An official website of the United States Government 
Here's how you know

Official websites use .gov

.gov website belongs to an official government organization in the United States.

Secure .gov websites use HTTPS

A lock ( lock ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .gov website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

Assistant Secretary of Defense Dr. John F. Plumb Remarks at the Space Foundation's 38th Space Symposium, Colorado Springs, Colorado

Good morning. Thank you. Thank you to the Space Foundation for this opportunity. It's great to be back at Space Symposium. It's great to be back in Colorado!

I am honored to address you all today as the first Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy. I'd like to tell you a little about who I am and how my position was created.

Then I'm going to share what I've been up to since I got to the Pentagon just over one year ago, and how the Department of Defense's approach to space has evolved since my arrival. Most importantly, I'd like to talk about where we are going from here.

It's always fun to ask someone why they got interested in space. I always think: "That question doesn't even make sense. How could you NOT be interested in space?" But maybe I was lucky. I grew up in rural America, where the skies were truly dark at night – no light pollution. And once you gaze up at that night sky, you can't gaze away. I learned the names of constellations and stars, and I watched meteor showers in a lawn chair and a sleeping bag. My great Aunt Lucy worked for Rockwell, helping to build the first Space Shuttle—she was so proud of that! She brought me NASA and shuttle trinkets whenever she visited.

And to be honest, Star Wars movies helped too. Because space captures our imagination in all sorts of ways.

A little about my career: The U.S. Navy paid for me to get my physics undergraduate at Notre Dame. After college I became a submarine officer, serving six years on active duty.

After the Navy, I moved to Colorado and earned my PhD in aerospace engineering at CU Boulder. And from there—by a series of small little miracles—I got a chance to move to DC and work for Colorado's newly elected Senator Ken Salazar. That was life changing. I went on to serve in the Pentagon and at the White House on the National Security Council staff under President Obama. And I have worked at two of our defense FFRDCs: RAND and Aerospace. In all of those jobs, directly or indirectly, space was always part of my portfolio.


While working for Senator Salazar, we often worked with his Republican colleague from Colorado, Senator Allard. His Allard Commission came out with its report in 2008, shortly before I arrived at the Pentagon.

It found, once again, that the U.S. national security space and decision-making structure was not set up for success. And to be honest, it did not take long for me to see why. Even just 10 years ago, space was still stovepiped in the Department. Information control was a widely used bureaucratic weapon. And when I went to budget meetings, the knives were out as different components scrapped for investment dollars.

But today, thankfully, all that has changed. This is an incredible time to be working on space issues in the Department. National security space has undergone massive organizational shifts. And this time, it is working.

In August 2019, the Department stood up U.S. Space Command. Then, as part of the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, Congress established the U.S. Space Force as the sixth service branch – an idea considered by the Rumsfeld Commission way back in 2001. Congress also created the new position of Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Space Acquisition.

And, finally, it created my role, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy: the senior civilian within the Office of the Secretary of Defense to conduct oversight of space warfighting policy.

This was an overhaul based on the recognition that our competitors had turned space into a warfighting domain, and that the Department needed to move faster— and get out of its own way—to address the challenge.

By the end of 2019, we had both a unified combatant command and a service branch dedicated to space.

They got to work driving space operations, training the world's best military space professionals, and helping to define what it means to compete in space. But it was not until last year—when Frank Calvelli and I were confirmed by the Senate—that the remaining two pieces were finally in place. And suddenly, we were off to the races.

Space Strategic Review

Last year, at the direction of the National Security Advisor, my office led a Space Strategic Review on behalf of the Department of Defense and the Intelligence Community. We called it the "Scissor" for short – SSR.

Rather than keeping it stovepiped, we ran an inclusive process with space stakeholders from across the executive branch. It was a Herculean effort—dozens of long meetings with dozens of stakeholders, deep analysis, thousands of staff hours.

But by putting that much work into it we were able to level set the entire U.S. national security apparatus on both the scope and pace of the threat, and also how we match up against it—both today, and looking into the future.

So what did we find? As you might expect, there is a lot I cannot share here in this unclassified setting. But at its core, we found two main themes.

The first is the confirmation that China is the Department's pacing challenge in space – and that the pace is fast.

This should not come as a huge surprise because the Department is focused on China as our pacing challenge in all domains. We are in a state of intense competition with China, and we are seeing that play out in space. But I want to make something very clear: conflict with China is not inevitable. Conflict in space is not inevitable.

We have agency and responsibility in how we proceed, and it is quite literally the Department's job to deter conflict—both now and in the future. And that is the thing we are so focused on.

The second main theme that emerged from the Space Strategic Review is about how we deter conflict—specifically, how we continue to deter conflict in space.

There are many parts to that answer, but taken together they can be stated as one single organizing principle: It is time to normalize space as an operational domain.

