A Warfighting Domain

How we got here and where we are going

By: Ms. Autumn Bernhard, Daedalus Flyer Editor & Order of Daedalians Communications Manager

Since the first satellite was launched into orbit in 1957, we have had a continuous fascination with the final frontier. However, the thought of space becoming a warfighting domain wasn’t in our line of sight. But, for retired Air Force Gen. Kevin Chilton, this idea was lightyears away from farfetched. In fact, he, along with the majority of his predecessors at Air Force Space Command, saw the writing on the wall. It was just a matter of time before we would look to the stars as our next fighting territory.

“There has never been a domain that we have not decided to fight in,” Chilton said. “Whether on land, on sea, underwater or in the air. Every time, we have been able to operate in a new domain, eventually, when war broke out, the conflict extended into that domain. So, the notion that space was somehow going to be different never crossed my mind, and I know it didn’t cross any of my predecessors. They all believed that we would end up there someday.”

That someday is today.


     Since the end of the Cold War, we have assumed we held military superiority, all the while, adversaries such as China and Russia have been looking at space warfighting as a way to gain an advantage. According to Chilton, we started recognizing this vulnerability in 2015.

     “In the last year of President Obama’s administration, we started to see intelligence indicating what the Chinese were doing,” he said. “We realized our approach of being passive and encouraging restraint was not working, and we needed to change our policies with regard to securing the space domain for national security reasons.”

     The Department of Defense’s 2020 Defense Space Strategy stated, “space is now a distinct warfighting domain, demanding enterprise-wide changes to policies, strategies, operations, investments, capabilities and expertise for a new strategic environment.” That same year, General John W. “Jay” Raymond, Chief of Space Operations, United States Space Force, said “it is clear today that space is a warfighting domain just like air, land and sea,” and that he “couldn’t have said that five or six years ago,” making it clear the necessity of a strong space strategy.

     “We didn’t want space to become a warfighting domain, and we still frankly don’t today, but adversaries have evolved,” Raymond said.

     Due to that evolution, U.S. military officials have recognized that our satellites no longer hold a sanctuary in space, and our military superiority cannot be taken for granted.

     “We forgot our adversaries get a vote, and that’s typically what happens,” Chilton said. “Someone else figures out how to build a boat, submarine or airplane, and the next thing you know, you’re either ahead or behind but you’re going in that direction. You are going to have to figure out how to dominate that domain to either deter conflict or win if deterrence fails.”

     Retired Air Force Gen. Kevin P. Chilton is the Explorer Chair at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies Spacepower Advantage Center of Excellence (MI-SPACE).

     “I thought if I could contribute to the space domain, which I believe the Mitchell Institute does, and we can help educate folks on the important issues and get the debate out in the open, it gets people thinking and hopefully making good decisions for National Security going forward,” he said.

     Retiring in 2011, Chilton served for 34.5 years in the Air Force, most recently holding the title of Commander of U.S. Strategic Command from 2007 to 2011. He has commanded at the wing, numbered air force, major command and unified combatant command levels including serving as Commander of Air Force Space Command. 

     He flew operational assignments in both the R-4C and F-15, and as an Air Force test pilot, conducting weapons tests in various models of the F-4 and F-15. 

     His career includes serving 11 years as a NASA astronaut, where he flew as the Commander of STS-76, his third Space Shuttle mission, and served as the Deputy Program Manager for Operations for the International Space Station Program. 

     Chilton was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws from Creighton University, was a Columbia University Guggenheim Fellow earning a Master of Science degree in mechanical engineering and is a distinguished graduate of the U.S. Air Force pilot training and test pilot schools, as well as a distinguished graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy with a Bachelor of Science degree in engineering sciences.


     According to the United States Space Force website, the formal establishment of the United States Space Force on Dec. 20, 2019, resulted from the acceptance that space was a “national security imperative” and the acknowledgment that the growing threats by others created a “need for a military service focused solely on pursuing superiority in the space domain.”

     Chilton compares Space Force’s creation to that of the United States Air Force in September 1947. The possibility of an air component providing a strategically decisive effect on the outcome of battle was discussed in the 1920s and 30s. It was then tested in World War II, and the answer was a resounding, yes. Thus, the Air Force was created independent of the Army Air Corps.

     “We’ve already broken away the Space Force from the Air Force, now the question is can we do a similar thing,” he said. “Space has been an enabler of air, land and sea operations. Could it also provide a strategically decisive outcome to a conflict? Something tells me, in this regard, there will come a day when there are capabilities delivered from space that will directly affect the outcome of battle beyond the capabilities provided today.”

     Space continues to provide important communications, intelligence and missile-warning surveillance operations, and the main topic of conversation has focused on resiliency.

     “We are working on resilient architectures so we can continue to deliver the capabilities our air, land and sea forces have relied upon to conduct warfare in their domain,” he said. “We want to make them more survivable in the future because they are not today.”


     But that is not where the work ends. According to Chilton, we need to work to hold our adversaries’ assets at risk — build the offensive capability.

     Chilton outlines two main jobs that the United States needs to achieve in space to be successful: deterrence and superior capability.

