WASHINGTON — The chief of space operations, in his latest missive to Guardians, argued the need for the Space Force to emphasize that the newest service’s mission includes operating in space to defend the Joint Force on the ground, at sea, and in the air from adversaries’ space-enabled attacks — rather than focusing only on protecting US satellites.
“While important, a narrow focus on protecting space capabilities disregards how U.S. strategic competitors are preparing to use their own space capabilities to find, target, and attack forces operating in the terrestrial domains,” Saltzman wrote in his internal June 23 “Commander’s Note,” obtained by Breaking Defense.
He said the “logic of space superiority” has changed and that defending the Joint Force “from space-enabled attack” (emphasis his) is an equal part of the Space Force’s space superiority mission — a mission that has been part of US military operations since long before the service’s establishment in 2019.
“As advocates of spacepower, it falls on Guardians to educate the Joint Force on this imperative,” Saltzman writes.
In his memo, Saltzman didn’t elaborate on what exactly the Space Force’s role would be in defending the Joint Force. And while it seems logical that it would involve the service developing new offensive space weapons — designed to directly damage, destroy or otherwise interfere with an adversary’s satellite — a Space Force spokesperson insisted that’s “not an accurate interpretation” of Saltzman’s words.
The spokesperson said Saltzman was speaking to “a shift in mindset” as a result of the new threats in the space domain, rather than making an effort to upend current military space doctrine. Still, the memo suggests a forward-leaning stance by Saltzman, at a time when the Space Force is still sorting out its doctrinal path ahead in the heavens, and what it’s prepared to do in the event of a conflict.
In recent years, Saltzman and the Space Force writ large — with few exceptions — have been extremely reticent to use the term “weapons” when it comes to space-based capabilities, instead preferring “counter space operations” and “offensive capabilities,” while demurring in defining exactly what those terms mean.
Secure World Foundation’s Brian Weeden, a former military space officer, said in an email, “The question the Pentagon is grappling with now is what do they do about China using satellites to help attack U.S. ships and bases during an armed conflict over Taiwan? So, yes, they are absolutely thinking about developing new US offensive counter space weapons to do so, just like we did during the Cold War.”
He also noted that the C-note may reflect “a little bit of scrambling to justify to the other services what the Space Force is doing (and also all the major budget increases they keep asking for!).”
Charles Galbreath, a retired Space Force colonel, wrote in a new paper from the Mitchell Institute that it’s “oxymoronic to develop a military service charged with protecting interests in space without arming it with the weapons it must have to accomplish its missions.”
Just days after Saltzman’s memo, a senior Space Command officer appeared frustrated by the whole discussion.
“We’ve got to … stop debating if it’s a warfighting domain, stop debating whether there are weapons, and get to the point of how do we responsibly, as part of the joint and combined force, deter conflict that nobody wants to see, but if we do see it, demonstrate our ability to win?” Maj. Gen. David Miller, US Space Command director of operations, training, and force development (J3), said.
Space Superiority: A Shifting Concept
As Weeden noted, protecting US operations from space-enabled attacks is not a new conceptual idea, but one that dates from the 1950s and the beginning of the superpower stare-down between the US and the Soviet Union. But “it was not a priority over the last three decades because our main adversaries didn’t have significant space capabilities.”
What has changed, Saltzman’s C-note explains, is that those adversaries now do.
“For much of my career, the ability to integrate space capabilities at the tactical level was a uniquely American advantage. That’s no longer the case. Over the last five years, our strategic competitors have made significant progress integrating space capabilities into their weapons, targeting, and command and control,” he wrote in the memo.
US military doctrine for decades has defined “space superiority” as protecting and defending US “freedom of action in space,” with a focus on keeping US space systems functioning — but also “denying” adversaries such freedom “if necessary.” And for most of those decades, that “if necessary” clause meant that attacking enemy satellites would require a direct presidential directive, rather than being a course of action the Secretary of Defense, much less a service chief, could order on their own.
Joint Publication 3-14 (JP 3-14), Space Operations [PDF], last updated in 2020, defines “space superiority” as follows:
Space superiority is the degree of control in space of one force over any others that permits the conduct of its operations at a given time and place without prohibitive interference from terrestrial and space-based threats. The purpose and value of space superiority is to provide the freedom of action in space in the pursuit and defense of national security interests. … The use of offensive and defensive operations … may be necessary to maintain space superiority.
For those not familiar, the role of doctrine is to set the foundational principles to guide military forces as they pursue national security objectives, as well as to establish agreed concepts and terms to prescribe the manner in which they will fight. There are various levels of doctrine, with that crafted by the Joint Staff to guide joint force operations at the top of the food chain. Each military service then writes its own doctrine sets covering specific roles and missions.
As the newest military service, the Space Force is still busily trying to write its own. The first service-specific doctrinal publication, signed by former Space Force chief Gen. Jay Raymond in 2020, was the “Space Capstone Publication,” which he defined as “a first articulation of an independent theory of spacepower.” Last January, Space Force headquarters published an unofficial “Space Doctrine Note, Operations” [PDF], designed to spark discussion about the conduct of space operations. In addition, Space Training and Readiness Command last year published a series of doctrine papers on personnel, sustainment, and planning.
John Klein, a faculty member at George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute, said in an email that as the Space Force works to hew its own doctrinal path, there is some “white space” emerging between the service’s thinking and standing joint doctrine.
“Space Force doctrine is departing from Joint Doctrine in some respects (which should be expected with a new military service), and more work needs to be done to update Joint Doctrine with current space operational thinking,” he said.
At the same time, Klein noted that, as he read Saltzman’s C-note, the term “space superiority” seems to include both offensive and defensive strategy and operations — which is largely in alignment with current doctrine across the military services.
“To me, this shouldn’t come as a surprise, because the land, sea, and air domains have readily acknowledged the need to have both defensive and offensive approaches, strategies, and operations. Because space is not special, just wonderfully different, the idea of including defensive and offensive thinking makes strategic sense.”
For example, he added, “Destroying satellites supporting Chinese operations is an offensive action (targeting itself isn’t). Military means, such as the use of weapons, will be needed to cause such destruction to potential adversaries’ satellites.”
After all, in Saltzman’s memo, he said all of the military services are meant to “contest and, when directed, control a physical domain with force. When applied to the space domain, this mission is called space superiority.”