Vice Chief of Space Operations Gen. David Thompson swore in the first four enlisted Space Force recruits at the Baltimore Military Entrance Processing Station, Fort George Meade, Md., Oct. 20, 2020. Tech. Sgt. Armando Schwier-Morales
Photo Caption & Credits

Space Force Training Takes Shape

Dec. 1, 2020

USSF will take USAF training protocols and fine-tune them to suit the fledgling force.

When the Space Force’s top general talks about the future of training, he offers a metaphor for the militarization of the cosmos: airline Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger versus a fighter pilot.

Sully—the now-retired US Airways pilot who heroically landed his Airbus A-320 in the Hudson River after a bird strike damaged his engines on takeoff—represents the quality of Space Professionals up to now. 

The fighter pilot—who must fly at least as well as Sully while also evading and fighting off attack—represents skills space personnel will need in the future.

“We have grown up building Sullys,” says Chief of Space Operations Gen. John W. “Jay” Raymond. “We have the world’s best space operators. … We’re world-class trained at that. … But “we now have to shift that to a fighter pilot mentality, have a better understanding of the threats, having a better understanding of how to operate your capabilities through those threats, having a better understanding of potential adversaries. It’s a different way of doing business.” 

As the Pentagon prepares for a second space age, rife with challenges such as signal jamming, anti-satellite missiles, and a growing obstacle course of space debris, simply flying satellites well won’t cut it, Raymond says. 

It’s a different way of doing business.

Gen. John  Raymond, Chief of Space Operations, USSF

Since President Donald J. Trump signed legislation birthing the U.S. Space Force a year ago, the Space Force is building that next generation of service members.

The first seven Space Force enlisted hopefuls shipped out to the inaugural, seven-and-a-half-week Basic Military Training (BMT) at Joint Base San Antonio, Texas, on Oct. 20. Piggybacking on the Air Force’s long-standing Basic Military Training process, the first cohort includes five men and two women ranging in age from 18 to 31. Five are White and two are Black. Those who graduate will become the first Space Force members to have been recruited and trained as Space Professionals, rather than transferring in from another branch of service. 

The Space Force aims to bring in 312 enlisted recruits in 2021, and 300 to 500 per year after that, as the service looks to maintain or possibly grow its size. It also wants about 250 new officers a year. That’s a fraction of the approximately 30,000 new Airmen the Air Force brings in annually.

Chief Master Sgt. Shane Pilgrim, the Space Force’s chief of enlisted force development, said the service eventually plans to consolidate its space, intelligence, and cyber recruits into single cohorts at BMT. That would bring the average size of a Space Force basic training group up to 30 or 40 instead—from the initial 10 or fewer. 

Indeed, there may not ever be a standard or ideal number, according to Senior Enlisted Adviser Chief Master Sgt. Roger A. Towberman. 

“Why do we have to choose? Maybe we do six at a time, and then … one time next spring, we’ll do a class of 30 and we see how that works,” Towberman said. “It really is an ecosystem and everything’s connected to everything else. I can change something so that basic training works better, and it may make technical training work worse, or it may put the recruiters in a position where they’ve got to make compromises in order to meet the numbers that they need to keep us on track.”

The Space Force will seek recruits and officers in places USAF may not have looked in the past. It aims to strengthen ties to historically Black colleges and universities and hopes to attract more women interested in science and technology.

“We are also targeting demographic areas in the country that are traditionally not fertile grounds for recruits,” Pilgrim said.

In contrast to a conventional focus on standardized testing, the Space Force intends to leverage its more intimate size by focusing instead on interviews and a personal assessment process. Those chosen to join the service will receive a tablet with courseware and helpful videos about two months before BMT, and will be paired with mentors to help them prepare. 

“Because of our size and scale, we can do things on a more personal level,” Pilgrim said.

Air Force Col. Nikki Lindhorst (center), Air University space chair, welcomed Space Force 2nd Lieutenants Elizabeth Kowal, left, and Amy Coba after the Officer Training School Class 20-08 graduation Oct. 16, at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala. Lindhorst presided over a ceremony for newly appointed officers from Class 20-08 to the Air Force and Space Force. Airman 1st Class Jackson Manske

Once at basic training, recruits will join Air Force BMT recruits, separated by gender, for most training, breaking into Space Force flights only for space-specific training, similar to the way new special warfare Airmen are trained. 

