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By Senior Airman Kaitlin Castillo
/ Published March 24, 2023
8th Combat Training Squadron graphic
In the earlier years of the space domain, space was navigated as an uncontested environment, used for communications and to obtain imagery of the Earth, with space capabilities, such as early warning or position, navigation, and timing services, viewed as support functions, benefiting warfighters on the front lines. As U.S. military operations relied more and more heavily on space capabilities, adversaries sought ways to deny them, whether through jamming or sending systems to space to negatively impact the space domain.
Today, space is a contested environment where Guardians must not only recognize threats but know how to operate through them. Changing a mindset starts with training.
“Modern military operations rely on space,” said U.S. Space Force Lt. Col. Brian Dea, commander of the 4th Space Operations Squadron, which operates wideband Military Satellite Communications systems for the U.S. Space Force. “Space is a contested environment which requires a warfighting mindset, approach and realistic training that prepares our Guardians to operate in this contested environment.”
With the fast-paced technological advances in the past few years, space is now empowering military operations, and the 8th Combat Training Squadron at Schriever Space Force Base, Colorado, is charged with directing Space Operations Command’s largest training program and developing capable Guardians within Space Delta 8 – Satellite Communications and Navigational Warfare, which comprises roughly 10% of United States Space Force personnel.
“Space is becoming more contested,” said Lt. Col. John Paek, 8 CTS commander. “Previously, we only focused on qualifying operators to operate their system. Now we are integrating threat-based training into the curriculum and our focus is not just providing technical experts, but also providing tacticians.”
The idea of readiness for space operators, according to Paek, should go beyond being an expert in their system. Readiness means being an expert as well as understanding how to operate in combat and knowing how the space capabilities operators provide fit into the larger picture of military operations.
“The mindset change is very important,” said Paek. “For a long time, we had a mindset, from a space community perspective, our mission was always important, but it was support by nature. We were providing support to the warfighters on the ground, in combat.”
The 8 CTS is focused on changing that perception and evolving their training to mold Guardians capable of operating in a contested environment. According to Paek, incorporating threat-based training communicates to operators they’re not just providing support to a warfighter, but that they must be the warfighters of their own domain.
The U.S. currently outpaces the rest of the world in space capabilities, but strategic competitors are seeking to counter those capabilities; their efforts to do so are evolving quickly. Ensuring space capabilities are always available is not solely a military concern. For example, the Global Positioning System, which is leveraged by civilians in their everyday life, is integral to financial networks, precision agriculture, critical infrastructures such as power grids, and the world economy.
“As threats to GPS continue to evolve, the urgency with which we address them increases, meaning we need savvy operators who can rapidly detect and address threats,” said Lt. Col. Robert Wray, 2nd Space Operations Squadron commander, which operates GPS for the U.S. Space Force. “The 8 CTS provides critical training, integrating intelligence and simulating joint capabilities, to not only teach our operators about adversary behaviors, but to evolve our team's mindsets about the environment in which we operate.”
Training to this new standard also requires identifying the threats to their systems operators could face. Recently, the Space Force began embedding cyber and intelligence capabilities into space deltas to help identify those threats.
“There are three parts, you have the operator, you have the system, but then you also have the threat,” said Paek. “Cyber and intel bring the threat piece. We're able to align our training to those threats, so without intel and cyber we would not be able to do combat training; we would just be stuck once again in the technician mindset versus a tactician mindset.”
Transitioning from training plans formerly limited to operational tasks and the technical aspects of space operations to plans incorporating warfighting principles, requires knowing what effects space capabilities bring to the fight and how they are used.
“We can’t just operate in a vacuum,” said Paek. “Training has specifically changed to include our Guardians contacting and coordinating with the other services and agencies, like they would need to do in wartime.”
Training and understanding requirements also require environments dedicated to training for threats operators could face during operations. Virtual environments allow space operators and those relying on space capabilities to experience what an attack might look like at all levels and how to defeat it.
“Virtual environments are going to be very important for us to effectively train our space operators,” said Paek. “Not only for us, but also for those relying on space. They need to train on what degraded space capabilities look like, how they’re affected and how they can let us know what’s happening from an end-user perspective.”
Moving forward, partnership across the other combat training squadrons will be increasingly important as they drive towards training events that integrate multiple Deltas and even across the Joint Force.
“The mindset, the culture that we are building through training with a warfighting mindset is going to be the most important piece to winning in space,” said Paek. “That means doing everything we can to train like how we fight.”
Collaboration is also an important piece to culture. 8 CTS regularly holds Ready Space Crew Advanced Training Missions, or RAMs, for DEL 8 operators. RAMs are 2-week long events that train Guardians on mission planning and execution. 8 CTS also takes part in quarterly summits during which training units and stakeholders across Space Operations Command, Space Training and Readiness Command, and Space Systems Command collaborate on various topics, such as officer and enlisted development, operational-level training integration, and increasing training pipeline efficiency.
“The mindset now amongst Guardians, is that we are not just a support entity to a warfighter,” said Paek. “We are the tip of the spear on the front lines of the space domain. It’s our responsibility to win in the space domain and achieve space superiority.”