The Space Force’s second-in-command says that his service is building what he described as a “space test and training range” that could offer Space Force guardians and their international partners brief opportunities to practice operating with real spacecraft in orbit overhead. 

The real-world practice would mark a change of pace from the largely-virtual simulation that most Space Force training consists of. However, the nature of orbital physics means there likely will not be dedicated real estate dedicated to military training purposes.

“It’s just a matter of establishing with a specific set of spacecraft in a specific region for a specific period of time the sets of activities that you need to do, you do them at that point in time for that purpose and then [regular] activity continues,” said Vice Chief of Space Operations Gen. David Thompson in a conversation with Defense One on Wednesday. “So in reality, the physical range is the entire domain of space. It’s bringing together people and tools and an approach at a specific point in time and in space to conduct tests and training.”

As tempting as it is to imagine a space-based Top Gun range, satellite operations typically are not so dynamic.

“You don’t have someone flying it with a joystick,” Aaron Bateman, an assistant professor of history and international affairs at George Washington University who studies space policy, told Task & Purpose in June. “It’s more health and safety checks and orbit adjustments, which is all done with computer command.”

Even so, service members must be ready to execute an orbit adjustment or a maneuver if one is called for. 

In May 2020, the 2nd Space Operations Squadron celebrated performing the first station keeping maneuver on a GPS III satellite. A station keeping maneuver is performed to keep spacecraft “in their node (or parking spots in orbit),” Schriever Space Force Base, Colorado explained in a press release at the time. Such a maneuver involves burning the satellite’s thrusters and changing its speed at a particular point in its orbit, which makes the orbit change and lets the spacecraft stay in position for GPS coverage or another purpose.

“All operational GPS vehicles are assigned nodes, when all nodes are filled with healthy vehicles there is good global GPS coverage,” 1st Lt. Michael Gallagher, GPS subsystems analyst, said in the press release. “When new vehicles are launched they typically aren’t launched directly into their final node. This means that the [2nd Space Operations Squadron] analysis flight must perform a re-phase maneuver to put a vehicle in its node.”

space force guardians
U.S. Space Force 1LTs Brandon Wilkinson, (left) and Nicholas Stawinski (right), Military Satellite Communications (MILSATCOM) operators for the 4th Space Operations Squadron, observe their monitors at Schriever Space Force Base, Colorado, April 8, 2022. The 4th SOPS’ mission is to operate the U.S. Space Force’s protected and wideband Military Satellite Communications systems. (Dennis Rogers/U.S. Space Force)

Some experts warn that maneuverability in space may become even more important in the years to come. 

“While maneuvering space weapons sound like they belong in the realm of science fiction, they are a near-term reality,” wrote Christopher Stone, a senior fellow for Space Studies at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, a research organization that analyzes U.S. military aerospace policy and practices. 

In a January policy paper, Stone explained that the U.S. satellite constellations currently in orbit were designed with the assumption that space was an uncontested domain. Thus, each satellite was assigned to “highly predictable orbital paths, altitudes, and overflight timing make them easy targets for enemy attacks,” and were not designed to be moved frequently over a long period of time, Stone wrote.

That may have worked in the 20th century, but today China is developing a “multi-layered counterspace architecture,” that includes radio-frequency jammers and illumination lasers that can temporarily debilitate satellites, Stone wrote, as well as ground-launched anti-satellite missiles and high-power lasers that can outright destroy the spacecraft. If those weapons are used against satellites operated by the U.S. or its allies, the results could be devastating. Despite being mostly invisible to the naked eye, satellites have become vital to both military and civilian life.

“When I look at my own experience as an Air Force intelligence officer in the Global War On Terror, people took space for granted,” Bateman said in June. “You could get sophisticated imagery intelligence or get missile warnings in Iraq whenever you needed. Nobody thought of the infrastructure supporting that. Military personnel are very much aware of products of space capabilities, but not the mechanisms that give them those products.”

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Service members are not the only ones tied to space: most of the global economy is, too. GPS satellites alone play a significant role in everything from farming to banking to electrical power grid operation. So how can the Space Force keep those essential machines running when China and Russia are developing new ways to shut them down? 

One option is to launch a lot more satellites so that if one is disabled, there will be more to take its place. But Stone argued that proliferating satellites is not enough to counter Chinese and Russian counterspace systems.

