The Elara Edge: Expert Insights on Space Security 

Episode 10: Space Force a Key ‘Integrator’ in the Joint Fight

Host: Scott King 

Subject Matter Expert: Elara Nova Senior Principal Advisor, General “DT” Thompson 

00:02 – 01:34 

The influential power of space-based capabilities in Joint Force operations first captivated the world during the Gulf War of 1990-1991 – commonly recognized as the first “space war.” Since then, the significance of space to military operations has only accelerated through the post-9/11 era and led to the creation of the United States Space Force in 2019.  

Now, in the recently released Comprehensive Strategy for the United States Space Force, the DOD’s newest military service outlines the role space-based capabilities serve in the Joint Fight.  

Welcome to “The Elara Edge: Expert Insights on Space Security.” I’m your host – Scott King. Today’s episode is the first of three installments of a Special Edition Series marking the first anniversary of Elara Nova as an emerging leader in national security space. 

Today’s guest is retired General DT Thompson – senior principal advisor at Elara Nova: The Space Consultancy. General Thompson previously served as the Vice Chief of Space Operations for the United States Space Force, where he was responsible for assisting the Chief of Space Operations in organizing, training and equipping space forces in the United States and overseas. 

General Thompson, thank you for joining me today at The Elara Edge. I understand you were still serving as the Vice Chief of Space Operations when the Comprehensive Strategy for the Space Force was written – what does it say about the Space Force and its emerging role within the DOD and the Joint Fight?

01:35 – 02:32 

The document itself really says three things. The first thing it says is, is this acknowledgment that space is integral to how the U.S. Armed Forces fight today and how we are going to fight in the future.  

The second thing it says is potential adversaries understand how important space is to the American way of war and are aggressively preparing to deny us the use of space in conflict and that we have the responsibility to prevent them from doing that. 

And then the third thing it says is adversaries are learning from us in a second way – and they’re developing space capabilities and space forces of their own to apply to their military operations. And we, the United States Space Force and the Department of Defense, are going to need to be prepared to deny their use of space in conflict. 

Those are the three main things that the strategy says we will need to do. And then talks a little more detail about how we’ll do that. 

02:33 – 02:43 

Thank you, sir, for providing that additional context.  

So can you share why it’s important for the Space Force to integrate with the rest of the Joint Force – particularly as it is still standing up as the newest military service?  

02:44 – 04:25 

It’s important to ensure that we’re integrated because the Joint Force is the way America’s Armed Forces fight. We fight as a Joint Force. The Combatant Commands to do the fighting. 

The services prepare those forces and provide them to the Combatant Commanders to fight. And really a key to doing this is every service has to be there in every Combatant Command, every single day where they do planning, where they do training, where they do exercising, and where they do a whole host of activities to prepare and ultimately operate in the Joint Force. 

You just can’t show up on day one of a war and say, ‘Hey, we’re here. We’ve got a lot of great capabilities. We’re here to help. Let’s go.’ That trust and confidence, and understanding that is developed over months, weeks, years of planning together, operating together, preparing together is what makes the Joint Force so effective.  

In fact, there are examples in the past where when space forces and space capabilities weren’t deeply integrated with Combatant Commands, space officers showed up in conflicts with capabilities, capabilities that could have helped, that were highly classified and therefore, not shared. 

And the response of Joint Force Commanders were, ‘Thanks. Where were you weeks, months, and years ago when we were preparing to do this? You can’t help me today.’ And so that’s why we need to be there every single day in planning, in preparation, in training and in exercising so that when we operate, especially when we are operating in conflict, we truly are an integral part of the Joint Force. 

04:26 – 04:44 

Sir, you mentioned something interesting there in that the highly classified nature of space-based capabilities can be somewhat of a limiting factor for Combatant Commands. So what makes it so difficult to be a little bit more transparent about our needs and capabilities in the space domain? Is there a parallel between talking about space and say, our nuclear posture?  

04:45 – 06:23 

No, actually there isn’t and that’s what I would advocate for. 

Now, we’ll talk about the ability to collect intelligence, to do surveillance and reconnaissance from space, the ability to communicate, to provide indications and warning, to do positioning, navigation and timing what we would call GPS. We talk about those all pretty openly. There’s this reticence to talk about space superiority, offensive and defensive space control. 

In the case of nuclear weapons, we talk about the forces we have. We talk about the need for deterrence. We talk about the fact that while nuclear weapons sit on alert and are used for deterrence every single day, the reason they are is so that we never use them in a more direct sense, the way they’ve been used only twice in the past. 

