Nestled in Colorado Springs at the foot of the Rockies, at an elevation of about 6,000 feet, lies the Peterson Space Force Base. Previously an Air Force base, the institution is now the headquarters of the new US Space Command, including its commanders, General James Dickinson and Lieutenant General John Shaw.
In 2019, former president Donald Trump formed a new military branch by splitting the Space Force off from the Air Force and reviving an older organization called the Space Command to take charge of military operations in space. Both are now tasked with protecting US interests and deterring conflict in space. At first they struggled to attain legitimacy; the Space Force was spoofed on the internet and even as a Netflix show. But the Biden administration has since proposed a 25 percent larger budget for the new branch, signaling the growing prominence of space security within the Defense Department. Space security has become a major issue for the administration, including concerns about space junk in orbit, spying and hacking, and how Russia’s war in Ukraine is having implications for space operations, including those of commercial satellite companies. The US is also involved in new space partnerships with Australia and other countries, efforts to negotiate international rules for operations in space, and forthcoming missions beyond Earth orbit and to the moon.
Last month, Shaw, the second-in-command, published a paper titled “Sailing the New Wine-Dark Sea” in the inaugural issue of the military journal Aether. There, he argues that the US military should treat space as an “area of responsibility,” territory that needs to be maintained and defended, not merely traversed by spacecraft. In his paper and this exclusive conversation with WIRED, Shaw frequently makes historical references—his paper’s title alludes to The Odyssey—and connects challenges in space to those faced by the Navy and Air Force.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Shaw: They’re called military orders. [Laughs.] I came to US Space Command as the deputy in November of 2020. Before that, I was the Combined Force Space Component Command commander at Vandenberg Space Force Base out in California. Now I’m focused on how we’re continuing to provide space capabilities to joint warfighters, anywhere from peacetime to conflict, as well as protect and defend in the space domain itself.
I grew up as a space nerd. I went to the Air Force Academy, I knew I wanted to major in astronautical engineering, and I found a really wonderful and fulfilling career doing space operations over the last 32 years since I graduated from the academy. I also think this might be the most exciting time in those 32 years I’ve ever seen, with regard to a new Space Force and a new Space Command.
The way our Department of Defense is set up, we have services that recruit and train people. Think of the United States Air Force: It recruits airmen, it trains pilots and other career fields, and it produces airplanes. But the other part of our Department of Defense is the combatant commands that actually conduct warfighting. If there is an operation to be done in space, the Space Force might be the service that gives us the capability, but the Space Command will conduct those operations. These combatant commands are independent of the services, and those commanders report directly to the secretary of defense.
Does the US Space Command interact or collaborate with NASA on specific things—like tracking asteroids on a collision course with Earth? Or with the Air Force—like monitoring ballistic missiles, when you don’t know whether they’ll go to space?
I do talk quite routinely with NASA. We partner with NASA in many ways, anywhere from support to manned spaceflight. If something goes not according to plan on a launch or recovery of astronauts—they land where they’re not really planned to—then we assist in the recovery of those astronauts.
With regard to the asteroid question: That’s what we call planetary defense. So far we haven’t detected one that’s on a collision course. NASA is responsible for that detection mission. But we help with some of the sensors we have that could also look way out into space. So we’re supporting NASA in that regard. If we identify something, we’ll shift to “Can we deflect it somehow?” We’re going to see a terrific experiment later this year, if you’re tracking the Double Asteroid Redirect Mission. Hoping to be on the [Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory] floor when that happens.
One of the missions of US Space Command is to provide missile warnings to all the other combatant commanders as well as to the national leadership. So any time that there is a missile that launches anywhere in the world, we have the ability to detect that and characterize it and report it, even if it’s suborbital.
How would you describe the Space Force’s and Space Command’s role in national defense?
I think there are two primary purposes. The first is to make sure that we’re delivering space capabilities to joint warfighters and other users around the world as efficiently and effectively as possible. The way modern warfare in the 21st century works, it depends on space. There’s hardly any activity you can think of that doesn’t somehow rely on space, one way or another: whether it’s weather satellites giving us an idea what an environment’s going to be like, whether it’s remote sensing satellites that are photographing what’s going on the planet’s surface, to help us with the planning and execution of an operation, or it’s satellite communications, or it’s GPS that provides precision navigation.
