In an era where space has become a contested domain, members of the U.S. Space Force, save for a select few astronauts, find themselves firmly grounded on Earth.
Unlike their counterparts in the Air Force, who engage in training missions up in the sky, or Navy sailors who practice combat drills at sea, Space Force guardians don’t get to directly experience outer space. Their training, instead, is confined to the boundaries of classrooms and traditional simulators designed for repeated practice of a specific skill.
While these established methods sufficed when military operators focused solely on satellite operations, the Space Force now shoulders a broader mandate. This includes safeguarding satellites from hostile actions, necessitating the adoption of more sophisticated training tools.
“The new space domain is far different from the one I grew up with,” said Gen. Chance Saltzman, chief of U.S. space operations. “It has taken on the characteristics of a more dangerous and dynamic security environment,” he said last month at the Air & Space Forces Association’s annual conference.
Satellites have to be protected from traditional threats like electronic jammers and also from cyberattacks and more destabilizing ground-launched missiles, on-orbit grapplers and directed energy weapons.
The very existence of the Space Force underscores the fiercely contested nature of space, he said. However, the formation of the Space Force is just the first step. The next objective, said Saltzman, is to build a dedicated Space Force that excels in the intensified U.S. competition with China and Russia — often referred to as great power competition.
The next phase of space training
To cultivate the requisite skills for competition with spacefaring global powers, the Space Force is exploring the use of technologies capable of making virtual and remote training far more realistic and immersive than previously possible.
“We spend a lot of time thinking about how we attack the advanced training, the specialty training that we need to instill the skills in our guardians to be prepared for competition and conflict,” said Maj. Gen. Shawn Bratton, who until recently led the Space Training and Readiness Command, known as STARCOM.
Bratton was nominated in July to be deputy chief of space operations for strategy, plans, programs and requirements. .
“The first challenge is how to explain the domain when you can’t put the person into it,” Bratton said at a National Defense Industrial Association conference. “We can’t carve out real estate on orbit and build a training location.”
STARCOM has hosted industry events and put out calls for information on technologies that could help guardians not only understand the mechanics of the space environment but also learn tactics to outmaneuver adversaries.
After the Space Force established STARCOM in August 2021, the command turned its attention to the preparation of incoming officers from the military academies and Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) programs on college campuses, said Lt. Col. Adam Wasinger, deputy commander of STARCOM’s Space Delta 13 Detachment 1.
Wasinger’s unit oversees space education programs at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, where since 2020 about 100 graduates each year get commissioned into the U.S. Space Force.
Incoming officers “have to be prepared to meet the Space Force mission, which is fight and win in contested, degraded space environments,” Wasinger told SpaceNews.
The Air Force Academy for years has had a space program, but it was short and limited in scope, Wasinger said. Last year, STARCOM introduced a three-week training course for space professionals offered to U.S. Air Force Academy and U.S. Military Academy cadets, U.S. Naval Academy midshipmen, as well as ROTC students considering a commission in the U.S. Space Force.
A central goal of the program, called Azimuth, is to “help prepare our future guardians to prevail in competition and conflict through innovative education,” said Wasinger.
The course introduces cadets to space and orbital dynamics through academics, zero-gravity experiments on parabolic aircraft flights, building rockets and satellites, and training in immersive mixed-reality environments.
Technologies like augmented and virtual reality are increasingly being applied in space training programs, he said, because they help operators understand the congested and contested space environment.
Immersive training tools typically are categorized as virtual, augmented or mixed reality.
Virtual reality generally means a computer-generated world experienced through a headset and haptic controllers. Augmented reality systems overlay digital information on real-world elements. In mixed reality, the user interacts with and manipulates physical and virtual items and environments.
About 150 students went through the Azimuth program this summer. They learned about the space domain via an augmented and mixed reality tool called Kwyn Solar, which ingests data from the military’s catalog of space objects and displays the space environment on the inside of the trainee’s goggles.
Wasinger shared that Space Delta 13 evaluated several products before it selected Kwyn Solar. Some students get so-called VR motion sickness and prefer augmented reality, said Wasinger. Using AR headsets, they can see all the satellites that are on orbit today, learn about their orbital paths, regimes, country of origin and even where their ground stations are located.
Reflecting on his own undergraduate training, Wasinger said much of it was confined to the pages of textbooks. While books and two-dimensional models are invaluable, they fall short when it comes to understanding the complexities of space, he said. Orbital mechanics, for instance, are tough to comprehend through a two-dimensional representation.
The Kywn Solar tool leverages visualization technologies that have rapidly matured in recent years, said Robert Hyland, principal scientist at Charles River Analytics, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based defense contractor that developed Kwyn Solar.
Charles River Analytics specializes in digital modeling and AI-powered software. The company in 2018 was hired by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to help U.S. military commanders better understand potential threats in space.
