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News | Feb. 18, 2021

Shaw talks USSPACECOM’s critical role, enhancing partnership with NASA

By U.S. Space Command Public Affairs Office

U.S. Space Force Lt. Gen. John Shaw discussed how the creation of U.S. Space Command — the Department of Defense’s newest combatant command  — demonstrates the critical importance America places on space during a virtual Washington Space Business Roundtable on Feb. 17.

Shaw, who serves as USSPACECOM’s deputy commander, referenced the Commander’s Strategic Vision, which outlines how the organization will achieve and maintain space superiority. U.S. Army Gen. James Dickinson, USSPACECOM commander, released the document earlier this month.

Shaw addressed what he called continuing confusion between USSPACECOM and U.S. Space Force in the mainstream press, explaining today’s combatant command structure. USSPACECOM is one of 11 combatant commands within the DoD.

“And the purpose of a combatant command is to actually conduct war fighting,” Shaw said, “and they're called joint commands because all services contribute capabilities and warfighters to those commands for the actual conduct of those operations.”

That is in contrast to the DoD’s services — Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, Coast Guard and Space Force — whose purpose is to bring people in and train them and to develop capability that is then presented to combatant commanders by all the services for actual warfighting operations, Shaw said.

Until August 2019, the space domain was under the purview of U.S. Strategic Command. The DoD saw a need to have a combatant command focused solely on the mission of protecting and defending space assets.

“It's because we are now threatened in the space domain in ways that we were not in years past,” Shaw said. “We could rely on, in years past, for space to be a benign domain where we could operate our space capabilities relatively free from threat.”

Space threats escalated in 2007 when China conducted an anti-satellite missile test that produced thousands of pieces of debris, most of which are still littering low earth orbit, Shaw said. The U.S., with efforts led by the 18th Space Control Squadron at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, continues to track that debris, which represents a navigational hazard to orbiting satellites and the International Space Station.  

Speaking on the issue, Shaw said USSPACECOM has improved its ability to track space debris and active space objects, “which are increasing also almost at an exponential rate now in the space domain.”

China continues “to beat the drum” and produce kinetic kill vehicles, ground based lasers and more.

“And so clearly they continued to enhance their capabilities to deprive us of our use of our space capabilities in a potential crisis or conflict, and Russia has been doing the same,” Shaw added.

These weapons have the potential to disrupt or destroy the U.S.’ and its allies’ capabilities in low Earth orbit. With these perspectives in mind, USSPACECOM’s mission comes in what Shaw said was two large pieces:

“We need to continue to provide space capabilities to joint warfighters and to the other combatant commands around the globe,” he said, “but now we also need to protect and defend our capabilities in space, and it's really a two part overarching mission set that we have.”

The general also discussed one of Dickinson’s key tasks, which is strengthening alliances and attracting new partners.

USSPACECOM works with allies and partners throughout the organization at places like the Combined Forces Space Component Command and a multinational space collaboration center at Vandenberg.

“We have ally presence, and … that will only grow over time,” Shaw said. “It's something that the United States does well and it's something that we've always relied on when it comes to national security and international security efforts.”

Shaw went on to say it is not just USSPACECOM’s international partnerships that are critical to mission success, interagency partnerships are also essential. The DoD and NASA have partnered since the beginning of human exploration, whether it was recovery of astronauts or tracking of space objects and debris that pose threats to the International Space Station and the astronauts who live in it.

“We've been teammates all along, and I expect that relationship will continue,” Shaw said.

Shaw added there was a good chance USSPACECOM would soon seek an updated formal agreement with NASA. Space Force and NASA signed a memo of understanding in September to “affirm a strong interest in continuing their longstanding partnership for mutually beneficial collaborative activities in furtherance of space exploration, scientific discovery and security.” This is in addition to USSPACECOM’s partnership with NASA through the Human Spaceflight Support Office.

Whilst the Space Force-NASA agreement focused on capabilities and technology, USSPACECOM would likely seek a partnership centered on operations, Shaw said.

USSPACECOM and NASA have mutual interests in space domain awareness and natural hazards and the two agencies can leverage capabilities to understand what's going on in the space domain and identify potential natural threats to the planet.

“And absolutely I think we want to partner on planetary defense,” he said.