Operational Imperative No. 1 (Image Credit: airandspaceforces)
Space Order of Battle
When Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall first unveiled his seven Operational Imperatives at the AFA Warfare Symposium in 2022, he said developing a resilient and effective space order of battle was “perhaps the broadest” of those seven, yet also “the one with the most potential impact.”
Within a year, Chief of Space Operations U.S. Space Force Gen. B. Chance Saltzman laid out his theory of “Competitive Endurance,” presenting his guiding principles for defining that future order of battle.
Underlying Saltzman’s competitive endurance theory is the necessity to deny adversaries first-mover advantage.
CHALLENGE: We need to protect our space capabilities, protect the services that we provide from space to our joint forces, and defeat the other side’s space capabilities, which try to do the same thing for their forces.
APPROACH: Focus on resilient space capabilities that can be protected, survive attack, degrade gracefully under attack, and be reconstituted in a reasonable time, if necessary. Develop capabilities to deny potential adversaries the ability to attack from space U.S. terrestrial assets.
“The visibility, predictability, and reconstitution timelines associated with current military space architectures favor the actor that goes on the offense first,” Saltzman said. “This is an unstable condition that works against deterring attacks on space assets. We can’t have that.”
Ever since China launched its first successful anti-satellite test in 2007, it’s been clear that “exquisite” purpose-built satellites are at risk. Gen. John E. Hyten, as head of U.S. Strategic Command in 2017, called these U.S. satellites “big, fat, juicy targets.” Saltzman’s predecessor, Gen. John W. “Jay” Raymond, acknowledged in 2022 that, though “they’re the world’s best capabilities … they’re hard to defend.”
The Space Force’s primary solution is proliferation—more satellites in more orbits. Instead of a few “juicy” targets, the Space Force will field an orbiting mesh network comprised of hundreds if not thousands of satellites, making the task of destroying such a constellation too great, too complex to even consider.
The Space Development Agency (SDA) is leading the way on this endeavor, its massive “Proliferated Warfighter Space Architecture (PWSA)” is the first application of this new approach in military space. Placing hundreds of satellites in low-Earth orbit, SDA aims to increase the number of Space Force satellites by at least four to six times by the end of the decade.
“We’ll have hundreds and hundreds of these satellites up there,” SDA Director Derek M. Tournear said April 5 at the Mitchell Institute’s Spacepower Security Forum. “It will cost more to shoot down a single satellite than it will cost to build that single satellite. We just completely changed that value equation.”
SDA launched the first of 28 planned “Tranche 0” satellites for its constellation in April, with 150 to come in Tranche 1 beginning in 2024. Tournear plans more than 250 in Tranche 2, which are projected to start launching in 2026.
Meanwhile, SDA’s rapid acquisition focus is spreading. The Space Force’s Space Systems Command (SSC) is developing a Resilient Missile Warning/Missile Tracking constellation in mid-Earth orbit with at least 36 satellites. These will be launched in phases or “epochs,” with nine spacecraft in the first round.
Frank Calvelli, assistant secretary of the Air Force for space acquisition and integration, has praised the approach and essentially codified it in his own acquisition rules.
“I think orbit diversification, getting into LEO, getting into MEO, getting into elliptical orbits, like a polar orbit or a halo orbit—even trying some crazy things on other orbits that are available—I think is really going to add a lot of resiliency,” Calvelli said in June 2022.
To cost-effectively develop a proliferated space architecture, Calvelli offers four basic strategies:
- Build smaller systems;
- Use existing technology and designs to minimize non-recurring engineering;
- Award contracts for no more than three years from start to launch; and
- Stick to fixed-price contracts to guard against price shock.
Maj. Gen. David N. Miller, director of operations at U.S. Space Command said in a June webinar that achieving perfection is no longer the objective. “There is with SDA … and I know SSC is moving toward it as well, a desire to move toward more … baseline-capable systems that don’t have to be state of the art: They can be state of the world.”
While the cost of building and launching satellites continues to decline, the Space Force is ramping up investment, spending in the years to come to meet its goals. The service is requesting a 15 percent increase in 2024 alone.
The Space Force wants $12.2 billion for PWSA satellites in the next five years, plus another $3.5 billion on MEO missile warning/missile tracking. That’s on top of a projected $9.2 billion in research, development, test, and evaluation for Next-Gen OPIR in the next five years, plus another $2.5 billion for new GPS satellites and $1.3 billion for GPS research and development.
There will be hurdles, though. In its annual review of significant Pentagon weapons programs released in May, the Government Accountability Office cautioned that SDA “faces challenges with integrating a complex system of multiple vendors and segments into a proliferated constellation of hundreds of satellites,” while the Next-Gen OPIR program has “several high-risk” components and is likely to miss its first launch date. Members of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee also noted the service’s plans have “serious shortfalls and disconnects” and proposed a $1 billion cut to USSF’s $30 billion budget request.
On the Ground
Achieving space resilience will also require work on ground systems, noted Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy John F. Plumb in February.
Securing ground stations and launch systems against cyberattack are among the most important steps that must be taken now, without delay. Saltzman has called cyber vulnerabilities the “backdoor” to the Space Force’s space systems and Lt. Gen. Stephen N. Whiting, head of Space Operations Command, has warned that “cyberspace is the soft underbelly” of the Space Force.
Calvelli wants the Space Force to “ensure ground systems and modifications are completed and ready for operations before launch of a new capability.” And Whiting noted that cybersecurity is now integrated from the start of system development. Meanwhile, Space Force Mission Defense Teams monitor the cybersecurity of the service’s systems.
On the launch front, the Space Force is steadily moving forward “tactically responsive” launch,” or the ability to rapidly send satellites into space.
The Victus Nox mission will test this capability some time in 2023. The aim is to be intentionally unclear about dates—to keep contractors guessing—and then give satellite maker Millennium Space Systems 60 hours’ notice to deliver a ready-for-launch spacecraft. Launch services provider Firefly Aerospace would then get 24 hours’ notice before the satellite must lift off.
A second tactically responsive launch mission is planned for 2024.
While resiliency has become a defining watchword for the Space Force, the order of battle envisioned by Kendall and other leaders isn’t solely defensive.
“Our terrestrial forces … cannot survive and perform their missions if our adversary’s space-based operational support systems, especially targeting systems, are allowed to operate with impunity,” Kendall said in 2022.
Counterspace systems—kinetic and nonkinetic weapons that can disrupt or destroy satellites in orbit—were long considered taboo when space was a peaceful domain, but given Chinese and Russian tests, this is no longer the case.
“It wasn’t that long ago that you couldn’t say space and offense in the same sentence together,” noted retired Lt. Gen. David A. Deptula, dean of AFA’s Mitchell Institute recently. Not anymore.
Indeed, Saltzman is already calling for “responsible counterspace campaigning,” by demonstrating U.S. capability. This is necessary, says retired Col. Charles S. Galbreath, senior resident fellow for space studies at the Mitchell Institute. He argued in a June research paper that space must be seen as more than a benign environment. “Recognizing space as a warfighting domain means any serious effort to achieve space security must include space weapons,” Galbreath wrote. “It’s oxymoronic to establish a new military service charged with protecting interests in space without arming it with the weapons it must have to accomplish its mission.”
Many of the Space Force’s counterspace efforts are hidden behind a wall of classification. In its 2024 budget request, however, the service did request $64 million in research and development and $36 million in procurement for its two acknowledged counterspace weapons, the Counter Communications System and Bounty Hunter, both of which are nonkinetic.