Air Force opens space war-fighting lab at Kirtland

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

A laboratory is being opened at Kirtland Air Force Base where scientists and engineers will do the cutting-edge research needed to build on the country’s space war-fighting skills.

AFRL Space Control Technologies Branch chief Brian Engberg gives a tour of the new Space Warfighting Operations Research & Development Laboratory at Kirtland Air Force Base on Thursday. About 65 scientists, engineers and support employees will work in the laboratory. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

The Air Force Research Laboratory’s Space Warfighting Operations Research & Development Laboratory, or SWORD, will consolidate in the same site about 65 scientists, engineers and support employees who make up the Space Vehicle Directorate’s Space Control Branch. The military and civilian personnel are currently spread throughout numerous buildings at Kirtland. Both Air Force and Space Force personnel will work at the lab.

“I would like to say that space war fighting looks like absolutely nothing is happening,” said Col. Eric Felt, the director of the Space Vehicles Directorate, which has headquarters at Kirtland. “The way the space war looks, I hope, is just like the Cold War looked, that our enemies are deterred from taking aggressive action in space, and therefore our space capabilities are still there whenever they are needed the most by our war fighters.”

As part of Thursday’s ribbon-cutting ceremony for the 26,000-square-foot, $12.8 million lab, Brian Engberg, AFRL Space Control Technologies Branch chief, gave a tour of unclassified lab space and described some of the research that will take place there.

For example, he said one section of a lab will be devoted to space cyber research. There are thousands of satellites throughout space that are used during day-to-day communication and GPS on Earth, and also by the military. At SWORD, experts will work to try to protect those assets from a cyber attack.

Engberg showed space where a mock satellite will be placed. Then, one group of researchers will use computers to try to attack the satellite while another team works to defend it.

“Through that process … we can start to identify where the vulnerabilities are and plug those leaks,” he said.

In another area, there will be a cage, and inside drones will be used as stand-ins for satellites in orbit. Engberg said the goal is to advance technology so that robotic satellites can be sent to space to repair or refuel satellites in different orbits.

“It’s very tricky dynamics, and we can simulate that,” he said.

Maj. Gen. Heather Pringle, the AFRL commander, called the lab the “linchpin” for keeping space around Earth a safe domain.

“Access to space is easier than it’s ever been and getting easier. It’s getting crowded up there,” she said. “We want to ensure that space can continue to be used for peaceful reasons.”

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