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Space Force Guardians train for conflict in Europe during large-scale exercise at Schriever Air Force Base

A U.S. Space Force Guardian in uniform. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Jessica Sanchez)
December 27, 2022

What if a U.S. satellite was hit by a cyberattack?

Guardians recently tackled the hypothetical, but possible scenario and other major potential threats to satellites that are critical for communications and navigation during the Space Force’s version of a two-week war game at Schriever Space Force Base.

The simulated space conflict pit space aggressors’ squadrons, those who study the tactics of enemy states full-time, against mostly younger guardians, brought together to hone their skills.

The Space Flag exercise, run by the 392nd Combat Training Squadron, involved 165 people, including service members from Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom, who would be allies in a real space conflict. It was the first time the regular exercise was based on a threat in Europe, where Russia would be one of the potential adversaries.

In recent months, tensions have been high in that region, with a Russian official saying in October that commercial satellites from the United States and its allies could be targeted if they were involved in the war in Ukraine, Reuters reported. Russia has also jammed satellites during the conflict and in November 2021, Russia blew up one of its own satellites, creating a dangerous debris field.

The large-scale Space Flag exercises held three times a year are meant to help prepare space guardians for the real threats they could face in the field, said Maj. Gen. Shawn Bratton, who leads the Space Training and Readiness Command.

“If there’s no surprises, we are doing it right,” Bratton said.

A strong deterrence to space conflict can also help protect commerce and navigation that relies on GPS and freedom of movement, including sending civilians to space, he said.

The simulated cyber attack that guardians faced is an example of a threat the military hasn’t seen yet, but is technically possible, said Capt. Jonathan Eng, a member of a space aggressors squadron. The cost of such an attack is also much lower than a threat posed by another satellite in orbit. If undermined by a successful cyber attack, a satellite could behave in ways operators don’t intend and the payload could be unusable, he said.

Aggressor squadrons also develop scenarios that feature aggressive satellites challenging other assets in space that help guardians practice guiding another satellite to function as deterrence, Capt. Lydell Scott said. The group also works to show what enemy states could put in orbit in the future, he said.

To help train for future conflict, Bratton said he would like to see Space Force training become more realistic because the simulations are not perfect replications of what guardians will see during a conflict.

Lt. Col. Albert Harris said a training satellite in orbit would help create more realism.

Not to say the recent simulation wasn’t challenging. The guardians are expected to struggle, particularly in the first round of the exercise that is repeated three times and changes with new tactics as it progresses, Harris said.

A participant who was honored for her work during the exercise, Capt. Eries Thompson, said Space Flag gives guardians the opportunity to learn the next level of their systems. For example, some guardians specialize in missile warning radars among many other niche areas. The simulation also provided exposure to the toll a true conflict could take on a guardian’s well being and how they need to continue to take care of themselves through conflict, said Thompson.

It also gave participants the opportunity to share expertise, said 1st Lt. Colleen O’Hara, who taught tactics she is now using with the missile warning radar system at Cape Code Air Force Station with those working on similar systems.

“We can, as a collective, be better,” she said.

By working directly with service members from Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom, the guardians learned how to communicate in an environment where some information cannot be shared to protect national security.

So were the guardians victorious in the simulation? Five participants honored for their excellent performance seemed noncommittal on that point.

“We definitely looked better,” O’Hara said.


(c) 2022 The Gazette

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