What if we lost GPS? That’s one thing worrying the Air Force secretary

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson speaks at the Los Angeles Air Force Base in El Segundo.
Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson speaks at the Los Angeles Air Force Base in El Segundo.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Space has become an increasingly important area of operations for commercial industry and the U.S. military.

Plummeting launch costs and the miniaturization of powerful technology have encouraged more countries and companies to venture into space, making it a “common domain for human endeavor,” said Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson. On the ground, industries have risen around the use of GPS, or Global Positioning System, the space-based navigational system pioneered by the U.S. military.

The U.S. Air Force operates the current GPS satellite constellation and its associated ground facilities, and is planning for the next generation of those satellites. GPS service is provided to both the military and civilians.

“The Air Force leaders believe that by networking together sensors and weapons, they can get a much more potent Air Force than by simply focusing on airplanes alone,” said Loren Thompson, military analyst at the Lexington Institute. “Space provides a unique vantage point from which to observe things on the surface and to communicate beyond the line of sight.”

The Times recently sat down with Wilson while she was at the Los Angeles Air Force Base — home of the Space and Missile Systems Center — to talk about the role of space in the Air Force’s mission. Here’s an edited version of her comments.

Space isn’t the friendly place it once was

It used to be that space was a benign domain from which we observed and reported. It’s not that way anymore. In 2007, the Chinese launched an anti-satellite weapon and demonstrated their ability to destroy a satellite in orbit with a ground launch. They haven’t stopped there, and nor have the Russians. The Russians publicly announced their intention and their launch of a utility satellite, which is now on orbit, which they described as a maintenance satellite for other satellites. The question is, whose satellites are they seeking to maintain?

We’re the strongest space-faring nation in the world, and we’re heavily dependent on space. And our adversaries and potential adversaries know it. So we need to be able to defend what we have and to be able to take a punch and keep fighting through. In some ways, we built a glass house before the invention of stones and now we have to be able to defend.

‘We practice as if we didn’t have GPS’

There’s not a military mission that doesn’t depend on space. And it’s not just the military. There’s multiple industries that depend [on] and use that GPS signal.

We [will release the] request for proposal for the GPS III satellites, the next generation of satellites, and we are moving very quickly on that procurement. We want those satellites to be robust, so they’d be harder to jam or interfere with.

As an Air Force, we also practice as if we didn’t have GPS. The people now, we take GPS for granted, so much that interference with those satellites would be a major hit to our economy.

And it’s not just GPS satellites. When you see on the television a report that North Korea has launched another test missile, that’s detected by the United States Air Force. So interfering with our ability to detect a missile launch or the ability to command and control our forces around the world would be a major issue in a period of tension and we’ve never had to really deal with that before.

Having no defense budget would be ‘devastating’

We need to lift the defense caps in the budget. We now have a defense authorization bill, but we’re still under a continuing resolution.

This is the ninth year out of the last 10 where we’ve started the year under a continuing resolution. So we’re still operating as if we were at last year’s levels and sequester is still the law of the land. If we had to go through sequester, we would devastate the Air Force. It would be devastating to a service that’s as stretched as it is now.

We need Congress to lift the defense caps and give us a budget. That’s a big priority between now and probably the middle of January, is to get a budget. And then the bigger picture of restoring the readiness of the force, this defense authorization bill increases the size of the Air Force by a little more than 4,000 people, and starts to fund some of the priorities for modernization and readiness across the board.