Space Partnerships are Critical for U.S. Security, Defense Official Says

Colonel Ted Hanger, the Department of Defense Space Command’s Chief of Strategic Engagement, speaks during a March 21 AFCEA NOVA event.

Colonel Ted Hanger, the Department of Defense Space Command’s Chief of Strategic Engagement, speaks during a March 21 AFCEA NOVA event. Courtesy: USSPACECOM

At AFCEA NOVA’s Space Force IT day, Col. Ted Hanger discussed the importance of working with allies and partners in space.

It is imperative for the United States to partner with other nations and industry to solve issues in space, according to Col. Ted Hanger, the Space Command’s Chief of Strategic Engagement (J55) noted during a keynote speech at AFCEA NOVA’s Space Force IT day on Tuesday.

He emphasized the congested and contested nature of space that makes working with allies and partners important. For example, there are currently 167 space situational awareness agreements between allies, civil and commercial partners and academia to share information. According to Hanger, information sharing and data interoperability present challenges to achieving those partnerships.

After the keynote, Nextgov further discussed the nature of space agreements with Hanger. 

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity

Nextgov: What do you do on a day-to-day?

Hanger: We’re constantly in a planning cycle for our next engagement, and so we look at what partners we’re engaging with and why. A lot of thought goes into that, and some nations are more intuitive … and then some aren’t so intuitive, when you look at some of the capabilities that we can deliver to them and then what we can achieve by having that partnership, if that makes sense. And so we have to balance that against our priorities to make sure that our resources are applied appropriately.

Nextgov: And by intuitive, do you mean that, let’s say we’re more advanced capability-wise than they are?

Hanger: Yeah, I mean, I think so. I think a great example are some South American countries that we’re developing partnerships with that have very advantageous terrain to put a sensor on. So their space capability is nascent, but that’s where we can apply security cooperation initiatives to those and build their capacity and capability to not only help them, but to help us as well.

Nextgov: Why is the large network of like-minded partnerships and allies important?

Hanger: First and foremost, it kind of builds a coalition of like-minded nations, and it complicates our competitors’ or potential adversaries’ calculus. It makes them consider not just the United States, but what effect does that have to everybody else because we’re aligned. And instead of being a bilateral––a one-on-one––it’s potentially a one-on-50, and that makes things much more complicated and it imposes costs on them because they have to consider all of that.

Nextgov: Could you speak about recent achievements with allies and partners?

Hanger: Some of our most significant achievements would have to be the signing of the Enhanced Space Cooperation memoranda of understanding with the United Kingdom and Canada because what that does allow is agreement between nations to conduct deliverable planning, with the ultimate objective of being able to conduct multilateral combined space operations. I can’t overstate how important that is. And then the progress that we’re making, getting Australia closer. 

In the last several months, we’ve had the chief of defense from Japan and Korea at our headquarters. In January, we had the Supreme Allied Commander for Transformation, General [Philippe] Lavigne, the SACT for NATO. He was visiting our headquarters. We don’t go much more than a week at a time without some level of engagement, whether at the headquarters in Colorado Springs or somewhere else, and we have a very robust engagement schedule moving forward. The upcoming space symposium we'll probably do 30 to 40 bilateral engagements during that week, and then that kind of thrusts us into the summer, where we have some engagements with Japan, Australia. We’re looking at Southern Command to watch some exercises and how space is integrated into those.

Nextgov: Can you explain why having all of those allies and partnerships is important?

Hanger: It helps us burden share, so we can cost share. If you break down the words of cooperate and collaborate, we’re really trying to collaborate more, so we again share those costs, burdens and risks. And it’s kind of been dictated to us through our strategic documents, starting from the national security strategy on down. The reason it does is we can share costs, risk and burden, but also, it complicates our competitors and potential adversaries. It confuses their calculus; it makes them consider the second, third, fourth order effects if they try to do something to us or one of our allies and partners to a broader team of like-minded nations.

Nextgov: During the keynote, you had mentioned information sharing and data operability a lot. Can you touch more upon that?

Hanger: When nations developed their capabilities, they don’t necessarily think in space about interoperability the way, let’s say, NATO nations think about more conventional capabilities, such as radios, ammunition and things like that. It’s pretty straightforward; that’s why we’ve adopted certain munitions that we put through our weapons. A 5.56 round that I shoot out of my weapon would work in a German’s weapon, or Italian’s, etc. But I think when people generated their space capability, they weren’t really thinking along those lines. It was a little bit more sovereign, if you will, and not how we’re going to be able to share that information and then integrate that as part of a multinational force, which we’re trying to go into now.

Nextgov: When you were talking about challenges to these, is it from a technology perspective? Is it from what information is able to be shared?

Hanger: It’s both. So there’s the security, if you will—so, what classification, what information we can share?—and that’s based a lot on who owns the information and what authorities that we have to obtain to share that. The other side of it is the Japanese example: the [Deep Space] radar that they developed, we’re having to address [technical] challenges in the data with that.

Nextgov: How important is developing international norms or standards for all of this?

Hanger: It’s fundamental because that’s what is going to guide each nation’s strategic documents, and that’s what our policymakers and our national-level leaders agree upon first. And then that matriculates down into their respective ministries of defense—or Department of Defense, in our case—for us to develop plans and execute their vision.

Nextgov: Is there any new tech or tech tools that you’re using?

