The Biden administration’s candidate for assistant secretary in charge of the defense for space policy, John Plumb, told senators on January 13 that the US faces a dynamic security environment and that it must be prepared for “war extending to, or even originating in space.”
Plumb, who is currently employed by the Aerospace Corporation, testified alongside two additional DoD nominees at the confirmation hearing of Senate Armed Services Committee: Celeste Wallander, for the assistant defense secretary for international security affairs, as well as Melissa Dalton, who has been nominated for homeland defense as well as hemispheric affairs assistant defense secretary.
“As panels are well aware, the security climate in which the United States finds itself at this time in history is difficult,” Plumb stated. China’s behavior “raises serious concerns,” he said. “China has yet to establish that it is a responsible spacefaring nation, ranging from the kinetic anti-satellite weapon test they performed in 2007 that resulted in a persistent debris cloud to the unplanned reentry of a rocket stage last May.”
Another key challenge, according to Plumb, is Russia. “Russia sees space as a vital enabler of US military might,” according to the report, and is working on technologies to “disrupt and destroy the US and ally space capabilities in times of crisis and conflict.”
In answer to a query from Senator Joe Manchin (D-WVa.) about Russia’s latest anti-satellite missile demonstration, Plumb remarked that both Russia and China have done things that are “very distressing and a concern to me.” Because he hasn’t had access to classified information “on our ability to battle through a threat today,” Plumb told Manchin he couldn’t comment on what the Defense Department can do in reaction. What I will promise you is that, if approved, I will endeavor to make our architecture more robust so that an adversary is less attracted to this type of assault.”
Plumb stated he agreed with Kathleen Hicks, the Deputy Secretary of Defense that all nations should be prohibited from conducting kinetic anti-satellite experiments. “I believe that would be beneficial. I also believe it would be beneficial to ensure that we have resilient constellations so that we are not fully reliant on a single item.”
Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), who is a former NASA astronaut, probed Plumb on how the Pentagon would respond to events that create debris, such as ASAT testing, which imperil civilian and commercial space activities. The threat is “concerning,” and it manifests itself in a variety of ways, according to Plumb. “Kinetics destructive experiments, in particular, would constitute a long-term, permanent problem for all spacefaring nations,” the report says.
Space traffic management
Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) inquired about the transfer of spaceflight safety responsibility from the United States Space Command to the Commerce Department. In a 2018 policy directive, the Trump administration gave an order for the transfer of responsibility, but the process has been delayed, owing to Commerce’s lack of resources to handle space traffic management.
Shaheen, who also serves on the Appropriations Committee, has urged the Department of Defense and the Department of Commerce for further information on the cost and terms of the transfer. “The agency has shown no inclination to be transparent about the expense. And this has put us in a really tough spot in terms of trying to figure out the amount of money we require to authorize for the Commerce Department,” Shaheen said Plumb. She asked him to promise that the Department of Defense would be more transparent on this subject.
“I believe space traffic management is critical, and I consent that it should be managed by a civil agency,” he stated, promising Shaheen that he would assist in identifying the resources required to shift these tasks to Commerce. “It’s a difficult change, but I believe it’s necessary,” Plumb added.