That’s why they exist today. We talk about tremendous capabilities, the threats we face in cyberspace. We talk about threats that we face in the air. When we get to the point of talking about capabilities, sensitive capabilities, now what they can do and can’t do, and what their vulnerabilities might be. That’s when you move into the classified area and those discussions are limited. 

But what we need to be able to do is talk about strategy, operating concepts, the sorts of things we might do or might not do in a more specific, but also general sense without talking necessarily about specifics of what capabilities might be out there. And that’s where I think we do ourselves a disservice, is we won’t have those conversations. Even though our adversaries are fielding offensive weapons and we need to talk about how to protect ourselves in that regard. 

06:24 – 06:32 

And, sir, from your perspective – what has been the historical role of space across military operations? How has that role evolved over time? 

06:33 – 09:13 

Yeah. So the historical role of space in military operations is one that we used to call ‘Force Enhancement,’ which really means enhancing the combat power of air, land and maritime forces, ensuring that those forces could navigate the globe with confidence, that they could strike with precision and agility, that they understood the environmental conditions that they would be operating in, and that they had the information that they needed in order to conduct those operations. 

You know, the early decades of the space age – space and the use of space was really a strategic asset. Intelligence collected from space was shared primarily with our national leaders and strategic leaders. Communications were done for strategic purposes between national leaders with nuclear forces. We used, for example, our missile warning capabilities to protect the United States from nuclear attack.  In the early days, the capabilities were usually used for national and strategic purposes.

The turning point for that primarily, although there are intervening steps over the years. The big change started with the first Gulf War in 1990-1991, and it was really driven by Iraq’s Scud attack on military forces, which really drove space forces to, in real-time, adapt the missile warning enterprise from a strategic national capability to support our Joint Forces. And as we increased communications with forces on the battlefield and as we understood that maneuver forces were going to be operating in the desert without real navigation landmarks, and they needed things like GPS. 

We accelerated GPS launches. We call it the first Space War, but it was really our first understanding of what space can and should do for our Armed Forces. That really started a progression that accelerated after 9/11 as we operated in austere environments, collected information from space and increasingly pushed that information, and that connectivity further and further and further down to the tactical level so that it went from large Commands, then it went down to maneuver units, to the point where it actually got down now to the individual Soldier, Sailor, Airman and Marine as they were operating.  

And so it has really been that recognition came in 1991, but has really been now over the 20-plus years of operating against violent extremists that we’ve really enhanced the ability to provide information and space capabilities all the way down to the individual member of the Armed Forces. 

09:14 – 09:17 

Can you give us a modern-day example of what “Force Enhancement” looks like? 

09:18 – 11:26 

I can give you what I would call the quintessential example of force enhancement in space is exemplified in the January 2017 mission of B-2 bombers that struck targets in Libya as part of our ongoing operations against violent extremists. Those two B-2s took off from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, and they flew for over 40 hours to Libya and back. They had targeted as part of their mission planning 108 separate targets. All of those targets were developed by information collected from space.  

Throughout that 40-hour mission. They met up and joined with tankers 15 different times for air refueling. In addition to the targets that were developed by intel, in the process of flying that 40-hour mission, over half of those targets were either updated or changed in-flight by passing new targeting information to those aircraft in the course of the mission and then to the best that we could measure in all of the post-strike analysis was done from space. 

Every single one of those 108 targets were hit precisely because of the navigation and targeting aids provided from space. And so that is what I would call the quintessential example of how space enhances the combat power of the Joint Force. What has changed is some of that was done in real-time, but increasingly now, collecting information from space, identifying targets in space, updating targeting information in space, connecting sensors and decision-makers and weapons in real-time in space has really taken that role to the next level. 

And because adversaries recognize and understand that – they are now developing and fielding weapons to take that capability away from us. So now we’ve added the need to protect and defend those capabilities, so that they operate and survive effectively under attack and that’s kind of how the role of military space has evolved over the decades.

11:27 – 11:35 

The Space Force has also been designated as the Integrator for DOD Joint Space Requirements.  What makes this “Integrator” label so significant for the Space Force? 

11:36 – 13:22 

This is a very unique designation.  

And it really is. It’s the Space Force’s job to reach out to the entire Joint Force, to every other service, to all of the Combatant Commands, and to collect and to organize and to prioritize and coordinate among them and bring back to the Joint Requirements Oversight Council for approval – what we believe are the most important capabilities that the Joint Force needs. 

Then it’s our job to advocate for those capabilities, in some cases to resource those capabilities inside the Space Force. It drives our budget to be able to advocate for that budget in other places where it needs to be. And the Space Force is the right organization to do that, because we among all of the services, the Combatant Commands best understand the capabilities that can be provided in space. And we can assist the other services and the Combatant Commands in how to most effectively integrate them.  

