Making Space Operators into Space Warriors

CAVALIER AIR FORCE STATION, N.D. -- You’re sitting on shift and the power goes out. What do you do? Do you A) Wait for it to come back up, and then take no further action; B) Report it to a technician, upon return of power take no further action; C) Report it to a technician as well as Security Forces requesting them to investigate, and upon return request the technician provide all available information surrounding the power outage and the root cause?

For several years, space leadership has been trying to alter the mindset of the space community, primarily space operators. The old mindset was space is benign, and we don’t really have enemies or threats to our systems in that domain. After all, our systems are in space where there are no “traditional weapons”, and on the ground in the secure United States. As a result, anything that happened to our systems must have been an anomaly of the system or due to a natural environmental condition like a lightning storm. Worst case scenario was that a back hoe took out a power line or a maintenance technician touched the wrong piece of equipment.

Ten years ago, this mindset might have been technically right for the most part, although still misguided. That mindset was the result of a false sense of confidence and security. It prevented thinking about the future and what would be needed to combat possible threats. And now, we know better. As Gen Hyten articulated on 60 minutes, “you should be thinking right from the beginning that this is a contested environment…” It is populated with assets created and controlled by adversaries or potential adversaries. At best, it is filled with unintentional threats with the probability of doing our satellites and our nation harm. Whether it’s from unintended electromagnetic interference or a kinetic collision creating even more threatening projectiles. At worst, it is now populated with intentional threats of intelligence collection, jamming, and physical damage. In any case, we now have real threats we need to defend against and operate through. But how? What are the solutions to these threats? This is the aim of a recently renewed campaign, Space Mission Force, to shift the paradigm of the space community’s thinking and behavior.

SMF, as mentioned above, isn’t necessarily new conceptually. At its core, the aim is to make us threat oriented thinkers in a reactive and, more importantly, proactive manner. But, SMF is fundamentally different in that it lays out an entire construct of how space operators perform space operations. It’s also different in that the entire space community leadership down to the squadron commander is actively engaged and participating in effecting the change. The changes include written guidance, training constructs, and battle rhythms.

Multiplying the magnitude of the change from benign to wartime thinking is the push to innovate. Weapons officers have traditionally been relied upon to make improvements in weapon systems and operations procedures. “Regular” operators were supposed to follow the checklist. With SMF, a new mindset of innovation through weapons and tactics processes is being pushed and taught. The new expectation is that everyone is a tactician and charged with the responsibility to come up with new and better ways to employ our weapon systems. And this is vital, because it is the operators on console with the most current and solid understanding of how our systems work, or don’t work. Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work told attendees at the 2016 Space Symposium, “over the course of the next decade, you’ll see us making changes to our space capabilities, posture, and operating practices to improve their affordability, capability, agility, and resilience.” We will need all space operators to have innovative warfighting mindsets in order to maximize employment of these new capabilities and develop effective operations.

As with any cultural shift, there bounds to be push-back and resistance. Paradigm shifts are not easy and many people simply resist change. Most Airmen I talk to, however, agree with this new paradigm. They understand that we need to view the space domain and our systems from a warfighter mentality anticipating and defending against adversary threats and finding innovative ways to improve and enhance operations and procedures. It really comes down to how we implement the change. One of the keys to change management is buy-in. The way you get buy-in is to utilize people at all levels and include them in designing the change and how it is implemented. The 21 OG has definitely done this, and I’ve seen buy-in at all levels increasing the likelihood of success and a smoother transition.

Space is now a contested domain, just like the ground, sea, and air. As such, the space community can no longer afford to conduct business as usual. We need to aggressively adopt a similar mindset to our air-breathing brethren. Space Mission Force is how we will transform our space operators into a culture of innovative space warriors.