Space Force Preparing Exercise to Counter ‘Adversary On-Orbit Aggression’

Rocket Lab was awarded $32 million and True Anomaly was awarded $30 million to carry out the mission.
Space Force Preparing Exercise to Counter ‘Adversary On-Orbit Aggression’
U.S. Space Force General B. Chance Saltzman, chief of space operations, testifies about the fiscal year 2024 budget request during a Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on March 14, 2023. (Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)
Frank Fang

The U.S. Space Force has selected two private space companies for a mission aimed at demonstrating how the military branch will counter “on-orbit aggression” perpetrated by an adversary such as China.

Rocket Lab, a California-based launch company, was awarded a $32 million contract through the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit, according to a statement issued by the Space Force’s Space Systems Command on April 11.

Colorado-based space security company True Anomaly was awarded $30 million through the Space Force’s innovation arm, SpaceWERX. True Anomaly will also “leverage $30 million of internal private capital” for the mission.

The two companies will each create a rendezvous and proximity operation-capable spacecraft and a command and control center for the mission, dubbed Victus Haze, according to the statement. The objective of the mission is for the two companies to “exercise a realistic threat response scenario in an orbit space domain awareness.”

Col. Bryon McClain, Space Systems Command’s program executive officer for space domain awareness and combat power, named China as an orbital adversary of the United States.

“We recognize the significant opportunity to leverage the commercial space industry’s innovations to counter China as America’s pacing threat,” he said in a statement. “The United States has the most innovative space industry in the world. VICTUS HAZE will demonstrate, under operationally realistic conditions, our ability to respond to irresponsible behavior on orbit.”

The delivery date for the two companies is set for “no later than fall 2025,” according to Space Systems Command.

True Anomaly will launch its spacecraft from either Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida or Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. Rocket Lab will launch via its Electron launch vehicle from either Mahia, New Zealand, or Wallops Island, Virginia.

“Once on orbit, the operations teams will conduct a variety of scenarios to demonstrate [space domain awareness] and characterization capabilities,” Space Systems Command stated.

The Pentagon noted in its 2023 report that it was tracking about 47,900 objects in space, with about 7,100 active payloads among them. Given the congested space domain, the Department of Defense emphasized the importance of achieving space domain awareness, meaning that the U.S. military must be able to “accurately and rapidly detect, track, and characterize space assets and other space objects to safely conduct space operations and to effectively deter, and, if necessary, counter and respond to hostile acts in space.”
“This demonstration will ultimately prepare the United States Space Force to provide future forces to Combatant Commands to conduct rapid operations in response to adversary on-orbit aggression,” Space Systems Command stated.

Commercial Space Strategy

Gen. B. Chance Saltzman, chief of space operations for the U.S. Space Force, warned on April 10 that the United States is at risk of ceding its dominant position in space to Russia and China.
“With China and Russia now challenging our space superiority at levels never before seen in the domain, the frontiers of science and technology—the innovation that can be found in the commercial space sector, innovation that will be talked about in these halls—will be crucial to our success,” he said at the Space Foundation’s 2024 Space Symposium.

“The Space Force must harness the benefits of technological innovation and emerging capabilities if we are going to be able to outcompete our competitors.

“Or the Space Force will lose, the Joint Force will lose, and the U.S. will lose.”

To best harness technological innovation, Gen. Saltzman said it is important to strengthen the Space Force’s relationship with the commercial industry, pointing to its newly released Commercial Space Strategy document.

The 19-page document, which was released on April 10, states that the Space Force is seeking to “operationally integrate commercial space solutions into a hybrid space architecture.” It identifies eight mission areas where commercial integration is possible, including satellite communications; space domain awareness; space access, mobility, and logistics; tactical surveillance, reconnaissance, and tracking; and space-based environmental monitoring.

“In space operations, we have become more comfortable with using commercial capabilities to add capacity than we have with fully integrated commercial capabilities into our force design,“ Gen. Saltzman said. ”It is this basic thought that led to the U.S. Space Force’s Commercial Space Strategy.”

However, he noted, the document “is not a panacea.”

“It does not provide all the answers,” Gen. Saltzman said. “But I do think it frames the discussion that must take place, it sets the conditions for productive collaboration, and it starts the critical processes needed to accelerate the purposeful pursuit of hybrid space architectures.”

The Pentagon has released a separate commercial space strategy. On April 2, the Department of Defense released its first-ever Commercial Space Integration Strategy, a 16-page document that suggests that U.S. military force could be deployed to protect U.S. commercial space assets.

“The Department will leverage a range of tools across all domains to deter aggression against and defeat threats to U.S. national security interest, including all space segments and, when appropriate, commercial space solutions,” the Pentagon’s document reads. “In appropriate circumstances, the use of military force to protect and defend commercial assets could be directed.”

The Pentagon’s strategy lists four principles for using commercial space solutions, including balancing government and commercial solutions to avoid “overreliance on any single provider or solution” and prioritizing resilience by increasing the number of commercial providers and diversifying supply chains.

Frank Fang is a Taiwan-based journalist. He covers U.S., China, and Taiwan news. He holds a master's degree in materials science from Tsinghua University in Taiwan.
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