What Does the Space Force Do? 4 Years After Its Birth, Glimpses of the Service's Mission Emerge

A U.S. Space Force 2nd Lieutenant wears the Space Force patch
A U.S. Space Force 2nd Lieutenant wears the Space Force patch in San Angelo, Texas, March 26, 2021. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Ashley Thrash)

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado -- Staring at the computer screen in an office complex not too far from Schriever and Peterson Space Force Bases, a Guardian had a rapidly diminishing timer with only eight minutes left to carefully type in the complex computer code needed to hack an enemy satellite.

The low-Earth orbit satellite, which was traveling at roughly 18,000 miles an hour, was reportedly gathering intelligence about U.S. military assets across the Midwest, Southeast, Gulf of Mexico and Eastern Seaboard on four passes -- leaving only a small contact window in which the Guardians could work to stop the enemy from collecting photos and reconnaissance.

Their plan was to slowly redirect the satellite's camera away from its intended targets by a few degrees each pass, a subtle averted gaze so as not to arouse suspicion. But if the enemy noticed any small changes, the Guardians' cover could be blown. One young specialist came up with the idea to send the operator false data, so the enemy would think it was business as usual. Then, once their mission was complete, they'd hack into the logs and erase them, hiding all traces they were even there.

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A single mistype could shut down the whole operation or, worse, blow their cover. After the eight minutes, a quiet settled into the laboratory as the contact window closed and connection with the enemy's satellite was lost. It would be another hour before another pass and a chance to inflict further damage on the enemy. In the downtime, the Guardians grabbed snacks, checked their text messages and, at one point, talked about comic book collections.

The November exercise -- a simulation put on at the nonprofit Stephenson Stellar Corporation's headquarters in Colorado Springs -- was targeting the "People's Republic of Atlantica," a "small but potent threat" that has "assumed a partnership with a great Power Competitor." The imagined scenario offered a rare glimpse into the very real approaches that Space Force Guardians could use to hack, defend, operate and control an enemy's satellite, strategies the service remains tight-lipped about as it tries to preserve a competitive edge.

On Dec. 20, the Space Force is celebrating four years as a service. The smallest military branch, with around 8,600 service members, it's shrouded in more secrecy than many of the others, leading to a seemingly perpetual question from the public: "What does the Space Force do?"

Americans can see F-35s on an Air Force base's runway. They can see Army soldiers driving Humvees and watch Navy aircraft carriers ship off to sea.

But you can't see outer space and, due to the highly classified nature of the Space Force's operations, broadcasting what it does is often not possible, especially when many Guardians work from sensitive compartmented information facilities, also known as SCIFs, on carefully guarded military installations. Those SCIFs come with special rules about access to cell phones, among other protections meant to keep information from leaking out.

"I don't talk about work, and my wife doesn't really know what I do," said one enlisted Guardian, who didn't want to be named because he wasn't authorized to speak to the media. "It helps when you work in a SCIF; you have to leave work at the door."

But the Space Force's mission statement -- "secure our Nation's interests in, from, and to space" -- is a tall order for a small force and encompasses more than just monitoring satellites, keeping an eye out for space debris, or launching the occasional rocket into the atmosphere.

It ranges from operating the global positioning system that helps billions navigate worldwide, detecting missiles being fired across the globe at a moment's notice, and protecting satellites and their networks from being attacked.

At first, the service debuted as a punch line for late-night talk shows, only exacerbated by its Star Trek-ian uniform unveiling, and faced an unclear future following President Donald Trump's one term in office. Trump had been an early proponent of the service, pushing ahead with its creation despite skepticism from lawmakers.

Since then, the service branch has outlived a Netflix comedy show of the same name, seen a historic increase in funding in 2024's annual defense policy bill, and set up commands in the Pacific, Middle East and South Korea.

The very real threats in space are growing, underscoring the important need for Guardians to prepare and train, like in the scenario set up by Stephenson Stellar, on how to defend against attacks on satellites.

"Over the past year and a half, there has been regular testing and use of reversible non-destructive capabilities, as well as a destructive test that created a debris field, jeopardizing safe operations and indicating that the domain will continue to become more contested," retired Gen. John "Jay" Raymond, the first chief of space operations for the service, wrote in a report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington D.C.-based think tank, published in April. "China and Russia are developing and integrating space capabilities that will afford them the same advantages the United States currently enjoys, placing U.S. forces at great risk."

Training to Meet the Threats

Sitting in a conference room at the Stephenson Stellar offices, six Space Force Guardians, an Air Force Academy cadet, and several civilians from other space- and cyber-focused groups watched slideshows on what tactics would work best to degrade the capabilities of an enemy satellite.

During the discussion, some tactics involved draining the enemy satellite's battery; other ideas included changing the data so that it would give false diagnostic reports to the adversary to make them believe the satellite was functioning like normal. But most of the discussions of tactics skirted around the ideas of just blatantly destroying or crashing the satellite.

Maj. Victor Beitelman, a former Army signal officer who transferred into the Space Force in 2021, participated in the training. He told Military.com that he joined the Army to be "the tip of the spear" but that takes on a different practice in space.

"Brute force is not the way that you're going to win in space," Beitelman said. "There are ways that you can deny adversaries access to space, but it comes at the cost of sacrificing everything that's on orbit. Outmaneuvering and outpacing these threats and things like that is, that's the kind of mindset that we want in the younger generation."