     “You want to have a dominant force fielded, so you can deter an adversary from starting a war or crossing red lines that you have set with respect to your national interests,” Chilton said. “A mentor of mine told me a long time ago, that countries go to war because they have no other choice or because they think they can win. We certainly want to eliminate the second one. You don’t ever want someone to think they can beat you, otherwise, they just might try.”

     This level of deterrence has been achieved in the air, land and sea domains.

     “Credible deterrence requires credible capabilities and a will to use them,” he said. “We need to have great tools so when the adversary looks at them, how well trained our people are and what we are willing to do, they decide they are not going to cross that threshold and attack our assets.”

     When weaknesses are identified, patching them promptly is required to avoid uncertainty in the adversaries’ minds.

     “Unless we have an offensive capability to hold their similar assets at risk, I fear we will fail to deter them and if a conflict or war breaks out, we will have none of the capabilities that we depend on, and they will retain all of theirs,” he said.

     The space capabilities military and civilians rely on are endless. They include global communications, intelligence, reconnaissance, surveillance, missile warning, precision navigation and timing and accurate weather data to name a few.

     “So, if we want to continue to provide those capabilities to the air, land and sea forces, we must have superiority in space first,” he said. “This means we have to be able to defend our assets, and we need to be able to attack our adversaries.”

     That’s where the superior capability comes in — the same superiority we demand in every other domain. When deterrence fails, we need to be able to win on our terms. 

     “U.S. Space Command, the U.S. warfighter, should demand and receive support from air, land and sea forces to help gain superiority in the space domain,” Chilton said. “If you’re going to hold an adversary’s satellites at risk, you should develop capabilities to do this that can be projected from air, land and sea forces.  There should be a demand function on them to support the space domain, just as there is a demand function on the space domain to support.”


     While future space capabilities are undetermined, Chilton believes there is still a large hurdle discouraging this progression — policy.

     “Just listening to the way we talk about the domain, I’m concerned that we are still constraining it in a way that we don’t any other warfighting domain,” he said. “We say we recognize it as a warfighting domain but there still appears to be policies in place to constrain what we are allowed to reveal and do. 

     “You can’t imagine air, land and sea forces being told they can’t develop offensive capability — that all they can do is build more resilient architecture to hopefully survive an attack by the adversary. That’s like telling the Army we are going to buy body armor but no guns and hopefully that will deter the adversary and hopefully you will survive.”

     The lack of focus on offensive capability comes down to two things for Chilton. We are either not allowing it to happen or it’s incredibly classified and we aren’t talking about it.

     “If it’s the former, that’s a mistake, in that we are essentially setting ourselves up for a defeat,” he said. “If it’s the latter, that approach is ineffective to deter. The adversary must know at some level what the risk is to their forces if they misbehave. If you can’t show any cost or denial of benefit, then they are undeterred, and they will think they have free reign.”


     Chilton remembers getting very detailed satellite photos of an airplane being developed in the Soviet Union. Because of the precision of the photo, engineers identified the likely performance of the aircraft — how far and high it could fly, its likely speed and its purpose. 

     “We have exquisite capabilities from orbit delivered by the National Intelligence assets we have,” he said. “They are very critical to making assessments about adversaries’ capabilities, and they answer other critical strategic intelligence requests for our national leadership. That is invaluable, and we need it. But the warfighter doesn’t need that exquisite level of intelligence to conduct effective operations.”

     Instead, they need to know more basic information —  where the adversary forces are located and if they have been eliminated after a strike. Chilton refers to this as operational intelligence, as opposed to strategic intelligence.

     “That type of intelligence can be lower resolution and lower fidelity, which means the satellites that collect operational intelligence can be less expensive, so you can buy more of them,” he said. “This means you can have higher revisit rates which means that a commander has more real-time understanding of what is happening on the battlefield than he ever would have today just using the national assets.”

     According to Chilton, U.S. commercial satellite companies have already deployed imaging and signal collection satellites that show the utility of this approach.

      “I think the military and Space Force can have a role of fielding constellations of reconnaissance satellites with the sole purpose of the satellite being providing direct support to the combatant commanders,” he said. “I think there is a great opportunity for this to expand and finally attempt to address combatant commander’s insatiable desire for operational reconnaissance of the battlespace.”


     Chilton is excited about what is in store for Space Force and space as a warfighting domain. While we are at a “pivotal moment in the space domain,” he believes we need to let people start to think of the realm of possibility without constraints. 

     “From a skill perspective, I think the Space Force is focusing on a lot of the right things, and they are having great success recruiting exceptional talent,” he said. “We’ve never failed on wielding a dominant force in the other domains. We have found how to create cross-domain effects in every other domain, so I find it hard to believe that at some point, we won’t do the same for space.”

The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies is an independent, nonpartisan research organization established to provide fact-based policy options that better empower our nation’s leaders by informing the national security debate, educating about the essential role of aerospace power in securing America’s global interests and cultivating aerospace-minded talent. This involves questioning established doctrine, organizational constructs and operational concepts, asking whether there are better ways to meet national security goals. The Mitchell Institute provides independent analysis based on science, history and data outlining the right solutions in the aerospace domain.