WASHINGTON — Space Force officials are fleshing out the details of a future digital infrastructure for training satellite operators and testing the performance of new hardware.

Military training for operations in the space domain can only be done in virtual environments so planning the digital infrastructure has become a top priority, said Maj. Gen. Shawn Bratton, commander of the Space Training and Readiness Command, known as STARCOM.

“In space you don’t have the ability to carve out a piece of real estate for testing and training purposes, so we had to think little bit differently on how we do these activities to increase the readiness of the force but also be safe and professional in our operations in the space domain,” Bratton said May 10 at a Mitchell Institute forum.

STARCOM, based in Colorado Springs, will host an Industry Day June 22-23 to brief companies on its plans to build this infrastructure under a program called National Space Test and Training Complex.

“There are some areas where we absolutely need help from the industry,” Bratton said. 

The Space Force wants testbeds or virtualized environments that mimic the operation of satellites in orbit. In these environments, military personnel can learn how to control, maneuver and maintain satellites, and practice skills such as orbit determination, attitude control, payload operation and troubleshooting. The digital environments also would support the testing and evaluation of new satellite designs.

Chief of Space Operations Gen. B. Chance Saltzman said at a recent congressional hearing that the Space Force is requesting $340 million in its 2024 budget for an “operational testing and training infrastructure.”

“We’ve got a lot of study to do to make sure we’re building the right kind of ranges, the right kind of simulators,” Saltzman told the Senate Armed Services Committee’s strategic forces subcommittee.

At an event last month at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Saltzman voiced support for the National Space Test and Training Complex, known as NSTTC.

“We’ve got to train. We’ve got to have the ranges. We’ve got to develop our tactics, test them and simulate them,” he said. “And that means that I’ve got to build new infrastructure.”

Space Force personnel operate a spectrum analyzer during a military exercise near Peterson Space Force Base, Colorado, focused on training wideband satellite communication operators to identify and resolve interference. Credit: U.S. Air Force photo by 1st Lt. Charles Rivezzo

Saltzman wants operators to gain more advanced skills in orbital maneuvers, rendezvous and docking procedures and cybersecurity. Digital environments in the NSTTC would replicate satellites’ behavior and response to commands, and allow units to practice mission scenarios in different operational conditions.

The commander of Space Operations Command Lt. Gen. Stephen Whiting, told reporters last month at the Space Symposium that current training tools are not adequate to prepare units for a “contested” space environment where U.S. satellites could come under attack. 

Current exercises, typically tabletop discussions, are not enough to provide realistic training for operators that have to fight sophisticated threats, he said. 

More sensors needed to gather test data

Bratton said some training ranges already exist for electronic warfare. “We’ve done some live activities both on orbit as well as in the electromagnetic spectrum.”

“But the NSTTC is not a physical piece of real estate that we own,” he said. “It’s the simulated on-orbit capabilities, the ground sensors, and then the infrastructure that ties it all together for command and control and gathering data, which is particularly important for the test enterprise.”

The NSTTC will be structured with several components focused on electromagnetic warfare, orbital warfare, cyber warfare and the overarching architecture that connects it all, 

“We haven’t quite cracked the code on that completely,” Bratton said. “We have some simulation capability. I think that’s an area where we need more help. We have a vision of where we want to go broadly, but we’re going to need industry help, particularly on the testing side.”

The testing environment the Space Force envisions “will require additional sensor capability to be able to observe activities on orbit,” said Bratton. “We’ve got lots of sensors now doing space domain awareness but more will need to be dedicated for test activities,” he added. “And so I think there’s some gaps there, and we’ll walk through all that at the Industry Day.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...