For now, just three Space Force training instructors (TI) are assigned to Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, and they will lead Space Force BMT flights. “So that’s how we’re building in these space experiences—having the flight led by a space TI, having specific courseware to space—but they are still going through Air Force BMT for all intents and purposes.”

The Air Force has gradually built more space knowledge into its education regime for all Airmen, teaching the importance of satellites and radars to the rest of the combat force. More specialized Space Force training will go even deeper.

Towberman charged personnel experts to create a unique recruit experience focused on teamwork, warfighter ethos, professionalism, and comprehensive fitness. The service wants its training to feel different from the other armed forces, while still infusing necessary military discipline and the unique space operations culture.

In addition to standard training on personal conduct, physical fitness, and military fundamentals, space recruits will learn “law, policy, orbital mechanics, electromagnetic waves and signals, space environment, space systems, command authorities, and joint space warfighting,” according to a Space Force release.

“We looked at adding a course on our space organization, … [and] some stuff about our doctrine and our defense space strategy” to explain why the Space Force was created, Pilgrim said.­ The planning team wanted to create opportunities to discuss space dominance and orbital threats in an unclassified forum, and to cover the past several decades of military space history.

Recruits should likewise learn about the Space Force’s workforce, which employs a greater percentage of officers and civilians than the Air Force, Pilgrim said.

“We also assessed whether some of the courses there, such as the combat arms training, were relevant in the current format to what we’re doing in our mission in the Space Force, and the expeditionary training as well, because our mission is different,” he added.

Space operations are less physical than other military specialties and require fewer deployments, Pilgrim said. “Our training should relate to what we do for our national defense mission.”

Digital Natives 

As the first branch of the armed forces launched in the computer age, the Space Force pledges to break away from manual processes, starting with the way it educates and trains its workforce. 

“We are going to incorporate some video-enhanced courseware, some stuff where we can actually leverage technology to bring the experience of current Space Professionals into BMT,” Pilgrim said. Instead of PowerPoint slides, he’s hoping to bring in guest speakers via livestream or prerecording. 

Pilgrim believes a tech-savvy approach is not only valid now, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, but will endure beyond. 

“Our tablet initiative allows us to stay connected without being physically connected as much to the recruits, prior to them coming to basic,” he said. “Once they get into that pipeline, they have established controls that are tried-and-true at BMT that will be implemented and will keep them safe.”

Over time, Space Force basic training could grow large enough to warrant its own squadrons and a fuller space curriculum. Everyone should have a basic understanding of space operations, whether they’re a satellite operator or an intelligence analyst, Pilgrim said.

“Gradually, we can build and morph into that. We need to run where we can and crawl where we need to,” he said. “As we get through a couple iterations of this, I think we will learn rapidly, and it’ll be a constant double loop where we go back and reassess.”

Space Force BMT graduates’ next stops will be one of three bases: Space operators will go to Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.; cyber specialists will go to Keesler Air Force Base, Miss., and intelligence specialists will go to Goodfellow Air Force Base, Texas. Officer Training School (OTS) graduates appear to be following the same path.

For new officers, the Space Force is leveraging the Air Force’s OTS; its first two  graduates, both women, completed the seven-and-a-half week course in October. A service spokeswoman declined to provide more details, but their next stops will match those of enlisted members. 

Senior Airman Bailey Bourque, 18th Space Control Squadron combat development division technician, works on software development for future space operations at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. Space Training and Readiness Command oversee USSF command and control preparation at the base. Tech. Sgt. Patrick Harrower

Building STARCOM 

The Space Training and Readiness (STAR) Delta is responsible for Space Force technical and advanced training. The command is provisional and will evolve over the next year to become the future Space Training and Readiness Command (STARCOM). Currently located at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo., STAR Delta encompasses the 3rd Space Experimentation Squadron, 17th Test Squadron, 25th Space Range Squadron, 527th Space Aggressor Squadron, 705th Combat Training Squadron Operating Location Alpha, and Air Force Warfare Center Det. 1 at Schriever Air Force Base, Colo.; the 319th Combat Training Squadron, Air Force Operational Test and Evaluation Center Det. 4, and National Security Space Institute at Peterson; the 328th Weapons Squadron at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev.; and the 533rd Training Squadron at Vandenberg.

