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Air Force Space Command boss to step down

August 10, 2014 Updated: August 11, 2014 at 7:41 am
Caption +
General William Shelton, Commander of Air Force Space Command, greets members of the Vandenberg Hot Shots fire fighting team as they arrive at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo., June 27. The Hot Shots are the only specialized DoD wildland fire fighting team of their kind and are in Colorado Springs supporting Waldo Canyon Fire suppression efforts. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Duncan Wood)

One of the generals who redesigned the military's approach to space is stepping down this week in a Peterson Air Force Base ceremony.

Air Force Space Command boss Gen. William Shelton guided Air Force Space command through unprecedented budget strife that saw it cut $1 billion in annual spending, but he is best known for his plan to increase on-orbit intelligence and pursue a future with smaller, cheaper satellites. He's set to give way Friday to his deputy, Lt. Gen. John Hyten.

The new plan for space is driven by an increase in the number of space-faring nations and the fear that the first shots in the next war could be fired high above Earth.

"We've seen this coming for a long time in space," Shelton said.

But the fix Shelton sought required asking hard questions about what America was sending into space and how it was being protected.

"How do we make ourselves survivable in light of what is a very challenging space domain going forward?" Shelton asked.

Until a few years ago, the United States and Russia had a lock on technology required to shoot down satellites. But China has a demonstrated anti-satellite missile, and nations including North Korea and Iran are thought to be on the brink of their counterspace programs.

Losing satellites could be crippling to any American war effort. Troops relay on satellites for weapons guidance, navigation, communications and intelligence.

Some new weapons systems, including drone aircraft, won't function without satellites.

"We can no longer believe space is a peaceful sanctuary," Shelton said.

The general sought to change the way the Air Force has been building satellites as a partial solution.
The service has relied on relatively low numbers of technologically complex satellites to fulfill missions. In that system, if one satellite gets shot down there's a dramatic drop in capabilities.

Now, Shelton says, America needs big numbers of smaller, less capable satellites, which in concert can do the job of their bigger, more complex cousins.

Because there would be a lot more of them, the smaller birds would form a self-healing network that would be able to weather the early stages of a space war.

Shelton said Pentagon leaders and satellite builders have agreed to the plan after years of arguing.

"There has been this national consensus," he said.

The second part of Shelton's plan is taking shape, too. In July, Space Command launched a satellite to spy on other satellites and watch for space attacks.

The recently declassified Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program uses those satellites to give Space Command bosses a better picture of what's going on in orbit and could gather intelligence to warn of an attack or avert it.

That, combined with new ground-base sensors such as the Space Fence radar being built on a Pacific Ocean atoll, will serve as a security guard for American interests in a place where commandeers can't send troops or planes.

The command is struggling with other issues in Shelton's last days. Debate is raging over the use of Russian rocket motors used on the Atlas boosters used in some Air Force launches.

Space Command is considering plans for a new American motor or launches using other rockets until tensions with Russia wind down.

"I can tell you, there are lots of mitigation studies underway," Shelton said.

The command also faces years of budget austerity, Shelton said.

Shelton said he's happy to be leaving Space Command in the hands of a smart subordinate whose equipped to deal with the challenges ahead.

"Certainly, John Hyten comes to the job with a full understanding of the issues that come with the job."

Shelton is leaving the command but won't be far away. He's retiring in Colorado Springs.

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