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Lt. Col. “Ike” Kelly of the 25th Air Force Discusses the Future of Intelligence Operations in Space

SAN ANTONIO – Space is now a warfighting domain. This, according to the 25th Air Force’s Coordinator of Space-ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance), Lt. Col. Kris “Ike” Kelly. This statement will surprise few who have spent any time observing the current geo-political landscape. Lt. Col. Kelly spoke to the San Antonio-area chapter of AFCEA on Wednesday. In June, the White House announced the creation of a “Space Force”, which would be tasked with defending U.S. interests in the realm of space. While this news quickly became fodder for late-night television, the Air Force was off and running with plans for how this new branch would initialize and evolve over time.

Nearly 5% of all satellites currently in orbit were launched in the past year. There are currently more than 1,100 operational satellites in low-earth orbit. More than 2,600 non-functioning satellites remain in orbit as well.

“Space was once a permissive environment. We have now reached the point where numerous entities possess the ability to launch a satellite into near-earth orbit.” These entities aren’t all countries either, several private corporations (SpaceX being one of the most notable) are working in this arena as well. As described by Lt. Col. Kelly, “Congestion has now become a serious issue.”

It’s tempting to think of the Space Force as a cutting-edge branch of the military, equipped with lasers, kinetic and maybe even chemical weapons deployable from space. While the Space Force of the distant future may in fact look more like Star Wars than we currently realize— for now, the information war dominates this field of battle.

Don’t expect an immediate run to defense contractors in search of Star Destroyers, A-Wing Fighters, or everyone’s favorite, AT-AT Walkers.

Intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance will be the bread and butter of the initial iteration of the Space Force. Preservation of our present military capabilities and of services used by the general public is paramount. Imagine if access to GPS was suddenly denied by a hostile entity? According to Lt. Col. Kelly, this is already occurring in some parts of the world, such as in Syria. He mentioned that “Russian forces have such grave concerns about hostiles using drone-borne explosives that they have effectively jammed GPS access over large swaths of Syria.” This should surprise no-one.

Intelligence gathering activities that take place in low-earth-orbit are essential to national defense. Might the Space Force be better equipped to coordinate our most highly advanced ISR activities? The Air Force seems to believe so.

There are a number of simple barriers to success in a space war. Some of these will sound quite familiar to the contemporary soldier. Weather, for instance- As the Commander of a frigate will include weather conditions in their decision-making process, so too must those entrusted with the design and operation of space-borne devices. Solar flares, extreme hot and cold, ultraviolet light: these constitute just a few of the items that must be considered in planning for space ops. Collision avoidance is another essential element, in order to avoid the loss of equipment to rogue objects both manmade (of which more than 500,000 now orbit our Earth), and extra-terrestrial (think meteorites),

It’s clear that the focus of the Space Force in the near term is likely to be much the same as the USAF’s Space Command, though the Air Force is excitedly using this opportunity to . “Many questions remain, and some won’t be answered until we see how rival nations build up their own capabilities.” Other questions, such as where Space Force personnel could expect to be based, will be answered soon enough.

Congressional delegations from Florida and Colorado have already begun to lobby the DoD for the chance to host Space Force Command HQ. Colorado is already home to many elements of our current space-related military infrastructure, located at Peterson AFB, Buckley AFB, and Schriever AFB. Florida supporters are believed to be pushing for an entirely new base complex to be located at Cape Canaveral.

While we will have to wait for X-Wings and Tie Fighters—technologies are already being developed, and their utility being explored by those shaping the future of our nation’s newest military branch. 3-D Printing may find itself a popular option for future in-orbit maintenance needs. Orbiting fuel storage is being explored, as is every type of remote sensor one can imagine. The possibilities are seemingly endless, and the Air Force is determined to explore them all.

We can soon expect to see the debut of insignia, uniforms, crests, and so on. The Air Force isn’t waiting for any of that, and neither should the defense community.