The US military entrusts satellite operations to the Space Force, but keeps a foot in space

The Pentagon approved the transfer last year in a bid to consolidate space programs under the new military branch

WASHINGTON — Satellite ground stations that have been operated for decades by the U.S. military will be officially handed over to the Space Force on August 15.

The Space Force will take control of the Wideband Global Satcom and Defense Satellite Communications System military satellite constellations. The satellites were built and launched by the US Air Force but the military controlled the payloads.

The Pentagon approved the transfer last year with the aim of consolidating space programs under the new military branchwhich is responsible for providing satellite services to the DoD and its allies.

The Army transferred about $78 million to the 2022 Space Force budget to cover the cost of operating five satellite operations centers and four regional support centers. About 500 soldiers and civilians will move from the army to the Space Force Delta 8 unit based at Schriever Space Force Base, Colorado.

In addition to Wideband Global Satcom, the defense satellite communications system, Space Delta 8 operates the Global Positioning System constellation and several communications systems, including Advanced EHF, MILSTAR, and the Enhanced Polar System.

“This transfer will mark the first time that all Department of Defense military satellite communications functions will be consolidated under a single military service,” Space Force said in a press release.

Lt. Gen. Daniel Karbler, head of the US Army’s Space and Missile Defense Command, said the transfer of satellite communications operations to the Space Force does not mean the military is leaving the space sector. In fact, the army seeks new ways to use space abilities in non-traditional ways, such as for cyber warfare and information operations.

“Space is a common team sport,” said Karbler last week at the Space and Missile Defense Symposium in Huntsville, Alabama. The vital role of space »requires integration at the tactical level,” he said. “The space domain will no longer be separated from the air, sea and land components.”

Karbler said that “each service with its unique mission sets must take advantage of the space domain and apply it to service-specific execution, command and control.”

Due to its large size, the military is the largest consumer of military space services, he said, “and we must maintain organic capabilities that are responsive to our demands, responsive to our priorities, and reflective of our culture”. That said, the military isn’t looking to fight turf battles with other services, Karbler added. The military’s need for its own space systems “doesn’t mean we’re all going around our wagons in a parochial way of service.”

The army will retain its 1st Space Brigade, based in Fort Carson, Colorado. The brigade was created in 2005 in response to the military’s increasing use of satellites and ground stations for combat operations. Many of its approximately 2,000 soldiers are deployed in 11 countries. During deployments, members of the brigade monitor the health of satellites in orbit, assist commanders in analyzing missile satellite data and other spatial intelligence like imagery.

According to multiple sources, the Space Force is in talks with the military to possibly transfer the military’s joint tactical ground stations based in Italy, South Korea, Japan and Qatar. Known as JTAGS, these units are currently part of the 1st Space Brigade. They analyze and broadcast downlink infrared data from aerial sensors and provide early warning of ballistic missile launches.

Army Space Command to develop payloads

The Huntsville-based Army Space and Missile Defense Command has in recent years developed and launched satellites like the kestrel eye, Gunsmoke-J imaging spacecraft, and the lonestar situational awareness experience from space.

Going forward, SMDC does not plan to build complete satellites but will develop payloads that the Space Force or other organizations will integrate onto military or commercial satellite buses, said Wheeler “Chip” Hardy, director of space applications at the SMDC Technical Center.

“To operate effectively in the space realm, we must maintain organic capabilities that match the demands and demands of the military,” Wheeler said at the symposium. Land forces, for example, have special needs for aerial surveillance, target identification and alternative forms of non-GPS navigation.

“Space capabilities tailored to the unique needs of the Land Force, and just as importantly knowledge of those needs, do not currently reside within Space Force,” Wheeler said. “As the DoD’s largest user of space, the Army is best positioned to define and execute the Army’s operational space requirements.”

The plan for the next few years is to focus on payload and sensor development, Wheeler said.

SMC could develop and demonstrate a payload on a high-altitude platform such as Zephyr drone, or as part of a space experiment, he said. “That’s our vision for the future, where we can focus almost entirely on the payload and then transfer the payload technology to another agency such as Space Force for operational effects.”

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