The other primary purpose, and this is the relatively newer one, is: These same capabilities that are fundamental to how we do warfighting are now under threat. An analogy I sometimes use is: What we’re doing is like the Merchant Marines in space, delivering capability across a benign ocean to a warfighter on a distant shore. Well, it’s not a benign ocean anymore; it’s under threat. So our second primary purpose is to protect and defend our space capabilities against those threats, and be prepared for a fight that may begin or extend into space.
Our primary potential adversaries are China and Russia, which have clearly already demonstrated multiple ways that they would hold our space capabilities at risk. We’ve seen this in 2007, when China tested an anti-satellite missile that blew up one of their own satellites. By the way, today we’re still tracking thousands of pieces of debris from that test. That represents a threat to safety and navigation in space. Not a good event.
And then, most recently, Russia did the same thing on the 15th of November last year, blew up one of their satellites. And now we have hundreds more pieces of debris that we’re tracking because of that. In addition, they continue to develop other capabilities: satellite and navigation signal jamming capabilities; directed energy capabilities from the ground that could be used to dazzle, disrupt, or even damage satellites in low earth orbit, and so on.
So why are China and Russia doing this? Because they see what space means to modern warfare, and how dependent our terrestrial forces are on space capabilities. And they want to hold them at risk, because they’re actually afraid of the capabilities that our space assets bring to bear.
What’s the origin of this new paper you wrote? It has a grand scope, with references to history, philosophy, and literature—it definitely doesn’t read like a dry military report.
Oh good, success! At least in your view.
With the new United States Space Command in 2019, the president signed the mission set to us that included: Hey, you’re now responsible for that area that’s 100 kilometers above sea level, and upward and outward indefinitely. Which if you do the math, that’s a really, really large area. It’s like the entire universe minus the planet and a little atmosphere. That’s a lot. Now, of course, the relevant battle space isn’t that big. At least not yet.
When you as a military commander are assigned an area of responsibility, that changes your focus a bit. It’s not just about delivering capabilities to the terrestrial spheres that are outside the area; you now have responsibility for activities and threats and other hazards that exist within that area of responsibility. And that goes back to time immemorial. In ancient times, if the Roman caesar assigned one of his legions an area of responsibility, it was expected that they would make sure they knew what was going on in that area, pacify it, and keep it free of threat. If they didn’t, they’d probably get fired or worse.
Now that we have a physical area of responsibility, it means we have to understand what’s going on there. We have to “patrol” it. I put that in quotes, because we do that with robotic spacecraft.
I’ll also point out, as I do in that paper, that this is the first time in military history that we’ve had an area of responsibility that isn’t defined by lines on a geographic map. Technically, etymologically, our AOR is not geographic; it’s not lines written on the earth, it’s lines among the stars. So that’s why I use the word “astrographic.”
What does that mean in practice? For example, does it mean building up the defenses of satellites and ground systems against electronic and cyberattacks? Because it seems like cyberattacks might be more likely than anti-satellite missiles.
You’re absolutely right to note that cyberattacks are a key “threat vector”—it’s what we would call it. And it may or may not be more likely, but it’s definitely prominent among all the threat vectors that we’re concerned about. We’re concerned about physical attack, electromagnetic attack, and cyberattack on any of our space capabilities, and so we need to take measures to defend against that.
And those measures can take various forms. It could be the actual physical construction of a satellite constellation or architecture. Maybe you have a lot of small satellites instead of a couple big ones, that affords you a bit of protection. It could be the way we operate those satellites, that they may be unpredictable and harder to target. Or we may be able to interfere with an adversary’s targeting system.
Does the area of responsibility include only satellites that the military uses, or could it also be US commercial satellites or satellites used by other agencies, for example?
The answer is “probably,” depending on what the threat is. If there are hazards or threats, our most immediate concern is our military capabilities that are supporting joint warfighters. But it could extend to safety and security in general in the domain, just like we do in the other domains with our other military services and combatant commands on the earth.
