The Challenge of Joint Space Operations

The Challenge of Joint Space Operations

by Vice Admiral Brian Brown, U.S. Navy (Retired)

Washington DC (USNI) Jan 03, 2024

For the United States and its allies and partners, using space to obtain an information advantage is a key aspect of joint operations. The joint force uses space operations to understand the battlespace, exercise command and control (C2), and conduct joint integrated fires. For decades, the United States has enjoyed a significant operational advantage in space, but China is challenging that.

China has studied U.S. doctrine and tactics and has organized to counter U.S. space-based technology through a set of distributed capabilities. The United States still has the greatest global space operational capability. However, as illustrated in the 2026 scenario, China’s use of space at a regional level to gain battlespace awareness, disrupt U.S. C2, and target U.S. forces is rapidly improving-as is its ability to disrupt and degrade space operations through terrestrial and space-based means. The United States possesses some ability to counter China’s capabilities in space, but it will be a tough fight.

Battle-Management Networks

People’s Liberation Army (PLA) doctrine views modern warfare as combat between adversarial battle-management networks or “systems confrontation.” Viewed as a system-of-systems, battle-management networks perform and integrate key warfighting functions, including: C2; intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR); integrated fires; and supporting functions such as logistics and manpower. Each warfighting function requires sensing and obtaining critical data, conducting intelligent data processing to produce information, disseminating critical information for understanding and decision-making, and enabling decisions that produce effects. All this requires a diversified communications architecture that enables the network. Space remains a critical piece of this architecture for the U.S. joint force.

Targeting weak spots in key elements of functional nodes can impede a joint force commander’s ability to effectively employ the force. This strategy is apparent in the 2026 scenario across multiple warfighting areas as the PLA disrupts nodes in U.S. battle management. Space is no exception.

In 2015, the PLA significantly reorganized its force structure to counter U.S. battle-management systems. Within its Strategic Support Forces (PLASSF), the PLA created a space systems department to develop and operate space and counterspace capabilities. As a result, the PLA now possesses significant space-based ISR; positioning, navigation, and timing; and targeting capabilities, as well as terrestrial and/or space-based electromagnetic, directed energy, and kinetic counterspace capabilities, which can create uncertainty for U.S. joint force commanders and are difficult to counter. Along with increasing cyber weapons, intelligence networks, and information control, the PLA is optimizing to disrupt and degrade the U.S. and its allies’ ability to manage the battle effectively.

China’s 2026 Space Ops Campaign
Prior to opening a campaign for the reunification of Taiwan, the PLASSF likely would move significant mobile terrestrial counterspace capabilities-including electronic warfare satellite communications and GPS jammers and directed-energy and ground-based kinetic antisatellite weapons-from garrison locations to operational sites. The PLASSF also would likely maneuver some of its on-orbit counterspace weapons or jammers toward critical U.S. satellites to put pressure on U.S. space forces and create friction and uncertainty. Once the campaign begins, the PLASSF would use these counterspace systems. And, through cyber and kinetic means, it also would work to disrupt, degrade, or destroy key terrestrial U.S. C2 and space control nodes to limit the effectiveness of U.S. space assets.

In the 2026 scenario, the joint force commander would have to maneuver, posture, and fight from a very challenging position, likely at a minimum of tactical situation (TacSit) 2 (force location known, disposition unknown), but increasingly in TacSit 1 (forces located and targeted). The commander would need robust, diversified, interoperable, and self-healing ISR and C2 capabilities to rapidly understand changes in the key battlespace terrain, both physical and virtual, and respond accordingly. Smart application of artificial intelligence, machine learning, and machine-to-machine decision making with humans in the loop would be necessary to adapt to the speed of adversary action.

Key network nodes would require physical and cyber security. For space systems, this would require careful planning between U.S. Space Command (SpaceCom), Cyber Command, and the geographic combatant commander. Likewise, close collaboration and information sharing among these organizations would be necessary to develop countermeasures to degrade the PLA’s use of space and counterspace. SpaceCom, in coordination with the National Reconnaissance Office, would need to protect key elements of the space architecture, maneuver where available, and employ counterspace capabilities. Careful and detailed supporting/supported relationships would be needed to plan everything from C2 to integrated fires among combatant commanders.

