FOREIGN POLICY: The Air Force doctrine on space weapons refers to offensive counterspace operations. What does that mean?
Lt. Gen. Daniel P. Leaf: [Offensive counterspace operations] deny adversaries access to space capabilities. That does not necessarily mean combat in space or direct attacks on satellites. There are many ways to counter enemy access to space, including attacking the ground segment of a space system or interrupting a link. It is simplistic to think that offensive counterspace can only mean space-based weapons. Our first priority is to use means that are temporary and reversible.
Critics of space weapons suggest reaching an agreement among space-faring nations to establish rules of space warfare. But you dont have to be a space-faring nation to have access to space capabilities. All you need is a credit card, and you can get imagery derived from satellites very readily. Thats a space capability. Nonstate adversaries that are opposing the United States or its allies could access commercial imagery and use it against us.
FP: Why should space dominance be a priority now?
DL: Its a priority because it has transformed the way we fightin terms of precision, communication, navigation, and awareness of the enemy. If those capabilities are taken away from our forces, it will be beyond unfortunate. Well be more likely to be forced to fight because we will know less. When we do fight, we will lose more people and resources. We will also be less precise, more destructive, and kill more on the enemy side of the lines. Do we really want to become less precise and to know less in the interest of an academic argument about the nature of space? I dont think so.
FP: Arent the offensive counterspace strategies laid out by the Air Force a threat to other countries?
DL: It is clear that some find it provocative. But I know that we in the Department of Defense are being very responsible and thoughtful about our response. Part of that is recognizing that spurring an arms race will have more negative consequences than we can stand. But at the same time, we have to be responsible. It would be foolish to eliminate from our consideration some capabilities that may be necessary in the future. I would certainly not want to testify to some future equivalent of the 9/11 Commission and say, Well, yes, we knew there might be weapons used against our satellites and we werent ready to respond because it didnt seem like the right thing to do.
I cant speak for our adversaries, but I have a very difficult time believing that they arent looking for ways to counter our space capabilities. We have to be responsible and prepared.
FP: The former secretary of the Air Force said that the proverbial first shot of space warfare has already been fired with the use of jammers against U.S. satellites. What does that mean?
DL: Our defensive counterspace mind-set means that when something happens to a space systemto the link, the ground segment, or the satelliterather than simply assuming that it is a space weather or computer problem, we also look at whether we are under attack. We dont assume that an adversary is attacking, but we dont assume they arent, either.
FP: Are the Air Forces programs designed to avoid creating space debris?
DL: We appreciate the dangers of space debris. Our priority is on temporary and reversible means, not destruction. But we also know that there could be the potentialfor such a significant threat that destroying it might merit the resultant debris. I have never been issued a crystal ball, so Im not going to dismiss the possibility that it could happen.
FP: If weapons are space-based, theyll be expensive to launch, maintain, and replace. How much more money are you seeking from the budget?
DL: The programs compete on their merits. Space is difficult, and the physics make it expensive. But with Department of Defense budgeting, we never get what we ask for. We put forward in good faith what we believe the right capabilities are for the nation and adjust to what is given.
FP: Critics jump on the fact that some of the budgets are classified. Why is that necessary? Doesnt it give critics ammunition to say that the Air Force is pursuing offensive capabilities more than youre letting on?
DL: We protect classified information when it needs to be protected. There are times when it does need to be protected. I am disappointed that they dont trust us. We have been a trustworthy service in the Department of Defense in following national policy. There are some who will criticize regardless, but I am confident that we are responsible stewards of our nations space capabilities and military considerations in the use of space. The environment of space does not separate it from the sad tapestry of warfare.
Lt. Gen. Daniel P. Leaf is vice commander of the U.S. Air Force Space Command.