Earlier this month, the Government Satellite Report had the opportunity to attend the SATELLITE 2017 Conference and Expo, which is truly one of the largest and most influential satellite showcases of the year. The conference brings together satellite executives, aerospace thought leaders and end users – including government and military satellite decision makers – to discuss advancements in satellite technology and share best practices.
However, even with a solid list of speakers and attendees, one of the most interesting and telling quotes I heard at this year’s SATELLITE Conference was spoken by someone that may not have even been in attendance – Tech Sergeant Justin Perran of the United States Air Force.
TSgt Perran is a Joint Tactical Air Controller, a position which requires him to utilize satellite capabilities to ensure that the actions of fixed and rotary wing support aircraft are as precise as possible. As Maj. Gen. David D. Thompson, the Vice Commander of Air Force Space Command, explained, “[TSgt Perran’s] job – in essence – is to be a scheduler. He schedules meetings between our enemies and American firepower. And he does it continuously. He is the most lethal person on a battlefield.”
I can only speculate about TSgt Perran’s whereabouts during SATELLITE 2017 because I never came face-to-face with him, or bumped into him. He wasn’t a keynote speaker or – as far as I can tell – even a panelist during the event. But he was the star of a video package that was aired when Gen. Thompson got up to speak, and what he said in that video perfectly and beautifully encapsulated everything those listening will ever need to know about the importance of satellite to today’s modern warfighter.
Speaking about GPS and satellite capabilities, TSgt Perran said, “No, I don’t want to be in a fair fight. The advantage is that America’s military is so well trained and equipped that even if you took everything away, we’re still better than [our potential adversaries]. But, when you add all of the capabilities that we have, and add all of the technology, and you get me down to that five minute window, that’s absolutely what I’m going to prefer. That’s because we’re going to win that fight and we’re going to win it so fast that you’re not even going to know what happened. All of my guys are going to be safe and you’re not going to send anymore because you know you’re just going to lose them.”
That’s the kind of confidence that Maj. Gen. Thompson is looking to instill in the warfighter, which he refers to as his, “customer.” And that confidence comes from ensuring that space capabilities are there when they’re needed for the soldiers in theater. According to the General, “It’s our job to ensure that those capabilities are there, on time every single time.”
But Maj. Gen. Thompson’s job – and the job of everyone in Air Force Space Command – is only getting harder. Ensuring space capabilities for the warfighter isn’t as easy as it was in the past, when space was an uncontested domain that could be utilized to the advantage of the United States and few others.
Today, the space domain is changing, and that change was very well articulated by Maj. Gen. Thompson, when he said, “Our adversaries have been watching as well and they recognize now what space does for the American way of war – the precision, the lethality and the effectiveness – and they’ve decided that it’s time to take that advantage away from the United States. It’s only recently that it’s become obvious – not just to us but to the rest of the world – that others intend to deny us that capability in the future.”
This shifting and changing threat environment in space is forcing the Air Force and Department of Defense to make changes as well – both to how they operate in space, and how they construct their satellite architecture and infrastructure.
When it comes to operations and the command and control of space assets, the Air Force is fundamentally reevaluating the role of its airmen and examining what their highest priority and highest value tasks should be. In the past, this included the actual management and command of spacecraft in orbit, but there seems to a shift in that mindset.As Robert Tarleton, Jr., the Director of the MILSATCOM Systems Directorate, Space and Missile Systems Center, Air Force Space Command discussed in a previous post on the Government Satellite Report, there is an RFP about to be released that would position industry partners and contractors to take over the command and control of the military’s WGS and DSCS satellite constellation. This step would free up existing airmen to focus on the higher value tasks increasing space situational awareness, understanding the threat environment and actually countering adversary attacks on space assets.
This shift in responsibility was well illustrated by Maj. Gen. Thompson, when he said the following:
“For years we have been focused on keeping the trains running on time. Our job now is to understand the threat environment and be able to react to it, and – in order to do that in this current environment – we will not get more uniformed or civilian airmen to do that. So, we’re going to increasingly look at the ability to bring commercial and contract operators online to do the routine day-to-day flying and operations for our satellite constellations while we focus on what we are truly commissioned and designed to do, which is fight [adversaries] through a contested environment.”
The other change involves how the military builds its space architecture. The increasingly contested space domain means that operational resiliency is essential to ensure space capabilities aren’t compromised. By distributing and proliferating systems across additional satellites – including those of allied nations and commercial partners – the military can ensure that an attack on any single satellite no longer impacts service delivery.
According to Maj. Gen. Thompson, “A diversity of options that are space based…will also make for more resilient architecture….Increasing the distribution of [systems] in the SATCOM world and the diversity across bands, across capabilities – both military and commercial – will help us increase the resiliency of those systems as well.”
To accomplish this diversity and increase resiliency, the General proposed increased use of COMSATCOM services, as well closer partnerships with the COMSATCOM industry. Maj. Gen. Thompson suggested that the military look to the COMSATCOM industry for innovative ideas and solutions to the military’s problems. He also discussed a consortium of commercial and industry partners that work together, as well as compete, to come up with innovative new satellite technologies and solutions for the military.
According to Maj. Gen. Thompson, the Air Force needs to, “…recognize the commercial capabilities that are out there…also the commercial ideas for how to operate and field systems and deliver capabilities to our customers.”
To learn more about the shifting role of the COMSATCOM in military operations, click the following links: