March 22, 2021

The Importance of U.S. Space Force Intelligence

Our everyday lives are dependent on assets in space. Learn about the importance of a secure and accessible space domain for our national & global security.

The strategic importance of a secure and accessible space domain for our national and global security has been codified with the establishment of a new service, U.S. Space Force (USSF), and the revitalization of a combatant command, U.S. Space Command.  Our everyday lives are intricately dependent on assets in space.

Simple tasks such as going to the ATM, getting gas, using a GPS-enabled mobile phone to navigate to a meetup spot with your friends, or even using the internet are just a few of the functions enabled by space.  Not to mention the tremendous advantages to weather forecasting, warning and monitoring for national security, and global communication links for secure communications between national and world leaders.

While the U.S. wants to preserve the peaceful use of space to maintain capabilities that fuel the global economy and our domestic commercial and civilian sectors, we must acknowledge that space is no longer a benign environment.  Man-made threats in space, such as debris or other objects, could catastrophically impact the International Space Station (ISS), wider space exploration efforts, and standard satellite operations. 

Nations across the globe are building and fielding advanced space and counterspace capabilities.  Two 2019 reports detail the emerging threats to U.S and partner space capabilities: the National Air and Space Intelligence Center’s (NASIC) “Competing in Space” and the Defense Intelligence Agency’s (DIA) “Challenges to Security in Space”.  These reports detail the increase of space threats observed over the last decade, specifically those by Russia and China.

In February 2020, U.S. Space Force Chief of Space Operations (CSO) Gen. John “Jay” Raymond highlighted Russia’s testing of non-kinetic, anti-satellite weapons when Cosmos 2542 ejected sub-satellite Cosmos 2543 as the Russian satellite came within 100 miles of an American satellite, USA 245, a classified imaging satellite owned by the National Reconnaissance Office.  Gen. Raymond characterized the behavior as aggressive and stated the actions weren’t reflective of a responsible space-faring nation.

The new U.S. Space Force was established to protect U.S. and allied space capabilities and provide space capabilities to the joint force. To accomplish this, all manner of space threats must be identified, characterized, and understood, which underscores the critical need for a robust U.S. Space Force intelligence architecture.

As the U.S. Space Force stood up, Maj. Gen. Lauderback decided that it was important to keep the title of Director of Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR), thereby continuing U.S. Air Force tradition which brings focus and attention to the fact that ISR is an equal contributor to, and drives all facets of, operations. Culturally, this is very important as the US Space Force figures out how to normalize intelligence functions while supporting and enabling critical space operations.

The Space Force aligned operations, intelligence, communications, and logistics under the same 3-star leadership.  For a small service, this may bring efficiencies, but intelligence needs to stay at the forefront and explicitly work alongside operations.  In fact, in this new service, an enormous culture shift needs to take place on the roles and responsibilities of intelligence to support space operations.  Fortunately, it starts with doctrine, in which the Space CAPSTONE publication SPACEPOWER highlights the importance of Military Intelligence as one of seven Spacepower Disciplines.  Vice Chief of Space Operations Gen. David Thompson stated emphatically:

“We need our own core intelligence capability.”

In the past, during my role as Director of Intelligence for 14th Air Force (AFSPACE)1, there were about 200 intelligence professionals assigned to support space operations across the 5 Space Wings, 614 AOC, and staff.  No intelligence squadron or group existed in 14th Air Force either.  As we tried to garner new billets to support the mission from the Air Staff, we were told to do so with what we had.

Intel was not incorporated into space operations at the then 50th Space Wing (50 SW) until 2017 when then Lt. Gen. Veralinn Jamieson, Deputy Chief of Staff of Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance and Cyber Effects Operations, “gifted” AFSPC additional billets. (Note:  5 intel professionals were assigned at 50 SW prior, but they were mostly focused on security and AT/FP type functions.) Only then could intel support 24 x 7 operations of 4 operational squadrons.  As a comparison, 3-5 intelligence professionals are assigned to each fighter squadron in Air Combat Command.  It’s no wonder that the 13S (space operators) community learned to perform intelligence functions on their own.  I am thrilled to see that the Space Force is funded at over 600 intelligence billets with growth to over 1200 over the Future Years Defense Program.