Workshop at Stephenson Stellar Corps Space Cyber Range laboratory
Space Force Guardians as well as civilians participate in a workshop at Stephenson Stellar Corps Space Cyber Range laboratory in Colorado Springs. (Photo courtesy of Stephenson Stellar Corporation)

One type of attack is referred to as kinetic, such as missiles to destroy a satellite ground station or a satellite itself. No country has tried this on another nation's satellite, according to CSIS, but the United States, Russia, China and India have all had success testing such attacks on their own satellites.

In 2007, China fired a ballistic missile, destroying its own satellite and creating a cloud of more than 3,000 pieces of space debris, the largest ever tracked, according to the nonprofit Secure World Foundation

These types of attacks are discouraged in the international community, in part, because of the amount of debris they cause. Picking up wreckage in space isn't possible, and the remnants of a destroyed satellite can orbit for years. There are more than 6,000 active total satellites in space and upward of 40,000 pieces of orbital debris, causing plenty of obstacles for operators.

But there are less destructive ways to interfere with satellites, such as using high-powered lasers to blind a camera. There is also a variety of methods in which an attacker could jam a satellite or, like the Guardians training in November at Stephenson Stellar were learning, types of cyberattacks.

Potential enemies have clearly demonstrated they too are developing technology and techniques to mess with satellites.

A 2021 threat report from the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence indicated that "China has ground-based lasers capable of blinding or damaging optical sensors on low-altitude satellites," CSIS said in its 2023 threat assessment report.

Russia's ongoing invasion of Ukraine has also showcased the ways it's been utilizing space for warfighting. In a major show of force in November 2021, Russia launched a missile destroying one of its own satellites, creating more than 1,500 pieces of orbital debris.

But Russia has also consistently used cyberattacks against Ukraine's ground stations and toyed with commercial airline GPS. In March 2022, Starlink -- which provides free satellite internet and communications for Ukraine -- encountered Russian satellite communications jamming attempts.

It's the competitive nature of what's going on in space, with multiple countries trying to develop technologies that could surprise potential enemies, that makes so much of the Space Force's mission classified and kept secret from the public, exacerbating the relative confusion over what Guardians do.

"If you shoot a bullet, anybody can visualize that and see what the effect is," said Master Sgt. Stephen Lescroart, an enlisted cyber intelligence Guardian.

Lescroart, however, believes that the impact of what the Space Force is doing might be greater than the immediately obvious boom from other services' weapons. "With things in the cyber realm and the space realm, there are our force multipliers that support other things, and make that force greater than it is," he said.

What the Space Force might do in response to an enemy attack is generally highly classified, but Guardians are training for a wide variety of possibilities to attack and defend against those tactics.

"Now, with space, we are at the tip of the spear, but you don't have to be in orbit to actually be directly impacting national security," Beitelman said.

Preparing to Launch

The Space Force of 2019 looked a lot different than the service preparing to take on 2024's challenges.

Kari Bingen, director of the Aerospace Security Project and a senior fellow in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Military.com that the service worked on setting up the basics for the first couple of years.

Now, especially as threats grow in Europe, the Pacific and, most recently, in the Middle East, Chief of Space Operations Gen. Chance B. Saltzman has been showcasing how the Space Force can be there to help.

"They spent the last three or four years doing organizational changes," Bingen said. "But now he's really tweaking it to posture them for combatant command and operational support, the same way that you see the other services be able to present forces and capabilities to combatant commanders who then execute warfighting operations."

In another important milestone for the service, U.S. Space Command -- the combatant command for all military operations in space -- reached full operational capability last week following a years-long political battle over whether it would be based in Colorado Springs, Colorado, or Huntsville, Alabama.

"As the command has matured, challenges to a safe, secure, stable, and sustainable space domain have significantly increased," Army Gen. James Dickinson, head of U.S. Space Command, said in a press release. "Both the People's Republic of China and the Russian Federation are fielding counter space capabilities designed to hold U.S., allied and partner space assets at risk. And North Korea and Iran are in the early stages of developing their space enterprise."

The Space Force is tasked with training and preparing Guardians to meet those challenges, which are evolving every day.

Stephenson Stellar's initiative, the Stellar Space Cyber Range, is being supported by the Air Force Research Laboratory, which awarded the group a $22.7 million contract in 2021.

The goal, Stephenson Stellar CEO and President Jeff Moulton told Military.com, is to get more funding to eventually launch four CubeSats, a type of microsatellite, into low-Earth orbit that participants in the training will be able to maneuver, hack and practice with in real time.

"You have to have that real environment to practice," Moulton said. "And no one's going to let you practice on their satellites, and that's what we were trying to do."

Training in real-world environments is becoming only more important as global tensions from adversaries such as China and Russia grow.

Just last week, China deployed its highly secretive space plane into outer space for the third time. It was just one day before the Space Force's own space plane, the comparable X-37B, was set to launch. That takeoff, organized with Elon Musk's SpaceX, has been repeatedly delayed.

Saltzman told reporters last week at the Space Force Association's Spacepower Conference that China's planned launch sent a message.

"It's no surprise that the Chinese are extremely interested in our space plane. We're extremely interested in theirs," Saltzman reportedly said. "It's probably no coincidence that they're trying to match us in the timing and sequence of this."

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article misspelled Master Sgt. Stephen Lescroart's name. It also truncated the name of the Stellar Space Cyber Range. Both have been corrected.

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