The Kill Chain in Space: Developing a Warfighting Mindset
Is the United States headed for war that begins in or extends into space? We should hope not. As Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein recently observed, “If a war actually starts in space, everybody loses.” But deterring conflict in space requires credible and effective responses to aggression. The U.S. Air Force and U.S. Space Command, in partnership with industry, are developing options to field the sensors, shooters, and command and control nodes required to fight in, through, and from space by engaging targets. But the development of space-minded warfighters is the best way to make joint space operations more credible and responsive by both enabling and increasing the lethality of multidomain operations, or what the Joint Staff now calls “joint all-domain command and control.” The U.S. military needs to show commanders, partners, and potential adversaries that it can achieve objectives in any domain by executing all the steps needed to be able to take action in space when required. This requires a vastly different mindset than America’s historic focus in space, which has been to optimize space support to operations in other domains. Space operations have historically been split between multiple organizations with varying missions. With the U.S. military’s new commitment to develop a dedicated space force, these diverse agencies should develop a more comprehensive unity of effort.
To make the transition from being space operators to space warfighters who deter aggression in space, members of a future space force should be able to complete chains of operations by organizing their tactics using an operational methodology. An effective method demands an ability to distinguish friend from foe, maintain custody of a threat, engage a threat to the degree and for the duration necessary, gauge success within a timeframe that adds value toward an objective, and — most importantly — know how to take these actions based on input from any sensor, engage with any shooter, and be agnostic to the domain from which the threat arises.
The Air Force already has such a methodology in the service’s Weapons School curriculum: find, fix, track, target, engage, and assess, also known as F2T2EA or the kill chain. The kill chain is a tightly woven fabric of sensors, shooters, and command and control nodes from special operations to space systems. When networked, the kill chain can radically reduce response times to threats, improve situational awareness, increase precision and reach, and minimize collateral damage. Successes on the battlefield have shifted the operational paradigm to increase the importance of joint, networked command and control systems; persistent intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance; and the integration of traditional and nontraditional sensors and shooters. The value of the kill chain approach to warfare is well known and resolved a similar issue in air domain operations. The kill chain’s integration into Air Force air-to-ground operations in the 1990s drove emerging target response times down from hours to single-digit minutes, mitigating disconnect between multiple tactical, operational, and intelligence organizations and further refining subsequent design and integration of new air domain capabilities. The kill chain approach has made everything about the tactical competence of military forces more effective by providing a common process to solve tactical and operational problems, from collecting and filtering intelligence to striking and assessing long-range mobile targets. The fusing of sensors, shooters, and C2 across the special operations and space operations communities during Operation Enduring Freedom proved transformational in redefining how precise precision engagement could be and began an era of increasing dependence on space by the Department of Defense. The benefits of using the kill chain model in the air domain translate through a similar integrative approach for space. The different steps of the F2T2EA process provide a roadmap for achieving a space warfighter mindset and the foundation of a more lethal space force. As technological capabilities continue to advance to increase lethality and accuracy, the relationships and processes that guide those capabilities should keep pace with the threat. Adapting the kill chain approach to space warfare is the best way to do so. Furthermore, incorporating the kill chain methodology into space-mindedness requires an emphasis on intelligence support of space warfare and improving connectivity between sensor operators and shooters.
Find: Building More Actionable Awareness
To put F2T2EA into practice, operators begin with finding, which is inherently an intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance function. Finding requires the deliberate seeking of some objective derived from a joint commander requirement. The legacy approach to space-based surveillance is space situational awareness, which is focused on finding and tracking in a predictive manner within the context of a benign environment and therefore lacks the focus to find uncooperative threats. In many ways, space situational awareness prioritizes space traffic management and focuses less on distinguishing friend from foe.
The space situational awareness approach utilizes a catalog of orbiting space objects to predict their movement and potential conjunctions with other space objects, project the future placement of spacecraft and associated debris, and forecast risks associated with other predictable activities. To move beyond space situational awareness, operators should incorporate actionable intelligence to understand known threats in the operating environment as well as use other classified means to evaluate the domain.
A shift to space domain awareness will provide more encompassing and a higher quality of data when compared with space situational awareness and has the potential to offer commanders a distinction between friendly and hostile spacecraft within actionable timelines. For example, if satellites simply followed their predicted orbits and could not be used in an unpredictably hostile manner, then risk would only result from accidental conjunction or reentry, and legacy processes would be enough to warn operators as satellites encountered perturbations or experienced errors. In an era where competitors desire to hold U.S. space capabilities and, as a result, national power projection at risk, it has become far more difficult to anticipate satellite activity with those existing capabilities and methodologies. As nations impose their will in the space domain, satellites maneuver, react, and respond, requiring the same type of fidelity that provides location data for friendly and adversarial forces on the ground, in the air, and on the seas. It is useless, negligent, and potentially dangerous to invest in the ability to shoot without the ability to see — but responsive awareness of an entire domain is expensive, even if the sole focus is lines of communication such as ports, lanes, or — in the space domain — spaceports and orbital regimes.
Fix: Locking Onto a Potential Aggressor
Once space domain awareness has been achieved in the find phase, carrying that mentality through the kill chain means locking onto a potential aggressor’s orientation in time, orbit, and/or transit, which will require more than just high-quality sensors. A responsive intelligence infrastructure with the ability to provide real-time analysis is necessary to distinguish between friend and foe. Fixing requires the ability to distinguish the object from its surroundings — which may include natural or man-made noise — and then accurately determine its position and intent for the purposes of maintaining custody of a potential target. The Department of Defense has by far the most capable space situational awareness sensors and operators in the world. A kill chain approach to fixing potential hostile actors will help to ensure space warfighters are organized, trained, and equipped to maintain custody of an aggressor as it passes out of the range of one sensor and into the range of another. This ability to maintain custody of an aggressor begins in the fix phase but is optimized in the track phase.