Hanger: Actually, we do in our J58, which is not my division, but they’re focusing on some AI capability. What’s of most interest to me right now is the ability for them to help us pull information out of media and social media, so we can get a sense for the geopolitical environment in certain areas. So that just… provides us with more information on what the geopolitical environment is in some nations and why it might be advantageous to partner with them or counter information or what’s going on around them. With our pacing competition, China with how they’re expanding their footprint globally, there’s considerations there. And so if we can pull information from media and from different open sources like that using AI, that’s very helpful for us because me and my team, we do not have the time to pour through that. But if they can say, ‘hey, here’s the last week summary,’ we look for some of these things and condense that down into an executive summary that I can read quickly… And so we shaped that through a board that we use at Space Command on how we plan and execute our strategic communication strategies. So I think that’s a good example of maybe something that’s certainly new, emerging that will help us do something to shape the space environment.

Nextgov: What are some threats that you’re seeing or that are concerning?

Hanger: The threats, of course, exist. Simple ones are direct-ascent, anti-satellite capability; that’s a huge threat. Then there’s kind of existing threats now because of irresponsible behavior in space, such as orbital debris and things like that. But I think if you think more abstractly, there are risks in not partnering. And, nations might partner with China because they are getting something out of it. So, not that all hope is gone if they do, but that challenges us because then we may have to take other approaches, if that’s the way our policymakers want us to go. It’s kind of the unknown risk of not partnering is what’s probably not clearly understood, and it certainly takes some balancing on how we can try to be the partner of choice and have a deterrent effect, but still do that within our priorities and within our resource allocations.

Nextgov: So how concerning is orbital debris?

Hanger: It’s very concerning. We can track pretty small pieces of orbital debris, but my very surface level understanding of orbital mechanics is that some of that debris will stay on orbit for decades. We, within the [Joint Chiefs of Staff] J5, or specifically the [International Engagement J]55, we haven’t really talked too much about orbital cleanup, but it opens up just a completely different type of discussion on what type of capability you would have to put on orbit to do that. And then of concern is what else it might be able to do. I didn’t really discuss rendezvous and proximity operations in my remarks, but that’s what––in the way I understand it––the type of orbital asset that would have to be purposefully designed for cleaning up orbital debris.

You would also give it properties that you could put it close to another object that isn’t debris and then what are you doing with that? So indistinguishability is a huge consideration in space, that’s why it’s very important for enhanced space domain awareness that we understand what the characteristics of objects are and what their capabilities are so we can perhaps maneuver accordingly or make things more transparent—why is this object or vehicle that is owned by another nation, why is it getting close? Because we know it might have a net or grappling arm or something else like that, which could be alarming, and what we don’t want to have is miscalculations. 

Nextgov: Is cleaning up orbital debris something that you think Space Command would be looking into?

Hanger: That is not a mission set that I have heard discussed. I think what that ties into though—it’s going to be years down the road—but the Department of Commerce’s role in space. Right now, it’s really more of a Department of Defense function, but as we transition certain things over space traffic management to the Department of Commerce, it doesn’t seem to be unreasonable that they would focus on orbital debris cleanup as well.

Nextgov: Changing topics, you were talking about France using training for orbital warfare? Could you talk more about that or other ways that training the workforce is important?

Hanger: I know it was an orbital warfare course that they just did in December. The Space Force is probably the most capable cadre of space operators in the world. It’s of significant interest to our allies and partners to be able to gain their expertise through training, and we routinely bring allies and partners to Peterson Space Force Base to train them. There are some considerations—it all leads back to information sharing, what we can do—but we’re very interested in building that partner capacity and capability and through training, and education is one of the ways we do that.

Nextgov: What are some other ways?

Hanger: Foreign military sales. So now we’re transitioning over into security cooperation efforts, which is a combatant command responsibility, not necessarily the service responsibility. We can help them with potentially foreign military sales, foreign military financing. If they meet the criteria to get assistance like that, we can provide them equipment sensors, and then, of course, along with that we would tie that back to Space Force and have them help with the training on those systems.

Nextgov: During your keynote, you talked about limited resources, is that more like personnel? Budget? etc.

Hanger: I was really referring to that more from personnel right now. In my division, we aren’t monetarily restrained. I have about 17 people that do planning and all of our actual engagements. So if we’re actually doing an engagement, we’re not planning, and vice versa. So that’s really where I feel our most resource constraint. It’s that we are operating off of a structure that resembled how STRATCOM performed their space mission, not how a new geographic combatant command should necessarily be organized.

Nextgov: How would you envision it should be organized?

Hanger: Well, the Defense Security Cooperation Agency says that for what we have to do to perform our security cooperation mission, we should be bigger. So I know that the [Joint Chiefs of Staff] J1, who runs manpower for USSPACECOM, is planning on doing a manpower study as we get to and/or past [full operational capability] to make sure that we’re properly configured to best support the mission.

Nextgov: Are there skills in particular that you’re seeking, or looking at?

Hanger: Foreign area officers are invaluable to what we do. Most of the people that work in my division are bi- or multilingual, or with a security cooperation background that understands how the mechanics of security cooperation runs through what’s written in law. So, there’s code that dictates how we do that. And so having a thorough understanding of foreign military sales, foreign military financing, etc., that can then do that sort of planning, and then have the people that have the cultural awareness and the ability to go down and create long lasting relationships is critical.