Space Forces Are Now a Key Element of the Joint Fight 

Comprehensive Strategy Identifies Critical Role of Space-Based Information for Future Joint Force Operations 

The power of integrating space-based capabilities into Joint Force operations captivated the world during the first “space war,” the Gulf War of 1990-1991. Since then, space’s significance to military operations has only increased, accelerating through the post-9/11 era and culminating with the creation of the United States Space Force in 2019. Now, the Department of Defense’s (DOD) newest military service is solidifying its role in bringing space-based capabilities to the Joint Fight after being identified as the “Integrator” for Joint Space Requirements, as described in the 2023 Comprehensive Strategy for the Space Force

But space is not new to national security; the role of space systems in defending the nation predates even the First Gulf War.  As far back as the early days of the Cold War, satellites monitored adversary activity, warned of ballistic missile attacks and connected military forces with decision makers.  But it wasn’t until Operation Desert Storm that the role of space in Joint Force operations shifted from a strategic and defensive capability to one that supports tactical forces in all types of military operations.  

“In preparing for the Gulf War, we knew that forces were going to be operating in the desert without real navigation landmarks and needed help from this new system called GPS [Global Positioning System],” said General DT Thompson, recently retired Vice Chief of Space Operations for the U.S. Space Force and senior principal advisor at Elara Nova.  “When U.S. forces and friendly nations in the region came under Scud missile attack, we adapted our strategic missile warning system to provide tactical warning against shorter range missiles.  This was our first true understanding of what space could and should do for military operations.” 

In the decades since, the DOD has been refining and reinforcing its ability to leverage space-based capabilities. 

“That role of space in military operations came to be known as ‘Force Enhancement,’ providing threat awareness, global navigation and strike precision, and generally improving the agility and combat power of air, land and maritime forces,” General Thompson said. 

Force Enhancement in the Modern Day  

As a recent example, General Thompson points to an air campaign under Operation Odyssey Lightning as how space-based capabilities enhance Joint Force operations in the modern day.  

“In January 2017, two B-2s flew from the U.S. to strike targets in Libya, of which more than 80 separate targets were identified and developed from space,” General Thompson said. “During the 40-hour plus mission, the B-2s received updates or changed targeting information in-flight for over half of those targets via satellite; they successfully rendezvoused with tankers 15 times based on navigation and timing provided by GPS and post-strike analysis conducted from space showed every single one of those targets was hit precisely, thanks to GPS-guided munitions.  This is a quintessential example of how space enhances the combat power of the Joint Force.” 

This real-time ability to provide new information and updated threat assessments further exhibits why the role of space is growing in military operations.  

“The ability to collect information from space, then communicate it to decision makers and firing units in real-time has taken the role of space to the next level,” General Thompson said.  “This has led the Department of Defense to develop a new concept for future warfighting.”

Space in the Joint Warfighting Concept 

The need for a new warfighting concept comes at a time when technological advancements, particularly in space, accelerate alongside an escalating threat landscape from peer adversaries.  

“Envision a scenario where the United States is fighting a peer adversary in the next decade,” General Thompson said. “We are talking about simultaneous, all-domain operations across tens of thousands of square kilometers with hundreds or thousands of threats and targets on the battlefield.  A multitude of offensive and defensive fires will be in play to address all of the threats and targets simultaneously.”  

The broad scope of an all-domain future fight will require massive amounts of accurate, reliable, up-to-date information to establish an information advantage for friendly forces. 

“The fog of war will be thick,” General Thompson said. “Large numbers of friendly forces will be operating in the region and targets will maneuver and otherwise attempt to confuse our forces. The key to directing those fires is in finding the targets, identifying them as the right targets, de-conflicting fires so all aren’t firing at the same target and staying on the targets until their destruction is confirmed.”    

Space Integration Vital to JADC2 Success

To do this effectively, the DOD is establishing a real-time network that closes kill chains faster through its Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2) initiative.  

“All of the information will pass from, through and to space-based platforms to those in the air, on land, at and under the sea,” General Thompson said. “These other platforms are the tip of the spear, but they won’t be effective unless they are connected through space. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that if the U.S. Space Force does not deliver – JADC2 collapses. If JADC2 collapses, the entire Joint Warfighting Concept collapses.’” 

The 2023 Comprehensive Strategy for the Space Force, submitted to Congress last year by Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall, describes the Space Force’s role in the new warfighting concept and how it intends to build forces and Guardians to fulfill that responsibility.  

Among other things, the Strategy emphasizes the need for Space Force Components in each of the Combatant Commands.   

