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Top general says SpaceX may have just changed space defense

U.S.A.F. General Terrence J. O’Shaughnessy, Commander, United States Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command (USNORTHCOM) tours the San Ysidro Port of Entry with Pete Flores, Director Field Operations San Diego, Hunter Davis, Director Air and Marine Operations San Diego, Rodney Scott, Chief Patrol Agent San Diego Sector and U.S. Army Lieutenant General Jeffrey Buchanan. U.S. Army North is deployed to the southwest border in support under the authority of U.S. Northern Command to support the Department of Homeland Security and the Customs and Border Protection's mission to secure the border. Photos by Mani Albrecht U.S. Customs and Border Protection Office of Public Affairs Visual Communications Division (U.S. Customs and Border Protection/Flickr)

A top American general told a defense conference in Alabama today that Elon Musk’s SpaceX may have just “completely changed our ability” to sense threats against America using satellite clusters in space.

“Holy smokes. Talk about being able to move the ball,” Air Force Gen. Terrence O’Shaughnessy said of the May 23 launch by Space X of 60 small satellites at one time.

“The space sensing layer is absolutely key,” O’Shaughnessy said of the challenge of defending the country and its forces against new weapons such as “hypersonic” missiles. “I don’t know how you can do it without the space sensing layer… taking advantage of what (low-Earth orbit) gives you.”

SpaceX says “Star Link” was the first step in “a next-generation satellite network capable of connecting the globe, especially reaching those who are not yet connected, with reliable and affordable broadband internet services.” However, the company regularly competes for military satellite launches and now has a new skill clearly attracting Pentagon attention.

O’Shaughnessy, who commands America’s homeland defense including the NORAD warning system in Colorado, made the “holy smokes” remark responding to a question about promising new technologies asked at the annual Space & Missile Symposium in Huntsville.

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He and other top military and defense leaders such as Undersecretary of Defense Mike Griffin are briefing aerospace and defense leaders this week on current threats and future needs. Several thousand representatives of military and space companies, many with operations in Huntsville, are in the city for the event.

O’Shaughnessy said America faces a “great power competition” at a level unseen for decades. He named Russia, China, North Korea and Iran as the key competition and hypersonic weapons as a serious new threat. Unlike ballistic missiles, which are launched and fall in a predictable arc that can be intercepted, hypersonics follow no such path and move faster than the speed of sound. A missile moving that fast doesn’t need a warhead to do major damage on impact, experts say.

“We have to put the same level of focus we put on ballistic missiles on hypersonics because the trajectory they fly is very challenging from a sensor standpoint. We’re going to have to do some work ….,” O’Shaugnessy said. He also said “the best way to kill a missile is to kill it before it ever gets shot.”

O’Shaughnessy said American defense leaders need the talent in Huntsville but also need to think unconventionally. He mentioned video game developers. “Why not 3-D screens?” for military monitors, he asked. “The technology is there.”

Lt. Gen. James Dickinson, who also spoke to the conference today, explained the difference between the military’s new Space Command and new Space Force. The command’s headquarters could come to Huntsville’s Redstone Arsenal or be located in Colorado near the existing space defense centers that O’Shaughnessy commands.

The Space Command is a separate “combatant command” responsible for combat operations in space, Dickinson said. It has a combatant commander. The Space Force is “a branch of the military … responsible for the men, equipment and training functions to assure we have ready forces for the combatant commander,” Dickinson said.

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