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Joint Task Force Space Defense
The growing concerns about threats to military space assets requires a new mindset, adapted from terrestrial military reconnaissance, to help identify those threats in a timely fashion. (credit: DOD)

From SSA to space recon: Setting the conditions to prevail in astrodynamic combat

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Traditional orbital analysis in support of the concept of Space Situational Awareness (SSA) has been historically focused upon the concepts of executing orbit determinations, state vector updates, and close approach analysis to support safety of flight. While these functions will remain foundational, the mindset and culture that has developed these procedures must change in the face of existential threats to our space capabilities. No longer may we be content with a solely a passive awareness of the domain, focused on collision avoidance and safety of flight; rather we must transform our perspective to merge the physics of Newton, Kepler, Lambert, Clohessy, Wiltshire, and Hill, and the reconnaissance principals and culture of Tzu, Buford, and Wellesley into concepts that shape maneuver warfare in this emerging warfighting Area Of Responsibility (AOR).

Out with the old, in with the new

Last year, Maj. Gen. John Shaw, at the time Deputy Commander of Air Force Space Command, introduced the concept of “Space Domain Awareness” (SDA) to replace the legacy definition of “Space Situational Awareness” (SSA).[1] This is a noteworthy and remarkable change intended to shift the focus of legacy Defense Department SSA enterprise concepts to a combat footing. Maj. Gen. Shaw’s change is both timely and relevant, recognizing the deficiencies and limitations associated with the 50-year-old paradigm of SSA and focusing the community towards the challenges of the future. Throughout Maj. Gen. Shaw’s pivotal memorandum that directs the change in nomenclature and intent, he highlights the importance that the inter-service, multi-domain concept of Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) on SDA.

It would be remiss of the military space professional community to not draw from hard-learned lessons from other domains.

Foundational and general awareness of the domain remains an absolute imperative for safety of flight. Plans recently announced by SpaceX, OneWeb, and Amazon have proposed to launch up tens of thousands of satellites into low Earth orbit (LEO) over the next several years, designed to provide global low-latency communications. This is in addition to the over 1,400 operational satellites, 4,000 non-operational satellites, and over 22,000 pieces of debris that are regularly tracked by the 18th Space Control Squadron (18 SPCS).[2] This amazing group of airmen do a phenomenal job of managing the day-to-day mission of catalog maintenance and collision warning, and these functions will only continue to increase in significance as our orbital regimes become more congested. However, as a result of potential adversary efforts, we must adopt a new philosophy for space—or rather, apply millennial-old concepts to an emerging warfighting AOR.

As rivals develop and field potential counterspace capabilities, designed to attack the crucial advantages that the United States has held dear, it would be remiss of the military space professional community to not draw from hard-learned lessons from other domains. I posit that cavalry doctrine provides a solid foundational doctrine from which to analyze the space paradigm with regards to AOR.

Reforming culture at Joint Task Force – Space Defense

The term “cavalry” is derived from the French “cavalerie”, meaning “horsemen”, which means soldiers who fought mounted on horseback. This provided the typical cavalry trooper with an element of mobility that was unafforded the typical foot soldier. This greater height, speed, and inertial mass afforded the typical cavalrymen certain unique advantages with regard traditional infantry that made them well-suited to perform certain missions. Those roles of cavalry forces have throughout history been divided into three primary functions: reconnaissance, security operations, and shock warfare.

Traditional concepts of SSA lend itself to a passive understanding of orbital paths that are dictated by Kepler et al. The primary focus of DoD orbital analysts has historically been to identify maneuvers after they take place, consider increasing tasking on sensors to generate more observations, update an orbit state, and run a close approach analysis, known as a COMBO (Computation of Miss Between Orbits). Our most skilled orbital analysts at the National Space Defense Center (NSDC) have spent a significant amount of time attempting to develop and analyze post-maneuver forensics throughout their careers. Sensors have traditionally been tasked with a focus on maintaining catalog accuracy to support collision avoidance and safety of flight. The NSDC is disrupting that model; transforming traditional SSA operations into focused, tactical information requirements and timelines.

Prior to the re-establishment of US Space Command (USSPACECOM), the Battles Space Awareness (BSA) cell existed within the Current Operations Division of the National Space Defense Center. The Current Operations Division was responsible for the day-to-day management of the crews and the execution of space defense operations for the Joint Functional Space Component Command (JFSCC) as part of US Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM). The BSA cell was composed of the orbital analysts on crew, the advanced day staff analytic support for astrodynamics forensics, and the orbital analyst support throughout the center, supporting a litany of functions, such as sensor optimization, acquisition, training, exercise development, and standardization.