U.S. commanders should expect a portion of the U.S. space-based architecture to be disrupted, degraded, or destroyed. The joint force commander would have to rely on terrestrial sources of ISR, C2, and precision, navigation, and timing or commercial and allied capabilities. Uncrewed autonomous systems-airborne, surface, and subsurface-could be effective if carefully integrated into the plan and developed in acquisition to support this role. This scenario would require every platform to be a sensor. Disciplines, such as operations security, emissions-control postures, and targeted information operations (including military deception), would be needed to gain maneuver space and surprise.

Closing Weaknesses

While this sounds daunting, the outlook is not entirely bleak. The United States and its partners and allies-including commercial space companies-have been taking a proactive approach to ensure space operations, better integrate space into joint operations, and close weaknesses in U.S. battle-management systems.

Efforts such as Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2) and subordinate services’ supporting efforts are tackling disparity and interoperability problems in tactical and operational battle-management programs within the U.S. joint force. Such efforts seek to better integrate space and terrestrial architectures, limit cyber and electromagnetic spectrum vulnerabilities, implement low probability of detection and intercept to limit countertargeting, and better harness multiple phenomenology sensing and fusion to support over-the-horizon targeting. The focus is right, but the complexity of the challenge and the independent character of the different services means the pace is too slow. Efforts to close vulnerabilities must move more quickly.

In 2019, the United States reorganized joint space capabilities into the SpaceCom and service space capabilities into the U.S. Space Force. There have been challenges in fully implementing these organizations (including internal reorganizations, manning, and basing). They have, however, benefited from efforts underway prior to their establishment.

The restructured Combined Space Operations Center at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California provides optimized space support to U.S. and allied maneuver forces. In addition, the National Space Defense Center was established at Schriever Space Force Base in Colorado to better defend critical Department of Defense (DoD), intelligence community (IC), allied, and, if needed, commercial space capabilities. These efforts have resulted in closer ties between DoD and the IC, especially in procurement and the integration/interoperability/robustness of space architectures and space defense. The Space Development Agency, which is aligned under the Space Force, is building a critical proliferated low Earth orbit architecture to support resilient battle management within the JADC2 framework. The goal is to have this system on orbit before 2028. While this program is necessary, it is needed sooner than the current program delivery date.

Commercial space assets, however, can help fill gaps and provide redundancy. This new space organizational structure is designed to take advantage of the capacity and capability of commercial space. As in many areas, commercial advances in space technology are moving faster than DoD technology, especially in communication and space domain awareness. Mature efforts such as the Commercial Integration Cell at the Combined Space Operations Center and newer efforts such as the virtual Joint Task Force Space Defense Commercial Operations cell demonstrate the power of commercial integration into DoD space operations. Continued smarter and tighter integration with commercial space companies will support a more robust battle-management capability for the joint force.

Challenges Remain

Despite progress, significant challenges remain for joint space operations, especially in the 2024-26 time frame.

The United States has limited space reconstitution capability. U.S. systems on orbit at the start of conflict are likely the only ones it will have in the fight. If China degrades or destroys space systems, the joint force will need integrated plans and tactics to fight through the loss with backups in other domains or provided by allies or commercial partners.

Because U.S. battle-management networks and space-control networks are complex, at times it is difficult to sense and fully understand outages and degradation to key space systems, both in orbit and on Earth, and across DoD (USC Title 10) and the IC (USC Title 50). While U.S. space forces have made improvements in these areas, the ability to rapidly sense malign activity within these networks or completely protect them has limits. It can be daunting for joint planners to develop a critical space asset list across all stakeholders, and even more challenging to define a defended asset list.

Like other areas of procurement, the acquisition process for space capabilities is not optimized to deliver at speed. This is compounded by the lack of timely congressional authorizations. Continuing resolutions and threats to shut down the government are enemies of effective and efficient acquisition. While there are pockets of improvement, especially in using commercial systems, the United States must be more agile in procurement.

The United States also struggles to balance classification, access, and disclosure in the space domain. Overclassification causes a joint force commander’s staff to struggle to understand the threat and/or the joint force capability, which significantly affects their ability to plan and conduct operations in and through the space domain. It also may affect the joint force commander’s ability to request necessary rules of engagement or define positive and/or combat identification criteria. On the flip side, too much transparency has the potential to expose U.S. capabilities and supports PLA “system confrontation.” It is a delicate balance that requires thoughtful policy and careful implementation.

