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Top Air Force Space Commander Discusses New Era of Military Defense

General William Shelton Air Force
Gen. William Shelton addresses the GW community at an event sponsored by the Space Policy Institute on Tuesday.
General William Shelton stresses importance of space and cyberspace in address at GW.
January 08, 2014

By Julyssa Lopez

For General William Shelton, watching grainy, black-and-white images of Project Mercury and Project Gemini launches on TV sealed his fate. He was just a kid at the time, but he knew that he was in love with space—and that he wanted a career in the field.

Now, decades later, he is the commander of the Air Force Space Command, where he oversees Air Force network operations and juggles responsibilities related to both space and cyberspace. His command distributes space-derived information to users that include military operators of the U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines. He also manages global networks of satellite commands and controls and missile warning and space launch facilities, leading more than 42,000 professionals.

Gen. Shelton described the ever-changing intricacies of his job to the George Washington University community during the lecture “Space and Cyberspace: Enduring Missions in a Changing World.” The Elliott School of International Affairs Space Policy Institute sponsored the event, which was held Tuesday in the Lindner Family Commons. Gen. Shelton’s discussion explored how the Air Force Space Command achieves its defense missions in space and cyberspace in today’s technologically driven world.

Gen. Shelton explained that governments worldwide recognize space’s utility in fostering international trade, scientific development and national security, while commercial enterprises have embraced space products and services that benefit the global economy. Space technology has evolved markedly since the launch of Sputnik during the Cold War rivalry between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, he said.

“It would be very difficult to overstate the impact this little satellite had on the collective psyche of the United States,” he said. “We unwittingly spawned some transformations that have changed the way we look at the world and how we interact with each other. Many of the technological bi-products of that space race have now become an integral part of our daily lives.”

Satellites are used ubiquitously in the U.S. today: They enable weather forecasts, navigation and timing for phones and cars, financial transactions and more. Internationally, satellite systems are increasingly popular. India, for example, has invested heavily in establishing telecommunication satellites that link to even the most remote parts of the country, serving both civil and commercial functions.

But the topic that has been making headlines repeatedly is how space and cyberspace affect national security, and Gen. Shelton said that military operations have changed profoundly as the world becomes more interconnected. Most successful missions today depend on space—but Gen. Shelton calls that dependence a “double-edged sword.” Space has become an arena for international conflict, and potential adversaries have developed systems to challenge the U.S. advantage in space.

Threats in space are partially exacerbated by 1,100 active satellites currently in orbit, which run the risk of colliding and creating debris. The debris then has the potential to cause a cascade of collisions that could destroy U.S. space systems and satellites. Some radar and optical sensors predict that there are approximately 23,000 objects floating through space right now, which can disrupt U.S. technology.

Maintaining international cooperation and leveraging the technology of allies will be essential to improving space capabilities, Gen. Shelton said. He cited recent partnerships between Australia, Canada and other countries that will vastly improve space awareness.

“Our national policy is very clear: All nations have the right to access space, but that right also comes with responsibility. Aggressive behavior and debris creation does not serve anyone well,” Gen. Shelton said.

He added that cyberspace threats present challenging problems and that the country must learn to defend itself against an “amorphous enemy.” He said these threats have introduced questions about how to use satellite constellations cost-effectively and efficiently. The U.S. has come a long way and now protects its cyber domain similarly to air, sea and land assets, but there is more work to do.

“In a national security context, everyone sitting at a computer is a rifleman in cyber. That might be overstated, of course, but not by much,” he said.

Gen. Shelton concluded his remarks by calling space and cyberspace military operations a field with “lots of new ground to break.”

“The future is full of opportunity if we generate the will and resources to protect our fundamental capabilities in space and cyber,” he concluded.

Following his lecture, Gen. Shelton took questions from the audience. He said that he sees opportunities for leveraging the commercial sector in space capabilities, and that the U.S. must work to maintain open dialogues with potential adversaries to avoid misunderstandings or misperceptions.

Professor of the Practice of International Affairs and Director of the Space Policy Institute Scott Pace, who introduced Gen. Shelton at the event, asked him to describe the differences and similarities between space and cyberspace functions, cultures and challenges.

“If you think about what we do in space, the mediums are completely different. But in what we’re actually accomplishing, there is tremendous overlap. We are doing some things called space-enabled cyber operations, and we’re doing some things called cyber-enabled space operations, so we’re working in both directions to help the operators in both domains,” Gen. Shelton said.