Fighting Through Threats with the Space Mission Force

Aug. 2, 2016: The new employment construct for Air Force Space Command’s operators, the Space Mission Force, will bring dramatic improvements to how the command prepares for and fights through threats, top command officials recently told Air Force Magazine.

The Space Mission Force places operational AFSPC airmen, such as satellite operators, into a four month on/four month off rotation in which they spend one tour operating their systems alternating with a tour spent training, honing tactics-techniques-and-procedures, and otherwise developing their skills free from the constant time demands of operational duty.

AFSPC has long dealt with the challenges inherent in the fact that it operates mission systems designed for benign environments while systems could come under attack at any time. The command would like to change the way it does business and speed up its acquisition and development processes, AFSPC Commander Gen. John Hyten said in a recent interview with Air Force Magazine. If it takes 10 years to develop a satellite that lasts 15 years, the technology will be 25 years old by the time it reaches the end of its service life – and many satellites last much longer than expected.

It has recently become clear that AFSPC’s operational organization was also fostering an unhealthy assumption that military space was a peaceful environment. Hyten noted that prior to 9/11 many pilots and aircrew trained for five or even 10 years before ever seeing combat, but they were constantly working to hone their skills and understand the enemy. This combat-first mindset was lacking in AFSPC, and most young officers strove to get out of mission crew assignments and into staff assignments as quickly as possible – which they saw as the key to a successful career. The command needed more leadership on the ops floor and an attitude that the combat mission comes first.

The Space Mission Force should build the new attitude by bringing the focus back to operations, and assumptions will change. If a satellite feed goes dark, airmen should assume it is under attack and immediately work to “fight through” the problem. In the past, they may assumed it was a technical problem, safed the system, and called for technicians to come and fix the problem. Although this approach may typically work, such a relaxed attitude would be disastrous if a problem actually was caused, for example, but a Chinese or Russian attack that kicked off a an attack on US interests worldwide. Through the Space Mission Force, airmen will have seen simulations of these threats, giving them the muscle memory needed to adjust and restore lost capabilities.

The 50th Space Wing at Schriever AFB, Colo., was the first to implement the four-month mission force rotations this year, and the construct will soon migrate to all space operations airmen except those working with small, remote ground-based radar systems. The airmen in GBR assignments don’t fit neatly into the Space Mission Force concept and will be the last to merge, although Hyten promises “they won’t be left behind.”

Still, “in five years, nobody will remember the way it used to be,” Hyten said, and everyone at AFSPC will focus on providing combat effects. “It’ll just be normal,” he said.