We can also be held accountable. In fact, I saw that many times as a Vice Service Chief, the Joint Requirements Oversight Council has all of the service Vice Chiefs sitting around the table. And those Vice Service Chiefs have the ability to poke me in the chest and say, ‘Thompson, you and the Space Force, need to get off your rear end and start delivering the following to us, or of all of the capabilities that you want to provide here is the capability the United States Army or the United States Navy, or the United States Air Force needs most importantly.’  

 And so the fact that we’re now an integral part of the Joint Force makes us, first of all, the right one to do it. And I think it’s a unique task that nobody else has that is important to ensuring the capabilities that are there and integrated effectively. 

13:23 – 13:41 

Thank you, sir. And the Comprehensive Strategy document also identifies information as a “Joint Function,” that ensures combat readiness. Can you expand upon this idea of information that ensures forces are “combat ready” and tie that to the emerging role of the Space Force as an Integrator in the Joint Fight? 

13:42 – 15:51 

Let’s go up one level above information and let’s talk a little bit more about the Joint Warfighting Concept itself. No longer are Joint Forces going to be fighting along the lines of domain, a Joint Force air component commander, land component commander, maritime component commander, space component commander. 

While those commanders still exist, they’re going to be much more deeply integrated. So imagine or envision, if you would, a scenario where the United States in the next decade is fighting a peer or near-peer adversary. We’re talking about simultaneous operations across tens of thousands of square kilometers. We’re talking about hundreds to thousands of targets and hundreds to thousands of threats and all of this unfolding in real-time. 

And so, in order to address the way we are going to have to fight in the future, all of that is going to have to – first of all, you’re going to have to have fires that address all of the threats and targets at the same time.  

The second is, you’re going to have to have a means to be able to understand what the threats and the targets are, which is done through information advantage. 

The third thing is you’re going to have to have a means to pass information, diffuse information, and to make decisions which is – which we term Joint All-Domain Command and Control. And then the third is you’re going to have to ensure that those forces remain supplied, even under attack.  

And so this concept that says this large, large, integrated fighting force that has to find, fix, target, track, strike, assess and follow-up, as well as defend itself over a huge, huge battle space, needs all of those four things in order to operate effectively. 

One of those keys to directing the fires, to ensuring that those fires have a target, they know it’s the right target. And that target that may, for example, move or maneuver over the flight of a weapon. You have got to have information and that information has got to be connected in order to be able to execute that Joint Warfighting Concept effectively.

15:52 – 16:07 

The strategy states that the Space Force’s unique capabilities will be crucial features to enabling the Joint All Domain Command and Control (or JADC2) initiative. 

What are these unique capabilities of the Space Force that make it crucial to JADC2 success? 

16:08 – 17:34 

Go back to that scenario I asked us to envision earlier, of this high-end conflict – a peer or near-peer conflict across tens of thousands of square miles, hundreds to thousands of targets, hundreds of thousands of threats, inbound and outbound weapons. Sensing those targets and threats, understanding them, fusing information to understand what they are, where they are, what opportunities they present as targets, what threats they present as adversary weapons systems, passing information to those both the human beings, but also the machines that are going to have to decide to actually act on all of that information, including in-flight updates to weapons in-flight, on their way to the target, and then assess the effectiveness of our defenses, our offense, our strikes, and to decide what we’re going to have to do again, all of that will occur through space.  

Absolutely. Platforms in the air, platforms on land, platforms at sea, under the sea. They will be the action arm. They are at the point of the spear, but none of that works if it’s not sensed from space, connected through space and follow-up action through space. And so I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say if in fact the U.S. Space Force does not deliver on the capability that it needs to provide – JADC2 collapses. And if JADC2 collapses, the entire Joint Warfighting Concept collapses.

17:35 – 17:43 

And then with that in mind, how will this Comprehensive Strategy bridge that gap to realize that future Joint Warfighting Concept that you described earlier? 

17:44 – 19:03 

If we execute it faithfully and we leverage the sensing and the connectivity available in the commercial market, we fill in with the types of sensing and connectivity that the commercial market will not provide. 

We tie it all together effectively. We defend and protect it. Then it will give us the information advantage that we need. There’s a lot of work to do in AI in that regard as well, to be able to sense much more quickly and identify. There’s more work to do in the machine-to-machine connectivity. But if in fact we execute that vision faithfully and which often means not just execute it but start by resourcing it appropriately, it will provide the information advantage, it will enable Joint All-Domain Command and Control, it will make the joint fires more effective because it will ensure they are more likely to have the desired effect on targets and that we won’t waste rounds firing at things that are no longer where we thought they were when the weapons launch and things like that.