After the DARPA program ended in 2020, the company continued to further develop an augmented and mixed reality tool that it had designed for space situational awareness. The product transitioned to a commercial version named Kwyn Solar — short for Knows What You Need and Space Operation visualizations Leveraging Augmented Reality.
Hyland said Kwyn Solar empowers trainees to visualize and interact with satellite assets, helping their situational awareness and aiding their grasp of satellite roles in military operations. It also facilitates group training by challenging students to tackle hypothetical scenarios conceived by Charles River Analytics’ intelligence experts.
The tool also has been adopted at Officer Undergraduate Space Training and Enlisted Undergraduate Space Training programs at Vandenberg Space Force Base, California.
“What we heard from trainees and instructors is that they visualize things they never were able to before, such as an entire constellation,” Hyland said.
Tools more accessible
Augmented and virtual reality technologies have been around for decades, but have undergone significant evolution in recent years, Hyland noted. Lighter and more affordable headsets, coupled with the standardization of software and hardware accessories, have rendered immersive experiences more accessible.
The military is well-positioned to leverage these commercial products and exploit this technology for training without incurring substantial development costs, he said.
The Space Force stands to benefit from these innovations even more than other branches of the military due to the remote nature of its training, Hyland pointed out. This advantage is compounded by the fact that the incoming cadre of junior officers and enlisted guardians are from a generation of digital natives, and are able to adapt these tools with ease.
During the Azimuth course this summer, “they put the headsets on and within minutes the cadets were taking videos, passing them around, sharing and teaching each other,” Hyland said.
Considering the extensive array of subjects guardians must master, ranging from orbital mechanics to satellite parameter adjustments and conjunction analysis, the Space Force needs a more efficient pathway to acquire knowledge, which immersive training can provide, Hyland said.
Beyond the Air Force Academy, STARCOM is evaluating the application of immersive technologies to other training programs.
“We are looking at ways to make this technology more widely available to the operational force,” said Wasinger.
The experience of using high-tech tools during undergraduate training “gives them a taste of what’s to come,” he said. “What we’re trying to implement is a ‘crawl, walk, run’ kind of preparation.”
For example, the Space Force’s 533rd Training Squadron that oversees officer and enlisted education programs at Vandenberg is experimenting with augmented reality in an electronic warfare course, said Wasinger.
“We taught the students the basic fundamentals of electronic warfare and then using this digital capability we had them play in teams and try to prevent degradation of certain frequencies,” he said. The immersive technology is no substitute for the Space Force’s extensive electronic warfare education program, Wasinger noted, but it helps students sharpen their critical thinking, something that was hard to do when they only had textbooks.
Training for proliferated space
Another change happening in the Space Force — and likely to impact training programs — is the adoption of commercial-like proliferated constellations.
The military traditionally has operated a relatively small number of bespoke satellites such as GPS, communications and missile-warning spacecraft. Over the next several years, the Space Force’s Space Development Agency will acquire hundreds of satellites that will form a network known as the Proliferated Warfighter Space Architecture. This vast constellation in low Earth orbit will support military communications and missile threat detection.
As the Space Force prepares to bring these proliferated networks of satellites into the fleet, additional training initiatives will come into play, said Jeffrey Schrader, vice president of global situational awareness at Lockheed Martin Space.
Satellite operations units will need advanced tools to learn how to control large constellations and to automate tasks through artificial intelligence, he said. The Space Force wants to shift more resources to the protection and defense of space, so it needs to take advantage of AI and machine learning to manage satellite constellations with minimal staff, Schrader added.
Lockheed Martin is working on new products that automate numerous tasks typically requiring human intervention, he said. The company recently unveiled a cloud-based satellite operations center run by AI-driven software that can manage satellite data and predict and mitigate hardware malfunctions, said Schrader.
“As the Space Force moves towards fighting in a different way to deter adversaries,” he said, “it needs to utilize technologies that are out there to operate in a more efficient way.” .
Culture of ‘continuous improvement’
The Space Force has to be “purpose built” for the challenges of strategic competition, Saltzman said at the AFA conference. This means investing in exercises, wargames, training and education “to ensure that our personnel are equipped with the latest knowledge, skills, tools and experiences,” he said.
Saltzman also cautioned that the adoption of new technology requires changes in culture.
“It is not just about acquiring new weapons and equipment, but also about fostering a culture of continuous improvement,” he said. “We must continually evaluate how we train and educate our force so that we can prepare them to handle uncertainty, ambiguity and ‘black swan’ events.”
Saltzman mentioned the conflict in Ukraine as testament to the centrality of space in modern warfare. He also reminded the audience that “technology is not a force enabler on its own. It is about the readiness of the forces using that technology that will tip the scales toward success.”
This article originally appeared in the October 2023 issue of SpaceNews magazine.