NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. — As midnight quickly approaches this July evening, the 100-degree temperatures fall to a mere 98 degrees on the base just outside of Las Vegas. The blue light from Vega’s laptop illuminates his face, as he goes to work, trying to determine if there’s a maintenance issue with the avionics, or if something worse occurred.
An hour passes before Vega makes the determination—adversaries have degraded the system through an attack on space assets.
Vega, a member of the 555th Fighter Squadron, is one of 3,500 service members participating in exercise Red Flag 16-3, a realistic air combat training exercise that provides approximately 1,900 possible targets, threat systems and opposing enemy forces.
A quarter mile away under the cover of night, Capt. Brian Goodman and Senior Master Sgt. Thomas Arns prepare to test F-16 maintainers, like Vega, on what a space attack may look like should an adversary attempt one.
The squadron of maintainers have been told the F-16 Fighting Falcon’s pilots experienced degraded GPS system during flight.
As Goodman and Arns, members of the 527th Space Aggressor Squadron from Schriever Air Force Base, Colorado, launch their mission to degrade the fighter squadron’s GPS systems like a potential adversary may try to do, avionics specialist scramble, trying to figure out if their equipment is failing, or if an adversary is attacking them.
In this example, think of the avionics Airmen as boxers. Hitting a punching bag may help with endurance, but few things help more than training within someone who can punch you back, just like an opponent will. They need a training adversary who thinks like an enemy and fights back.
“I am a professional bad guy. I get paid to be your enemy,” said Goodman, a smirk displayed across his face.
Goodman, a prior enlisted aircraft maintainer, is part of a team of 25 active-duty and Reserve Airmen from the 527th and 26th SAS, conducting space aggressor operations at Nellis as part of the three-week Red Flag 16-3 exercise.
The 12,000 square miles of airspace and 2.9 million acres of land at the Nevada Test and Training Range serve as the Red Flag boxing arena, where red and blue forces, also known as the good guys and the bad guys, battle in air, space and cyberspace domains.
“We are somebody who goes into the ring with the good guy,” Goodman said. “As aggressors, our job is to be the sparring partner for blue forces.”
To provide the best possible opponent, the space aggressors must think like an enemy. In doing so, their opponent must think and react to a freethinking “enemy” rather than a pretend scenario.
“We research, we train and we replicate adversary tactics against space assets,” said Arns—the squadron superintendent who is also a fully qualified aggressor, like every squadron member.
As part of their mission of teaching warfighters, the space aggressors conduct training mission to educate forces on how to identify threats and mitigate their effects. Then, the team replicates the adversary tactics during Red Flag.
“During the exercise, they see the enemy effects,” Arns said. “They can apply what they learned from us and overcome what we are doing.”
Dubbed as the space bad guys, the team leverages techniques and capabilities among others to present a realistic and relevant adversary. The aggressors provide operationally degraded GPS environment, attack communication satellites and establish red force system network, serving as blue forces’ targets.
“We are presenting them problem sets that they have to critically think through, develop solutions for and go out there and execute them,” Goodman said.
As Red Flag progresses, the aggressors ramp things up, including the space threats. They play more challenges with the intent of ensuring the warfighters continue to progress and learn from their mistakes and achievements.
“We don’t take pride in crushing blue forces,” Arns said. “If we dominate them, there’s no added benefit for these folks. We want blue forces to win. We want them to realize we are engaging them, and then use logic and tactics and overcome what we are doing. It makes them better warfighters.”
Goodman said conducting a realistic space threats during Red Flag ensures a warfighting force better prepared for combat.
“Ultimately, when you are in a real life fight …, the fog and friction of war and the myriad of things that go on in the middle of a battle presents a different landscape when you’re operating in a simulator or a virtual or constructed environment. Being able to fight in a real time with a thinking adversary hones your on-the-spot critical thinking and problem-solving skills,” he explained.
With space systems, such as GPS and military satellite communications, integrated into the Air Force mission, training warfighters into overcoming adversary threats has become important.
“There are adversaries who see how much space brings to the table and how much space has become critical to us in waging and winning wars. They want to take that piece away,” said Goodman.
Gone are the days when space is free range. It is becoming more congested and contested, he continued. This is one of the reasons why the space aggressors exist.
“If you want to be a better fighter, you need to find somebody who will challenge you to be better,” Goodman continued. “We challenge space forces to get better. And they do. We as an Air Force and American people have a more competent, resilient and more battle-hardened and more war-ready space force. We play into that fight.”