Dynamic Space Operations: A Requirement for Joint Operations

Parallax Rising 2.2 Explores On-Orbit Re-Fueling for Future Joint Force Operations

Space Systems Command recently revealed details from its Parallax Rising 2.2 tabletop exercise, which explored the emerging requirement to maneuver satellites in space. The exercise focused on developing solutions for “Dynamic Space Operations,” an operational concept advocated by retired Lieutenant General John E. Shaw. While the capacity to maneuver is not new as a warfighting concept, Parallax Rising 2.2 reflects how the Space Force is adjusting its operations approach based on an increasingly congested and hostile space domain.

“The nature of space operations is changing and we need to shift our mindset accordingly,” said Maj Gen (Ret.) Brook Leonard, senior partner at Elara Nova: The Space Consultancy. “Dynamic space operations is simply the ability to maneuver as needed across time versus being a fixed target or having limited maneuver by degree or time. We’ve seen throughout military history that maneuverability wins…it is a joint warfighting function and a principle of war.”

The Emerging Imperative to Maneuver in Space

Maneuvering in space, however, is technically challenging and currently comes at a cost of increasing future risk. Today space operators face the decision to “maneuver with future regret,” or the risk of expending too much fuel reserves during a maneuver that may restrict or compromise a satellite’s future capability to perform its mission or defend itself..

“Until now we have accepted that satellites have a pre-calculated fuel budget that doesn’t consider threat reactions or dynamic operations,” said Maj Gen (Ret.) Leonard, the former Deputy Commander and Director of Operations for the Combined Joint Task Force – Space Operations. “Our force structure is designed around satellites placed in an assigned orbit to do a very specific mission in a specific way. But now, the threat and support to joint operations dictates that we must take into account the changes in the domain, and one of those ways is to be able to expend more fuel to avoid surveillance or a threat or to perform surveillance missions across a wider set of objects or objects that can also maneuver dynamically. That means we need to build the need for maneuverability into the acquisition process…and while on-orbit refueling does increase maneuverability, it isn’t the only method we need to explore.”

A satellite may need to maneuver for a variety of reasons such as to avoid kinetic and non-kinetic threats. But evolving mission needs may also require a spacecraft to maneuver for other reasons, driving further complexity in making dynamic space operations a reality.

“Reasons to maneuver include everything from avoiding space debris and preventing enemy observation to optimizing your mission execution,” said Maj Gen (Ret.) Leonard, who previously served as the Chief of Staff for the United States Space Command. “For example, in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions, it may be better to change orbits to account for enemy or joint force maneuvers, attrition, or intelligence requirements. Maneuverability can also prevent the enemy from gaining the upper hand, whether it’s before or during a conflict.”

On-Orbit Refueling in Space

Solutions for fielding dynamic space operations capability are also numerous. An initial solution explored during the Parallax Rising 2.2 exercise is an infrastructure for re-fueling satellites. The Space Force is seeking to field re-fueling capability by 2026, and have already started contracting industry partners in this effort.

While the Space Force can apply aspects of re-fueling procedures from other domains, re-fueling a satellite on-orbit is exponentially more challenging.

“When you’re sitting in the cockpit of an F-16 or an F-35 trying to rejoin a tanker and line up your aircraft to get gas, it’s really hard even on a sunny day,” Maj Gen (Ret.) Leonard said. “Now, think of a satellite thousands of miles away with an operator who doesn’t have a very clear idea of where the tanker is exactly and how they are going to line up to get gas from it. The satellite is so far removed in time and space that we will have to rely on a lot of technology.”

But, according to Maj Gen (Ret.) Leonard, the technology already exists. It’s just up to the Space Force to harness it.

“Technologies for fixing satellites on-orbit and facilitating fuel transfers are picking up pace. There’s a history of these technologies from our experience fixing the ISS and the Hubble Space Telescope, to transferring propellant and servicing other satellites on-orbit. We just need a robust developmental cycle where we’re experimenting, even if it means failing as we go, because that’s how we make progress.”

Dynamic Solutions from Commercial Space Partners

However, orbital re-fueling may not be the only solution. In December of 2023, the Space Systems Command’s Assured Access to Space (AATS) office issued a Request for Information from industry to explore additional technologies that can enable dynamic space operations.

