement the SST Support Framework, (which had been adopted by a Decision of the European Parliament and Council), and develop a European SST capability. Three other countries (Portugal, Poland and Romania) also joined the Consortium in 2018. The services to provide include collision avoidance and tracking of the fragmentation and re-entries events.
The Spanish Space Surveillance and Tracking Programme (S3T) was created in 2015 and is managed by the Centre for Industrial Technological Development (CDTI). In 2016, the Spanish Space Surveillance Operations Centre (S3TOC) was commissioned, at the Torrejón Air Force Base facilities, under an agreement between CDTI and the Ministry of Defence.
It should be noted that the S3TOC is a civil agency providing the services that the European SST Consortium is entrusting it with, which is currently just collision prevention.
Therefore, a need now exists to create an SSA capability to be led and managed purely by military personnel and for military purposes. This must be fully coordinated with S3TOC to minimize duplication and maximize synergies.
Chief of the Air Force Directive
The Chief of the Air Force Directive 06/18 tasks the ‘Implementation of space surveillance capability within the Spanish Air Force’ to comply with different CHOD operational planning documents that assigned the Air Force with the surveillance and awareness of the Outer Space, as a permanent mission, to protect the Spanish interests.
The Directive is, in a way, a flight plan that will show the way forward for the Space Defence capability development.
The creation of a new Air Force unit, the Space Surveillance Operations Centre (COVE4, in Spanish), whose mission, in collaboration with the S3TOC, will be to maintain SSA, is the most relevant aspect of the Directive, supporting access to space capabilities.
Building such capability is not an easy task, and to make it happen we are considering all capability development areas in the DOTMLPFI: (Doctrine, Organization, Training, Materiel, Leadership and Education, Personnel, Facilities and Interoperability).
Space Airmen at the Centre of Gravity
There are challenges regarding how we identify, educate and train personnel, like there are in any other country. However, we are developing the right measures to implement a career for space airmen, starting in the Air Force Academy, specialized, not in the support of space for military operations, but for space operations themselves. The goal is to provide control of the Air & Space, to be able to operate in the outer space, to integrate space in Multi-domain Operations, and to integrate them into organic and operational structures; specific (Air Force), joint (Joint Operations HQs) and multinational (NATO, EU).
In the meantime, we are taking an aggressive approach training our COVE personnel in their mission, alone or together with our partner/allied Space Operations Centres, in order to build the essential interoperability needed to succeed in providing security and defence to our space capabilities.
It is evident that we cannot perform this mission alone; and, during this process, we have realized also that no other country can do this alone either. Our doctrine, our organization, our personnel, including our leaders, our education and training, our sensors, our software, are useless unless they are interoperable.
A single failure in space could mean a global failure and possibly a disaster for humanity. Or at least it would imply the loss of very expensive capabilities and highly-needed services.
Can we afford such failures?
For that to happen, to be stronger, every nation has to realize that if we want to win in space, we have also something to give up.
Space is a not only a global common, it is a shared common.
We must not forget that in this type of operations we never walk alone, and that if a conflict starts in space, everybody loses.
So, how do nations prevent that from happening?
Rules have to be established concerning behaviour in space, as we have for airspace; and have communication lines open and established to minimize the opportunity for a miscalculation or uncertainty.
There is no greater confidence-building measure than sharing the critical and timely information needed for success on the battlefield. And space will become a battlefield. Maybe it already is.
Integration is the Way to Go
NATO, having declared Space as an operational domain, is taking the initial steps to increase the cooperation and coordination of all Allies and the space capabilities they own. This is probably the correct approach, taking into account the interests (and prerogative) of Nations to maintain operational command and control of their assets, for sovereign reasons.
Integration, more than coordination, will provide the best standards to improve the safety, stability and sustainability of space. Now, the challenge is how that level of integration is implemented.
It is up to the willingness of the Nations to allow the soon-to-be-created NATO Space Operations Centre to be the answer to the solution. We are talking about providing security to our space assets and the support they are providing.
In December 1955 the NATO Military Committee approved the implementation of the NATO Air Defence Ground Environment (NADGE). The NATO nations agreed to place their Command and Control systems, radar installations, Surface-to-Air Missile units and Quick Reaction Alert aircraft under the NATO Commanders. In 1972 NADGE became NATINADS (NATO Integrated Air Defence System) and with the advent of the Missile Defence task, it turned into NATINAMDS.
The keyword of this long acronym is neither Air nor Missile, not even Defence. It is Integrated. This is the value that NATO, being the sum of efforts of 29 countries, is adding to the individual efforts. Having transferred the authority of our national assets to a NATO Commander was not an easy decision, and required a lot of trust in the ‘NATO system’, the NATO way of performing this essential mission, once again agreed by nations. It has become a history of success, once again because trust has been built between Nations, and under the leadership of an expert and mission-oriented organization.
So, why not doing the same with Space Defence? The Missile Defence part of NATINAMDS took some time to be agreed upon by nations, nevertheless it was implemented. NATO nations should not be reluctant to an integration process of Space Defence that has been demonstrated successful in the Air & Missile Domain. Why not a NATO Integrated Air/Space and Missile System (NATINASMDS)? Maybe it is a question of time, a question of trust, or an imperative …
Every day that passes without the best integration effort by all nations (not only NATO nations), there is an increasing danger of risks, and more importantly, threats becoming a reality. These might not only temporarily affect the provision of some services, but, worse of all, could provoke a space disaster, (Kessler effect5), rendering space activities impossible for generations.
Think about our collective preparedness, our collective readiness to provide security in space, to guarantee freedom of access to space services and capabilities to our countries.
As the French Ministry of Defence said recently in a speech6, ’We are in danger, our communications, our military operations as well as our daily lives are in danger if WE DO NOT REACT …’
‘… TOGETHER, NOT DIVIDED’, I would add.
4. COVE stands for Centro de Operaciones de Vigilancia Espacial.
5. NASA space debris expert Don Kessler observed that, once past a certain critical mass, the total amount of space debris will keep on increasing: collisions give rise to more debris and lead to more collisions, in a chain reaction.
Major General Juan P. Sánchez de Lara
commissioned through the Spanish Air Force Academy in 1985, he became a fighter pilot, flying a total of 3,500 hours in Mirage F1 (Albacete AFB), Northrop F.5 (Moron AFB and AF Fighter Weapons School at Talavera AFB) and Casa 101 (AF Academy). He was posted to SHAPE (Mons) J3 as Air Ops and Targeting Officer (2007–2010). He also has been deployed to operations in Bosnia-Herzegovina (1997–1998) and in Djibouti (2011). As a Colonel he was designated Director of the AF Officers Academy. In December 2017 he was promoted to Brigadier General and designated Spanish AF Air Staff Plans & Policy Division Head. In June 2020 he was promoted to Major General and appointed as Commander in Chief Canary Islands Air Command.