Building a Pacific Space Force

Capt. Brian Goodman, 527th Space Aggressor Squadron, ensures equipment is ready before a mission to disrupt a unit's space capabilities during exercise Red Flag, July 21, 2016 at Nellis AFB, Nev. Air Force photo by TSgt. David Salanitri.

Space operators need to be ready to fight in the Pacific, but they are not prepared to do so currently, commanders of three of the Air Force’s space wings said Friday at an AFA Mitchell Institute event on Capitol Hill. Air Force Space Command has been so focused on supporting US Central Command that they have work to do—in technology, training, and manpower—to be ready for potential operations in the US Pacific Command area of responsibility.

“Right now we have a defensive space control unit deployed to Al Udeid AB, Qatar,” said Col. Douglas Schiess, commander of the 21st Space Wing at Peterson AFB, Colo. That unit “monitors communications links mostly for remotely piloted airplanes,” he said. Space control units are also forward deployed to Jordan and northern Syria, Schiess confirmed, noting the Syria deployment is “the most austere location the 21st Space Wing has ever been deployed.”

These space forces have spent years refining their mission, developing new concepts of operations, and stabilizing personnel rotations to support combat in the Middle East. The intense development of this mission, however, has also come at a cost. “We’ve gotten so focused on CENTCOM, we forgot about PACOM,” Schiess said.

Ramping up a space control operation for PACOM “is going to be tough,” admitted Col. Deanna Burt, commander of the 50th Space Wing at Schriever AFB, Colo. One problem is technical. She said space forces will need “a multi-band frequency receiver” to operate in the Pacific theater. Military Satellite Communications will be “the long pole in the tent” in PACOM, she said. “Trying to bring forces, carry a strike group over the Pacific, to fight in the Pacific,” will require MILSATCOM operators “to hop [between frequencies] based on what’s being contested.” Current single-band receivers don’t have this capacity, she said, and “that’s what we’re going to need as military forces.”

In addition to new technology, space commanders are prioritizing “advanced training” and “force presentation,” said Col. David Miller, commander of the 460th Space Wing at Buckley AFB, Colo. These areas also present challenges for space operations in working more with PACOM.

Miller said across the space force there are not enough opportunities for advanced training when operators are back home from deployments.

“There’s only so much training I can do with the stuff I have now,” he said, add that the space domain needs a training buildup similar to what the service created for pilots after the challenges of Vietnam. “We don’t have that” in space.

Schiess insisted that including space operators in Red Flag exercises is not enough. “We are really supporting the air folks” at a Red Flag, he said, and there’s “not a lot of great training for us” in that context. “We need ranges, we need other things to be able to do that in a [high] fidelity environment.”

For this reason, the 50th Space Wing led the first ever Space Flag exercise in April. It provided a good start to more advanced, more specific training. Burt said the next Space Flag is being planned for August or September, though she said the name of the exercise might change.

“We’re allowing folks to do more training than they’ve ever been able to do before,” Schiess said.

But another part of the training challenge is a manpower challenge. As the Air Force has transitioned to a new focus on space as a combat domain, the resulting instability within deployment-to-dwell cycles has added pressure on an already-too-small space force.

“What we’ve seen lately is that we’re deploying more and more, and once we deploy somewhere we never get to leave,” Schiess said. “That increased deployment tempo makes it hard to find time for training during dwell time.”

Schiess said the Air Force is “bringing on Air National Guard squadrons, one in California, one in Florida, one in Colorado Springs,” in order to “help us carry the load for those deployments.” This relief will be crucial, he said, “especially if … we eventually have to maybe go to PACOM to do something similar, or even [US European Command].”

Another manpower solution is automation, which Burt wants to see applied in the realm of cyber defense, the US military’s “Achilles heel,” as she called it. Right now, Air Force space employs a “man-to-man defense” scheme in cyber operations, she said, which involves cyber operators “sitting on that system and watching the traffic” to understand “the key cyber terrain on that weapons system.”

This is a time-intensive and personnel-intensive arrangement. An automated process that makes better use of big data could be the solution, Burt said. She wants a “centralized cyber defense operations center that would allow a smaller footprint of folks” because it relies heavily on machine processing of data.

All these solutions are in the works, Miller reminded the audience. It took years for these problems to emerge, he said, and “it’s going to take more than five minutes” to solve them.