ORLANDO — Space Training and Readiness Command knew it had a difficult road ahead.
When it began its work in earnest in August 2021, the Space Force’s new training branch was immediately faced with pulling together scattered pieces of the Pentagon’s nearly 80-year-old military space enterprise into a singular training hub.
STARCOM boss Maj. Gen. Shawn Bratton spent that first year hashing out how to bring people into the service, whether as a new recruit or from elsewhere in the military.
Now Space Force guardians need to get good at their jobs.
In its second year, STARCOM is turning to the problem of specialized training: what skills to teach and how to provide them — and how to make it better than before, when space training fell under the Air Force.
That’s raised a flood of new questions: How should the Space Force measure the readiness of its troops? What training is best done virtually, and what should remain in the real world? How does the service build a high-tech National Space Test and Training Complex that can keep up?
“We own spacecraft we can fly … but that traditionally never happened until you showed up in your operational unit,” Bratton said Tuesday at the annual Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation and Education Conference here.
“I think we’re considering now moving the needle back into training with live operations, but I don’t know how to measure the value of training that’s done live, actual sorties on a spacecraft, versus training that’s done in the simulator,” he added.
That need for real-world practice reflects an increasingly offensive posture among military space units and a growing awareness of the cyber and physical threats their systems face.
For example, Bratton said live training could add new depth for guardians practicing to fend off attacks on orbiting satellites — without being there in person.
“You can go to sea, you can put the aircraft in the air … but unless you’re one of just a handful that becomes an astronaut, no guardian is ever going to go into the domain,” Bratton said.
To better understand the Space Force’s options, Bratton visited an organization that’s prepared people to work in the cosmos for decades: NASA.
There, he was struck by what sustained investment in detailed, modern virtual training can accomplish.
“When you talk to an astronaut, he’s like, ‘The first time I dock at the [International Space Station] is the first time I’m flying in that … vehicle,’” Bratton said. “The infrastructure they built and the dedication to training and the ability to replicate, even down to the smallest detail, what happens when you’re in the capsule, shows the dedication of that organization to training.”
The Defense Department needs to stop shortchanging training to fund other programs instead, he said: “We have to stop giving that away.”
Guardians must also learn to work as a team to fly their GPS satellites and manage their missile-tracking radars. So, Bratton is looking to the sea rather than the stars.
“I think we need to really, probably, go spend some time with the Navy,” he said, likening the situation to working on a ship. “How do you train as a crew that operates a single vehicle or, in our case, a constellation of spacecraft? … None of our spacecraft are operated by a single individual.”
Space, cyber and intel specialists handle those spacecraft together, he said, but they don’t train as a team until later in the process. Starting that training earlier could make units more cohesive and responsive when they get to a real ops floor.
Simulators that let those teams work together in the digital realm, regardless of their job or where they sit, would move that forward as well, he said.
That’s one goal for the National Space Test and Training Center that’s now in the works. Setting up the infrastructure for such a massive endeavor is among STARCOM’s greatest technical challenges, Bratton said.
Despite the Space Force’s fledgling reputation as the most digital-forward military service, Bratton still isn’t sold on how some of the most buzzy technologies could help train guardians.
“I haven’t seen an implementation of it that I can point to and say, ‘That’s the thing that we need,’” he said of artificial intelligence. “I’ve seen a lot of ideas of what could be realized with AI, but … it’s not quite mature enough in implementation.”
And though he’s pushing for cutting-edge simulation tech, he’s conscious of its limits for uses like large-scale, joint combat exercises.
Bratton’s team will hash out those details as the Department of the Air Force decides on a permanent home for STARCOM. He’d also like Congress to pass overdue federal spending legislation so the Space Force’s work can move forward.
“[Fiscal] ‘23 is the first budget year for STARCOM. Everything’s a new start for me,” he said of programs that are on hold without initial funding. “It really is painful in these early years for the Space Force.”
Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.