Upon the standup of USSPACECOM, and the subsequent activation of Joint Task Force - Space Defense (JTF-SD), the role of the Battle Space Awareness cell was elevated to a stand-alone division within the JTF-SD J3 (Operations) and the NDSC, designated as the J-32 Space Reconnaissance Division and given the mission of transforming the 60-year-old archetype into a focused, agile organization that lays the basis for the superiority mission for JTF-SD, operating within the decision cycle of the adversary.

Applying reconnaissance concepts to space

The decision to designate the J-32 as the “Space Reconnaissance Division” as opposed to the “BSA Division” was a deliberate action designed to focus the analysts and community-at-large to the emerging threat environment. With regard to traditional SSA doctrine, the concept of “awareness” implies a vast breadth of understanding of the entire domain that, by its very nature, is shallow in depth and reactive in nature. Alternatively, leveraging a framework of reconnaissance doctrine orients the community to execute predictive analysis and evaluation. By focusing efforts onto specific areas, we can hypothesize Enemy Courses of Action (ECOAs) and assign sensors to confirm or deny these potential ECOAs. This is a powerful concept. Through acting proactively, we are able to seize the initiative in order to effectively apply the principals of war. We are operating within the adversary’s decision space by anticipating potential actions and planning against them. We are executing the concepts promulgated by the infamous Col. John Boyd’s Observation, Orientation, Decision, Action (OODA) Loop.[3]

Space Reconnaissance is the fusion of astrodynamics, operations, and intelligence.

By performing this evaluation, we are able to identify very specific information requirements in space and time that will enable us to assess and validate ECOAs. For example, assume we assess a certain geosynchronous threat to require proximity operations to execute an attack. Further, assume this threat is highly maneuverable and is drifting in longitude along the GEO belt. Space Reconnaissance Orbital Analysts (OAs) would be looking for threat indications of an inclination change (post nodal-crossings) that may indicate a very deliberate orbit-aligning maneuver to attempt to plane-match a High Value Asset (HVA), such as aligning orbital inclinations and right ascensions of the ascending node (RAAN). Because we have performed our analysis, we know what we would know the “what” and the “when” of what our systems would present to us for that possible ECOA, such as specific changes to the threat’s inclination or period. Before we’d even have enough data to create a new orbit state, the Space Recon OAs would have adequate information to alert the crew that a possible ECOA is being conducted. Simply put, we are investigating and assessing preemptive maneuver forensics.

These tried and true concepts are part and parcel for reconnaissance units in other domains. Intelligence experts routinely perform a Joint Intelligence Preparation of the Operational Environment (JIPOE), as described in Joint Publication 2-01.3. The steps covered in Chapter II are:

  • Define the Operational Environment (OE)
  • Describe the Impact of the OE
  • Evaluate the Adversary
  • Determine Adversary Courses of Action

The final step of Determining Adversary Courses of Action is to “identify initial collection requirements.” This phase includes developing an “Event Template” whose purpose is to “identify those Named Areas of Interest (NAIs) that are unique to the adoption of a specific adversary COA or limited set of COA.” This leads to the development of the Event Matrix “that supports the event template by providing details on the type of activity expected in each NAI, the times the activity is expected to occur, and the COAs with which the activity is associated. Although the primary purpose of the event matrix is to facilitate intelligence collection planning, it can also serve as a useful aid in situational development and wargaming.”[4]

Using the previous example of the geosynchronous threat, analysts would determine possible orbital paths that the threat satellite may take to attack the HVA, or identify specific orbital parameters that must be adjusted (such as inclination, period, drift rate, etc.) After conducting this evaluation, the team would identify what indicators or signatures could be observed and when they would be detected with regard to this particular ECOA. The team would then establish NAIs around potential maneuver locations, constrained and informed by physics-based intelligence assessments of fuel costs and satellite vehicle limitations.

Space Reconnaissance is the fusion of astrodynamics, operations, and intelligence. By appropriately recognizing the mission area, we can leverage proven concepts and reap dividends in our combat effectiveness. By framing our operations through the lens of combat-proven reconnaissance principals, we can more effectively employ our limited assets to provide the right information at the right time.

The fundamentals of (space) reconnaissance

Doctrinally, there are seven fundamentals of reconnaissance that provide a foundational perspective through which to view and evaluate the effectiveness of such operations. These fundamentals are:

  • Gain and maintain threat contact
  • Ensure continuous reconnaissance
  • Retain freedom of maneuver
  • Do not keep reconnaissance assets in reserve
  • Orient on the reconnaissance object
  • Report all information rapidly and accurately
  • Develop the situation rapidly

These concepts can be easily applied to space operations as exhibited below.

