It is hard to overstate the importance of space assets to the United States’ ability to project power and fight wars. Virtually every weapon the US drops today is guided by GPS; weather and surveillance satellites have become critical to ground operations; and communications satellites provide the ability for troops all over the globe to communicate and navigate.
However, since the end of the Cold War, space has been largely regarded as a safe domain—a sanctuary in which capability could be emphasized at the expense of protection.
That is clearly no longer the case. Today, 11 countries can launch objects into space, and more than 170 countries have access to space. Anti-satellite tests by China and Russia show that space may never again be an uncontested domain.
Defense officials are well aware of the issue, and many have been talking about potential threats in space for years. Now, the talk has turned to action: Air Force Space Command earlier this year began reorganizing the space force in an effort to be better trained and postured to operate in a contested space environment.
Speaking at the Space Foundation’s Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colo., in April, Gen. John E. Hyten, AFSPC commander, offered an example to explain the criticality of space. As good as US GPS capability is, he said, the 2nd Space Operations Squadron at Schriever AFB, Colo., gets a call three or four times a week from the combined air operations center in the Middle East requesting more accuracy. For these tactical operations, the airmen will “tweak the constellation” to “give very specific accuracy” to whichever weapon is dropping, Hyten said.
At the 16th Space Control Squadron, Hyten said, airmen monitor communications links around the clock, so commercial and military comms and remotely piloted aircraft links to their pilots in the US all happen seamlessly. Soldiers on a hill in Afghanistan looking down on a target ask for information to be there, and they need it to be there.
Those troops “can never be left alone. … The switch is always on,” Hyten said. “We can never allow that to change.”
Just as pararescue jumpers have a threat focus every day, space operators “have to start preparing for the same kind of threat,” Hyten said. “Not the same physical threat that they fear in their lives, but the same kind of attitude that they bring to their challenges every day, we have to bring the same challenges.”
In his speech at the Space Symposium, Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert O. Work said space has “become deeply enmeshed in our plans, training, and operations and is central to our ways of deterring conflict, assuring allies, and ultimately to our warfighting.”
If an adversary took space assets away from the US, “our ability to project decisive military power across transoceanic distances—the very essence of our conventional deterrence—would be critically weakened,” he added.
Yet as the domain and the threat have evolved, Work said, US space assets have become increasingly vulnerable.
Adm. Cecil D. Haney, commander of US Strategic Command, said he believes part of the problem is that space has been viewed as an enabler, rather than a critical mission capability.
“Our sensors, command and control systems, and our space situational awareness capabilities underpin our ability to maintain awareness. These resources are vital to the decision-making process and supporting forces around the globe,” he said.
Winston A. Beauchamp, deputy Air Force undersecretary for space, noted in February that the “secret is out” about the US and allied reliance on space. Those things that give us “a qualitative and quantitative edge over
adversaries also makes space an irresistible target,” he said.
Still, up until last year, space operators were told that if they got into trouble with a satellite, they should put it in safe mode and call an engineer, Hyten said.
That method does not work in a threat environment, Haney said.
“When one of our space systems goes offline, or a receiver is no longer receiving information from space systems, we can no longer assume that it’s the result of an equipment problem or operator error,” he stressed. “We must quickly assess and verify that we’re not under attack.”
If space assets are not made more resilient, there will be more temptation for an adversary to take them out, and that will undermine conventional deterrence, Work said.
“One of the fundamentals of deterrence is that people are more likely to attack you if they see you as weak and vulnerable—in other words, don’t be the injured gazelle on the Serengeti; you’re just inviting attack,” he said. “A perception that our space systems are an easy target leads to a destabilizing reality: An adversary might think that by attacking, or even threatening, our space systems, they may deter US entry into conflict.”
Haney, Hyten, and others have repeatedly stated their fervent wish to avoid war in space. But if deterrence fails, Haney said, “we must be ready with a resilient capability and associated operational concepts and tactics to defeat efforts to an attack on our space systems.”
Haney made it known that he is “not happy” with AFSPC’s ability to “see, characterize, and understand” the space domain; Hyten said he saw a “fundamental hole” in the way the space enterprise was organized.
In response, Hyten last year proposed what he calls the Space Mission Force: a construct under which space operators work and train like operators in other domains.
When he announced the change in April 2015, Hyten said the force was “unbelievably young and unbelievably inexperienced” and that they would begin doing business “in a fundamentally different way,” to prepare for a contested environment in space, the Colorado Springs Gazette reported.
On Feb. 1, 2016, the 50th Operations Group was the first to roll out the Space Mission Force concept, dividing its 600 space operators into two groups. One group operates on 12-hour shifts around the clock, as though it is forward deployed, while the other group engages in advanced training, leading toward a combat readiness certification.
Col. Dennis Bythewood, commander of the 50th Operations Group, told Air Force Magazine that part of the transformation was to “align ourselves with the same way that the rest of Air Force” does business, by creating and building 62 different unit type codes, or packages of capability.
On the air side, that might be a certain number of airplanes with associated maintainers and pilots. On the space side, he said, it would be something like a GPS constellation with the operators needed to operate it, plus the planners needed to plan and deliver the capability.
