Challenges in the Space Domain are Becoming ‘More Technologically Focused,’ Experts Say


Panelists at a PSC Defense conference noted that “space is now a contested domain” with increasing technological and competitive challenges.

Space as a frontier is becoming increasingly important to the intelligence community, according to government experts that spoke at a panel hosted by the Professional Services Council on Thursday. The panelists noted that the U.S. must think about its priorities, including those in space, as the nation works on intelligence efforts, while also considering the role of corporations.

“We need to also look to reaffirm the capabilities we have in both space and cyber, which increasingly are areas where I think we don’t necessarily have a complete and consistent doctrine or concept of operations, which then means that our capabilities are still developing and emerging,” Jon Rosenwasser, budget director for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said.

Particularly technological and competitive challenges have also emerged in the space intelligence world.

“I really see those challenges becoming more and more technologically focused,” said John Gass, deputy director for the U.S. Space Force Space Delta 18 at the National Space Intelligence Center.

He explained that the pace at which those challenges are arising is also “coming faster than what the U.S. can really figure out how to effectively counter,” adding to the level of difficulty.

“That’s part of the reason why the Space Force was created, because space is now a contested domain. And we’re seeing lots of challenges in space from our competitors, and most of those are very focused on new technologies and advances in technologies and reducing the technology gap,” Gass said. “At the National Space Intelligence Center, we’re singularly focused on trying to figure out what those changes are, what they’re going to be, so that we can provide that information to our decision-makers.” 

The space and cyber challenges, Gass added, are very similar in that they impact areas beyond their own domain.

“All the other parts of military warfighting, all the parts of society, are affected by our cyber capabilities and space capabilities,” he said.

Ryan Kaldahl, minority budget director for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, also pointed to the increasing role that China is playing in space, in addition to the technological and economic arenas.

China and Russia are also using space to build relationships with other countries, according to Gass.

“We see that all the way from launching satellites for other countries, putting equipment in other countries or just allowing the education of their people in both Russia and China,” Gass said.

Beyond traditional nation-states, Gass illuminated a “fourth pole” of space consideration arising from commercial industry.

“If you just look at the number of launches that SpaceX has had this year and compare that to any nation state, it is quite amazing,” he said. “And I think increasingly, over the next decade or two, you will see more of the technology driven by commercial companies, more even of some of the policy issues that we're currently dealing with in space on a state to state issue, maybe actually see that the commercial companies will have more of a say in that…These companies are going to have to make decisions about who they ally themselves with. But, I think increasingly in space, they’re going to take a much more powerful stance than other commercial entities do.”

The panelists noted the ongoing conflict in Ukraine highlights the importance of space, and the role that corporations are playing in the intersection of those areas, particularly Russia’s attack on communication satellite company Viasat, as well as SpaceX providing Starlink satellites to supply broadband for Ukraine. 

“[The] inability to know the consequences of attack make escalation calculus in space even more difficult,” Gass said. “But, commercial space is changing the nature of warfare, because now the world knows—at a moment’s notice—what is going on. Because the commercial vendors are putting that out there for people to see…That level of ubiquitous knowledge of the adversary provided by commercial [companies] is something that I think is going to be profound, especially [in] the U.S. defense or national security, even against lesser states than Russia and China. So I really look at this Ukraine crisis as not just Russia and China learning a lot of lessons about the power of commercial space. But the whole world and other potential competitors and challengers to our security are also learning that same lesson.”