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Pentagon, Industry Investing in Space Force Simulations
Artist’s rendering of two space situational awareness satellites
Air Force rendering
As the Space Force nears the first anniversary of its creation, the new service is continuing to build out the framework for training warfighters for a future conflict that could take place in space.
Maj. Gen. John Shaw, commander of the Combined Force Space Component at U.S. Space Command and deputy commander of the Space Force’s Space Operations Command, touted the importance of better simulators during the virtual Training and Simulation Industry Symposium, which was hosted by the National Training and Simulation Association. NTSA is an affiliate of the National Defense Industrial Association.
“We really don’t have simulators today in which to train our folks,” Shaw said. “We need to develop those and we need better modeling and simulation capabilities where we can actually model a potential conflict and fight, change the variables, conduct war games, and do this at a scale and scope that we have not really done … at this point.”
Earlier this year, the service created career tracks to train its personnel to specialize in a number of areas including: orbital warfare, space electronic warfare, space battle management, space access and sustainment, said Space Force Maj. Gen. DeAnna Burt, director of operations and communications.
Moving forward, the service is looking at how it will train students to understand weapons systems and capabilities from the inside out, she said during an interview with the Space Force Association this summer.
“We are going to get very detailed and very specific in force packaging those various tracks and how we would fight a war that could potentially expand into space,” she noted.
As the service better defines these tactics, strategies and the positions its warfighters will fill, that clarity will drive how training evolves, said Frank Backes, senior vice president for federal space-related business at Kratos Defense and Security Solutions.
“They’re still defining a lot of those components, so we’re starting to see training needs … on a program-by-program basis,” he said. “Next generation, I believe we’re going to start seeing integrated training requirements across the Space Force as a whole.”
Prior to space being designated as a warfighting domain, it was seen as a benign environment, and designing a space infrastructure to withstand conflict that would extend up into the region was not heavily prioritized, Backes said in an interview.
“Given that scenario, … the way that our military operated when they did wargaming and those types of things, it didn’t really include a lot of space capability,” he said. “Today, obviously, that has changed significantly.”
Now, the military and industry are looking at how assets are affected by threats from the ground and other spacecraft, he noted.
“Those threats could be [radio frequency] communication interference … either intentional or unintentional, or those threats could be kinetic threats where two satellites collide, or a satellite is a kinetic threat vehicle that could intentionally collide with another space asset,” he explained. There are “other types of threats as well that could impact space systems, so really what we’re trying to do now is retrain or train our new Space Force operators to understand these threats, understand how to recognize the threat and how to mitigate” them.
The company is investing in a Space Force Mission Trainer concept using virtual, augmented and mixed reality technology that it believes could be foundational to the service as it fleshes out and defines what its operators will do, he said.
Virtual reality, or VR, immerses users in a computer generated environment, such as video gaming. Augmented reality, or AR, transposes data or other digitally created images on top of a real-world field of view.
“It’s not a scripted or textbook kind of training environment. It’s an environment that really immerses you into the reality of the [situation] … and in many cases allows you to use the actual tools you would use during a warfighting scenario and train as if you were in a conflict,” he said.
The technology is currently being used by the Defense Department to train KC-46 Pegasus tanker pilots. The company also created the Marine Common Aircrew Trainer that enables servicemembers to train on three different platforms. Kratos is taking those training and simulation engines and applying that technology to scenarios relevant for space warfighters, Backes said.
“The technology is the same technology … but now we’re combining that with our other expertise we have in satellite communications and space command and control to bring a Space Force-focused capability,” he said.
The technology will allow warfighters to simulate combating threats in a contested, degraded and operationally limited space environment.
Backes described one training scenario: “Let’s say you’re trying to simulate a radio-frequency threat to the communications infrastructure of the space systems. You would want to be able to insert that threat — or a simulated version of that threat — into a live communications environment that would allow the operators to be using their actual systems and see how interference would impact their ability to do their job.”
The company has the capability to continuously alter its training environment to keep pace with evolving threats, he said. “This virtualized and dynamic approach allows you to keep changing the way that you’re doing training based on what’s happening in the real world.”
Kratos currently has contracts with the Pentagon that include training for space operators. However, they tend to be narrowly focused on particular missions, he noted. But Backes expects that trend to change as the service expands its readiness efforts.
“What we believe will occur over the next few years is a focus on the training of the entire Space Force,” he said.
Meanwhile, the new military branch has begun making small investments in training technology to teach warfighters space domain awareness.
In October, it awarded Slingshot Aerospace, a startup focused on situational awareness, a $1 million Small Business Innovation Research contract to build a training-and-simulation tool. The company received an additional $1 million in funding from ATX Venture Partners, a venture capital firm, to build the capability.
Slingshot Aerospace has been tasked with creating the Slingshot Orbital Laboratory, a web application-based platform to teach students and other professionals the fundamentals of space domain awareness, including complex astrodynamics. The aim is to provide a new and engaging way to understand and predict object relations in space and orbital scenarios, according to the company.
The first iteration of the tool will allow students “to adjust orbital elements of real or synthetic satellites in a way where they can see the objects, they can toggle on-and-off different aspects of … the physics associated with that satellite” and the orbit that it is in, said Melanie Stricklan, co-founder and chief strategy officer at the company.
“Additionally, they will be able to explore orbital and satellite parameters streaming across the interface in real time,” she said in an interview.
“The student can slow down and start up that visualization, and other students can be in looking at the same thing from different camera angles. So we’re starting out from the get-go making it simple to load, simple to use and simple to visualize from multiple perspectives with the collaborative capability behind it.”
The company is partnering with visualization studio The Third Floor to build the capability. The Third Floor has created virtual reality graphics for space-related films and shows such as The Martian, Gravity and The Mandalorian.
Slingshot will provide the space domain and data expertise while The Third Floor will be responsible for the visualization component.
“We quickly realized that they have a very distinct capability to create physics-accurate content that would make our product offering even more powerful,” Stricklan said. “The team both over at The Third Floor and within Slingshot shares their creative vision and a shared vision for the way that we innovate and engineer around these kind of complex physics-based capabilities.”
Although the Space Force contract with Slingshot runs through December 2021, the company is hoping to deliver the capability before that deadline, Stricklan said. The first prototype will be optimized for personal computers. However, the capability is being built with future augmented and virtual reality solutions in mind, she said.
The contract is a step in the right direction for the service, as it needs tools such as the Slingshot Orbital Laboratory to continuously help students deepen their understanding of astrodynamics, Stricklan said.
“Slingshot Orbital Laboratory is one of the first [organizations] to be able to really take things as complex as astrodynamics and make them so that anyone from a PhD to a GED across that type of spectrum can leverage and learn from,” she said.
While the service is beginning to make investments in these new capabilities, it will be awhile before new trainees rise high through the ranks, Burt noted. As students coming out of training are put into the follow-on tracks created for space operators, “it is going to take 10 years before those individuals are squadron commanders and squadron superintendents both officer and enlisted,” she said.
They will shape the way the service looks at its tactics, techniques and procedures, she added.
Burt said she wanted the service to continue to leverage training processes and procedures from the Air Force and move as quickly as possible.
— Additional reporting by Jon Harper