On Feb. 1, the unit went into initial operation for both pieces: the way it presents forces to combatant commanders and the way it trains and staffs the mission. A set of crews rotated onto 12-hour shifts, where they will stay for four months, while another set of crews began working on tactics, techniques, and procedures to close gaps and improve the ability to work in a contested environment.
Before the Space Mission Force rollout, “we would offer a capability that was really geared for a benign environment,” Bythewood explained.
“I didn’t have one set of troops forward, providing the combat effect, and another set of troops back, practicing, learning, and building out capabilities to close gaps,” he said. “What I had is one set forward providing a combat effect and working on advanced techniques and procedures as they could.”
The new program allows half the force to focus on building capability, whereas before it was a “catch as catch can activity,” Bythewood said.
1st Lt. Brinetta Hence, a GPS mission commander with 2nd Space Operations Squadron, said that previously, airmen’s schedules would change all the time. Now, she said, they do set rotations in 12-hour shifts during their “deploy in place” period and can take leave, sign up for classes, and do advanced job training during the “dwell” period.
The construct has made life a lot easier, Hence said, and has been a big morale booster.
“Schedule equals morale,” she said, adding that the time for advanced training will help everyone know their job better.
1st Lt. Dustin Crews, a mission commander with 3rd Space Operations Squadron, whose crew was doing its advanced training rotation in April, said they are conducting a series of mission scenarios where they plan, execute, then debrief lessons learned.
From those lessons, the crew will develop new tactics, techniques, and procedures to allow the airmen to operate in a threat environment.
“It’s exciting because it’s a change of mindset,” Crews said.
New Way of Doing Business
Historically, training consisted of going into an auditorium and watching a PowerPoint presentation, said Maj. Eric Bogue, director of operations for 3rd SOPS. The new training is scenario based, bringing a lot of benefits.
“We’ve changed the way we’ve done business,” said Lt. Col. Chris Todd, commander of 3rd SOPS.
It’s all a part of developing combatants and “trying to build that warfighter culture,” said Lt. Col. Tim Purcell, commander of the 50th Operations Support Squadron.
The 21st Space Wing, Peterson AFB, Colo., is the next unit to transition to the Space Mission Force concept and will be followed by the 460th Space Wing at nearby Buckley Air Force Base.
In addition to the changes in advanced training, there has been a transformation in initial space training, according to Bythewood.
Previously, Air Education and Training Command did all the training and delivered airmen capable of doing basic operations. With the revamp, AETC kept the undergraduate space training, which teaches how to be a space operator in a generic sense, but the Air Force moved individual weapons-specific training from Vandenberg AFB, Calif., to Schriever, Buckley, and other sites.
“One of the big impetuses for moving that training out was to be much more responsive,” Bythewood said.
1st Lt. Kaitlynn Plummer, a GPS trainer with the 50th OSS, said that since all the weapons systems are at Schriever, it “just makes sense” that new airmen would do their training on the systems there.
But 50th OSS didn’t simply bring the old courses to a new location, Plummer said. They completely overhauled the training “so the mindset is changed from the beginning.”
That is “absolutely necessary” to get the space enterprise where it needs to be, said SrA. Chris Hisey, an intelligence trainer for 50th OSS.
Altogether, the training has created a “dynamic learning environment,” where space operators are finding issues and devising fixes for them all the time, Bythewood said. “As we do that, I want to be able to take that change, turn around, and train it in the next class that comes out—and not have to wait a year.”
Lt. Gen. David J. Buck, commander of 14th Air Force, said at the Space Symposium that he is happy with how the transformation of the space enterprise is going.
“I’m proud to say that there’s a warfighter culture that’s taking root in the command,” Buck said. “This construct allows operators to train right now for the high-end fight of the future. It will inform how we respond to current and future threats in the space domain.”
Still, the Space Mission Force and training transformation are just parts of a larger Space Enterprise Vision, announced by Hyten during a closed session of the Space Symposium. The vision of integration across all mission areas was prompted by a study commissioned by Space Command to determine how to make the space enterprise more resilient to attack.
The vision is a “ground-up approach” to getting ahead of threats, with the idea that someone in the Joint Space Operations Center could see a threat coming and send data to the person operating the satellite, so they can see the threat and react to it, Maj. Patrick Gaynor, Hyten’s speechwriter, told Air Force Magazine.
Then, in May, Hyten released his commander’s strategic intent, offering still more details on how he sees the enterprise—and threats—in the future.
“State and nonstate actors are actively fielding and modernizing forces, testing new capabilities, and expanding their areas of operations—in the physical and virtual domains,” he wrote in the document. “More than ever, Air Force Space Command is called upon to deliver agile, integrated, and resilient effects in, from, and through space and cyberspace.”
In the last year, Hyten pointed out, space command has “updated and clarified” what it means to be resilient, and the command must increase “resilience capacity” in all it does.
“Any capability that cannot survive when facing the threats of today and the future is worthless in conflict—no matter how impressive its peacetime capability,” he wrote.
“Our job is to prepare for conflict. We hope this preparation will deter potential adversaries and that conflicts will not extend into space or cyberspace, but our job is to be ready when and if that day comes.”