WASHINGTON — When Lt. Gen. Chance Saltzman thinks about how the Space Force will train its Guardians and test its systems in the future, he pictures an integrated, digital infrastructure.

Saltzman, the service’s deputy chief of space operations, cyber and nuclear, envisions a future testing and training enterprise where space operators can connect virtually to practice tactics and new satellites and sensors are assessed in realistic simulated environments to make sure they’re working as designed.

“We don’t really have that ability to connect those things together,” Saltzman said during a recent Defense Writers Group event. “If you think about connection of simulators, if you think about that virtual range where those simulators plug in so they’re in an operational environment so they can see each other in a virtual sense — that’s kind of the next generation of training.”

The Space Force is on a path toward creating a National Space Test and Training Complex that could make Saltzman’s vision a reality. The service released its Test Enterprise Vision in May, identifying the NSTTC as a key enabler for space system and operator readiness.

“Having a digital joint warfighting environment capability allows for real-time training exercises and enables the re-creation of events that previously could only occur in a constrained fashion during specific space exercises,” the document states. “Not only is this extremely effective in testing and training personnel, but it also leads to reduced costs and it speeds up delivery of optimal combat capabilities to the warfighter.”

But the endeavor also presents some challenges, most of which lie in creating virtual training and testing environments that realistically depict the space domain. Brig. Gen. Shawn Bratton, the head of Space Training and Readiness Command, which is leading the effort to define a baseline capability set for NSTTC, told reporters in May that building that digital infrastructure is one of his command’s biggest technical hurdles.

While the other military services have shifted some of their training and testing to virtual, or synthetic, environments, they also have robust ground-based training ranges for live exercises. But the Space Force can’t “carve out a piece of real estate” on orbit for a permanent range, Bratton said. And while some testing and training will likely be performed in space, the associated range would be temporal and the activities that could be conducted would be limited.

“There’s no sovereignty in space, and we’re not looking to impose that sort of model at all in the space domain,” Bratton said during an April 6 media briefing at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs. “We think a lot of it will be done digitally.”

The virtual challenge

A key component of an effective virtual environment is realism, and for the Space Force, that means having accurate, high-fidelity models of how spacecraft operate and maneuver on orbit as well as how conditions in space like debris, weather and adversarial threats impact those operations.

Christine Jeseritz, Lockheed Martin’s director for wargaming and nuclear command, control and communications, told C4ISRNET in a February interview that the defense industry’s shift toward using more digital engineering tools to develop and test new technology could help address some of the technical challenges of creating a realistic virtual environment. That includes investments in simulation venues and the use of digital twins to create a virtual replica of a system.

However, there’s baseline work that needs be done by the Space Force to define how realistic those digital models need to be, she said.

“What level of testing am I going to go to with this digital solution? They’re going to have to determine where that line is,” Jeseritz said. “And depending on where that line is drawn, there’s going to have to be more or less rigor in the verification that the digital environment is as identical as possible to the real environment.”

Defining that line, Bratton said, is a big part of STARCOM’s early work to determine what foundational testing and training capability needs to reside with the NSTTC. The command has tasked an operational planning team with exploring those questions and recommending baseline requirements for near-term funding.

“The question the OPT is wrestling with is, ‘What things do we need to do live and actually fly a spacecraft on orbit to be able to instrument it and gather data for test or training activities and what things can we do purely in the digital space?’” Bratton said. “That dividing line, I think, is where we’re trying to feel our way.”

Col. Eric Felt, commander of the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Space Vehicles Directorate, told C4ISRNET in February that while the Space Force has work to do in developing digital models, AFRL and Space Systems Command are taking steps to ensure the service has access to the digital engineering tools it needs to build out these models.

“We work closely with STARCOM, we have provided their technology options to them, and now they are building those out to establish the space test and training range,” Felt said. “I think it is a huge positive sign that the Space Force has recognized the need for operational and realistic testing.”

The Space Force’s emphasis on establishing itself as a “digital service” also benefits STARCOM in this area. Bratton noted that as Space Systems Command and the Space Warfighting Analysis Center develop detailed space environment and threat models to inform future space capability needs, STARCOM can use that work for its testing and training environments. The command may also conduct some initial test and training missions on orbit to gather the information it needs to support more realistic modeling.

Speaking with reporters in May during the rollout of the Space Test Vision, Vice Chief of Space Operations Gen. David Thompson explained that as the SWAC develops the models it needs to design big-picture space architectures, they’ll hand those models off to SSC, where the Space Force’s acquisition team will refine that analysis to determine what systems are needed for those architectures. STARCOM can then take that work and use it to enhance its testing and eventually its training environments.

“As you move through each step, there’s a certain level of fidelity and performance that you need out of each model that gets deeper and more extensive, all the way through the end,” Thompson said.

Space-based range

While much of the NSTTC will rely on digital testing and training capabilities, it will also include ground and space-based instrumentation, ranges and command-and-control support.

The service already operates a ground-based live electronic warfare range, the Space Test and Training Range, located at Schriever Space Force Base in Colorado, and has a portfolio of existing testing facilities and training equipment that will be part of the broader NSTTC architecture. Along with the current electronic warfare-focused range, STARCOM will also have a range dedicated to cyber testing.

To support some on-orbit test and training events, the service will likely need more instrumentation and surveillance systems to ensure the safety of the on-orbit asset and to collect data about its performance. Bratton pointed to the Space Surveillance Network, which includes radars, optical telescopes and observation satellites, as an obvious source for that, but noted that it may need more capacity to support the NSTTC mission.

“I’d say the technology exists, it’s the capacity issue of being able to do the telemetry tracking and control,” he said at Space Symposium in April. “I don’t think we’re talking large-scale here, but there probably is a little bit. Those networks are pretty full today, just with current operations, and if we increase the amount of live test, we’ll need to increase capacity there.”

The NSTTC will also need more on-orbit capability to support a space-based range, Bratton said, including spacecraft known as “witness” satellites, which would be launched to observe a test activity. Felt noted that as the service continues to field more space domain awareness satellites, which are designed to monitor activity in space, those systems could double as test assets when needed.

“If you had ubiquitous sensing of everything, everywhere, all the time and in real-time of what was on orbit, you would have your test range,” Felt said. “We haven’t reached that nirvana, but in focused areas for the on-orbit part, we know what sensors are needed.”

Funding the NSTTC

The move toward an NSSTC follows years of lawmakers, operational testers and military space officials calling for a more comprehensive approach to ensuring the readiness of space systems and their operators.

The former director of the Pentagon’s operational test and evaluation office, Robert Behler, in his 2019 annual testing report criticized DoD’s lack of a mechanism for assessing the “operational effectiveness, suitability and survivability of space-based systems in a representative environment.” Behler called for the creation of an on-orbit National Space Test and Training Range as well as more robust ground-based testing facilities, and each annual report since has called for greater investment in that infrastructure.

But how much investment is required isn’t immediately clear. Bratton told C4ISRNET in March it’s too early to make cost estimates because the operational planning team is still defining the NSTTC’s baseline requirements. He added that because those requirements will grow as technology evolves and needs change, it’s hard to pinpoint a total cost.

The Space Force’s fiscal 2023 budget request includes $71 million for the NSTTC and the planning team’s work will inform the request for fiscal 2024. Thompson told reporters in May that while he couldn’t provide details on next year’s budget request, he expects it to increase.

“I can tell you that priority and that commitment remains,” Thompson said. “And for 2024, our investment will get even larger.”

Courtney Albon is C4ISRNET's space and emerging technology reporter. She previously covered the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Space Force for Inside Defense.

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