By Steve Anderson, Space Force Association National Director of Membership
As I removed all electronic devices, and transited multiple layers of security at Schriever Space Force Base in December to document the culminating events of our nation’s 16th iteration of SPACE FLAG, I had one burning question in mind…behind these steel doors and inside these SCIF spaces, would I find authentic, true warfighters?
Or perhaps would I simply find a new generation of professional Space Operators flying satellites and other on-orbit assets hundreds of miles away, physically, and emotionally detached? Detached from the passion and comradery historically born out of combat, and internalized (even celebrated) by the Space Force’s joint-service brothers, sisters, and coalition partners who fight more traditional battles on Earth.
Major General Shawn Bratton, the Commander of Space Training and Readiness Command (known as STARCOM), was looking for the same thing. Although this wasn’t his first rodeo at a SPACE FLAG event, and he confidently seemed to know what he’d find.
SPACE FLAG Offers “Fight Tonight” Scenario
He welcomed me to SPACE FLAG 23-1, the first of three SPACE FLAG training exercises that will take place in Fiscal Year 2023. Born out of the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act which mandated the Secretary of Defense establish an annual capstone training event titled “SPACE FLAG” modeled after similar tactical warfighting exercises found in the Air Force (RED FLAG) and US Cyber Command (CYBER FLAG), this was the 16th SPACE FLAG for our United States Space Force that turned 3-years old on December 20th. It was also only the third ever to incorporate international coalition partners.
SPACE FLAG is unique as its sole purpose is to train Guardians to develop and test doctrine, tactics, techniques, and procedures in a “fight tonight” scenario in preparation for when national-power conflict extends to on-orbit space assets.
“STARCOM is responsible for educating and training combat credible forces with not only foundational competencies and technical expertise, but with the ability to fight and win as a team alongside our joint and coalition partners.”said Gen Bratton
The Need For Increased Training
The pacing threat of China has driven Gen Bratton and his exercise guru, Lt Col Albert “AC” Harris, Commander of the 392d Combat Training Squadron, to go above and beyond the once-a-year NDAA requirement to executing this highly competitive, extremely intense two-week exercise three times per year, with aspirations to get to four annually!
“In this environment US and Coalition partners share intel, practice space operating tactics, and work through combat challenges,” said Lt Col Harris. “For some of our young Space Operators this is the first time they will interact with, share specific combat tactics and techniques with, and fight the enemy with coalition forces. I wish I had this environment when I was young lieutenant!”
“I need to continue to find ways to give the Guardians more,” added Gen Bratton, “…more training, more resources, to ensure they never encounter anything in battle that they haven’t first experienced and practiced in the training environment.”
It is from clear commander’s intent and guidance like this where Lt Col Harris unleashes his exercise mavens to create intense, realistic, cutting-edge digital scenarios that give our Guardians the wartime repetitions Gen Bratton desires. Lt Col Harris’ team of exercise trainers and architects ensure the two-week exercise is strenuous and tests the body, mind, and spirit of these young Guardians.
SPACE FLAG 23-1 Prepares Guardians To Be Sharper, More Resilient, and Better Prepared
SPACE FLAG 23-1 was the first SPACE FLAG to exercise a scenario where the land portion of the simulated conflict took place in the European continent. “The physical location of the ground war is important in our scenario as it will typically dictate which adversarial countries are heavily invested and integrated in the associated Space War,” said Lt Col Harris. By establishing a conflict on the ground Lt Col Harris and STARCOM Delta 11’s team of “aggressors” (simulated enemy forces) can replicate the on-orbit assets and tactics used by anticipated adversaries from this region of the world. Without being privileged to the classified exercise scenarios, I couldn’t help but assume the current conflict in Ukraine played a significant role in shaping this particular exercise scenario.
The exercise lasted 2 weeks, cycling through multiple small-scale space-specific conflict scenarios within the context of a much larger conflict happening at the national level. The space conflicts and scenarios took our Guardian’s up-to and beyond their technical and competency limits. Like any great military exercise, throughout the duration there were wins, but also losses…sometimes many losses.
The trainee Guardians learned to be resilient and creative through the wins and setbacks. Captain Karl Pruhsmeier, the SPACE FLAG Exercise Director and his team spend months designing these exercise scenarios to specifically test our Guardians’ capabilities and daring them to be bold enough (and innovative enough) to identify and develop our nation’s next great competitive tactic or technique. Every moment, regardless of whether it ends in a win or a loss, has a debrief that comes with it. The debrief offers many teachable moments to make our Guardians sharper, more resilient, and better prepared for the future fight.
In The End “Learning” Won
After the SPACE FLAG 23-1 Awards Ceremony I had the privilege and honor to sit with 6 “Outstanding Performers” who were recognized for their consistent excellence throughout the two-week exercise. I started with one simple question, “Did you win?” They each humbly looked at me, and in a reflective demeanor they each smiled, and paused thoughtfully while they contemplated the answer. It was then when Flight Lieutenant Adon Lumley, from the Royal Australian Air Force broke the silence and stated, “It was “Learning” who won during this exercise.”
The other five Outstanding Performers smiled and nodded in concurrence. They then shared how they were pushed to their limits and beyond, leaning on each other, breaking down cultural barriers and navigating the different ways each country approached conflict in space to find winning solutions. They leaned on each other like our nations lean on each other at a grander scale to deter, fight, and win our conflicts against aggression and preserve our way of life. They leaned on each other just like our Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, and Airmen have leaned on each other and their coalition partners for years in similar combat experiences.
It was in this moment, I clearly saw what I can only imagine Maj Gen Bratton had already seen many times before at previous SPACE FLAGS and other STARCOM exercises like it. As clear as day, I saw before me Guardians and coalition space professionals who were unquestionably true warfighters. Their love for the mission, for their countries, for each other, and for the defense of the free world made me honored and proud to be in their presence.
Because of these inspiring and uplifting men and women…human products of SPACE FLAG…I would like to close with one final statement. “Bravo, Lt Col Harris. I take my hat off to you and your team of experts of the 392d Combat Training Squadron…Bravo indeed!”
About The Author
Steve Anderson serves as the Space Force Association’s National Director of Membership. A 2000 Graduate of USAFA and decorated retired Air Force officer, Steve is a Principal at LMI in its Space Market. LMI provides rapid analysis and prototyping solutions for National Security Space challenges using innovative modeling & simulation tools. LMI has been a Platinum Corporate Member of SFA since 2021. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.