Once established as STARCOM, it will oversee training and readiness for each specific skill set within the Space Force, including missile warning at Buckley Air Force Base, Colo.; command and control at Vandenberg; and navigational warfare and satellite communications at Schriever.

The Air Force started beefing up its space education even before STAR Delta came to be, and will now continue to evolve as the Space Force raises awareness of the threats facing assets on orbit and on the ground, and offers a more holistic view of how those tools fit into the larger warfighting picture. For example, the 533rd Training Squadron is adding rigor to its courses, along with more classified content for both undergraduate officer and enlisted training, said STAR Delta Commander Col. Peter J. Flores.

“Those courses are much more complex now than they were in years past,” he said. “They are broader in their perspective, in terms of what are the threats? We’re asking people to think about how to prevail in that contested, degraded, operationally limited environment.”

Incorporating content marked “Top-Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information” is important in a line of work that is shrouded in secrecy. Adding that content to the curriculum gives students a more complete understanding of what they might be up against as countries compete for dominance in orbit.

“Some of the concepts can seem pretty abstract,” said Maj. Gen. DeAnna M. Burt, then the director of operations and communications at Space Force headquarters, in April. “But when students see it applied to a real-world scenario, suddenly it sticks.”

Last year, Burt noted that instead of simply learning what the different orbital layers around the Earth are called and how high they sit, undergrads will also learn why the military uses each layer, how space operations differ from air ops, how to determine when systems are being jammed, and more.

“If I have to move satellites and keep them in mission, if I have to move and stop doing mission in order to save that vehicle, what does that look like?” she said. “Why would I do that? What are all those agencies doing to each other, and how are they talking and integrating in a fight?”

Introducing those concepts in school means students will have less to learn when they get to their duty stations—and be better primed to learn more quickly on the job. To accommodate the additional coursework, undergraduate space training has also expanded from 76 days to either 87 days for enlisted students or 110 days for officers. 

There’s more work to do to find the sweet spot for how many people should move through space operations training each year. Pandemic precautions have limited class sizes, “strangling” the education pipeline, Flores said. Bringing in new members from the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps, as well as Air Force personnel who transfer into space operations, will affect that in the future. 

Courseware and staffing may change over time as class sizes fluctuate and stabilize.

“Does everybody need to show up on Day One for undergraduate space training for a multi-month operation?” Flores asked, posing one of many questions he’s trying to answer now. “Or if you’re coming from some other discipline that preps you for that, can we turn some of that into … online courses that then limits the amount of time you have to spend on the ground?” 

Capt. Alexander Panek (left) demonstrates virtual reality training for Maj. Gen. Stephan Whiting, head of Space Operations Command, during a visit to Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., in July. The Space Force expects all its members to be “fluent in digital.” Senior Airman Aubree Owens

Technical Schools

For technical training, the Space Force now offers 15-day courses in space warfighting disciplines such as orbital warfare, electronic warfare, and space battle management. About 120 students have graduated from those classes so far, Chief of Space Operations Gen. John W. “Jay” Raymond said in September.

Building that curriculum to meet the needs of Space Force doctrine is the biggest challenge for the 319th Combat Training Squadron, Flores said. Indeed, officials are mulling whether the Space Force could use the same instructors for both initial and technical training.

“Do we have to do basic training separately from anything?” Towberman mused. “Could we do basic training as part of tech school and it’s just called training and you just show up and you do it all together in one location?”

Burt has compared weapon system training to how the Air Force matches Airmen with planes: the service first teaches them to fly, then splits them to learn about different categories of aircraft, then assigns them a particular airframe. Space personnel will learn their systems “down to every knob and bolt and screw” like Airmen would the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, she said.

Building on History 

Wherever possible, the Space Force is leveraging existing Air Force institutions to deliver its education and training needs. As it is with Air Force BMT and OTS, the Space Force is relying on Air University, its Senior Noncommissioned Officer Academy (SNCO), and the U.S. Air Force Academy (USAFA) to help educate its future leaders. 

Last April, USAFA graduated 86 cadets who commissioned into the Space Force as second lieutenants. They were among the very first officers to enter the service.