“The strategy acknowledges that space is integral to how the U.S. Armed Forces fight,” said General Thompson, who was still in active service when the strategy was drafted and contributed to its development. “In order to leverage space to achieve mission objectives, Combatant Commanders must first understand what space-based capabilities are at their disposal and how to use them effectively. Therefore, the Space Force has to be integrated into their Commands.” 

According to General Thompson, integrating the Space Force into Combatant Commands will be an opportunity to apply lessons learned from previous operational challenges. 

“In the past, space forces weren’t well integrated within Combatant Command planning and operations. So when space officers showed up in crisis offering capabilities – ones that could have provided significant advantage – they were often not used because those capabilities were not well understood, highly-classified and therefore, not to be shared with Allies and coalition partners. The Space Force needs to have components in the Combatant Commands to be there every day planning, preparing, operating and building trust with the Command staff, other Service Components and international partners in the region.” 

A New Approach to Space-Based Capabilities

Along with establishing Space Force Components in each Combatant Command, the Space Force has been assigned the role of Integrator of Joint Force Space Requirements in the Joint Requirements Oversight Council (JROC).  

“This is a very unique designation,” said General Thompson. “It’s the Space Force’s job to advocate for space capabilities and resourcing across the entire Joint Force and Combatant Commands. This designation ensures space-related needs of the Joint Force have an educated and authoritative voice in the most important Pentagon processes.” 

Of course, none of this has happened in a vacuum; others have been watching closely for decades.   

“Potential adversaries understand how important space is to the American way of war and are aggressively preparing to deny us use of space,” General Thompson said. “They are developing and fielding weapons to take that capability away from us. The United States Space Force and the Department of Defense now need to protect and defend those capabilities, so they can effectively operate and survive under attack.  We are faced with preparing for conflict in space.” 

This also means the DOD must find a way to better articulate the need for, and use of, counter-space capabilities.   

“There’s this reticence to talk about space superiority, offensive and defensive space control, as we do with other weapons,” General Thompson said. “While we speak vaguely about defending and protecting our space-based capabilities, we openly discuss nuclear weapons that sit on alert every day for deterrence, as well as the threats we face in cyberspace. It’s time for the nation to talk more openly and directly about what needs to be done to defend our space-based capabilities, and what we must do to deny use of space to others in conflict.” 

Space to Hold a Seat at the Joint Fight Table

While much of this is new when it comes to the space domain, it won’t be the first time a new warfighting domain has been integrated into Joint Force operations and planning. 

“The potential of air power became starkly evident in the Second World War,” General Thompson said. “Air power was vital in both a strategic and tactical sense. The Eight and Ninth Air Forces provided tremendous strategic and tactical effect in Europe; Naval Forces could not operate effectively in the Pacific without powerful carrier-based air arms. And while the United States Army had created the world’s greatest air forces during the war, it was evident the time had come for an Airman to sit at the table with Army and Maritime Force leaders as an independent voice; to integrate air power effectively into the Joint Fight.” 

Now, in the same way the U.S. Army’s air forces were the foundation of the U.S. Air Force in the 20th century, so too, the U.S. Air Force’s space forces formed the foundation of the Space Force in the 21st century.  

“Now that space is a critical warfighting domain,” General Thompson said. “It is important that a Guardian – someone who truly understands space power and how to integrate space forces into military operations – sits at the table with the rest of the Joint Chiefs, and has a voice in budgeting in the Department of Defense, and planning for the Joint Fight with Combatant Commands.” 

DOD Embracing the Emerging Role of Space

With its Comprehensive Strategy as a guiding framework, the Space Force is taking ownership of its emerging role in the Joint Fight. 

“If resourced and executed appropriately, the Comprehensive Strategy ensures we have the information advantage needed to enable the Joint Warfighting Concept and the forces that will provide space superiority – freedom of action in space when and where we need it – to win the nation’s wars,” General Thompson said.  

In his new role as a senior principal advisor at Elara Nova, General Thompson emphasizes the organization’s broad range of military experts and national security leaders as an embodiment of what integrating space into the future Joint Fight would look like.  

“Elara Nova has a powerful assembly of experts in space operations, acquisition, strategy, planning and training to understand how those capabilities can integrate in the Joint Force,” General Thompson said. “Although primarily space-focused, Elara Nova also has experts from other service domains: air, land, sea and cyberspace. Each understands the Joint Force, how it operates, plans, trains and executes, as well as the relevant emerging technologies and operating concepts. There is no other place where all of this expertise is at-hand and ready to support the utilization of space for the nation’s security.” 

Elara Nova is a global consultancy and professional services firm focused on helping businesses and government agencies maximize the strategic advantages of the space domain. Learn more at