STARCOM eyes live orbital range for testing and training, but hurdles abound

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Participants of the October 27, 2021 Coalition Virtual Flag exercise at Buckley SFB, Colorado (US Space Force photo by Senior Airman Haley N. Blevins)

WASHINGTON: Unlike other military services, the Space Force faces a key conundrum in both testing new kit and training Guardians to operate current space systems: the inability to delineate an area of ​​outer space. atmospheric for a live test range.

“This is perhaps one of the biggest technical challenges we’re working on right now,” Maj. Gen. Shawn Bratton, head of Space Training and Readiness Command (STARCOM), told reporters April 6 at the symposium. annual meeting of the Space Foundation. .

The problem, as Bratton explained, is that under international law, no nation can claim a region of space. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty prohibits claims of national sovereignty in outer space or over a celestial body such as the Moon. Thus, it is simply not possible to set up a testing and training area where, for example, live wargames could take place.

“In other areas — in the air, on the land, and at the sea — there we’re carving out real estate for ourselves,” Bratton said. For the Air Force, he noted, this includes Edwards AFB in California and Nellis AFB in Nevada “where we can fly new systems, test them and understand the capabilities. There is no sovereignty and no space and we are not at all seeking to impose this kind of model in the space domain.

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So the future National Space Test and Training Complex (NSTTC), known in Guardians slang as “the range,” will not look much like traditional test and training fields. Instead, Bratton explained, there will be a heavy reliance on using numerical and simulation models, all in the field.

Already, STARCOM is partnering with the Space Warfighting and Analysis Center (SWAC) as it builds numerical models to guide future force design across Space Force.

“We will be able to do testing in the digital space for new systems, as well as training activities,” Bratton said. “And we will use those same models that started with SWAC and kind of went through Space Systems Command and eventually STARCOM will start using those as well. This requires a shared infrastructure that allows us to pass models, and there is a technical challenge there. »

Guardian training currently takes place almost entirely in the digital realm, he said. For example, the current Space Flag series of exercises, which dates back to 2017, and the now defunct Air Force Space Command, are completely virtual – although Bratton noted that STARCOM conducted live training in electronic warfare. .

“I think there are certain activities where we would benefit from live training. And we are thinking about how to do it,” he said. “There’s a great pattern happening today at the Air Force Academy and the FalconSAT program.”

FalconSAT is a space program that allows academy cadets to build and fly a very small satellite. FalconSAT-8equipped with five small test payloads, was launched into orbit in May 2020 aboard the X-37B spaceplane.

“We’re trying to assess whether this is a good model for us to expand Space Force,” Bratton said, “where operators, whether it’s cyberspace or intelligence, can get hands-on experience before to report for their first unit operations.”

Asked by Breaking Defense when decisions might be made on how to move forward with the NSSTC, Bratton said the requirements were still being worked out.

“I think there’s a lot to think about in terms of the architecture of this range, or the NSTTC if you will, and they’re really driven by the demands of the testing community. So what systems do we expect to put in place? What is the test plan associated with this? So how can we, under the responsibility of STARCOM, build and ensure that we have the infrastructure to test these systems? ” he said.

“In a way, it was driven by acquiring new systems,” Bratton added. “But we have a group that’s currently working with SWAC and SSC, Space Systems Command, to really define that kind of base architecture.”

Additionally, Bratton noted, there is the issue of ensuring the safety of other nearby spacecraft, as well as ensuring that any live training activity in space is not confused by other spacecraft. with aggressive actions.

“It has to be done in a safe and professional way. We have to think about it,” he said. to present no uncertainty in the field.”

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