Wing sharpens focus on contested environment

  • Published
  • By Scott Prater
  • 50th Space Wing
During the summer of 1861, a pair of competing visionaries ushered in the concept of aerial reconnaissance when they successfully piloted gas-filled balloons hundreds of feet into the air. In separate events, John LaMountain and Thadeus Lowe viewed Confederate troop encampments and reported their findings to Union Army officers.

As soon as Confederate soldiers learned that their adversaries had developed eyes in the sky, they quickly developed strategies to shoot them down, ushering in the concept of contested air space.

While time and technology have served to transform the domains of contention, 150 years later the notions of contested space and cyberspace have become such strategically important concepts that the 50th Space Wing Commander, Col. Wayne Monteith, included them in the wing's revised vision statement. The terms have also been accentuated in the Air Force motto.

"It's about recognition," said Col. Michael Finn, the commander of the 50th Network Operations Group. "We enable information for the warfighter and national security decision makers. So we have to recognize a shift in thinking about the information domain, from one that is support centric, to one that is about preserving our freedom of action in the domain, while denying our adversary the same when called upon to do so."

Colonel Finn went on to explain that the wing provides an asymmetric advantage to the warfighter, because of its information capabilities. As a result, its space assets and networks become targets.

"That's the reason we've started treating the cyberspace domain like a warfighting domain instead of a support domain," he said.

Colonel Finn explained that contested cyberspace presents a unique challenge to military leaders because access to the domain is unlimited.

"There is no other domain we operate in, from a military perspective, where we have so many near peers," he said. "Given the low-cost access to the cyberspace domain, anybody can participate. The domain then is contested because not only are there a multitude of hackers, viruses and criminals, but there are some nations and non- state actors that can present a near-peer capability. So we have to pay attention to that."

So, are 50th SW leaders actually charging operations commanders with dominating space and cyberspace? Not exactly.

To be effective in their reconnaissance flights 150 years ago, Union Army commanders didn't need to control the air space along the entire Eastern Seaboard.

"(In the air domain), we don't have to control every cubic meter of air space in the world," Colonel Finn said. "We apply our resources where we need to operate and ensure freedom of action in the domain. We put our energy there, and then we're very good at dominating the localized area. That applies in cyberspace as well. We have to understand where we apply our resources in order to dominate."

The 50th SW is fairly unique among Air Force installations in that it must deal with contested environments in two major domains.

"I think the key here is that we operate in that intersection of space and cyber," Colonel Finn said. "We must have folks who are experts in both domains. We don't do cyberspace for cyberspace, we do cyberspace operations in support of our satellite operations."

For Lt. Col. Eric Dorminey, the 22nd Space Operations commander, contested space implies forethought and malice.

"Somebody is coming after us," he said. "I think we have adversaries who are not only capable, but willing."

He conjures the image of an infantryman shooting at a balloon and compares it to our adversaries attempting to disrupt the operation of our space assets.

"I think we're seeing ourselves migrate through the evolution of the space domain," he said. "You start with reconnaissance, observing things from space, and move into communicating through space, which we've been doing for years. What follows is the concept of contested space. Our adversary is going to be shooting at us, in effect, to eliminate our eyes and ears. Whether that's jamming satellite communication, physically attacking the asset on orbit, or disrupting our ability, in the cyberenvironment or otherwise, to command and control them, ... really, in the end game, the effect is the same. The idea is to interrupt the utility of the medium."

Colonel Dorminey said the 50th SW reacts to these threats by increasing its rigor and encouraging squadrons to learn and adapt to threats.

"We now have weapons and tactics flights in each squadron," he said. "Each of those flights is charged with exploiting the weapons system in their purview, and those weapons and tactics flight chiefs are constantly engaged. Ten years ago they didn't exist."

The wing's senior leaders worked for two months to revise language for the vision statement, and Colonel Monteith unveiled the new statement during his commander's call March 28.

"The world's premier space operations team is dominating contested space, cyberspace and expeditionary environments," he said.

"It means we can't just operate these networks, and command and control our satellites," Colonel Finn said. "We have to be able to react to adversarial actions and environmental actions. We also have to be agile in our operations and our thinking in order to survive in this environment."