Accelerating Change: Addressing Space Threats to RPA Operations

  • Published
  • By Spec. 4 Yuji and 2nd Lt. Bryce
  • 25th Attack Group

As the Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) enterprise shifts focus from counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations (COIN/CT), it is paramount the elephant in the room is addressed: beyond line of sight (BLOS) RPA operations dependencies on civilian satellite communication (SATCOM).

The dependency on civilian space-based communications for the RPA enterprise has created a critical center of gravity, our “Achilles heel,” that our near-peer adversaries seek to exploit. It is no secret the RPA enterprise’s success is directly attributed to air and space superiority.

The compromise of either domain equates to the inoperability of global RPA operations.

Near-peer adversaries understand this and are developing space-based weapons at an alarming rate to directly target the RPA enterprise’s dependency on civilian SATCOM. We cannot wait for SATCOM loss mitigating upgrades to space-based systems. The RPA enterprise must accelerate change now through education and joint integration.

Before we can address solutions for RPA SATCOM dependencies, we must first understand the ever-growing adversarial threats in the space domain.

Space and the RPA Enterprise

The world has entered a new Space Age. Where global superpowers were once competing in a space race to the moon for exploration, they are now racing toward space dominance and survivability for the next major conflict.

Access to space has become much more financially obtainable for both commercial and military means. As a result, our near-peer adversaries have shifted their military focus to the space domain. China has already fielded ground and space-based anti-satellite (ASAT) missiles, lasers, and jammers which can damage or degrade satellites in the low earth orbit (LEO) and geosynchronous equatorial orbit (GEO‚Äč).

Russia, on the other hand, is actively training its space elements and fielding new ASAT weapons. Non-kinetic and kinetic counter-space weapons, including jamming and cyberspace capabilities, directed energy weapons, and on-orbit capabilities, are being developed to target US and allied satellites.

Capabilities such as this foreshadow a daunting future for our RPA operations if we fail to innovate.

Unfortunately, we have succumbed to the intoxicating comfort of complacency by relying on commercial SATCOM for almost 20 years of BLOS RPA operations. We have neglected the need to pursue more secure means of protection for our most vital line of communication our operations depend on.

Since 9/11, the Predator and Reaper platforms have been reliant on civilian SATCOM in order to operate globally against adversaries who lack the means to effectively disrupt American military operations.

Many of our foes since 9/11 have been limited to commercial off-the-shelf products, lack major sources of funding, and do not have complex military organization, ultimately limiting potential space-based effects designed to challenge the RPA’s SATCOM center of gravity. This has provided American RPAs the luxury of operating in uncontested airspace, achieving flexible airpower in support of both regional and national objectives.

As an enterprise, the unprecedented issue of vulnerable civilian SATCOM has challenged us to rethink how we operate. Unprecedented issues must be met with unprecedented, outside-the-box solutions. China and Russia have wasted no time applying outside-the-box solutions and are adapting specific non-kinetic and kinetic space-based weapons designed to target our platforms. The employment of these weapons are based on their observations pertaining to how America has utilized RPAs effectively against asymmetric and unconventional tactics in the last 20 years.

Our near-peer adversaries have also constructed Anti Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) weapon systems, making the likelihood of future conventional military confrontation resemble Russia’s 2014 seizure of Crimea: asymmetric and unconventional operations designed to surprise the enemy through means of information dominance and electronic warfare.

These covert operations will ultimately keep the RPA enterprise more relevant than ever in future conflicts because our adversaries know that America struggles in asymmetric and unconventional environments and needed to rely heavily on persistent ISR and dynamic targeting from the RPA enterprise for success.

Born from a select few individuals at the unit-level who worked directly with the Predator during the onset of the war on terror, this success provided timely innovative solutions while simultaneously executing operations. Therefore, it is imperative that the RPA enterprise empowers its Airmen to learn and understand impending space-based threats which could degrade operations in order to drive innovation at the lowest level: the attack squadrons.

Proposed Solutions

Empowerment begins with education and integration, specifically within attack squadrons. There are several distance learning programs readily available that Airmen at all levels in the RPA enterprise can utilize in order to become more familiar with the operations and threats that reside in the space domain.

The National Security Space Institute (NSSI) offers two foundational courses: Introduction to Space (ITS) and Space 100 (SP 100). ITS is designed for all service members with little to no exposure to space, familiarizing students with a wide range of topics from space history to future systems. SP 100 complements ITS by teaching a basic understanding of space systems available to the military and how those systems are utilized to support global joint military operations, to include the RPA enterprise.

Another organization offering distance learning courses is the 319th Combat Training Squadron (CTS), co-located with the NSSI. The RPA enterprise would benefit most by taking the Introduction to Space Electronic Warfare (SEW) course. SEW begins with a basic foundation of electronic warfare, covering topics such as the electromagnetic spectrum, Radio Frequency (RF) communications, and basic knowledge of space capabilities that support SEW.

However, education is not enough to solve the commercial SATCOM problem. As primary users of space assets, the RPA enterprise needs the direct help of the Space Force in order to support space enabled RPA operations in future asymmetric and unconventional conflicts with near-peer adversaries.

With this in mind, the most logical solution is to embed Space Force LNOs at every Attack Squadron, emphasizing the synergy required to operate in two domains simultaneously.

Currently, an example of this joint-relationship is embodied in the established process of embedded Army Ground Liaison Officers (GLO) at the Attack Squadron level. The purpose of this integration would be to continue to foster a joint warfighter culture, where all Attack Squadrons could utilize Space Force LNOs for mission planning against near-peer adversaries. Space Force LNOs would also be able to provide direct reach back to Air Operation Centers (AOC) and the Combined Space Operations Center (CSpOC) for immediate coordination in the event that our civilian SATCOM links are attacked.

Direct reach-back to operations centers with Space Force personnel from an individual who is specifically trained on space assets will shorten the kill chain response to lost communication link issues, allowing for RPA operations to continue with minimal mission degradation. Furthermore, they would also have the ability to reach out to commercial SATCOM companies in the event of significant communication disruption between AOCs and the CSpOC, allowing attack squadrons to remain flexible during multi-domain conflicts.

Former Secretary of Defense James Mattis stated, “The supremacy of the American military is not preordained.”

Thus, in order to succeed in future contested environments, the RPA enterprise cannot wait for innovative systems to become operational within the next 10 years.

To secure our place in the skies during Great Power competition, we need to ensure we are first educated on the counter-space threats against SATCOM for RPAs and additionally work toward simple solutions at the most basic level to drive collaboration and innovation across the force. Our failure to innovate today only ensures the success of our adversaries tomorrow.

Special thanks to Captain Christopher, Chief of Intelligence Weapons and Tactics for the 25ATKG, for his guidance, direction, and support towards writing this article. His mentorship directly helped shape the views and opinions presented within this paper.