“U.S. satellites—whether they are in legacy monolithic constellations or proliferated constructs—operate in orbits that are predictable and can be tracked by adversaries that have even a basic space tracking network,” he wrote. “In addition to creating constellations that eliminate critical points of failure, [the Department of Defense] should begin to deploy satellites that can move, or maneuver, to avoid attacks and change orbits as needed.”

Satellites that can rapidly maneuver are more difficult for an enemy to attack with lasers or other weapons, Stone says. The problem is that most U.S. satellites are controlled by electric or chemical propulsion. Electric propulsion is efficient, but very slow, he explained. Meanwhile chemical propellant is powerful, but most satellites have very limited amounts of propellant that would be depleted quickly if several threats had to be dodged. 

Stone called for adopting space nuclear thermal propulsion, which he described as a paradigm shift in how satellites move overhead.

“Current U.S. space systems powered by chemical rockets can be thought of like the airships of a century ago, while adversary space nuclear thermal propulsion systems are like modern fighter aircraft, given their increased thrust and extended endurance,” Stone wrote. 

U.S. Space Force Tech Sgt. Michelle Holt, Military Training Instructor, 1st Delta Operations Squadron, bumps fists with a basic military training Guardian graduate during a coining ceremony on June 22, 2022, at the Pfingston Reception Center on Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas. (Ethan Johnson/U.S. Space Force)
U.S. Space Force Tech Sgt. Michelle Holt, Military Training Instructor, 1st Delta Operations Squadron, bumps fists with a basic military training Guardian graduate during a coining ceremony on June 22, 2022, at the Pfingston Reception Center on Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas. (Ethan Johnson/U.S. Space Force)

None of this is to say that Space Force guardians will soon become hotshot space pilots wheeling satellites across the sky from control stations on the ground. But preparing to maneuver does take practice, and making sure guardians get that practice is the responsibility of Space Training and Readiness Command (STARCOM), a component of the Space Force that prepares guardians for their jobs as space warfighters. 

Earlier this month, STARCOM also put on Black Skies, an exercise on a live range that took place 22,000 miles above the area between California and Colorado. In the exercise, space warfighters practiced satellite jamming on Space Force-leased commercial satellites, according to Defense News. STARCOM also plans to put on Red Skies, a live simulation orbital warfare training event, and Blue Skies, a live simulation cyber warfare training event, according to a press release. Thompson, the vice chief of space operations, said other real-world practice scenarios include establishing laser connections and radio frequency connections with spacecraft. Still, he explained that accessing space is much more difficult than accessing anything in the terrestrial realm, so most Space Force training takes place in the digital realm.

One such simulation took place last month, where STARCOM hosted Space Flag, the space version of large training exercises held by other services like the Air Force’s Red Flag, the Army’s Joint Warfighter Assessment and the Navy’s Fleet Synthetic Training, a STARCOM press release explained. 

In Space Flag, 120 service members from across the military gathered “to consider complex astrodynamics while maneuvering and operating during simulated on-orbit combat engagements,” the press release said. Though the release did not go into specifics on the exact scenarios that were replicated in Space Flag, it stated that the exercise “allowed the training audience to exercise and refine combat tactics in space domain awareness, intelligence, warning and surveillance, navigation warfare, orbital warfare and satellite communications.”

Thompson said the Space Force will use virtual simulators to train guardians on “our very very sophisticated, high-end threat-based training,” he explained.

U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Mendoza, 216th Space Control Squadron space systems operator, utilizes a ‘Honey Badger System’ during BLACK SKIES 22 at Vandenberg Space Force Base, Calif., Sept. 20, 2022. (Tech. Sgt. Luke Kitterman/U.S. Space Force)

Brig. Gen. Shawn Bratton, the head of STARCOM, said the Space Force can’t “carve out a piece of real estate” on orbit for a permanent range, according to C4ISRNET, a publication that covers military information technology. 

“There’s no sovereignty in space, and we’re not looking to impose that sort of model at all in the space domain,” Bratton said in April . “We think a lot of it will be done digitally.”

Now the challenge is creating a virtual environment that acts exactly how space acts, a problem that several companies are already trying to solve. Thompson, the vice chief of space operations, said more funding is on the way in the fiscal year 2023 budget to further enhance the branch’s training, both virtual and real-world.

“To move it to what I’ll call more physically present or realistically present, we all have to build our training capability, our simulation capability,” he said. “I’ll tell you that in 2022, we made a significant investment in that infrastructure. As Congress continues to work on the [2023] budget, we probably will see another double digit increase.”

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