The U.S. needs to invest in space operations, which are increasingly critical to military missions, said Maj. Gen. David Thompson, vice commander for Air Force Space Command.

"Potential adversaries increasingly understand the level to which the armed forces depend on both space and cyberspace to operate on a global scale," he said. "Those same adversaries possess or are developing capabilities to disrupt and degrade joint force operations and attack America."

The U.S. "must continue to train, prepare and equip space and cyber forces to confront and defeat anyone who would attack us, and maintain our edge when threatened in these domains," Thompson said.

The Air Force is in charge of the Global Positioning System used by both civilians and the military. For its part, the military is increasingly reliant on satellites to provide clear communication for operations and guidance for systems like munitions and drones.

Thompson

Photo Credit: Air Force

But some other nations — China foremost among them — are testing missiles and other systems that could shoot down U.S. satellites.

Space Command, led by Gen.John Hyten, is looking for ways to counter that threat, Thompson said, including "changing the tactics, techniques and procedures we use to operate our systems to make them more difficult targets for any adversary; improving our threat detection and warning systems more broadly; and ultimately building and fielding space systems that are more resilient and less susceptible to direct attack."

Space operations, however, don't occur in a vacuum, he added.

"Conflict in space is a direct result of conflicts on the ground, and the sooner we are able to resolve terrestrial conflicts through the use of diplomatic, information, military and economic means deemed necessary by the president and Congress, the less our space systems will be at risk," Thompson said.

Competitive launch

Space Command also is dealing with challenges in helping the nation create a competitive space-launch industry.

Currently, United Launch Alliance — headed by Boeing and Lockheed Martin — is supplying the Air Force with the majority of rockets and systems used for launches.

SpaceX, a company founded by tech businessman Elon Musk, is attempting to compete and has received several Pentagon contracts.

But despite nearly 20 successful launches including missions to the International Space Station, a SpaceX rocket in June exploded shortly after launch, prompting a government investigation into what went wrong.

Thompson said the Air Force has "full insight into the details" of the investigation being led by the Federal Aviation Administration.

"SpaceX remains certified and can compete for future Air Force launches while we will continue working with SpaceX to ensure confidence that we have a safe and reliable launch capability for critical national space payloads," he said.

An August report by the Government Accountability Office, Congress' top watchdog, said that "the ability of the domestic industry to sustain two or more providers in the long-term, while desirable, is unclear" and that the high costs of space launches might deter some companies.

But Thompson said it's a goal Space Command is working toward.

"No single organization should monopolize launch services, and the good news is, for the first time in almost a decade, the Air Force and the nation will have the opportunity soon to compete launch services and leverage the commercial space launch market to drive down costs and improve our resiliency," he said.