General Says US Military Should Consider a Deconfliction Line for Space

U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. DeAnna Burt.
U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. DeAnna Burt, Director of Operations and Communications, Headquarters United States Space Force, at her promotion ceremony at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado, Aug. 3, 2020. (U.S. Space Force/2nd Lt. Idalí Beltré Acevedo).

A top commander at U.S. Space Command says it may be time to establish a "deconfliction channel" between the U.S. and adversary countries to ensure the safety of operations in space.

The Pentagon and international partners are developing guidelines for operating in space, just as international norms govern maritime operations. Maj. Gen. DeAnna Burt, the commander of SPACECOM's Combined Force Space Component Command, said those protocols should include being transparent and predictable with countries such as Russia and China.

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"I think it's interesting in other domains, particularly with the Russians, we have a high degree of communication," Burt said during an Air Force Association Space Power virtual event Monday.

"My air brothers and sisters will tell me we have [communication lines] to the Russian government at the military level ... and other areas where we talk to each other and say, 'Hey, that's a little too close,' or 'Hey, did you mean to do that?' before something escalates," Burt said.

These communications lines are used with Russian counterparts when intercepts occur in international airspace. A similar deconfliction line has existed between U.S. forces and Russian forces operating in Syria.

"We don't have that same capability in the space domain. Should we?" said Burt, who is also the deputy commander of Space Operations Command for the U.S. Space Force at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. SPACECOM is responsible for military operations related to space, while the Space Force, the newest military branch, organizes and trains space personnel.

"It sure would be nice to get a phone call back or to have that interaction," she said.

Burt's comments come as defense, State Department and other national security officials work to draft a proposal for norms, rules and principles of responsible behavior in space for the United Nations General Assembly. The U.N. has asked countries to submit their proposals no later than the end of the week for consideration, and will review the inputs this summer, according to Space News.

"You can't define irresponsible if you haven't defined responsible behavior," Burt added, stressing the importance of comprehensive guidelines.

Gen. John Raymond, the chief of space operations for the Space Force, also has voiced his growing desire for rules of the road in space. Incidents of concern include a 2019 episode in which two Russian satellites, Cosmos 2542 and 2543, tailed an American satellite, USA 245, also known as KH-11. Time Magazine reported in February 2020 that the Russian satellites loitered within 100 miles of KH-11, activity Raymond called "unusual and disturbing," similar to Russia's past risky, high-velocity confrontations in international airspace.

"I want my successors to have some norms of behavior, some rules of the road," Raymond said in a discussion with the Washington Post on Friday.

"I am not naïve to think that if we have rules of the road that everybody is going to just follow them. But I think if we have them, and we can build those with our international partners, that we would at least be able to identify those that are running the red lights."

Last year, the Center for Strategic and International Studies distributed its "Space Threat Assessment 2020" report, which warned of increased co-orbital adversary activity, such as close inspection of satellites in geostationary orbit.

"The rate of satellite jamming and spoofing incidents will only increase as these capabilities continue to proliferate and become more sophisticated in the coming years," according to the findings.

Countries, including big players such as the U.S., Russia and China, which already are running interference on one another in space, are gradually normalizing these non-kinetic ways to disrupt operations, said Todd Harrison, director of both the Aerospace Security Project and Defense Budget Analysis at CSIS, and one of the report's co-authors.

Disguising information and communications through GPS spoofing, jamming connections and even dazzling -- or blinding satellites with lasers -- are all on the rise as more countries launch technologies into the space domain, Harrison explained.

"Those are some of the areas that I feel that we're vulnerable to right now; they're also difficult to defend against," he told reporters during a briefing on the report at the time. "Those are really concerning forms of attack, and we are seeing countries like Russia and China really double down their investments in those areas."

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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