A guardian participates in the Orbital Defense Initiation course at Schriever Space Force Base, Colorado, March 1, 2022.

A guardian participates in the Orbital Defense Initiation course at Schriever Space Force Base, Colorado, March 1, 2022. Space Force / Dennis Rogers

How the ‘Stormbringers’ are Preparing for War in Space

The Space Force’s orbital warfare unit is teaching its guardians about the “offensive and defensive fires” they might need for conflict.

As the U.S. Space Force prepares for conflict in space, the service’s orbital warfare unit is training its guardians to respond to provocations from Russia or China.

Based at Schriever Air Force Base, Colorado, Space Delta 9 aims to “cultivate a deep understanding” of “offensive and defensive fires” so it can preserve access to space and respond to on-orbit threats if necessary, said Space Delta 9 Commander Col. Mark Bigley.

Since most military space technology remains classified, the Pentagon has not been explicit about what “offensive” weapons might look like in the space domain—or whether it would involve jamming or physically destroying an adversary’s spacecraft.

Regardless, Bigley told Defense One the Space Force must prepare its satellite operators to respond, because both Russia and China have demonstrated they are “capable and willing” to develop systems that disrupt peaceful space operations.

“As we've seen them demonstrate those capabilities, [that] has given us some insight into what those countries’ systems are capable of and understanding how we may have to protect and defend against those in the future,” Bigley said.

Russia in 2021 conducted a hit-to-kill anti-satellite test, creating more than 1,500 pieces of debris. China has proved its ability to grab and tow spacecraft with its S-J 21 satellite, which recently took a defunct Chinese satellite out of geostationary orbit.

There’s no longer any question of whether space has been weaponized, Maj. Gen. David Miller, U.S. Space Command director of operations, training, and force development, said Monday during a Mitchell Institute event.

“We've got to…stop debating if it's a warfighting domain. Stop debating whether there are weapons and get to the point of how do we responsibly, as part of the joint combined force, deter conflict that nobody wants to see, but if we do see it, demonstrate our capability to win as a part of a joint and combined team?” Miller said. 

One of Delta 9’s primary missions is space domain awareness—an area the Space Force has heavily invested in because “knowing what's happening in the domain is critical for us to be ready for any sort of contingency, to avoid operational surprise and to make sure that we're able to provide options to national leadership to respond if and when our friendly capabilities are put at risk,” Bigley said.  

That includes monitoring the domain, the status of U.S. space assets, and the behaviors of Russia and China, he said.

The stakes are high—if the U.S. doesn’t hold other nations accountable for their actions in space, Bigley said, adversaries could disrupt the space-based services we depend on.  

“And disruption is just at the low end. At the high end, a war that extends into space would be damaging to the way that the United States uses space and the way the rest of the world relies on space,” he said. “We don't want to see that happen.” 

The bulk of the Space Force’s domain awareness missions are conducted by space surveillance satellites—called GSSAP, or the Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program—“our neighborhood watch capability,” Bigley said.  

“These satellites move throughout the geostationary orbit, they're an effective sensor to be able to understand and attribute all sorts of activities from assessing [our satellite system’s] health to understanding from a domain awareness perspective what's happening in geosynchronous, which is a very important orbit for the United States and for allies because it hosts so many high value sensors like military satellite communications,” he said.

Delta 9 monitors satellite communications closely because they are “critical to our national leadership” and could be a target in the future, Bigley said. 

“Systems like that, which again we consider high value assets, would be something that we know that we may be tasked to protect, or to attribute actions against if those were ever threatened,” he said. 

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has clearly illustrated the importance of satellite communications during war. SpaceX’s Starlink, a constellation made up of 4,000 small satellites that reside in low Earth orbit, has helped Ukrainian soldiers target Russian forces. Elon Musk’s company sent thousands of satellite internet terminals to Ukraine in the months following Russia’s invasion, and the Pentagon confirmed earlier this month that the U.S. is buying more Starlink for Ukraine. 

Back in the U.S., Bigley said Delta 9’s ability to bring “combat power and combat credibility to bear” is represented by the unit’s unique name—“Stormbringers”—which was coined after a thunderstorm came rolling over the horizon during the ceremony establishing the unit in 2020. 

“It's become a rallying cry for Delta 9 and it came out of that first day when we were activated, and we saw the power of the Great Plains of Colorado come to bear on us that day, which is something that a lot of the members here, I'd say all of them, really take to heart and say that, when called upon, Delta 9 will bring the storm,” Bigley said.