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National Guard-led Space Exercise Helps Build Programs for NATO Partners

  • Published
  • By Air Force Master Sgt. Erich B.Smith,
  • National Guard Bureau

RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany – About 50 members of the Air National Guard and Romanian and Polish Armed Forces focused on space as a warfighting domain during exercise Vulcan Guard Bolt 6 at NATO’s Allied Air Command in late March. 

The sixth iteration of the National Guard-led series underscored mission planning with the NATO partners as they develop their own space capabilities amid rising global threats in the domain. 

“Our military and our allies depend on assured access to space to be effective,” said Air Force Lt. Col. Ian Harper, a missile warning leader with National Guard Bureau Space Operations, and one of the exercise planners. “And it’s absolutely critical to our modern economies — from satellite communications to navigational systems — and our adversaries understand this.”

Vulcan Guard, he added, “gets after” those competitive threats by training at the tactical level with a strategic mindset.

“This exercise was focused on U.S. European Command, but it also brought in that global picture from the U.S. Space Command in order to make sure we are achieving their objectives when it comes to security cooperation,” Harper said. 

While NATO has conducted several exercises with space operations embedded in them, the latest iteration represents the first time the alliance had an exclusively space-based exercise, which included Airmen from eight units and five states. 

Air National Guard members led the teams and provided expertise in space domain awareness activities, joint commercial operations, cyber, satellite communications and intelligence. The exercise, which had its first iteration in February 2022, was organized into three teams comprised of Romania and Poland — both National Guard State Partnership Program members — and members from the Combined Forces Space Component for NATO, which includes space operators from various alliance partners. 

“It was definitely organized chaos,” said Air Force 2nd Lt. Drew Snyder, a flight commander at the Ohio Air National Guard’s 126th Intelligence Squadron, describing the scene where participants began mission planning operations. “We threw a lot of information at folks right off the bat.” 

Ultimately, he said, team members absorbed all the available data and started developing execution plans to best employ space effects necessary to meet specific objectives. 

“Once the participants got everything squared away, they started heading in the right direction, and it just takes that one team leader to add focus to the group,” said Snyder.

Army 2nd Lt. Emilia Patrulescu, a space operations officer with the Romanian Military Space and Radio Communications Agency, said learning from Air National Guard members helped steer her in the right direction despite some language barriers. 

“It was a big challenge at first. I hear everything in my head, and then I have to translate it,” said Patrulescu, who also participated in Global Sentinel, another space-based exercise earlier in the year. “But the Americans used simple, complete and exact words [and] made it very easy to understand.”

She said Vulcan Guard gave her the confidence to go back home and quickly help build a robust space program. 

“I can do the analysis [portion of space mission planning] better, I have more information and I know where to ask more questions,” Patrulescu said. Because of the exercise, she is “more aware of all the things that are happening, and all the things that could be happening, in the space domain.”

For Air Force Lt. Col. Maciej Wereszczynski, a senior specialist in the Space Technology Branch in Poland’s Ministry of National Defence, the exercise reinforced something he already knew. 

“NATO faces a really serious geopolitical situation in Europe — especially with Poland as a flank nation, and it’s very important for us to understand the capabilities and weapons systems we will possess soon,” he said.

Wereszczynski added the space exercise was “eye-opening” for junior officers.

“They did an amazing job and were fully engaged with everything — the number of injects in the exercise scenarios and keeping pace with it,” he said.

While observing the exercise, Air Force Maj. Gen. Richard R. Neely, the top officer for the Illinois National Guard, said Poland’s aggressive military modernization efforts — to include M1 Abrams Tanks, missile defense systems and soon-to-be delivered F-35 Lightening II fighters — is already extending into the space domain. 
“I know that Vulcan Guard will give them a new perspective on space and space operations and how it ties back to national security,” Neely said.

As part of the Defense Department’s State Partnership Program, the Illinois Guard has a 31-year relationship with the Polish Armed Forces. 

“While the Illinois National Guard does not have a space program, what we can do is create a conduit as we understand their needs because of our partnership,” Neely said. 

Wereszczynski agreed, adding Vulcan Guard proves that such partnerships are the way ahead to meet any challenges.

“Poland wants to continue this very fruitful cooperation with the National Guard, and we are hoping to host the next [Europe-based] iteration of Vulcan Guard,” Wereszczynski said.

Several of the more than 30 Air National Guard members in the exercise demonstrated how skill sets acquired from civilian careers enhanced their military ones. 

“I think it’s a very symbiotic relationship,” said Air Force Staff Sgt. Ryan Keenen, an intelligence specialist with the New York Air National Guard’s 222nd Command and Control Squadron. “Events like Vulcan Guard benefit from my space role [in my civilian career], which helps to work through problems posed by the exercise.”

U.S. Space Force Col. John Patrick, the director of the NATO Space Center and the chief of staff of the Combined Forces Space Component for NATO, described leveraging civilian skills as bringing that “corporate knowledge” into the fight. 

“And it’s not only what they get from outside [employers], but you have for example a young staff sergeant that has been embedded on a space system for a number of years and knowing exactly how it works,” Patrick said. “That’s what the Guard is there for — to be the subject matter experts for these [space-based] systems.”

Patrick touted the Citizen-Airman construct as an invaluable tool in the overall space mission. 

“It just brings another level of competency that sometimes we don’t get in the Space Force because we’re rotating from job to job,” he said. 

Closing out the exercise, Air Force Staff Sgt. Dhruva Poluru, a plans and strategy specialist with the New York Air National Guard’s 222nd Command and Control Squadron, said the exercise’s motto of “Forged in Fire” is a fitting one. 

“There are so many layers, and so many variables that are present before and during the exercise,” said Poluru. “So, I think everyone feels initially like they are thrown in the deep end; but eventually, we come out stronger.”

Harper, the exercise planner, said Air National Guard members should leave Vulcan Guard with a proficiency in the mission planning process — a must when integrating other service components.

“Land, air, sea and cyber domains all depend on space, so we need to make sure our young Airmen understand the importance of mission planning and how it is done from a joint perspective,” he explained. 

This also includes building and fostering relationships from the onset with global partners in space operations.

“We need to know how to treat our allies, communicate with our allies and learn from our allies,” Harper said. “So when there’s a contingency or a crisis [and] we need to perform operationally with our partners, we’ve already built that foundation — that bedrock — to plan effectively.” 

Guard officials are planning the seventh iteration of the Vulcan Guard series as an Indo-Pacific focused exercise.