To deter China, Space Force acquisition command focusing on networks, AI/ML and ‘dynamic’ ops

U.S. Space Force Lt. Gen. Michael A. Guetlein, Space Systems Command commander, speaks during the 7th Annual Air Force Association Schriever Space Futures Forum on Nov. 19, 2021. (U.S. Space Force photo by Staff Sgt. Luke Kitterman)

By Theresa Hitchens,
Published by Breaking Defense, 14 December 2023

“I don’t care what it takes to get after the threat. That’s really the cultural change that we’re embarking upon,” SSC head Lt. Gen. Michael Guetlein told the Space Force Association’s inaugural Spacepower conference.

ORLANDO — With a “laser focus on” getting new capabilities into the hands of operators by 2026 to counter China, Space Systems Command (SSC) is working hard to change its traditional “mindset” and “pivot toward the threat,” according to its leader, Lt. Gen. Michael Guetlein.

“I don’t care what it takes to get after the threat. That’s really the cultural change that we’re embarking upon,” he told the Space Force Association’s inaugural Spacepower conference here today.

Guetlein, who has been nominated but not yet confirmed as the next Space Force vice chief, stressed that the entire Department of the Air Force, which oversees both the Air Force and Space Force, is being transformed to “to prepare for great power competition within the next quarter.”

The fear is that the government of Chinese leader Xi Jinping may “act out of desperation” in the 2026 to 2027 timeframe to shore up its grip on power as the country faces a series of impending domestic crises.

“That’s a very plausible possibility,” he said, with the US already moving to enact a counter-strategy based on “strategic encirclement.”

“It is up to us to deter the thought of conflict with a near-peer. And that’s why it’s so critical that we change the way we fight, change the way we acquire, change the way we train, change the way we recruit,” he said.

Looking to the future, Guetlein said SSC is prioritizing several areas of work: modernizing the service’s outdated computer networks; integrating artificial intelligence and machine learning (AI/ML) into as many systems and platforms as possible; shoring up cybersecurity of space systems; and maturing technologies to underpin the new(ish) concept of dynamic space operations.

“We were going to continue to integrate and network like nobody’s business,” Guetlein said. He stressed that the Space Force’s Chief Technology and Innovation Officer (CTIO) List Costa “is tilting at everyone” inside the Pentagon to “try to figure out” how to improve the service’s various computer networks — which range from those dedicated to satellite command and control to battle management to integrating missile warning/tracking data to space domain awareness (SDA).

This is “because the networks we have today, both admin and warfighting, are not going to be what we need going into a near-peer conflict,” Guetlein said. “We’re trying to get after that.”

In particular, he said that SSC is focused on “exploiting the data we already have” in three separate “data lakes” for: overhead persistent infrared (OPIR) imagery (i.e. missile warning/tracking data); “surveillance, reconnaissance and tracking,” which is a new(ish) Space Force term for what it also calls “tactical” intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance as a way to distinguish its own mission set from that of the Intelligence Community; and SDA.

On AI/ML, Guetlein said that SSC’s “industry partners are putting AI/ML in every system that we’re building now. And it is paying huge dividends.

“It is going to be the way we fight in the future,” he added.

Cybersecurity Is ‘Our Achilles Heel’

Guetlein fretted that ensuring space systems are cyber protected remains a key challenge for the Space Force.

“We’ve got to protect and defend cyber. It’s our Achilles heel right now,” he said.

To that end, SSC hopes to issue by the end of the year a request for proposals (RFP) from industry for the Digital Bloodhound program, designed to sniff out cyberattacks against ground facilities such as satellite command and control stations, according to Col. Bryon McClain, head of SSC’s Space Domain Awareness and Combat Power Program Executive Office. Slides he presented to the Spacepower conference show that a contract worth approximately $750 million is expected to be awarded in March 2024 — a slip of several months from the original schedule presented to industry in April 2023.

Finally, Guetlein said SSC is working on figuring out how to implement dynamic space operations — that is, the Space Force’s year-old concept for space-to-space operations, both defensive and offensive, that requires things like faster maneuvering and on-orbit refueling.

“How do I get freedom of maneuver in space? How do I do on-orbit service servicing and logistics? How do I build faster response capabilities on the ground, so I can rapidly put up expendable opportunities?” he asked.

Space Force chief Gen. Chance Saltzman told reporters in a subsequent briefing that he believes dynamic space operations “is definitely going to be an operational concept that we pursue,” explaining that the goal is to allow “almost continuous maneuvering” and “constantly changing orbit.” However, he added, at this point, “it’s in the good idea phase” as service technologists try to work through the complexities involved in substantiating the operational concept.

“I would say at this juncture, think about it as our futurists — our people that are considering operational concepts that are several years down the road — this is one of the things that they’re factoring in. Either we’re going to have to deal with it for space domain awareness [because adversaries are doing it], or we’re going to take advantage of it to help preserve our capability,” he said.

Indeed, SSC just on Dec. 11 put out a request to industry for information on systems for on-orbit refueling for dynamic space operations, according to slides shown here by Brig. Gen. Kristin Panzenhagen, who leads SSC’s Program Executive Office for Assured Access to Space.

“For the industry side of the house, what we really need to understand is: 1) the state of technology,” she said. “But we also really need to understand the business case. You know, we need to understand where you have a commercially viable business case and where you need to better see the demand signal from the government, so we can figure out exactly what we’re going to use as an acquisition strategy.”

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