WASHINGTON — By the end of this year, the Space Force hopes to have fully transitioned from its legacy space catalog system to a modernized command and control capability — a milestone years in the making.
The service is in the process of decommissioning the Space Defense Operations Center (SPADOC), which was fielded in 1979, and replacing it with the new Space Command-and-Control (Space C2) system that will bring together operational-level C2 capabilities into one integrated system. Along with developing an enterprise infrastructure, the program will deliver applications to decision-making hubs — like the National Space Defense Center, Combined Space Operations Center and the 18th Space Control Squadron – that will help process data from ground- and space-based sensors.
The Space C2 program follows a series of SPADOC modernization attempts dating back to the 1980s. While upgrades have been fielded, most have not delivered as promised and have struggled to stay on schedule and within their original budget. The most recent effort, the Joint Space Operations Center Missions System (JMS), set out in 2009 as an incremental replacement for SPADOC. Only one of three increments was ultimately fielded, and in 2018 the Air Force stopped development on the program, which was three years behind schedule and about $139 million over budget.
Col. Rhet Turnbull, director of the Cross Mission Ground and Communication Enterprise at Space Systems Command, told C4ISRNET in a recent interview the Space C2 program has been making good progress and has, to date, delivered 11 applications to U.S. and allied coalition operations centers.
In the last year, the program has also delivered key capabilities to enable the move away from SPADOC. Still, Turnbull said the end-of-year target to decommission the system is “an aggressive schedule” and is largely contingent on the timely fielding of a new Advanced Tracking and Launch Analysis System (ATLAS) and connecting it with the service’s various space domain awareness sensors, including those that make up the Space Surveillance Network.
“Today, the Space Surveillance Network, as well as some other sensor sources, feed data into SPADOC and SPADOC processes that data to produce the space catalog,” he said. “We need to feed those same data connections into ATLAS so that ATLAS can do that same job.”
Turnbull said the team has had success making those data connections, due to an operational data platform called Warp Core, which connects the Space Force’s sensors to the Unified Data Library and other key data to the space domain awareness applications, allowing users to get the data they need at the appropriate classification level. Fielding Warp Core, which was developed by Palantir, allowed the program office to fully close out the remaining JMS capabilities in late January.
The program is also on its way to delivering the first ATLAS minimum viable capability in September, which will allow the system to receive, process and analyze sensor observation data and use it for space domain awareness. L3Harris is the prime contractor and lead integrator for ATLAS and in January was awarded a $49.7 million task order to develop and integrate the suite of command and control tools that will enable the SPADOC decommissioning.
The first ATLAS capability recently moved through what Turnbull called a “soak period,” during which the program observes the software in action to make sure it’s working as designed. He noted that the initial application is the most difficult component of ATLAS. Once it’s completed, the program will deliver additional ATLAS capabilities in the coming months.
While this year’s focus is on delivering the minimum requirements needed to replace SPADOC with the core Space C2 and space domain awareness capabilities that come through ATLAS, the program will continue to build on the ATLAS applications once that’s accomplished. Turnbull said the program has a roadmap that broadly lays out long-term Space C2 capability needs and will be informed by operator feedback and emerging requirements.
“We’ll continue to get feedback and that will then go into a prioritization process,” Turnbull said. “We now have a way to evolve with the software, to evolve with operator requirements. And we have a process that’s agile and nimble enough that as we discover what those new requirements are, we’re able to shift the program and deliver those capabilities.”
That feedback process is a feature of the program’s designation as a pathfinder for DoD’s software acquisition pathway — one of six tailored acquisition options created in 2020 as part of a major reform to the department’s acquisition system.
“It’s been sort of a two-way street where the acquisition strategy is informed by the pathway, but also some of the lessons-learned we had over the last few years as we developed the program, we fed that into the software acquisition pathway to become part of the process,” he said.
Turnbull said the biggest lesson the program learned from JMS is the importance of “robust” user feedback. Under the pathway, the program is on a schedule to deliver new capabilities every 90 days, collect feedback on those deliveries and then make adjustments based on the feedback. This process, he said, means that any operationally accepted capability has been tested by a user.
“We want to be able to incorporate that feedback and then respond very, very quickly,” he said. “We don’t want to go on developing for a long time only to find out we were developing something that users didn’t actually want.”
Space C2 users include international partners, and Turnbull said the program works to make sure the capabilities it delivers can be integrated into coalition space operations centers, which means they need to be able to work across multiple classification levels. Turnbull said Space C2 applications are used in operation centers in the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia.
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.