Has your perspective changed at all following the Russian war in Ukraine? Have your concerns or policy recommendations changed over the past couple months?
One of the things that stands out to me most readily is how much commercial space has really come to the forefront. For example, we all saw commercial satellite imagery across the news networks about the Russian convoy north of Kiev and, more recently and more tragically, some of the atrocities that have happened in the suburbs of Kiev.
In another example, Ukraine continues to be connected widely to the internet, and that’s greatly thanks to the Starlink system that SpaceX is operating there. To me, that’s the greatest thing that’s stood out: the value of space across the board, of which commercial space is a huge component.
What are your thoughts on the development of new norms or rules in space, which will be discussed at the United Nations next month? What norms would you like to see that could prevent collisions in low earth orbit and misunderstandings when unknown spacecraft approach each other?
I think where you start is where we have seen in other domains, particularly in the maritime and air domains, where there are just really common-sense things that actors in those domains do to ensure safe and responsible operations. How do you properly operate? How do you ensure you’re in proper shipping lanes, the right of way, giving way to other ships in certain circumstances? I think pretty much everybody likes those rules. That’s where I would start. Communicate when you’re going to maneuver, communicate when you’re going to launch into space. We collectively need to find ways to be able to know where people operating satellites are, where those satellites are.
The secretary of defense signed onto five tenets of responsible behavior last year. The second-to-last paragraph specifically asked US Space Command to find ways to best implement those tenets. We’re working on that now. They’re all about making operations predictable, transparent, and making sure that space itself is as sustainable as we can possibly make it, minimizing debris. In the early space age, the Soviet Union, the United States, and other early actors, we littered a lot in space. We’d put a satellite up into space and doors would come off of the boost module, and we’d leave rocket stages up there. We didn’t try very hard to not litter. We’re trying harder now.
Why is the Space Force involved with the tracking and managing of space debris, as opposed to a civil agency?
Right now our role is tracking debris. It’s US Space Command that’s doing that operationally every day, primarily with US Space Force capabilities. Why is the military, why is the Department of Defense tracking debris? Because that’s how it started. In 1957, when Sputnik went up, it was kind of a national security thing. It was the Department of Defense that built the sensors that were able to track what’s going on in space.
US Space Command has the gold standard for sharing with the world what is going on in space. That’s our Space-Track.org website. Sign up. You can go to that website, you can apply for access or membership to have access to that site. It’s open to the public.
But where is it going? There’s definitely movement afoot to shift to what we call “space traffic management” that’s tracking debris, issuing notices of potential collisions. We call them “conjunctions,” when we think two objects in space are going to come close to each other. We send out notices on that. Space traffic management, keeping track of debris and sending out those notices of conjunctions, is going to transition to the Department of Commerce. The current administration, in the most recent budget, has increased the Department of Commerce’s budget significantly to do this.
What do you think should change, or could change, with the Space Command moving forward? Are there any policy changes you’d like to see, or issues or technologies you’d like to see the Space Command pay more attention to?
One thing in particular General Dickinson and I are interested in is, up until now, most of our attention in the space domain has been focused on our area of responsibility, 100 kilometers out. And we feel we need to look much further, out to the cislunar sphere, or we call it ex-GEO, or just beyond GEO [geostationary orbit]. Because we think a lot of activity is going on there. NASA is going there. We’re interested in what’s happening in the lunar environment. So that’s one thing, understanding more of the domain and bringing any capabilities we can bring on that.
And we want to support and encourage new technologies that will give us new capabilities. Nuclear thermal propulsion and nuclear electric propulsion, these kinds of emerging technologies are ones we’re interested in. They could fit missions for us in the future.
What do you think of the president’s proposed budget, which looks like it’s increasing funding for the Space Force and the Space Development Agency?
Space Force did get a significant bump up in resources. Not only did that get proposed out of the whole Department of Defense, the president and his administration also approved it. That’s in the president’s budget. I see that as a realization that space is important, that we need to probably give it more resources as part of the overall balance in the department. Space is playing a more prominent role and therefore needs to be resourced more appropriately.
We at combatant command, we’re actually not rich. We don’t have a lot of money. We’re the operators. We’re eager to do our mission and keep space secure, safe, and sustainable.