House Pressure chief on a “new period” of threats past Earth

US Space Force Gen. B. Chance Saltzman, Chief of Space Operations, testifies on the fiscal year 2024 budget proposal during a Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC March 14, 2023. (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP) (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

Saul Loeb | AFP | Getty Images

When General Chance Saltzman took the stage for his keynote address at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colorado this week, his message was simple: The United States is in a new era of space activity.

“The threats we face to our in-orbit capabilities from our strategic competitors [have] grown significantly,” said Saltzman, the second-ever chief of space operations for the US Space Force, in a CNBC interview after the speech itself has grown exponentially.”

“I want to make sure we think differently about our processes and procedures,” he said in an interview for CNBC’s Manifest Space podcast, his first broadcast interview since he was named the service’s senior military official last November.

The message comes at a crucial time as space is rapidly commercializing and a heightened geopolitical backdrop sees increasing threats extending beyond Earth to an area for which rules of engagement remain unclear.

Follow and listen to CNBC’s Manifest Space podcast hosted by Morgan Brennan wherever you get your podcasts.

Military experts say space is likely to be the front line in all future conflicts – a battlefield that could spill over into the private sector and hit civilians in real time. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is just one example: remember the unprecedented cyber attack on the US satellite operator’s European communications network Viasat just as Russian soldiers were mobilized to cross sovereign borders.

Saltzman said the space-based tactics of adversaries such as Russia and China range from GPS constellation communications jamming; to lasers and “shutters” jamming orbiting cameras to prevent image collection; to anti-satellite missiles like those tested by Russia at the end of 2021.

“We’re seeing satellites that can actually grab another satellite, grapple with it, and pull it out of operational orbit. These are all capabilities that they are demonstrating in orbit today, so the mix of these weapons and the pace at which they have been developed is very concerning,” he said.

It speaks to why, despite a wave of fierce debate in 2019, the Space Force emerged vigorously as the first new branch of the US armed forces in seven decades.

To respond more quickly to evolving threats and secure space resources, Saltzman plans to continue expanding the service’s capabilities to make satellite constellations more resilient and acquire more launch services by drawing on an emerging cadre of commercial space players.

Case in point: the Space Force’s recently announced procurement strategy for more launch services. The new “dual-lane acquisition approach” aims to create more opportunities for missile startups to compete for national security launch contracts.

With contracts being awarded over the next year, the National Security Space Launch Phase 3 is estimated to be in the billions of dollars and is expected to attract bids from the likes rocket lab, Relativity Space and Blue Origin by Jeff Bezos. Phase 2 awards went to SpaceX and United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin And Boeing.

A growing budget also helps. Though that still represents a fraction of the country’s total defense budget, the Space Force’s request for $30 billion for fiscal 2024 represents a 15% increase from the level passed this year.

“This is a team sport and none of us will succeed alone,” Saltzman said.

Manifest Space, hosted by CNBC’s Morgan Brennan, focuses on the billionaires and minds behind the ever-expanding possibilities beyond our atmosphere. Brennan engages in conversations with the mega-moguls, industry leaders and startups in today’s satellite, space and defense industries. In the Manifest Space, sit back, relax and prepare for launch.

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