The Big Picture
The Air Force will be reliant on expanded use of the space domain in the years ahead. Consequently, the future space power architecture must effectively enable three fundamental use cases for the Air Force: a new navigation capability independent of the Global Positioning System (GPS) or Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS); Intelligence, surveillance, tracking, and reconnaissance (ISTAR) to track surface mobile and airborne targets, and; space-based command, control and battle management (C2BM) that will underpin an ability to act in operationally relevant timelines. To evolve towards a future warfare paradigm that unlocks operational advantages through expanded use of space, however, there is an integration challenge to overcome for the Air Force, which is inherently more complex than that of developing and launching the next generation of space vehicles.
The Space Domain in Future Warfare Paradigms
The speed and dynamics of warfare are becoming more intense as operational theatres, including the space domain, become more congested, cluttered, and contested. As adversaries develop longer-range weapons systems with advanced stealth, speed, and flight characteristics, the threat environment will challenge freedom of maneuver and the ability of the Air Force to prosecute time-sensitive targets. Moreover, already faced with degraded communications environments and radiofrequency (RF) bandwidth limitations that cannot meet fully service warfighter requirements, the Air Force will soon also contend with the increasing likelihood of Global Positioning System (GPS) or Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS)-denied environments.
New means and capabilities that can effectively stretch operational timelines and preserve the ability of the Air Force to respond and maneuver in highly contested, high-tempo operational environments become necessary. The solution to resolving emerging challenges for the Air Force lies in developing a new space power architecture which is vital for enabling the way of warfare espoused by threat-centric warfare paradigms. Premised on achieving information superiority to mitigate the complexities generated by accelerated operational timelines, warfare paradigms such as joint all domain command and control (JADC2), for example, propose means to allow the Air Force to see, understand, decide, and act faster than adversaries at the operational and, increasingly, tactical levels of warfare.
The Future Space Power Architecture
The launch of hundreds of miniaturized next-generation satellites operating in a mega constellation in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) at altitudes of 750-1200 kilometers will generate a new capability for positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) solutions independently of GPS but also assisted by optical communication (OC) technology, hold the key to achieving information superiority. Providing persistent all-weather overhead coverage over areas of interest on earth with high reliability through in-built redundancy, space-based sensors will deliver unprecedented ISTAR solutions for tracking surface mobile and threat early warning (TEW) to support left-of-launch operations or targeting and interception against the advanced air and missile threats.
Optical connections provide more secure high transmission rate inter-satellite and space-to-ground links that will make it possible for the first time to port terabits of data between ground elements and warfighting platforms across distributed operational theatres in seconds. OC is a game-changer for enabling secure, low-latency, long-haul communication essential to actualizing space-based C2BM. With space systems connected to ground-based C2 elements and remote warfighting platforms hosting applications for mission processing, tasking, and prioritization, the Air Force will finally become able to move at the speed of threats. Additionally, data dissemination routed across a mesh network will be able to generate optimized solutions for sensor/shooter tasking and allocation autonomously and enable kill chain closure in operationally unprecedented timelines.
Smaller, lower cost, and highly deployable space vehicles and OC terminals are key elements the Air Force needs to expand its use case of space in the future, and both technologies are maturing rapidly. The more significant challenge of integration is, however, vastly more complex, stretching from the development of new supporting infrastructure to integrating ground elements and optical communication (OC) gateways with air operations centers (AOCs) and legacy datalinks such as Link-16 or Integrated Broadcast System (IBS). A dedicated space command within the Air Force staffed by specialist personnel will also need a software development ecosystem that can support effective space-based C2BM by developing and deploying solutions to address continuously evolving operational needs on-the-fly.