Gain and Maintain Threat Contact: The most straight-forward definition to space applications is the concept of “threat custody”. This definition has been somewhat fluid in recent times, but can be understood to mean that we establish a collection cadence such that a particular object will be unable to execute a maneuver that defeats our ability to observe said maneuver. This, of course, is a function of the threat’s maneuverability, our field of view, and the revisit rate of our sensors. It is unreasonable to expect to have all sensors available to stare at specific objects all of the time, therefore we must identify the specific information requirements and leverage our networks appropriately. Bottom Line: Know when, how, and why to look at your target, and then execute.

Adopting the principals and the initiatives of space reconnaissance enables US forces to establish the foundations for future victories in orbital warfare operations.

Ensure Continuous Reconnaissance: At first glance, this principle may seem contradictory to the preceding language and could lead the reader to assume that we will dedicate sensors to “stare” at a specific target. This may have the effect of potentially overwhelming the system with information and squandering resources. In actuality, this idea proposes that we must necessarily execute deliberate reconnaissance operations throughout the spectrum of operations. An instance may be a characterization operation of a particular adversary asset. Friendly forces must consider leveraging assets prior to the mission to develop activity baselines, during the operation to facilitate change detection and reactions to the collection, and post-mission operations to determine adversary responses. Bottom Line: Execute reconnaissance missions before, during, and after all operations.

Retain Freedom to Maneuver: By deliberately executing a thorough analysis of available sensors and assets, we can prevent ourselves from relying upon single points of failure. For example, if a particular terrestrial telescope is dedicated to maintain custody of a potential threat during a specific vulnerability period without regard to leveraging other sensors or phenomenologies, we could miss other hostile actions that are within that telescope’s field of regard. Bottom Line: Conduct holistic analysis and don’t put yourself into a position where only one sensor can fulfill for your information requirements.

Do Not Keep Reconnaissance Assets in Reserve: All sensors must be considered and leveraged in an Integrated Sensor Support Plan (ISSP). By failing to reasonably employ all available reconnaissance assets, we unnecessarily accept risk, whether through reduced collection cadence or lack of redundancy. Employ non-traditional SDA capabilities, such as star trackers or OPIR focal plane arrays, to meet reconnaissance requirements. Bottom Line: Maximize the use of all the assets at your disposal.

Orient on the Recon Objective: There an overwhelming number of objects in space and an ever-increasing demand of information requirements. By executing a systematic Event Template, we can identify specific adversary indicators that will inform our understanding of the situation. Cluttering information requirements reduces the effectiveness of our sensors and analysts. Bottom Line: Know what you need to know. “No one starts a war—or rather, no one in his sense ought to do so—without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by the war and how he intends to conduct it.” – Carl Von Clausewitz.[5]

Report All Information Rapidly and Accurately: In the previous example of an orbit plane change, we identified that we could ascertain valuable information about a potential adversary maneuver prior to having enough information to generate a new orbit state. By leveraging limited amounts of information earlier in the fight, we buy ourselves reaction time and maneuver space. Emphasize and prioritize low-latency communications paths. Bottom Line: Understand and exploit the information that you have, when you have it.

Develop the Situation Rapidly: As one of the four Characteristics of the Offense, “Tempo” is defined as “the rate of speed and rhythm of military operations over time with respect to the enemy. It reflects the rate of military action; controlling or altering that rate is essential for maintaining the initiative.”[6] By selecting and utilizing specific recon assets in a timely manner to rapidly characterize the nature and intent of potential threats, we swiftly develop the situation and enable the commander to respond in a time and place of their choosing. As an example, establish Patterns of Life for high-interest objects and rapidly report upon deviations from that pattern; for either positive or negative results. Bottom Line: Develop the flexibility to employ your assets in such a manner to quickly recognize the nature of any myriad of threats.

By applying these combat-proven fundamentals to the space AOR, US space superiority forces will benefit through focusing critical resources and attention to the critical information requirements on timelines that ensures its relevancy. Adopting the principals and the initiatives of space reconnaissance enables US forces to establish the foundations for future victories in orbital warfare operations. Failure to evolve our culture from a passive awareness mindset to a proactive reconnaissance approach will jeopardize US freedom of action in space and thus US global military hegemony.


  1. Shaw, John. E, Maj Gen, USAF. Space Domain Awareness (SDA) [Memorandum]. Peterson AFB, CO: Air Force Space Command. October 4, 2019
  2. Brodkin, Jon. (2017). SpaceX And OneWeb Broadband Satellites Raise Fears About Space Debris. Ars Technica.
  3. Boyd, John R. (2018). A Discourse on Winning and Losing. Air University Press.
  4. Joint Chiefs of Staff. (2014). Joint Intelligence Preparation of the Operational Environment (JP 2-01.3). 21 May 2014.
  5. Clausewitz, C. (1989). On war. 1st ed. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
  6. Department of the Army. Offense and Defense. (ADP 3-90). Washington, D.C. Headquarters, Department of the Army.

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