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Space Force refining range needs through ‘Black Skies’ training

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NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — As the U.S. Space Force runs its first “Black Skies” electronic warfare training event this week, the service’s growing space readiness enterprise is working to boost its digital simulation capability in time for an orbital warfare exercise next summer.

This week’s “Black Skies” event is part of a series of exercises meant to give space operators more focused training in various disciplines. Maj. Gen. Shawn Bratton, the head of Space Training and Readiness Command, said this week during the Air, Space and Cyber Conference in National Harbor, Md., the event gave Guardians an opportunity to practice satellite jamming, with a Space Force-leased commercial satellite as the target.

Beyond Black Skies, the service is planning for a “Red Skies” exercise next summer that will train Guardians for orbital warfare and a “Blue Skies” event in 2024 targeted at cyber operators. Bratton told C4ISRNET in a Sept. 19 interview at the conference that events like this are not only great for training operators, they help inform requirements and build momentum around developing new capabilities for the service’s test and training range.

The Space Force is on a path toward creating a National Space Test and Training Complex that will provide real-world and simulated infrastructure to improve how Guardians practice tactics and how the service develops and fields new capabilities. STARCOM officials briefed Chief of Space Operations Gen. Jay Raymond in early September on the vision for the range, and while Bratton declined to discuss the details, he said the work will inform the service’s fiscal 2024 budget request.

For the Black Skies exercise, STARCOM is relying mostly on the electronic warfare infrastructure that’s already part of the range. For next summer’s Red Skies, the command plans to invest in higher fidelity digital capabilities to boost its ability to replicate the space environment and make its training scenarios more realistic. That includes simulations of space weapons and the ability for more operators to participate.

STARCOM plans to draw from the Air Force’s digital capabilities and is also working with industry to see what commercial products are available to meet its needs. Bratton said while he doesn’t expect the service to roll out a product in time for Red Skies, the goal is for Guardians to have more virtual training tools available by then.

For Blue Skies, however, STARCOM wants to make significant improvements to its digital training environment. That involves creating simulated replicas of its satellites and other space systems that offer a “representative terrain” for cyber operators as well as its aggressor force, which is made up Guardians tasked with playing an adversary role in training events.

“I need a place to put them that is representative of [our] architecture,” Bratton said. “All we have today is the live systems. I can’t turn the aggressors loose on the live system, and so it’s a very limited training opportunity for our cyber defenders until I get that safer place to play.”

Along with digital infrastructure investments, Bratton said he and his team are working to determine whether the Space Force needs a dedicated fleet of “live” on-orbit test satellites that it could use to help train Guardians on how to perform basic operations with a spacecraft. He hopes to identify a “clear way ahead” by next summer.

“We’ll have a roadmap defined [that says], ‘OK, here’s what we’re going to do live, here’s what we’re going to do in the digital space and here’s what’s still going to be in the classroom or within the operational units,” Bratton said. “And we’re having a little bit of discussion in a couple of forums coming up this fall with senior leadership.”

As a possible first step on that roadmap, STARCOM is exploring a partnership with the Air Force Academy through its FalconSAT program, a fleet of small satellites the organization uses to teach cadets to design, build, test and operate spacecraft. Bratton said he’s working with the academy to see if the command can develop its own ground system and connect it to FalconSAT for training use.

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