Why should we care about space threats? Isn’t space peaceful? Unfortunately, no.
Space is no longer a benign environment. Modern threats exist, whether they are obvious kinetic threats such as a Chinese direct ascent anti-satellite missile, or less observable and more subtle stratagems, such as close proximity maneuver operations.
China, Russia, and others are rapidly increasing their proficiency in this new warfighting domain. Moreover, the impact of these threats is growing ever more significant as modern societies, and modern warfare, increasingly depend on space-based capabilities. Whether it is loss of a space platform or a loss of service, modern cultures and their security depend on satellites.
To counter the menace, we first have to understand the threat. Classic strategy starts first with knowing your enemy and then extends to knowing yourself.
Space threats and space warfare are no different. You cannot defeat a threat if you don’t see it coming or you don’t understand what you are seeing. Is it a hostile maneuver or is it just routine station-keeping? What could you do if you did recognize the threat? How would you maneuver? Which maneuver would result in the greatest tactical advantage?
To answer these questions, training is required. Training is the lifeblood of the military and should be no different as the threat extends into space. Space operators must be trained to respond to potential threats in ways that are practiced and accurately account for their own capabilities and limitations.
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The U.S. Air Force recognizes this challenge and has started to address it. Recently Brigadier General DeAnna Burt, Director of Operations and Communications for Air Force Space Command (AFSPC), discussed numerous improvements her organization is making to better prepare operators for the space threats of tomorrow.
Key areas include increasing the scope and classification level of Undergraduate Space Training conducted at Vandenberg Air Force Base, increasing the number of coalition partners who train in U.S.-lead space exercises, such as the recent “Schriever War Games,” and potentially instituting new training courses for enlisted 1C6 space systems operators.
However, even with these initiatives, we still need better training tools. The U.S. outspends China 4:1 in space, yet China is closing the performance gap. In the age of Google and SpaceX, relying on 20 year old software and white card exercises is not a tenable strategy to defend our critical national assets.
A military cornerstone is “Train like you fight and fight as you train.” As a former Naval Flight Officer, I can attest that this is the way it is done in the air community. If I didn’t stay current, I didn’t fly — if I didn’t fly, I was back in
We had the tools to ensure we were prepared to fight: We trained in the aircraft that we fought in and our simulators were functionally, mirror images of the real aircraft. This is where we need to get in space.
AFSPC is actively studying the air, land, maritime, and cyber domains to better understand their processes for instituting operationally relevant training, developing tactics, and determining rules of engagement. Additionally, they recognize the need for better space operations simulation tools.
Artistic rendition of an Anti-Satellite intercept Image is courtesy of AGI.
Brigadier General Burt, in fact, called out simulators as the biggest issue in space operations training and exercise effectiveness today and noted that AFSPC is increasing their budgets in this area to directly address this deficiency.
The General’s concerns are reflected in many of the conversations AGI has had with customers across the market and during the exercises we have supported. Throughout these, we have identified two main challenges in the area of space exercises and training.
The first issue is the training timeline, and its impact on currency and readiness. Air Force Group Commanders are doing the best they can with the tools available, but these tools can take operators and expert contractors weeks to months of work to generate the data needed to support an exercise. This extra time costs more and leads to lower readiness levels.
If you are only training monthly instead of weekly, you can’t stay current. It also means you can’t keep up with evolving threats. Moreover, these slow tempos are not viable if you are trying to rapidly execute potential, what-if scenarios, which are critical to tactics development. Frequent and agile training and simulation capability is critical, but is currently inhibited by today’s underperforming tools and extended timelines.
The second significant challenge is accuracy. Any pilot walking into a simulator expects it to behave like the real aircraft. Yet today’s space software simulators use simplistic representations of the real thing; they often model only a portion of the catalog or of the total mission.
Typical exercises include only ten to 50 objects and often the associated ephemeris is based on an assumption of persistent sensors and perfect orbit determination. In reality, orbit determination is regularly quite imperfect, operators have to deal with up to 20,000 different background objects and sensor data is almost always noisy and sporadic. This kind of unrealistic training without real-world fidelity and difficulties leads to poor preparedness.
With these two primary challenges in mind, AGI embarked to define a test, training, exercise support tool for the modern space threat environment.
First, we determined that any viable capability required sufficient scope. It had to be able to model a majority of the regular threats and space events experienced today.
Next, it had to be realistic, employing full fidelity force modeling in a physics-based environment. Simulated objects need to move as real threats would.
Third, it had to be quick. You can’t model what-if scenarios and expect to make progress if you are waiting days or weeks between runs. We wanted to be able to create a scenario, run it, learn from it, change it, and run it again within minutes. And not for one object, but in a scenario of multiple, linked space events, intermixed with a fully representative background catalog.
To accomplish this, it had to be highly automated. Why do manually what can be automated with modern programming architectures? Additionally, it had to be operator friendly.
We envisioned a tool that didn’t require an astrodynamics Ph.D. or even a contractor to run it. We wanted something with simple interfaces and constructs to enable operators to use the tool effectively and independently.
Finally, interoperability was vital. No single tool can do it all. AGI envisioned a simulation platform that could additionally leverage an ecosystem of external tools, each with their different strengths, and bring them all together in a coherent simulated scenario.
These requirements led AGI to develop the Space Event Generator (SEG), commercial software aimed at meeting the modern space threat training challenge. SEG allows operators to rapidly create accurate, space event simulations with full 3D visualization, outputting ephemeris, sensor observations, and access in-views.
Additionally, SEG is extensible and interoperable with AGI’s complementary applications, such as STK, Space Object Threat Assessment (SOTA), and Voyager (AGI’s detailed RPO modeling tool), as well as third party applications.
AGI aims to help space operators better simulate realistic space events, better visualize the space battlefield, enable enhanced and more effective space operations exercises, and develop more in-depth tactics for space operations and reactions.