Australia, Britain, Canada and United States have signed a symbolically important Memorandum of Understanding committing them to “a partnership on combined space operations.”
As is often the case with such international agreements — especially on such a highly sensitive area as space operations — figuring out what it means and how things may change is extremely challenging.
One expert I spoke with here said the agreement would have no immediate practical effect but served to demonstrate the commitment of the partners (apologies for the photo above but consider it representational of allied space cooperation) and might lead to operational changes over time.
Brian Weeden, a space expert with the Secure World Foundation who alerted reporters to the UK announcement, once served at U.S. Strategic Command’s Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC). He noted that the statement refers to “Combined Space Operations” which “doesn’t necessarily involve everyone being physically co-located in the same place. It is more likely that each partner will have their own national space ops center and some level of coordination/communication between them.”
Weeden thinks that this agreement may have arisen from one of the Schriever war-games, this one held at Nellis Air Force Base in 2010.
Among the fundamental issues of space warfare that a joint allied approach would address is the sharing of highly sensitive space situational awareness data — knowledge about where satellites are and when. Moving satellites or coordinating their use could be made much faster and more effective if allies more rapidly shared such data. Highly accurate SSA data is considered among the most sensitive military information, in part because satellites are so vulnerable.
An article about the war-game by then Lt. Gen Larry James, commander of 14th Air Force and Strategic Command’s Joint Functional Component Command for Space, identified allied participation as a key to understanding the game.
“It illustrated the need for mechanisms to employ those capabilities in a way that is consistent with national objectives while being value-added to the coalition. The game explored three related organizations to achieve this: a Combined Space Operations Center (CSpOC), a Combined Joint Task Force-Space (CJTF-Space), and a Space Council. The CSpOC provided a means to direct the full range of coalition space capabilities at the operational level of war,” James wrote in “High Frontiers,” Air Force Space Command’s in-house magazine.
James also said the CSpOC ”enabled improved communications across the coalition, facilitated more rapid deployment and employment of coalition capabilities, and allowed coalition partners to be fully integrated in strategy, planning, and execution.” It was “one of the clear successes of” the game and would be “an excellent model upon which to base a real-world combined operations center.”
However, that ain’t happening yet. But they’ve made the commitment, as Weeden noted: ”This provides a political framework for moving forward and moving forward is going to be the more difficult part of doing this.”