Consequently, the Space Force is relying on its collaborative relationship with commercial partners to field dynamic space operations capabilities. This collaboration was evident during the Parallax Rising 2.2 exercise, in which executives from the commercial space industry participated.

“When it comes to developing technology, a commercial and military relationship brings more ideas and funding in a way that accelerates development,” Maj Gen (Ret.) Leonard said. “It’s great to have industry partners thinking through the problem, because they’re the ones that are going to develop the technologies.”

The dynamic space operations requirement appears to be well-suited for a military-commercial partnership, as each partner can leverage their respective strengths: merging military “effectiveness,” with commercial “efficiency.”

“We must work through both effectiveness and efficiency, because if either one of those goes to zero – you don’t have the capability you need to accomplish your mission,” Maj Gen (Ret.) Leonard said. “So bringing those two mindsets together in a tabletop exercise such as Parallax Rising 2.2 adds more resources to the problem.”

Tabletop Exercise Explores Challenges, Opportunities

Tabletop exercises like Parallax Rising 2.2 is an opportunity for military and industry leaders to consider both potential challenges and prospective solutions.

“Parallax Rising 2.2 looked at the strategic, operational, tactical and logistical challenges,” Maj Gen (Ret.) Leonard said. “For a wargame, a tabletop exercise like Parallax Rising is a great opportunity to think through the action-reaction sequence to build a picture of not only what on-orbit refueling entails, but come up with new ideas and the comparative returns on investment.”

By incorporating industry this early in the mission requirement process, the Space Force can cultivate the strengths of its industrial base to facilitate fielding dynamic space operations.

“The technology is there and it’s only accelerating,” Gen Leonard said. “So while it’s important to map out the technologies to invest in, we also need to standardize operations. So the Space Force can make a lot of progress by focusing on development and standardization.”

As such, the Space Force must direct their attention to standardizing tactics, techniques, tools and procedures across their logistical supply chain, in order to “set the theater” for dynamic space operations.

“Standardization is the real key to our ability to go from bench stock to an on-orbit dynamic capability,” Maj Gen (Ret.) Leonard said. “Once we get things standardized, we’re more able to optimize how we build buses and integrate those buses into rockets…driving speed up and costs down gets us to dynamic operations faster. So building a standardized logistical infrastructure, we’ll enable the ground-to-space and on-orbit framework of dynamic space operations.”

Dynamic Space Operations to Facilitate the Joint Force

Fielding dynamic space operations quickly will be critical, as maneuvering military assets in space is already vital for enabling Joint Force operations.

“Space is critical to unlocking capability across all the other domains,” Maj Gen (Ret.) Leonard said. “But if space assets are non-maneuverable, it becomes an incredible liability to the joint force because it’s fixed and easily targeted. On the opposite side, if space can maneuver and execute dynamically, that unlocks even more maneuverability and agility across the joint force. It’s because space is so critical that space must be able to maneuver.”

Maneuvering satellites is just one means of achieving dynamic space operations, which ultimately aims to establish resiliency and effectivness in space-based capabilities. That’s why the Space Force is simultaneously initiating other means of ensuring resiliency and effectiveness, through programs like Tactically Responsive Space (TacRS) and the Commercial Augmentation Space Reserve (CASR).

“You can definitely maneuver without regret if you have an unlimited gas tank, but having a launch cadence of different platforms around the world that can outmatch your opponent is important, as well,” Maj Gen (Ret.) Leonard said. “The Space Force is also implementing CASR, which is similar to how the Air Force leverages commercial assets to augment and increase a surge in wartime capabilities.”

A Dynamic Partnership for National Security Space

Therefore, dynamic space operations – in addition to other programs like TacRS and CASR – reflect the broader military-commercial partnership the Space Force is cultivating.

Elara Nova is equipped to support these collaborative military and commercial efforts to establish dynamic space operations and other capabilities across the Space Force.

“Elara Nova has experts that have seen space from the very early days through its transition into a warfighting domain,” Maj Gen (Ret.) Leonard said. “From both a technological perspective to a relational and organizational perspective, the Elara Nova team has a broad background in determining and forecasting what it takes to field a capability before the competition does. So on the military side, Elara Nova is uniquely positioned to help the United States Space Force stay ahead of the pacing threat and on the commercial side, help companies stay ahead of their competitors.”

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