Further, re-aligning the Space Analysis Squadron and Counterspace Analysis from NASIC that had explicit space-oriented functions will provide the framework for the National Space Intelligence Center and can be the cornerstone of foundational, technical, tactical, operational, and strategic space intelligence. Those intelligence organizations will support the current and future intelligence squadrons, group and Space Force Delta 7 (ISR).

Lastly, the recent announcement of the U.S. Space Force becoming the 18th member of the Intelligence Community (IC) highlights the importance of space intelligence missions and collaboration needed across the IC and DoD to support joint operations.  As then DNI John Ratliffe said:

"This move not only underscores the importance of space as a priority intelligence and military operational domain for national security, but ensures interoperability, future capability development and operations, and true global awareness for strategic warning."

The U.S. Space Force must define the roles and responsibilities for intelligence professionals to support space operations from strategic to tactical levels.  As USSF moves to create a lean, agile, and innovative service, it will also require the establishment of a unique Space Force culture that integrates six independent Guardian career fields (space operations, cyber operators, acquisition, engineering, cyber, and intelligence) to synchronize across time and space to bring space effects to the joint all-domain command and control (JADC2).

The CSO’s November 9, 2020 “Planning Guidance” document directs the Space Force to be disruptive and find innovative approaches to “outpace innovative competitors”.  This starts with critically thinking about the current intelligence functions.  The space intelligence analyst needs tools that aggregate, curate, and fuse multiple data types from multiple sources and apply advanced analytics in order to establish satellite patterns of life, monitor and predict satellite behavior, and quickly detect, flag, and characterize out-of-norm events to support timely decision making.  For example, does it require a space operator to do the collection plan for the space surveillance network (SSN)?  The purpose of the SSN is to collect the “order of battle” of the space domain and provide warnings if any object poses a threat.  It detects, tracks, identifies (surveillance), catalogs, and provides warning of space objects.

Shouldn’t space operational intelligence (Title 10) work in conjunction with the space operators to determine the collection plan?  The SSN collection plan needs to be combined with other ISR space collection capabilities to characterize threats to space assets (including links/nodes) and predict non-routine observations so persistent coverage can be maintained.  As Maj. Gen. Burt said recently:

“The military has precise intelligence for the air, land and sea domains. We have to create the same picture for space.”

Adding and fusing commercial data sources would also add value to this process, like our current capability in Slingshot OrbitalSlingshot Orbital is a real-time space domain awareness solution that aggregates information from commercial and government data sources and applies advanced analytics to characterize space objects, detect threats, and enable confident decision making.  There is much innovation that can be done and Slingshot Orbital can provide this capability.

Other intelligence assets and resources (both government and commercial) are used to characterize space objects, but organizational preferences are still bifurcated and unsynchronized, with many organizations such as NSA, DIA/SOCC, DEFSMAC, AFDRO and NASIC/GSMS preferring to leverage different pieces and parts to accomplish their respective missions. USSPACECOM Director of Intelligence, Brig. Gen. Greg Gagnon, as the combatant command has a critical role to ensure these disparate organizations, capabilities, and effects can be focused in support of USSPACECOM operations at the speed of relevance to guarantee space superiority.  To aid in that mission, the Joint Intelligence Operations Center (JIOC) at USSPACECOM will have around 300 intelligence professionals assigned, highlighting the need for intelligence professionals to be educated and trained on how to leverage these capabilities.

During his Senate confirmation hearing, now Secretary of Defense General (USA, Ret.) Lloyd Austin highlighted, “the Department of Defense (DoD) space enterprise is not well-integrated with other services and terrestrial commands and face several other challenges.”  It is critical to educate and train those commands on how space can enhance and affect their capabilities so they will “defend critical space assets that enable Joint Forces.”  The Space Force must flatten the intelligence bureaucracy to enable faster and more agile decision making.  As Gen. Raymond stated, “Tight alignment of responsibility, accountability, and authority is key to speed and agility.”  I know from personal experience that bringing together a coalition of the willing from these organizations was still not enough to make an operational change in support of joint operations.

