Space Force reimagines training, operations as conflicts intensify

by Tommy Grant

After four years of growth amid a steadily rising operational tempo, Space Force leaders say it’s time to improve on what they’ve built.

The Space Force is the Pentagon’s hub for organizing, training and equipping the units that provide satellite communications to the joint force, track missile launches, catalog debris that could damage spacecraft, take images of troop movements and wildfires from orbit, and more.

But as the newest service has taken shape — pulling together soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and fresh recruits to form the military’s smallest branch — the growing importance of space in global security has highlighted the need for a flexible, collaborative workforce for the decades to come.

“I’m extremely proud of the Space Force and all the good that it has accomplished,” Chief of Space Operations Gen. Chance Saltzman said Feb. 13 at an Air and Space Forces Association conference in Colorado. “But as good as we are, as much as we’ve done, as far as we’ve come — it’s not enough.”

The service hit its congressionally authorized staffing goal — about 13,900 billets overall — for the first time in 2023.

As of Dec. 31, the Space Force employed around 4,400 officers, 4,600 enlisted guardians and 4,900 civilians. The service plans to expand to 14,526 members, including 9,400 in uniform, in fiscal 2024.

Each year, that number creeps closer to the 16,000 personnel the Pentagon estimated the Space Force would reach as it lobbied Congress to create a lean new service in 2019.

Katharine Kelley, the Space Force’s civilian personnel boss, predicts “steady-state growth” that allows the service to keep up with operational needs without stressing the training pipeline or setting unattainable recruiting goals.

“We’re realists about what we can actually produce,” she said in a Feb. 23 interview. “There are plenty of people that say to me, ‘Why don’t you just add 10,000 more people?’ … We’re not trying to grow for the sake of numbers. We’re trying to grow for the sake of the mission capability.”

The Space Force is preparing to welcome reservists to its ranks under a new model that will allow guardians to serve in a full- or part-time capacity without leaving active duty. That approach lets the Space Force avoid the bureaucracy of standing up a separate reserve component while ideally offering troops more flexibility than active military service typically provides.

The window for reservists in the other armed forces to apply to transfer into the Space Force will likely open this summer or fall, Kelley said.

In the meantime, service officials will continue hashing out the details of how that hybrid workforce will function: How would it affect military housing or health care? How would promotions work? What would it mean for unit staffing? And what back-end human resources software does that require?

“It’s not copy-and-pasting the reserve model and dropping it into the Space Force,” Kelley said. “It’s truly, how are you going to manage one composition that has a couple of different ways to serve?”

Further growth may require the Space Force to take a more active role in its own recruiting. The Air Force has so far handled guardian recruitment in an effort to minimize overlapping bureaucracy between the two services, which comprise the Department of the Air Force.

But Chief Master Sergeant of the Space Force John Bentivegna, the service’s top enlisted leader, said that could change.

“We don’t have Space Force recruiters right now,” he told Air Force Times in a Jan. 11 interview. “That’s probably something we have to do.”

Still, the Space Force’s accession numbers haven’t suffered from a lack of in-house recruiters.

More than 4,000 people sought to fill just 492 enlisted billets in fiscal year 2023, the service told Congress in January. It signed up all but three of the 259 officers it sought last year.

The Space Force plans to recruit nearly 700 new enlisted guardians and 321 new officers in fiscal year 2024.

Bentivegna plans to work on refining the Space Force’s recruiting strategy in 2024, to give potential enlistees a better understanding of the service’s mission and what their place in it could be. That might mean mounting an ad campaign targeted at those who future guardians might ask for advice on joining the military.

“What do they say? What do they know about us?” he said of recruits’ family and friends. “I want to … start owning that more as a service.”

Rethinking training

As the service continues to expand, leaders are reconsidering whether the foundation they’ve built can carry them into the future. That begins with an overhaul of the training pipeline.

The Space Force has already designed a service-specific curriculum for enlisted recruits inside the Air Force-run boot camp. Now it wants to shake up how guardians train for their first job in uniform, starting with the officer corps.

Rather than sending officers to technical school to learn about a narrow slice of military space, the Space Force will start them out with an introductory Officer Training Course that exposes troops to the basics of its three core operational fields — intelligence; cyber; and running the satellites, radars and other systems that comprise space operations.

