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USAF Brig. Gen. DeAnna Burt, director of operations and communications at Headquarters Air Force Space Command, announced major changes coming to the service's Undergraduate Space Training in a Nov. 2 keynote in Washington. Air Force photo.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify the distinction between a new combatant command and the possible creation of a separate military service dedicated to space.

USAF will maintain ownership of the service-specific Undergraduate Space Training even if US Space Command is established as a new combatant command, Air Force Brig. Gen. DeAnna Burt, director of operations and communications at Headquarters Air Force Space Command, told Air Force Magazine Friday.

"Regardless of how the structure comes out, ... whether it's a Space Force, or we stay in the Air Force, the service component would still have a training responsibility, so Undergraduate Space Training would still be in that service function," she explained in an interview at the Capitol Hill Club in Washington.

Service-specific space training will need to follow a similar model to that of special operations, in which each service individually trains up its own special operators, but Joint Special Operations University still exists as a central hub. In much the same way, she said, "a joint training element" would need to be created "at the combatant commander level" for space.

"Again, who UST works for—whether it's the Air Force or Space Force, it's still a service school, and it would stay in the service," she said. However, if a joint space-training program is established, the plan is to leverage UST faculty members' experience to help build it.

CHANGING-UP TRAINING

In the meantime, AFSPC will implement major changes to the Undergraduate Space Training program at Vandenberg AFB, Calif., beginning Oct. 1, 2019, Burt said Friday at an AFA Mitchell Institute event.

First, the UST course will be extended from 77 to 111 days to increase its depth.

"[If] you’re gonna get after how do you fight your weapons system and fight through things, you need more depth in the space domain, the basics and understandings of things," she said.

Another reason for extending the length of the program is that students attending the course will soon have to have a top secret security clearance, instead of a secret clearance. That's not an easy task considering the service's current backlog of security clearances.

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said earlier this year there were as many as 79,000 airmen and civilians waiting for their security clearance—a significant increase from the backlog of 48,000 in 2016. Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) introduced legislation in June that would modernize the security clearance process and tackle the growing backlog of background investigations, and Wilson said the service also was considering using Skype video chats for interviews, or setting up regional “hubs” for interviews that need to be held in person.

Despite the challenge, Burt said the change is necessary in order for USAF space operators to understand the space threats. She said space operators must be as sharp as F-16 pilots, who are taught to visually identify whatever aircraft or ground missile systems they may encounter.

"The intel community trains their pilots to that level," she continued. "We need that same training in space ... ."

Burt said AFSPC will get each student's clearance "paperwork started as they come in as a new accession" and put most of the more classified portion of the training "toward the end of the course" so airmen can be cleared "by the end of the class."

Finally, an exercise-like capstone will be added to the end of UST that will force students to apply their studies in a practical setting, she said.

Burt said the command is "not done" improving the course, and that she expects it to be extended "even further in the next year" as AFSPC's research into potential improvements continues.

For example, she said, the command also has been tasked with analyzing the joint submarine warfare course and exploring how to make airmen as fluent in space systems as submariners are in nuclear-sub systems.

"For anybody that teaches any course, ... anywhere, the class never stays stagnant," she said. "You’re always updating the course with the latest and greatest things that are going on, … and technology changes."