Now, that is the theme of my entire speech this morning. It may sound like semantics, but it actually has profound implications.

Normalizing the Domain

Today, space is becoming democratized. There are an increasing number of civil craft, military craft, and commercial craft in space; some crewed, some uncrewed. And it is not just the realm of governments and large corporations – its anyone who can afford a cube sat and a rideshare.

Every space actor, including the Department of Defense, must adjust to coexist in the space domain with a large and increasing number of other actors—just as countries have done for decades in the air, and for centuries on land and at sea.

For DoD, adjusting to this new environment means coming to terms with the fact that we can no longer default to large, exquisite space systems. It means we can no longer have a go-it-alone approach. And it means we can no longer classify space-related information to the point that it limits our ability to operate with allies and partners.

But perhaps most importantly, to normalize space as an operational domain, we need to provide a frame of reference for our national security leaders who have spent most of their careers considering the air, sea, and land domains. After all, until very recently space has only been the dominion of just a handful of nations.

So we have to stop treating space as a unique domain that is somehow different and for some reason requires special handling. That is counterproductive. By treating space as we do every other operational domain, we will enhance our ability to deter conflict and to preserve a secure and stable space environment.

The Threat to Space Systems

The first step to make this transition is to be candid about the threat and design a force that is prepared to meet it.

China and Russia have both developed a variety of means to attack our space assets. In just the last few years, the quantity and quality of counterspace threats has increased significantly. Our competitors are fielding and developing increasingly complex capabilities to deny the U.S. access to space. Space is essential to our way of war, and our adversaries know this. So, they may seek an early strike against us in space to deter us from entering a regional conflict.

But the Department of Defense will assure the Joint Force has access to space even if we are attacked, so we can fight through.

And we will assure the space services the President relies on as well, to support homeland defense and strategic level decision making, including command and control of our nuclear forces.


We will do that first and foremost by investing in resilience. We must expect to take punches in space in a near-peer conflict. A resilient architecture means we will be prepared to absorb those blows. With sufficient resilience, we hope to deter an adversary from attacking in the first place, because the value of any such attack will be greatly diminished.

We have come a long way in how the Department approaches resilience in space. It is now baked into every conversation. It is part of every plan. There was a time not very long ago when the Department simply paid lip service to resilience, but not anymore.

The Space Force is working hard to develop and execute new resilient-by-design architectures. The benefits of that are already starting to take hold.

And there is now broad understanding that resilience goes well beyond just the satellites themselves. Resilience must be applied across our whole architecture, to include ground and link segments.

But resilience alone is not a panacea. It cannot fix everything. We will still need to defend our systems. As we would in any domain, the Department of Defense will protect and defend our national security interests in space. It would be irresponsible not to.

The Threat to The Joint Force

Our competitors are also working to use space to enhance their own combat power. China aspires to be a leading space power and is building up its space program to match or exceed that of the United States.

China's goal is clear: to use space to challenge the U.S. military's ability to intervene in a regional conflict in the Indo-Pacific. China is not only developing systems to kill our satellites; it is building a wartime space architecture to fight and win a modern military conflict.

China already employs a robust space-based reconnaissance capability, and its satellite navigation system provides position, navigation, and timing services. China is fielding advanced communications and data relay satellites to convey critical targeting data obtained through space-based sensors back to their military operations centers.

Together, these capabilities allow the PLA to better track, target, and strike our Joint Force.

In every domain, the Department has a sacred duty to protect the Joint Force – our service men and women in harm's way - and we will protect them from space-enabled threats. We are developing and fielding a range of solutions across all domains to ensure we can do so if necessary.

Allies and Partners:

Space threats do not only affect the United States, however, and we do not need to take them on alone.
To normalize space as an operational domain, we need to work more closely together on space with our Allies and partners.

Cooperation with like-minded nations contributes to our collective ability to deter aggression. Cooperation broadens the number of systems available for space operations, and it expands our options for diplomatic or military responses.

The Department is strengthening space partnerships bilaterally and multilaterally, from our Combined Space Operations initiative to NATO's recently established Space Center. My office is drafting a new International Space Cooperation Strategy – only the second in Department of Defense history. This strategy will help focus our international engagements on space to achieve meaningful results, including in areas like resilience and interoperability.


Of course, governments are no longer the only users of space. The Space Foundation pegged the value of the international space economy at 469 billion dollars for 2021 – a 9 percent increase over 2020 – and it is clearly poised to keep growing.

The commercial space industry – including many of the companies represented here today – is a major driver of economic growth and innovation. Commercial space is increasingly benefiting the lives of people around the world on a daily basis, and it is making significant contributions to national security.