Once the foundational course is done, guardians will pick the career field they like best and head to their first operational unit for on-the-job training, rather than spending more time in the classroom, Kelley said.

That means the Space Force will eventually stop sending guardians to some Air Force-run tech schools, like intel training at Goodfellow Air Force Base, Texas.

The service eventually plans to expand the same idea to the enlisted corps. It’s unclear how long the vision might take to implement.

Officials hope the idea will lead to a more intuitive workforce that better understands how the military space enterprise functions overall. Graduates will go on to staff units that increasingly look to blur the lines between operations, acquisition and sustainment of military space assets.

“It is very difficult to separate satellite operations, cyber operations and the intelligence that you need to understand to deal with the domain,” Saltzman said.

For example, he said, “a cyber operator will be far better at their job defending the network if they understand the satellite operations, and they understand the intelligence and the threat, and how to ask the right questions.”

The new ops floor

As the pace of operations mounts — fueled by wars in Europe and the Middle East, deterrence in the Pacific, the proliferation of satellites on orbit and burgeoning threats to the U.S. military space ecosystem — the Space Force is unsatisfied with the number of troops it has focused on the daily mission, Kelley said.

The service plans to bolster its shift work, hoping to ease burnout among operational teams, make better use of the troops it has and create more bandwidth in case of a surge.

The Space Force wants to grow the number of crews who staff ops floors around the clock from three to five or so, Kelley said, to give guardians more time to train when they aren’t handling the mission.

To build those rotational crews, the service aims to more cleanly divide guardians who handle administrative work from those who staff daily operations — allowing more operators to focus on the mission rather than distracting them with managerial tasks.

Those crews will form standard packages of combat squadrons the service offers the joint force for daily missions around the world, like the Navy’s carrier strike groups and the Air Force’s future expeditionary wings.

That comes as the Space Force continues to open service component units that work directly with combatant commands like U.S. Central Command and U.S. Indo-Pacific Command to ensure precision-guided weapons can land on target, pass communications between troops, protect U.S. satellites from electronic attack and flag incoming rockets, among other tasks.

The tenor on ops floors is changing, too. Space leaders want guardians to see themselves not as button-pushers at desks, but as warriors in a fight that extends around the globe and into orbit.

In the past, “it was not about what happens if somebody actually tries to take out one of your satellites,” Kelley said. “What we’re focused on now is where to put that manpower and those resources to really flesh out the operational warfighter capabilities.”

The service expects to lean more heavily on enlisted guardians to run daily operations, while officers handle more of the joint force planning to which space is key. Bentivegna noted the Space Force plans to open a retraining program this year to more easily balance its noncommissioned officer corps and others across specialties.

Space Operations Command boss Lt. Gen. David Miller told reporters on a Feb. 27 call that the service is “in a good place” in terms of the staff needed to handle daily tasks, though it’s “in no way … overmanned.” He declined to say in which fields the Space Force is spread thinnest.

But he acknowledged the mission set is growing, and so is the need for staff in expanding areas like missile warning and tracking. That’s especially driven by the Pentagon’s plans to put hundreds of disposable satellites on orbit to become more resilient in case of attack.

It’s time for the service to take a hard look at how many people it needs in each of those roles, and figure out how to promote and pay them fairly, Chief Bentivegna said.

“Am I happy with the structure? No,” he said.

Bentivegna said he’d like to see all guardians who are fully qualified be promoted, up to the first noncommissioned officer rank of sergeant (E-5) — when troops start vying for a smaller number of leadership positions.

“I don’t want to have commanders make a decision that, ‘Only 65% can get promoted this cycle,’” he said. “The only thing that the guardians should be … comparing themselves against is the standard, not one another.”

Kelley, the civilian personnel boss, said the service will advocate for guardians to be allowed to pocket salaries that rival those in the commercial space, cyber and other technology-focused sectors that compete with the Space Force for talent. When guardians may qualify for bonuses and how large those might be is also under consideration.

Officials contend there’s no time to lose in nailing down the details.

“There’s [a] real world at stake here. This is not hypothetical,” Kelley said. “As much as I worry about how much we’re trying to attack at once internally, to get stood up and do all these new things and build new laws and new policies, what’s at stake is you’re farther and farther behind where you need to be. And so I’m excited for what we can do.”

Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.

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