Future Focus

To better position the joint force for a conflict such as the 2026 scenario in the short term, the United States should:

+ Continue to develop space subject matter experts, tacticians, and strategists across all services. While the Space Force exists and provides a significant capability to operate, protect, and defend the space operations area, not all members are experts in individual service space requirements, force generation, or implementation. All services need space expertise aligned to their mission areas to integrate joint space operations into joint operational plans and operations.

Within the naval services, the Navy implemented the maritime space officer (1870) designator in 2021 and the Marine Corps implemented the maritime space officer (1706) military occupational specialty within information maneuver in 2022. These new designators/MOSs will deliver needed service-focused space expertise similar to the Army FA40 space operations officers. Rotating these service-experienced experts from service operational staffs to SpaceCom will inform SpaceCom of service needs and service operational staffs of SpaceCom capabilities. SpaceCom, as the supporting and/or supported commander, in turn must effectively align the Space Force and service space expertise to other combatant commanders to support integrated operational planning, maneuver, and fires. Such rotation needs to be focused in strategy, plans, and policy (J5), operations/future operations (J3/J35), and operations/information operations (J3/J39).

+ Review and improve strategy, operational plans, and tactics to counter PLA “system confrontation.” Beyond kinetic power projection and communications, such planning requires better integration of space, cyber, and electromagnetic spectrum operations. Are U.S. forces optimized to disrupt, degrade, or destroy the key nodes of the enemy’s battle management network? Do they understand it fully? Often, this is nonlinear and difficult. Artificial intelligence, machine learning, model-based systems engineering, and digital twins are tools that can assist.

Through JADC2, the United States should improve service and IC interoperability in a connected and protected space, terrestrial, and subsea architecture to exchange data, conduct ISR, C2 forces, and provide targeting solutions.

+ Better align or potentially merge SpaceCom with the Space Operations Command (SpOC). With the standup of SpaceCom, all service space forces were aligned under the Space Force and out of the other services. Under global force management, SpaceCom is assigned all space forces organized, trained, and equipped by SpOC. Because a single service (Space Force) now supports a single warfighting area, DoD should consider if there is a need for a separate combatant command. The SpOC could possibly provide and integrate space capabilities to all combatant commands under a single commander with both a service and joint staff. The Space Force already plays the lead role in both service and joint force requirements, so this could be a more effective and efficient way to generate the force and manage supporting/supported relationships between combatant commanders and reduce competition between staffs. There are arguments for and against such a construct, but it warrants review.

Today, both SpaceCom (through an embedded element) and the Space Force (through a general officer-level command in theater) support the same combatant commander in the Pacific. The leads of each unit report to the commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, but also report to either the commander of SpaceCom or the Chief of Space Operations. From the outside, this construct seems confusing and creates ambiguity about who really advises the theater combatant commander regarding space operations.

+ Continue to eliminate Title 10 and Title 50 barriers in space operations, especially in information sharing and unity of command during a conflict. The implementation of the National Space Defense Center and follow-on Joint Task Force-Space Defense are improving information flow, operational maneuver, and coordinated defense between Title 10 and Title 50 space forces. These efforts are a good start and should be furthered.

+ Continue to integrate allies and commercial partners in space operational planning and operations, but at a faster rate and across the spectrum of operations, including space defense. There has been progress with allies here, especially among the Five Eyes partners, including combined operations on watch floors and exercises at cleared levels. NATO allies and Japan and South Korea and commercial partners should be included to the extent possible to improve resilience among all the countries that could play a part against China’s campaign to seize Taiwan.

+ Congress must deliver appropriations and authorizations ahead of the fiscal year. Continuing resolutions and budget uncertainty are the enemy of effective and timely procurement in all warfare areas. Space forces-including manpower and new technology, on Earth and on orbit-are key to the entire joint force in this scenario. All those capabilities must be better aligned to support other service capabilities as well. Therefore, on-time authorizations and appropriation, as well as flexible above-threshold reprogramming policies, will be required.

The United States, along with its allies and partners, faces significant challenges in a regional and potentially global conflict with China as outlined in the 2026 scenario. Space is a key enabler for U.S. forces. China knows this and has built weapons and jammers to reduce the “high ground” advantage the United States possesses. There are key technologies, partnerships, and command relationships that can make U.S. space systems more resilient for this fight. Probably the most important factor is the ingenuity of the people who build, launch, maintain, and manage space systems. Breaking down obstacles and unleashing their talent will be key to victory.

This article was originally published at U.S. Naval Institute

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