WASHINGTON — Last fall, the U.S. Space Force gave defense companies an unprecedented look at its initial plan to make missile warning satellites more resilient against potential threats from China.
The business fair was unique in a few ways. It offered industry a deeper understanding of the challenges the service expects to face over the next few decades as adversaries advance space and missile technology and test on-orbit weapons. It also paired that analysis with a roadmap of the capabilities the Space Force thinks it needs to protect against these growing threats — work the service doesn’t typically reveal until much later in the acquisition process.
Perhaps the most significant feature of that October 2021 meeting was that the models it shared with industry to show its analysis of the space environment and the counter-space threats were all digital.
Speaking at the Air and Space Force Conference in National Harbor, Md., last month, Chief of Space Operations Gen. Jay Raymond said the meeting and those models were a first step toward creating what the service calls a “digital thread,” which is essentially a virtual record of a product that continues throughout its lifecycle.
The idea, he said, is for programs to have that thread from the beginning, making it easier to define capability gaps, build a system, test it, inject into a simulated training environment and operate it over time.
“If we do this right, we can take everything from force design to requirements . . . to acquiring the capabilities and testing the capabilities and training our Guardians on those systems — all using the same digital thread,” Raymond said Sept. 20. “That’s nirvana. We’re not close to that. But we’ve taken a good step. We’ve done the digital design, we’re figuring out what that digital requirements process is, and I think it’s going to pay significant dividends for us as we move forward.”
While the thread is central to the Space Force’s vision to be the world’s first fully digital military branch, it’s only one piece. Last May, the service released a vision document that laid out its priorities in this area, which include developing a “digitally fluent” workforce, connecting its field commands in a virtual environment and ensuring that decision-making is informed by data.
Lisa Costa, the Space Force’s Chief Technology and Innovation Officer, told C4ISRNET in an interview that as the service’s leader on implementing this digital vision, her team is focused on three critical areas: creating virtual, immersive environments to train Guardians and develop systems; working with industry to procure digital infrastructure; and identifying future problem sets and capabilities to inform technology and research investments.
A ‘metaverse’ for space
For the Space Force, Costa said, the drive to be a fully digital service isn’t just about being created in the information age. Pentagon assessments show that China is quickly outpacing the U.S. in space technology development, predicting America could lose its strategic and technological edge by 2032. And as an organization that was designed to operate lean, leveraging tools and processes that have the potential to save time and resources is essential.
“It’s not just an opportunity to be a digital service,” she said. “It’s really an imperative that we’re a digital service.”
Being formed in 2019 as a data-centric organization has its perks — one of them being that the service wasn’t inherently burdened with the same deeply entrenched, siloed processes other military branches must overcome to embrace new ways of operating.
Over the last two years, the service created what Costa called the “verticals” of its organization, among them its three field commands focused on training, operations and acquisition. Now, she said, there’s a need for horizontal integration across those offices. One way to achieve that is through creating an immersive, virtual environment that can be used to connect groups, enhance training and make the process of developing and testing a system more collaborative — the Space Force’s version of the metaverse.
The concept of a metaverse as a way to integrate people and organizations in a virtual space has been popularized in the tech world by companies including Facebook parent Meta, Google and Microsoft. Costa, who publicly floated the idea of a “Spaceverse” earlier this year, said that while it may seem gimmicky, it’s actually a fairly simple way for groups to share information.
The idea translates best to training and operations, she said.
“Instead of [Guardians] experiencing their operational domain via a lot of text on a lot of different screens, we want to reduce that to one screen and have embedded, immersive visualization — taking information and allowing them to interact with the information.”
The Space Force metaverse, or Spaceverse, could also be useful for the offices that develop and buy satellites and other systems, enabling digital engineering and making it easier for the testing community to evaluate capabilities earlier in the design process.
“Those are the types of things we need to be leveraging in the Space Force so that our Guardians have reduced cognitive load and they’re able to make decisions faster,” Costa said. “Instead of experiencing their operational domain via a lot of text on a lot of different screens, we want to reduce that to one screen.”
The Space Force wants to learn from aircraft companies and the broader transportation industry who are already leaning heavily on digital ecosystems, she said. As an early step toward creating a Spaceverse, the service awarded a $25 million contract in February to California-based technology company Slingshot Aerospace to create its first digital replica of the space environment that can be used for training, wargaming.
The contract is focused on addressing some of Space Training and Readiness Command’s virtual training needs, but Costa said it could inform broader efforts to create a digital ecosystem.
The service is also reengineering its major information repository, the Unified Data Library, to make it easier to ingest and access commercial and other unclassified information. And through an effort called Supra Coders, which aims to create a cadre of software experts within the Space Force, the service has trained nearly 100 Guardians as coders and is on a path to quadruple that number by fiscal 2024.
Costa said moves like this not only develop a skilled digital team but also drive a cultural push toward allowing the workforce to help shape the virtual environment.
“[We’re] wanting to empower Guardians at the very lowest level to be able to move data, code locally through our Supra Coder program and be able to develop parts of their own immersive capability,” she said.
Building a digital infrastructure
Along with creating its virtual environment, the Space Force is eyeing investments in digital infrastructure like computing power and data storage. The service has traditionally used a “very old model” of designing satellites that perform their mission and download data to ground stations to store and process it, Costa said.
“We have a lot of assets up there that are decades old. They were never intended to have store-and-compute capability,” she said. “That’s OK. They’re old systems. But we would like to move [processing power and storage] as close to those capabilities as possible.”
There’s a growing market for on-orbit computing and storage capabilities that allow satellites to process data and make decisions faster, and Costa said the Space Force wants to leveraging industry’s investment in this area.
“I don’t really see that as an initiative that the Space Force does, or even the government does, as much as I see industry doing because they have monetization models for that,” she said. “That’s one way we can quicken the pace of decision-making.”
The service’s fiscal 2023 budget includes funding for initiatives including $155 million for a digital technology pilot program and $19 million for an effort called Digital Engineering Interconnected, Cloud-based Ecosystem, which would provide tools to support digital engineering. Funding documents don’t detail how much the Space Force intends to spend on these programs in total.
Anticipating future challenges
While the Space Force’s technology and innovation team is focused on the near-term work to build a digital service, Costa said she’s also thinking about how to “future-proof” its capabilities so they remain relevant as technology changes.
The concept behind this initiative, dubbed Space Futures, is that many of the challenges the service faces could have been mitigated by early investment in forward-leaning technology. Things like cloud computing, on-orbit servicing and a robust space industrial base may have been considered improbable or even impossible 30 years ago, Costa said. However, early awareness and planning for their potential could have helped the defense community hedge some of the technology gaps that exist today.
The Space Force has hosted four Space Futures workshops that bring together scientists from around the world with expertise in a range of disciplines, she said. That work has informed the Department of Defense’s annual report on the state of the space industrial base helps focus research at DoD’s labs.
“Look at what we have today,” Costa said. “We have a lot of very old systems that we never thought needed to talk to one another. They’re siloed. We need to be looking to the future and what the capabilities are, so that we’re building to that future vision.”
Courtney Albon is C4ISRNET’s space and emerging technology reporter. She has covered the U.S. military since 2012, with a focus on the Air Force and Space Force. She has reported on some of the Defense Department’s most significant acquisition, budget and policy challenges.