One More Link to the Stars: Space Training in Special Operations
By Dylan Nigh
“Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot live in a cradle forever.”
-Konstantin Tsiolkovsky 1
These words were meant to inspire the world to view space travel as an inevitability. In the same vein, those in the Special Operations Force (SOF) Enterprise must view further space integration as the inevitable next step in our evolution. The twin rise in space capabilities and strategic competition makes evident the need to leave the proverbial “cradle”. While strategic changes have been signaled or initiated at higher levels, there persists a need for one more link between SOF and Space. Units and individuals must do what they can to expand space knowledge within special operations from the ground up. This article will explore the relevant background behind this need and how action can be taken.
Rise in Space Capabilities and Knowledge
The need for integration between the two communities has only grown as we have entered what some have deemed a “second space age”. This new era has been marked by the rise of commercial space assets, the creation of space-focused defense organizations, and the widespread effort toward space education.
First, commercial companies such as SpaceX have revived development in rocketry and satellite technology, introducing breakthrough innovations like the Star Link satellite constellation. Such systems not only provide cheaper options for global SATCOM and GPS coverage, but also inspire defense counterparts to focus on smallsat and other capabilities 2. Secondly, armed forces around the globe have moved to create stand-alone units or commands dedicated to space. Alongside the US’s Space Force, Canada has just activated their 3rd Space Division 3, and Australia has established their own Defense Space Command 4.
Finally, renewed civilian interest in space has been matched by defense efforts to spread space knowledge across the force. Organizations like the Space and Missile Defense Center of Excellence (SMDCOE) have increased their course catalog, organized Mobile Training Teams (MTT) to major instillations, and offered free online training 5. These advancements come at a time when the US sees itself shifting from counterinsurgency to strategic competition, further increasing the need to focus on the space domain.
Adaptation to Strategic Competition
It should come as a surprise to no one that major changes in policy and structure are taking place within the US Military to account for the rising threat of Russia and China. What some have missed is the mention of the space domain in strategies published by every level of command across the force. This pervasive inclusion is due to the significant advancements in space made by both nations.
Russia has integrated space into their defense structure since before their creation of the world’s oldest space force in 1992, with Soviet-era satellites often being used for military surveillance. More recently, they have increased development of their GPS counterpart GLONASS and signed understandings with China regarding lunar research bases. Above all, they have posed threats in the form of antisatellite (ASAT) technology, comms jamming, and even directed energy weapons 6.
China has similarly bolstered their GPS competitor BeiDou3 with UHF messaging and 5G augmentation. Furthermore, they have broadcasted plans to reach every celestial body from the moon to Neptune in the coming decades and to operationalize a “nuclear fleet” of carrier rockets. More direct threats are also present in the form of an “unhackable” quantum satellite, tested ASAT capabilities, and even payloads designed to manipulate and surveil US satellites 7.
In the case of both nations, such threats have spurned US SOF to increasingly focus on space integration.
Increased Focus on SOF-Space Integration
The shift toward space integration has taken place across the services, with leaders such as MARSOC’s Maj. Gen. James F. Glynn and AFSOC’s Lt. Gen. James C. Slife commenting on the need to pursue further efforts in EW, cyber, and space. Lt. Gen. Jonathan P. Braga of USASOC went as far as to say SOF, space, and cyber operations comprise a “modern-day triad” 8.
It has already been multiple years since external organizations like Sofwerx began holding rapid capabilities assessments (RCA) on the intersection between EW, cyber, space, and SOF 9. These efforts match the networking performed at strategic levels within the military.
USSOCOM has recently partnered with Space Force on ridesharing payloads into orbit, considered hosting payloads on satellites owned by the likes of DARPA, and is even in talks with commercial companies to utilize constellations like Starlink or OneWeb 10. While these changes are a net positive and work to further connect SOF and space, there is still more work to be done at the tactical level.
The final link in the chain between SOF and space comes in the form of space knowledge being instilled at the tactical level of SOF units. Units can begin forming this link through the following actions: nominating positions for space enabler coding, sending personnel to space training, and encouraging individuals to pursue independent space education.
Working through the Army Space Personnel Development Office (ASPDO), units can nominate positions to be coded “space enabler”, opening them up to unique training opportunities. While this serves as a viable long-term option, even non-space positions can attend space training with the proper exception to policy (ETP) 11.
One such course that is open to non-space positions with an ETP is the Army Space Cadre Basic Course (ASCBC). This course is dedicated to instructing the wider force on the tactical aspects and applications of space capabilities, systems, and organizations 12. 10-days long and held at Peterson Space Force Base, ASCBC introduces basic concepts and connects students with units who can offer further space knowledge and capabilities.