Besides defining the roles and responsibilities, the U.S. Space Force must develop its own intelligence Guardians.  This starts with education and training.  Today, the Intelligence Officer Course as well as the All-Source Intelligence Analyst Apprentice Course offered at Goodfellow AFB for Airmen didn’t contain any operational space intelligence curriculum for at least ten years as far as I know.  My understanding is three space intelligence experts were assigned to Goodfellow late last year to help with this problem.  The curriculum prepares ISR professionals on how to support air operations and what capabilities are in space that can be used for collection.  It also needs to discuss the knowledge required to understand the space domain like orbital elements, maneuvers, RIC (radial, in-track and cross-track) frames2, and counterspace threats.  Goodfellow is making progress with their LONESTAR CAPSTONE exercise, where they are linked in with space training at Vandenberg AFB.  As the planning guidance states, “Our forces are always in competition, and our capabilities are likely among the first targets of an aggressor’s action.”  Space intelligence is essential to detecting and characterizing threats, and then providing warning and assessment.  This can now be fixed and needs to be a critical focus of the STAR Delta provisional.

At Slingshot Aerospace, we are addressing this education and training issue with Slingshot Laboratory.  We are excited to be partnered with The Third Floor, a leading Hollywood visualization company that produced movies and television shows such as Gravity, the Martian, and The Mandalorian. This capability will support all career fields in the U.S. Space Force, not just intelligence, and could even be used during basic training! We are building a product that will provide immersive space education and training without the complexity. This is critical for Guardians who will never go to the environment they work in, unlike the other warfighting domains. Therefore, it’s essential that they learn the basics of astrodynamics in a more hands-on, interactive way.   The more Guardians can experience astrodynamics, the better they will understand its effects on spacecraft and execute their missions.  Astro is like playing golf or staying in shape - you have to work at it and keep the mental muscles in shape!  And you can’t stay in shape with a little bit of free time on the ops floor, so they could use our product at home, on their tablets or smartphone.

Further, the challenge with the best tools for teaching astrodynamics today is they were built for satellite and mission designers, not to teach the mechanics of how man-made objects move in space.   The entire design of Slingshot Laboratory is geared from the ground up towards making both the preparation of instructional material and the student's self-exploration easier. It is done with instruction as the primary goal, as opposed to a powerful tool for analysts.

Slingshot Laboratory can be configured by anyone. Further, that is why we are building an interactive collaboration between instructor and student, as well as between students in a group setting.  This will include the ability to capture annotations on events, providing a critical-thinking tool that allows students to convey concepts, strategies, and Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures.  It will allow instructors to step through a sequence of key points in time and let students experience and experiment locally.  Finally, Slingshot Laboratory will offer the ability to ingest simulated or real data.  This will allow experimentation and the ability to play out “what-if” scenarios not only for education and training, but in the future operationally.

Calling all Guardians and space enthusiasts who want to join our waitlist!  Please go to this link to sign-up! 


1 Fourteenth Air Force (14 AF) was headquartered at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. It was responsible for the organization, training, equipping, command and control (C2), and employment of Air Force space forces to support operational plans and missions for U.S. combatant commanders and air component commanders. 14 AF was the sole numbered air force for space.

14 AF comprised of almost 16,000 personnel with 28 weapon systems at 44 locations worldwide. It oversaw operations at five wings and the 614th Air Operations Center (AOC). 14 AF was responsible for providing strategic missile warning, nuclear command, control and communication, position, navigation and timing, Space Domain Awareness, satellite operations, space launch and range operations.

2 The RIC coordinate system is often used to define the relative motion of a chaser spacecraft in relation to a target object. In this case, the target is at the origin of the coordinate system. The RIC frame is commonly used in the study of rendezvous, proximity operations and docking.