Track: Maintaining Custody of a Potential Target Requires More Than Technology
Tracking a spacecraft in orbit requires defendable and resilient sensors both on the surface and in space that can maintain custody of an aggressor until a target solution is possible. While sensor capabilities continue to keep pace with potential risks, the current location of these sensors may not be ideal in a wartime scenario. Adopting a warfighter mentality for tracking requires developing this part of the kill chain beyond the technical ability to maintain custody — these capabilities should be positioned in defendable locations to maintain resilience throughout the kill chain. Tracking in the context of space warfare also depends on international partnerships, data-sharing agreements, and a secure global network capable of automatically handing off potential aggressors between disparate nodes while adapting to countermeasures and attempts to evade. Building the requisite processes and relationships along the kill chain methodology even while relying on legacy technologies will increase the speed and accuracy of tracking and follow-on targeting in the same way it did for air domain operations.
Target: Aiming Shooter(s) Across Time and Domains
The targeting phase shifts prioritization from simply tracking an aggressor to being able to take action against it. It requires allocation of weapons and associated resources — often requiring unique authorities to be able to engage an identified aggressor. In this phase, space sensors will become part of a holistic weapons system when operated by space-minded warfighters who understand their relationship to F2T2EA, which ultimately allows them to hold aggressors at risk for the purposes of follow-on engagement. A key benefit of the kill chain methodology is that it provides not just speed but also control and responsiveness. This agility means that targeting itself can become a solution to deter potential aggressors: If the adversary can see the sensor system’s shift to targeting — the aiming of a weapon — then engaging the target may not be necessary. Similarly, when every input into a targeting solution adds either confusion or precision, the rigor of a kill chain approach works to limit collateral damage, which can do far more to harm national security than doing nothing at all. Targeting at the time and place of America’s choosing in, through, and from the space domain is impossible without the ability to find, fix, and track any object from launch to orbit.
Engage: Engaging the Aggressor at the Time and Place of America’s Choosing
Engaging in space remains in flux. Today, America’s capabilities to engage remain limited, but true space warfare will involve imagining the new capabilities that will be required tomorrow. Engagement may simply be alerting an adversary that the United States is aware of what they are doing, or it may mean finding ways to attack in space that are analogous to engagement in terrestrial domains. The act of engagement has both deliberate and time-sensitive options that mandate pre-planning within the context of the law, international norms, treaties and partnerships, and civil or commercial equities. In other words, if the United States intends to use space as another joint operating area for military power projection, it should quickly define the “perimeter” it plans to defend, the norms it believes are in the best interest of global security, and what role space will play in deterrence. Engagement is dependent on rules of engagement, which are an extension of national policy.
Assess: Determining and Redefining Success
Without the ability to provide an assessment of successful engagement within a relevant timeline, it becomes difficult to conduct follow-on actions or measure success. In other words, did the United States do what it intended to do at the time and place it intended to? Assessment in space is particularly challenging because of the need to layer and synchronize space warfighting activities with other joint military and interagency actions. Timing the interaction of two orbiting bodies is hard to begin with. Synchronizing the timing of a third body to monitor the interaction is even harder. It might be possible to use the weapon to also conduct the assessment (similar to using an electro-optical sensor on a bomb as a form of assessment), but these capabilities require operators to shift their mindset beyond operations excellence. Space-minded warfighters should know how to adapt the use of their sensors to achieve warfighting objectives.
Assessment is the linchpin of the kill chain — the thread that links all of the steps together into an operational methodology — yet it is the most undervalued of all the elements. Assessment is far more than an intelligence evaluation. From a space warfare perspective, assessment in, through, and from the space domain marries intelligence with education and experience to understand what is happening as it happens and why it matters toward achieving larger national security objectives. A kill chain approach would improve the coordination needed to actually figure out how to monitor engagements in space while providing the foundation for feeding that knowledge back into the organizations responsible for engagement — all so space-minded warfighters can adapt and improve faster than the adversary can.
Building the Kill Chain in Space
With a charge to organize, train, and equip forces to assure unfettered access to, deter aggression in, and project power from the space domain, America’s future space force can draw upon the U.S. Air Force’s decades of experience in air and space operations. However, the fielding of new weapons alone will not be enough to overcome systemic hurdles in today’s space operations mindset. A kill chain approach will prepare U.S. space warfighters to effectively use current and future capabilities to find, fix, and track hostile targets in the space domain, seize the initiative, and quickly assess engagement to achieve national defense objectives. As the U.S. Air Force prepares to conceive a new service, now is the time to develop its space warfighter mindset so that future joint all-domain capabilities will have the range and interconnectedness to compete, deter adversaries, and win in space.
Raj Agrawal is a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Weapons School and the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, and is a distinguished graduate of the Dwight D. Eisenhower School and the Air Command and Staff College. He has a PhD in Business Administration from Northcentral University. He served as commander for the 20th Space Control Squadron from 2016 to 2018 and as a space integrator in five different Air and Space Operations Centers from 2007 to 2012.
Christopher Fernengel is a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Weapons School, the Joint and Combined Warfighting School, and the Air Command and Staff College and a distinguished graduate of the College of Naval Command and Staff and the Marine Corps War College. He served as commander of the 4th Space Control Squadron from 2016 to 2018 and commander of the 17th Expeditionary Space Control Squadron in Afghanistan in 2018.