Individuals interested in courses like ASCBC can also work toward attending a mobile training team (MTT), with courses already having been offered at instillations such as Fort Drum and Joint Base Lewis-McChord. An MTT has even been held for West Point Cadets majoring in space or geo-spatial information science 13.
Finally, those interested in expanding their space knowledge can self-develop by reviewing FM 3-14 (Army Space Operations) 14 and ASPDO’s own journal “The Purview” 15. Further self-paced online courses on subjects like orbital mechanics and EW in Space can be found on the Army Space Knowledge Management Site (ASKMS) 16.
In response to advancements in space capabilities and the rise of strategic competition, major changes have been undertaken at the strategic level of both the wider force and special operations. While these changes are necessary, there is more that can be done at the tactical level to bring SOF out of its cradle and into the space domain. Units can nominate space-coded positions, pursue formal training with organizations like SMDCOE, and even encourage self-development amongst their personnel.
Many of the most impactful shifts in the history of SOF have started from the ground up, and space could yet again prove this rule. With enough effort from enterprising individuals and units, I believe one more link can be added to the chain connecting SOF and space.
1 Tsiolkovsky, K. (2004, August 6). “Outside the Earth”. Athena Books
2 Erwin, S. (2021, December 15). U.S. military looking to build lasting relationships with commercial space industry. SpaceNews. Retrieved July 31, 2022, from https://spacenews.com/u-s-military-looking-to-build-lasting-relationships-with-commercial-space-industry/
3 Sukhdeo, M. (2022, July 29). The RCAF's newest division is established – 3 canadian space division. Vanguard. Retrieved July 31, 2022, from https://vanguardcanada.com/the-rcafs-newest-division-is-established-3-canadian-space-division%EF%BF%BC/#:~:text=The%20establishment%20of%203%20Canadian%20Space%20Division%20builds%20on%20initiatives,CAF)%20operations%20and%20daily%20activities.
4 Harrison, R. (2022, March 29). ADF establishes new Defence Space Command Branch. Spaceaustralia. Retrieved July 31, 2022, from https://spaceaustralia.com/index.php/news/adf-establishes-new-defence-space-command-branch#:~:text=As%20global%20demands%20on%20space,space%20power%20across%20the%20portfolio.
5 Space and missile defense school expands training. AUSA. (2022, March 31). Retrieved July 31, 2022, from https://www.ausa.org/news/space-and-missile-defense-school-expands-training
6 Colucci, L. (2021, July 20). Great Power Strategic Competition on Earth and in space. Great Power Strategic Competition on Earth and in Space | American Foreign Policy Council. Retrieved July 31, 2022, from https://www.afpc.org/publications/articles/great-power-strategic-competition-on-earth-and-in-space
7 Foster, M. (2022, February 28). Is escalation in space a viable option for China? Small Wars Journal. Retrieved July 31, 2022, from https://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/escalation-space-viable-option-china
8 Lopez, C. T. (2022, May 2). Parent services integration a top priority for special operations components. defense.gov. Retrieved July 31, 2022, from https://www.defense.gov/News/News-Stories/Article/Article/3016652/parent-services-integration-a-top-priority-for-special-operations-components/
9 Steele, T. (2020, May 4). SOF space, cyber space and Electromagnetic Spectrum Rapid Capabilities Assessment (RCA) event. SOFWERX Events. Retrieved July 31, 2022, from https://events.sofwerx.org/rca2/
10 Strout, N. (2020, June 7). Special Operations Command is diving into space. C4ISRNet. Retrieved July 31, 2022, from https://www.c4isrnet.com/battlefield-tech/space/2020/06/06/special-operations-command-is-diving-into-space/
11 Rognstad, A. (2022, April 4). USASDMC Audio News Story: Army Space Cadre Basic Course. DVIDS. Retrieved July 31, 2022, from https://www.dvidshub.net/audio/68854/usasdmc-audio-news-story-army-space-cadre-basic-course#:~:text=The%20ASCBC%20course%20educates%20Soldiers,Released%2004%20Apr%202022.
12 Cutshaw, J. B. (2016, February 12). SMDC conducts Space Cadre course. www.army.mil. Retrieved July 31, 2022, from https://www.army.mil/article/162361/smdc_conducts_space_cadre_course
13 Perezalemany, Robert. (2021, July 8). Pane hosts ASCBC, provides tools to understand fundamental aspects of space. westpoint.edu. Retrieved July 31, 2022, from https://www.westpoint.edu/news/academic-news/pane-hosts-ascbc-provides-tools-understand-fundamental-aspects-space
14 FM 3-14 Army Space Operations https://armypubs.army.mil/ProductMaps/PubForm/Details.aspx?PUB_ID=1008049
15 ASPDO Journal: “The Purview” https://purview.dodlive.mil/