Space Force wargame challenges satellite operators to think critically

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At the Space Flag exercise, guardians perform military operations that mimic a real-world conflict

WASHINGTON — As satellites become military targets, the U.S. Space Force is training its operators to think on their feet, said officials who participated in a two-week exercise focused on space operations.

“The threats have grown in both scope and complexity over the years,” said Lt. Col. Albert Harris, commander of the Space Training and Readiness Command’s 392nd Combat Training Squadron. 

The squadron runs Space Flag, a military exercise modeled after the Air Force’s Red Flag. More than 130 members of the Space Force, Air Force, Army and Marine Corps just completed the latest Space Flag that ran from Aug. 8 through Aug. 19. Harris and other officers who participated in the exercise spoke with SpaceNews from Schriever Space Force Base, Colorado.

The wargame is fought from computer screens, a “synthetic virtual battlefield where teams figure out how they can solve hard problems in the space domain,” said Harris.

In the exercise, a “blue cell” of Space Force guardians had to provide satellite-based services like GPS navigation and communications for a simulated joint-service military operation. Meanwhile, a “red cell” of aggressors sought to disrupt those satellite services using counterspace tactics like those expected to be employed by U.S. adversaries in a conflict. 

Harris described the exercise as “advanced training for our guardians” who need to be ready to fight a real war if called upon, and ensure the joint force has access to space capabilities. 

At Space Flag, guardians get to hone their skills flying satellites, Harris noted. But as a new branch of the military, the Space Force also has to learn how to integrate with the other armed services during an actual operation, and that’s a key part of the training, he said. “The integration is what really brings home this exercise.”

Satellite operators spend most of their time “laser focused” on flying their specific systems, and during Space Flag they get to interact with other units and experience what a combat mission could look like, said Harris. “Guardians are used to maneuvering in their own sphere, and what we do is challenge them, bring them into an environment where their peers are flying other satellites or operating space radars,” and they have to react to threats in concert with their peers.

“They start talking to each other and they start to realize that their mission partner at another base really depends on their data to do their warfighting mission,” Harris added. Space Force operators “see how they’re affecting the fight and are helping their other members fight. They get to exercise decision making skills with other variables that they have to consider.”

Space Force operators are mostly a “very young crowd,” Harris said. “At Space Flag we throw all kinds of things at them … This is the first time they get exposed to the force packaging and the force integration.”

At Space Flag, said Harris, “we’re asking lieutenants and specialists to make decisions that colonels and captains, and sometimes general officers, are actually making.”

‘We’re a young force’

The director of the recent Space Flag, 1st Lt. DeShawna Moore, is the youngest officer to ever run this exercise. 

“We’re a young force, we are a critically thinking force, and we’re overall excited about  the problems that were presented during the exercise,” Moore said. 

“A lot of our players are company grade officers, captains and below,” she said. “So these players are very much at the tactical level within their units.

Moore said players were empowered to come up with different courses of action, map out options for how they would execute those actions, and present their strategy to the “space boss” who ultimately gave the go or no go, Moore said. 

The “space boss” for the last three days of the exercise was Col. Donald Brooks, head of the U.S. Army’s 1st Space Brigade. 

Brooks said he found Space Force guardians to be “technically and tactically competent, years beyond what I am used to seeing.” 

What they do at Space Flag is “train in the art and science of planning, decision making, evaluating risk to better inform the space boss,” Brooks said.

Army satellite operators who participated in the exercise focused on “how we integrate with guardians, with space electronic warfare capabilities and their planning and decision making process,” Brooks said. “For us in the Army this is a great environment to train … Space is an inherently joint warfighting domain and it’s vitally important to train and exercise as we operate in the space domain.”

Capt. Perry VanZandt, of the 57th Space Aggressor Squadron, ran the “red cell.” A graduate of the Space Force’s Supra Coder program, VanZandt developed a software tool that is now used at Space Flag to help operators understand orbital uncertainty as they track their assets in space.

“Our mission was to mimic potential adversaries and present blue forces with realistic circumstances and enemy actions that they will have to contend with in the future,” said VanZandt. The red cell at Space Flag is a small team of seven people, he said. “We try to keep ourselves as an independent cell, without having too much influence from the actual exercise planner.”

VanZandt said he could not discuss specific tactics or anti-satellite weapons he used in Space Flag. “It’s any capability that any nation might have that could affect U.S. space assets in any way that would degrade their capability.”

Space Flag players from the blue cell said one of the takeaways from the exercise was a better understanding of the value of satellites in combat operations.  

“The part that was essential to me was just to learn what everyone else is doing and how GPS can play a role in that, and how to critically think” as operations unfold, said 1st Lt. Chanler May, of the 2nd Space Operations Squadron, the unit responsible for operating the GPS constellation. 

“I don’t think I fully understood how much impact GPS has,” she said. An exercise like Space Flag brings that to light, May added. “You don’t really get to see that when you’re in your little windowless room by yourself.”

Specialist 4 Darian Jones, of the 4th Space Operations Squadron that operates military communications satellites, had a similar take. 

“The integration piece, that we keep touching on, is key,” said Jones. “We get so dug down into our foxholes and we focus on our specific mission set, but we don’t ever get the chance to come together and really look at how we all interact and come together to enable the ground fight. I think that was the biggest eye opener for everybody … to see how much impact we all have on other services. Everybody got to see how space affects the total force.”

The Space Flag that wrapped up Aug. 19 was the third of fiscal year 2022 and the 15th overall. Harris said the next two in December and April will include representatives from allied countries.