For most people, the term “Big Top” conjures up colorful images of circus entertainers performing amazing, high-energy acts inside a massive, mobile tent. For the U.S. Air Force, Big Top represents an entirely different, but no less exciting arena—one where future space control operators will be able to hone their craft using a dynamic, virtual, “train-like-we-fight” simulation tool.   

The use of space for transmitting communications signals—data, voice, internet and other media—has become commonplace, and with that has come the increased potential for adversaries to disrupt the flow of critical information and threaten national security. Now more than ever, warfighters responsible for ensuring U.S. freedom of action in space must be at the top of their game, ready for everything from protecting against system attacks to keeping up with technology innovations and new satellite spectral environments.

For years, the Air Force has conducted its space control testing and training at the secure and controllable environment provided by the Space Test and Training Range (STTR). “Now the Department of Defense is looking toward more virtual and constructive training and test environments,” says Randy Miller, Harris program manager for Big Top. “Big Top is Air Force Space Command’s solution to having the best trained space control warfighters in the world. It will complement the STTR by providing dynamic, closed-loop training simulations that connect into systems and provide what appears to be an authentic and dynamic representative spectral environment. With Big Top, you have the capability to develop realistic scenarios that reflect real-world signal environments to help better prepare warfighters for what they might have to face.”

Greater Realism, Delivered Faster

Big Top will support four primary needs: unit-level training to keep space control operators up to date on systems and procedures; the simulation of Space Command assets in national-level exercises; formal user evaluations; and the ability to practice tactics, techniques, and procedures in a safe environment.

To create the most realistic environments possible for Big Top’s training scenarios, Harris is using web-based, non-linear editing inspired by the latest movie production software applications. Signals will be generated through state-of-the-art software-defined radios (SDRs). A rules engine allows instructors to simulate real-world adversary reactions. “Today, getting realistic data for training can take weeks to months,” explains Tony Harris, chief software engineer for Big Top. “Using Big Top assets, the Air Force can gather realistic satellite signal environments in a matter of hours.” Signals synthetically generated using the SDRs can be added to further enhance training environments.

A graphical user interface with a high-fidelity display will connect to actual systems, contributing to a realistic, total-immersion training experience for space control operators. The interface will be the first instantiation of new web application guidelines for systems established by the Space Superiority Logistics and Sustainment Division. “Operators will feel as if they are really deployed in a live signal environment,” Tony Harris says. “Plus the entire Big Top footprint will be small and modular—designed for easy deployment and lower sustainment and maintenance costs.”

While Harris is developing sample scenarios for system testing, Air Force trainers will be ultimately responsible for creating the training exercises. Harris’ train-the-trainer manuals and instruction will help them transition to independent operation of the new tool. Big-data analytical capabilities incorporated into Big Top will enable trainers to better evaluate trainees in a timely manner and to trend the effectiveness of space control operators within individual units across unit-level and national-level exercises.

Added Potential

While Big Top most certainly will help the Air Force achieve the sustainable and repeatable virtual range capability it wants, there is a potential bonus benefit to Big Top that was not written in program specifications. “Big Top has the ability to serve as a proving ground for new systems,” believes Randy Miller. “It could be used to verify system requirements through simulation and test before a request for proposal is issued for new development capabilities—reducing risk and even saving time.”


As published in the Harris Space and Intelligence Systems publication, Insights for a Better World, Ensuring Superiority in Space.