So if it’s executed faithfully and well, it will in fact, deliver on the Joint Warfighting Concept that has been envisioned and published and put out by the Joint Chiefs that says this is the way we intend to fight within the next decade.

19:04 – 19:23 

And sir, there is one more parallel here I’d like to ask you about. And that is if you can draw a parallel between the ways that the air domain and the U.S. Army’s Air Forces first unlocked capabilities across the land and sea domains, to the ways that the space domain is now unlocking capabilities across other service domains in the modern day? 

19:24 – 21:43 

While air power began to evolve and develop in the First World War more than 100 years ago, the power and potential of air power was really evident in the Second World War, from 1941 to 1945. In fact, it became such that naval forces would not operate, especially in the Pacific, without air support, air cover and the air arm. Primarily in Europe, in the Mediterranean, the other major theaters of the war. 

Air power was vital in a strategic sense. The Eighth Air Force and its bomber offensive over the continent of Europe, as well as the Ninth Air Force and its tactical integration with land forces. It became clear and evident the importance of air power in that role at that time. I will also say it was the United States Army at that time that created the world’s greatest air forces. 

The United States Army – The Army Air Forces – created the Eighth Air Force and the Ninth Air Force and the 20th Air Force that operated in the Pacific, and certainly naval aviation came into its own. But it was the United States Army that created the world’s greatest air forces at the time. What became evident after the war was – it was now time for an Airman to sit at the table with the other leaders of the forces to be able to integrate air power effectively with Army forces and Maritime forces. 

The same thing has happened here, I would argue, with the Space Force and space forces. Other services were involved, but it was primarily the United States Air Force that created the world’s greatest space forces over the last five or six decades. But now is the time because space is so critical, because it is now a warfighting domain as well. 

After the United States Air Force created the world’s greatest space forces, it was time for a Guardian, someone who truly understood space capability, space power and how to integrate it as part of military operations to sit at the table with the rest of the Joint Chiefs, to have a voice in budgeting in the Department of Defense, in planning, and in the Combatant Commands. 

That time had come and now the Guardians sit at the table in planning, execution, resource allocation, etc. to ensure that space is effectively integrated into military operations. 

21:44 – 22:12 

Thank you, sir, and if I may – your experience seems to demonstrate the unique position and qualifications of Elara Nova: The Space Consultancy. Today, we’ve been discussing the Comprehensive Strategy which you have actively contributed to while you were still in the service.  

Can you take this idea a step further and explain how this type of strategic thinking experience – particularly from the Joint Fight perspective – embodies the broader opportunity the Elara Nova network has in realizing our nation’s national security objectives? 

22:13 – 24:01 

Yeah, so Elara Nova is uniquely positioned in a whole host of ways. 

First, it has a unique and powerful assembly of space experts, experts in space operations, experts in space acquisition, experts in strategy, and in planning and in training to understand how those capabilities can integrate into the Joint Force.  

The second is Elara Nova doesn’t limit itself to experts in the space domain, although it’s primarily space-focused. It has the experts from other services, it has experts from other domains, the air domain, land, sea, cyberspace. 

Those experts are part of Elara Nova, and all of those experts also understand the Joint Force, how the Joint Force operates, how it plans, how it trains, how it executes, as well as the understanding of current and emerging technologies and operating concepts.  

The nature of space and the capabilities it can and should provide is rapidly evolving and not just because of that – because in other technology areas how the whole concept of warfighting, especially high-end conflict is evolving, not just me, but many of these experts have been there and part of that journey.  

They’ve been members of the Space Force, they’ve been members of the Air Force, they’ve been on the Joint Staff. As we’ve all looked at how in fact, it’s going to change the way that we have to operate as a Joint Force. They have all seen the need for that, from that perspective. And I think all have a sense of urgency that we cannot wait. So I would challenge anybody to find any other place where all of these sets of expertise are at-hand and ready to support both the nation’s security and utilization of space to that end. 

24:02 – 24:57 

This has been the first installment of a Special Edition Series of “The Elara Edge: Expert Insights on Space Security,” featuring guest appearances from Elara Nova’s senior principal advisors. This series comes as the space industry’s emerging and leading consultancy, celebrates its first anniversary of elevating military and industry partnerships to meet national security space imperatives. 

As a global consultancy and professional services firm focused on helping businesses and government agencies maximize the strategic advantages of the space domain, Elara Nova is your source for expertise and guidance in space security. 

If you liked what you heard today, please subscribe to our channel and leave us a rating. Music for this podcast was created by Patrick Watkins of PW Audio. This episode was edited and produced by Regia Multimedia Services. I’m your host, Scott King, and join us next time at the Elara Edge.