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‘Ten Years Hence’ lecture discusses potential threats in space

| Tuesday, February 15, 2022

In the third installment of this year’s “Ten Years Hence” lecture series themed “Life Beyond Earth,” Lt. Gen. William J. Liquori discussed the creation of Space Force and its plans for dealing with international space threats. Liquori spoke with Notre Dame professor James O’Rourke via Zoom webinar Friday morning.

Liquori is the USSF deputy chief of staff for space operations, strategy, plans, programs, requirements and analysis. Civilian Pentagon worker and Notre Dame graduate Kara Trohaugh, who Liquori called the “intel expert” regarding space capabilities of adversarial nations, joined Liquori on the call. Trohaugh graduated in 2010 with a degree in aerospace engineering.

The first time there seemed to be a push to form the Space Force, Liquori recalled, was in 2017. The Trump administration had just taken over the White House. Then national security advisor Gen. McMaster asked National Security Council members to write down strategic issues that should be addressed in the next four years.

One of those issues — Space security.

“The first half of the vital national interest was described as unfettered access and freedom to operate in space,” Liquori said. “The second half was in order to advance our national security, economic prosperity and scientific knowledge.”

On Dec. 20, 2019, the National Defense Authorization Act signed the Space Force into law.

In each year since the creation of the Space Force, Liquori said, there has been a specific “theme” characterizing its development.

The establishment of the service defined the first year. A big part of this is the “iconography” of the Space Force, such as the uniforms, logos and flags. While these details may seem trivial, Liquori believes they are critical for developing a culture within the new branch.

Space Force also established an organizational structure with Pentagon workers were divided into four different directorates. They also established the force’s military rankings. The Guardians also wrote their doctrine, a document that explains the goals of this military branch.

Integration characterized their second year, Liquori said. This included communicating with Allied nations and communicating with commercial and industrial partners.

Through this third year, the goal is delivery. Liquori said the Space Force will continue the work that has already been done and ensure that the strategies of the new administration are well-informed by Space Force intelligence, including potential threats. 

And, according to Trohaugh, two of these biggest threats are Russia and China.

Trohaugh explained that these two nations have a multitude of techniques that could infringe upon “unfettered access” to outer space. These include earth-bound sensors that track US satellites and potentially target them, and lasers that “dazzle” satellites and sensors by temporarily blinding them. More specifically, Russia has its “Cosmos” device that acts as a Russian nesting doll of satellites. China also possesses its “Shijian 17” satellite, which has a metal arm that could potentially harm other space-bound objects.

Liquori addressed other concerns regarding the space domains, including using nuclear micro-reactors on satellites and objects reentering the atmosphere.

According to Liquori, low orbit satellites typically use only fuel and burn up on re-entry into the atmosphere. The satellites that harness nuclear power travel into deep space and end up in the “graveyard orbit” which is out of operational areas. Nevertheless, the Space Force has taken precautions.

“We have a unit in the Space Force, the 18 Space Surveillance squadron that is responsible for monitoring all of the objects that are in space, right now monitoring upwards of 40,000 objects,” Liquori said. “Those objects are working satellites. They are bodies of rockets that put satellites in orbit. They could be bolts from previous satellites or parts of breakups.”

In addition to monitoring internal government activity, the Space Force must also coordinate with non-military organizations operating in space, such as NASA and the private sector.

“Obviously the organization responsible for human spaceflight is very interested in making sure that domains remain safe, stable and sustainable,” Liquori said, referring to NASA. “They’ll be a key voice in interagency dialogue on norms of responsible behavior.”

The private sector provides an industrial base for the activities of the Guardians, something Liquori views as a strength

“I’m confident that our industry will continue to exist and continue to push the bounds regardless of which names are involved,” Liquori said. “But at the end of the day, there are some incredible things that SpaceX and many other companies have provided and will continue to provide.”

Despite being the youngest branch of the military, Liquori believes that the Space Force, as well as its resources and relationships, will play a vital role in protecting international cooperation in space and countering potential threats.

“We, the United States, are actively pursuing norms of international behavior in addition to treaties,” Liquori said. “We certainly want everyone that operates in the domain to do so in a responsible fashion so that we preserve it as a safe, stable and sustainable domain.”

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