Air University is adding space warfighting to its core curriculum at Airman Leadership School, doubling its Schriever Space Scholars program to include about two dozen participants, and launching the West Space Seminar through the Air War College. Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, and foreign military personnel are all playing an increasingly large role in professional space education, as well.

“All Space Professional students will be enrolled in the ‘Space Grey Rhinos’ space concentration, where they will study space as an instrument of power and policy,” Air University announced in an August release. “Students will participate in the Air University Advanced Research capstone project, researching space topics and presenting ideas to the U.S. Space Force in a final outbrief.”

Air University graduated its first Space Force members from the SNCO Academy in September. Reserve Officer Training Corps participants will also get a heavier dose of orbital issues in their collegiate program.

Over time, adding “space flavor” may transcend orbital studies to include cultural elements central to USSF in future professional military education (PME), Towberman says.

“If we decide that we want to work more on interpersonal communication skills, we might change interpersonal communication in PME,” he said. “That wouldn’t be a space thing, right? It would be a Space Force thing.”

Diversity and inclusion training will be part of Space Force BMT, for example, and members will practice broaching sensitive topics with a computer avatar so they feel more comfortable discussing those issues in real life.

Another bedrock competency for the Space Force will be digital literacy. Space Force members will take 6,000 spots in the Department of the Air Force’s Digital University, an online course catalog of IT and cybersecurity training and computer science language coursework, Raymond said in September. The objective is to apply those skills across the enterprise. For Space Flag, the Department of the Air Force’s premier large-scale space training exercise, STAR Delta wants to improve its modeling and simulation capabilities so more people can participate more often.

Over two weeks last August, STAR Delta held its first major exercise—the ninth edition of Space Flag—at the Boeing Virtual Warfare Center in Colorado Springs, Colo. The event split 34 participants into red, white, and blue cells. Blue players practiced moving space assets on orbit to respond to threats; white players provided command and control; and the red players worked to disrupt the blue team’s operations.

Members of the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Army work side by side to refine their skills during exercise Virtual Flag 20-1—a real-time tactical-to-operational- level event using air, land, space, cyber, and maritime scenarios integrating live, virtual, and constructive elements to train warfighters. Shelton Keel/505th Command and Control Wing

It’s often hard to practice orbital offense and defense without actually being there. Flores said building more advanced simulators can help show how things might play out in an electronic or physical war. Those artificial environments need to be as realistic as possible and include the National Reconnaissance Office, other countries, private contractors, and anyone else the Space Force would need to work with in a fight.

“When crew members come in—whether they’re cyber, space, intel—they can come in and it will feel, it will taste, and it will smell like the environment they’re expected to operate in, with all the inputs,” Flores said. “As they make decisions through that fight, the system can react to that and can give them feedback on how things went.”

Space Flag is organized by STAR Delta Operating Location Alpha (OL-A), which transferred to the Space Force this year after being part of Air Combat Command for the prior seven years. The organization provides some of the glue connecting air and space assets in combat.

“[We’re able to] project electronic intelligence data into HH-60 cockpits to help the aircrews locate downed Airmen anywhere on the globe,” OL-A director Kevin Rhoades said in a press release earlier this year. “We generally do this over [continental U.S.] ranges, but recently supported an expeditionary rescue squadron downrange in the [United States Central Command area of responsibility].” 

The service is also looking to Red Flag, on which Space Flag is based, and other ventures at Nellis for best practices in training.

“I think everyone understands that warfighting is war­fighting,” Burt said. “The kinematics and the domain may be different, but how we fight, and the doctrine, and the way we get offense and defense … are no different from one domain to the other.”

Schriever Wargame, an annual futures event that brings together hundreds of military and civilian participants from across the globe, may eventually fall under STARCOM, as well. The game is now under Pentagon oversight.

The important thing to remember, Towberman says, is that the Space Force is still new, still ironing out the many details necessary to establish the training and culture it needs to be successful in the future.

The service is embarking on what Towberman calls “small-batch solutions” as a means to float trial balloons on everything from workout uniforms to training in focus groups.

“We don’t have to come up with a final answer that’s going to apply to the full force for what we think is the next 10 years,” he said. “We can say, ‘Hey, let’s do something that applies to a small group.’ And try it out and see what it looks like. Then if we like it, we’ll scale it.”