WASHINGTON — Tactical-level operations, including quickly replacing lost satellite capabilities and accelerating decision times for launching attacks, were emphasized in the latest space war game hosted by the U.S. Air Force, according to a service official.
The exercise, which ran Feb. 4- 11 at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, was the third in the Schriever series of space war games, which were established in recognition of the critical role satellite capabilities play in U.S. military operations.
The previous two exercises in the series focused primarily on using satellites for strategic-level decision making, said Brig. Gen. Daniel Darnell, commander of Air Force Space Command’s Space Warfare Center. Schriever 1, conducted in January 2001, highlighted U.S. dependence on satellites for that purpose; Schriever 2, held two years later, underscored the need for better-defined rules of engagement for using space-based assets.
Schriever 3 was set in the year 2020, Darnell said in a Feb. 4 interview. The table-top game featured participation from all of the military services as well as NASA, the intelligence community and the U.S. departments of Homeland Security, State, Commerce and Transportation . U.S. allies including Australia, Canada and Great Britain also participated, he said .
While most of the details of the war game remain classified, Darnell said the scenario included several conflicts cropping up in a variety of areas around the globe, including U.S. intervention to defend a nation being attacked by a neighbor, participation in United Nations peacekeeping activities and attacks against the U.S. homeland. The hypothetical adversaries were both terrorist entities and national actors, Darnell said.
One of the key themes the exercise was likely to explore was coping with the loss of U.S. satellites at the tactical level, Darnell said. If this were to happen, U.S. forces might have to replace those capabilities with small satellites launched on quick-reaction rockets, high-altitude airships and unmanned aerial vehicles, he said.
Another major focus going into the war game was exploring ways to reduce the time gap between locating an enemy target and engaging it, Darnell said. That likely will depend more on faster decision making than faster weapon delivery systems, he said.
Satellites and increased automation in information delivery systems could expedite the decision-making process by ensuring that everyone involved has access to the same information , whether they are leading troops on the battlefield or in a planning room at U.S. Central Command, Darnell said.
This has been a goal of Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. John Jumper, who has encouraged the service to develop new “machine-to-machine” interfaces to speed the targeting process, he said.
U.S. Strategic Command assumed a greater role in Schriever 3 than in the past exercises in the series, Darnell said. U.S. Space Command was folded into Strategic Command shortly before Schriever 2.
One area where Strategic Command was to be tested in its expanded role during Schriever 3 was its ability to better coordinate the use of Air Force, national-intelligence and commercial satellite capabilities during conflict, Darnell said. The previous Schriever war games indicated there is room for improvement in this area, he said.
As in the previous war games, Schriever 3 featured so-called space control operations, including the denial of satellite capabilities to U.S. adversaries, Darnell said. However, the focus was to be on temporary and reversible measures for disrupting enemy space assets, as opposed to destroying them, he said.
Darnell said it would be “foolish” not to consider disrupting satellites used by the enemy.
“But weaponizing space isn’t the focus — the focus is on how best to use space to solve challenges on the terrestrial battlefield ,” Darnell said. “We’re not focusing on space combat.”
Previous Schriever war games heightened concerns among some nations that the Air Force was moving aggressively toward turning space into a combat medium . Following the 2001 exercise, for example, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Sun Yuxi said China “expresses its deep concern over the large-scale simulated space confrontation exercise conducted by the U.S. military.”
A transcript of the official’s remarks, distributed by China’s foreign ministry, said the exercise ” once again shows that weaponization in outer space is a very pressing and real question.”
Some of those concerns may be assuaged by the focus on temporary and reversible measures in Schriever 3, said Theresa Hitchens, vice president of the Center for Defense Information, a think tank here.
However, Air Force doctrine indicates that the service has not ruled out using destructive measures to deny space-based capabilities to adversaries, she said.