In Ukraine, we have seen how commercial space providers – like those offering imagery and communications services – have been essential to Ukraine's effort against Russia's unjustified and illegal war of aggression. We are learning tangible lessons in real time about how commercial space capabilities can augment national security in crisis and conflict.

The Biden administration's National Defense Strategy gives the Department a clear mandate to increase collaboration with the commercial space industry to leverage its technological advancement and entrepreneurial spirit to enable new capabilities.

As one example, take space mobility and logistics. The Department of Defense has no on-orbit services to replenish satellites when they run low on fuel. But the commercial sector is already working on this problem. And it turns out fuel is often a limiting factor in the operational life of a satellite. Imagine if it were not.

The Department has recently kicked off a series of efforts to chart a path forward for partnering more closely with the commercial space industry. We are engaging with companies and U.S. Government stakeholders to understand the obstacles our industry partners face, including security concerns, and to identify any policy or legal changes that could help address them. Our goal is to help streamline the Department's ability to work with commercial partners and to ultimately enhance U.S. national security.


We already know about one significant barrier to partnering, however. Space is overclassified. Our classification policies for space-related information are based on legacy information sharing agreements and practices, and the fact is those policies slow us down.

Our Allies and partners provide an enduring strength and asymmetric advantage that our competitors can never hope to match. But that is only true if we are able to utilize that advantage. We cannot do combined space operations at an operationally-relevant speed if we can't share classified information with allies and partners at operationally-relevant speeds.

We cannot effectively partner with commercial space providers if we are not able to provide them with timely threat information. Our Defense Industrial Base partners tell us that overclassification costs us both time and money.

And, frankly, we struggle to align our own efforts within the U.S. government when overclassification prevents key stakeholders from communicating effectively.

Normalizing space as an operational domain requires a better ability to share classified information. This is hard. But the Department is pushing at the highest levels to do just that.

Civil Agency Responsibilities

Normalizing space as an operational domain also means that some responsibilities in space should reside with civil agencies, not militaries. This is why the Department of Defense is handing over the role of space traffic management to the Department of Commerce.

This handover is a golden opportunity to transition away from DoD's legacy system and to modernize the architecture, processing, and information provided to meet the needs of this exciting new dynamic era in space.


Finally, to normalize space as an operational domain, there is one more line of effort that we all need to be working hard on.

The proliferation of military, civilian, and commercial craft in space make it more important than ever that we establish a shared understanding of norms of responsible behavior for all users. Today, despite nearly seven decades since the dawn of the space age, there are still no widely-accepted norms for deconflicting when satellites approach each other, or for when and how space operators should communicate. And there are only a handful of guidelines for maintaining the long-term sustainability of space.

That lack of accepted norms leads some actors to take steps that undermine the safety and stability of the domain. For example, destructive direct-ascent anti-satellite weapons tests have left thousands of pieces of trackable debris in orbit, much of which will continue orbiting Earth for years.

No one wins if space is overrun with debris from irresponsible tests. No one wins if the simple lack of deconfliction procedures results in a collision.

One year ago today, exactly, Vice President Kamala Harris announced the United States' commitment not to conduct destructive direct-ascent anti-satellite missile testing. This commitment was followed up by a resolution at the United Nations, which passed the General Assembly on an overwhelming vote of 155 nations in favor to nine against. It was an important first step, and it opened the door to a broader discussion about responsible behaviors in space. More remains to be done.

The United States will continue to lead the global community in developing norms of responsible behavior to contribute to the safety, stability, security, and long-term sustainability of space. The Department of Defense will remain a key partner in these efforts.


It will surprise precisely no one here that my sons play with toy rocketships and like to pretend that their bicycles have rocket engine boosters on them. What excites them about space is the sense of adventure.

They want to go to the moon and have a picnic! Like it did for all of us, space captures their imagination too. And over time that will continue to drive what we are able to achieve in space. Over time it will continue to breed scientific discovery, fuel technological innovation, and drive the global economy in ways we do not yet know.

For the Department of Defense, it is our job to maintain space as a place of inspiration, not of conflict. That is what this shift in approach is all about. Normalizing space as an operational domain opens the door to the deterrence architecture and investments, to the partnerships, and to the norms of behavior required to keep space a safe, stable, and sustainable domain.

Make no mistake: normalizing space as an operational domain will require a massive culture change. It will not happen overnight. But now is the time to do it, and the Department finally has the organizational structure to execute it.

And finally, I have one ask. Normalizing space as an operational domain isn't just my responsibility. Certainly not. It isn't just a Department of Defense responsibility. And it isn't just a U.S. Government responsibility either. It is the responsibility of every single person in this room. Together we can make the case, in ways big and small, in large public forums like this, and in private conversations. And that will drive us forward into the future.

Thank you again for this opportunity. I hope you all enjoy the rest of the conference. Thank you all for helping make this such a dynamic and exciting time to be working together.