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Space Force: it’s time to act

Vice President Mike Pence, speaking at the Pentagon in August on the Space Force, called for an assistant secretary of defense for space, which could be a key part of any development of a Space Force. (credit: DoD photo by Air Force Tech. Sgt. Vernon Young Jr.)

“Adapt or perish, now as ever, is nature’s inexorable imperative.” – H. G. Wells

Space capabilities are a critical part of everything we do in the Defense Department. We could not effectively conduct military operations without space. Additionally, the commercial and civil world depends on capabilities from space; from navigation and timing to communications.

Our commander-in-chief, President Trump, recently said, “The time has come to establish the United States Space Force. It is not enough to have an American presence in Space, we must have dominance.” He set a target of 2020 to establish it. Secretary of Defense James Mattis recently said, “A US Space Force is necessary to protect American satellites from being targeted by attack weapons in the hands of China and Russia.”

Congressmen Mike Rogers, Jim Cooper, and Mac Thornberry have been advocates of creating a Space Corps for two years. “The Final Report on Organizational and Management Structure for the National Security Space Components of the Department of Defense” responds to the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, tasking the Defense Department with assessing a path forward for a Space Corps, and has come with some initial steps toward these goals and objectives. Now that the president and the secretary of defense announced agreement to create a Space Force by 2020, the horse has left the barn. Recently the Secretary of the Air Force, Heather Wilson, has put forth a plan, with funding estimates, and Deputy Secretary of Defense Shanahan continues to work his plan.

We do not have the focus, force structure, force posture, operating practices, or warfighting strategy to counter the current or emerging threats to our national interests in space. Today we do not have an organization with the authority, responsibility, budget, or even direction to assess solutions to these issues with then necessary singular focus. There is clearly momentum toward establishing a dedicated military space organization, whether it is a true Space Force (the equivalent of the Army, Navy, or Air Force), a Space Corps (equivalent to the Marine Corps), or a Space Guard (the equivalent of the Coast Guard). All of these constructs meet the president’s goal of having a Space Force equal to the other four services.

A lot has been said in national media about establishing the Space Force. The commentary is well meaning, but much has come from non-space professionals, and doesn’t get to the real issues or rationale.

Some of the rhetoric has been about space becoming a dangerous place in which to operate, not just for us, but, for the commercial and civil markets across the entire world. Also, there has been a lot of discussion stating that this will turn space into a battlefield. The crux of some of these arguments is that a Space Force would militarize (use space for military purposes) and weaponize (put weapons in) space, thereby making space less safe and could result in wars in space.

The first time we armed a soldier or built a tank, did we militarize land? When we built and floated our first naval vessel, did we militarize the sea? When we built our first military aircraft, did we militarize air? I guess the answer is yes. We have always opted to provide the leadership of the country with the ability to defend ourselves in all domains, and to use those domains to the maximum advantage of our country, our international diplomacy, our allies, and of our troops.

The reality is, as with other domains, space has already been militarized because we have used space to support our land, sea, and air forces. What we are doing in space is really no different from what we have done in the other domains. When we put a communications satellite in orbit and gave our soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen, and guardsmen radios, space was militarized. When we got the GPS constellation on orbit and gave a soldier a GPS receiver, space was militarized. So, the question is, did these actions cause space to become weaponized? And if it is weaponized, will it cause a war? We have proven over many years, that the best way to avoid military conflict is to have a strong military with powerful capabilities. It is called “deterrence.” This makes staring a war not a good decision for our adversaries and therefore keeps the peace. As President Reagan said, “Peace through strength.”

While some may wish weaponizing space never occurred, the fact is that our adversaries get a vote, and have already voted to weaponize space. Russia and China both have demonstrated offensive space capabilities, along with the stated and demonstrated intent to use those capabilities. Additionally, they are both building hypersonic weapons systems to put our nation and our people at risk. The truth is that now our adversaries pose a clear and present threat to our national security. If anything, the case for a strong defensive posture in space has strengthened.

Some of the arguments for and against a Space Force that are being made

Some non-space experts view creation of a Space Force through the lens of creation of the Air Force over 70 years ago: that is, we have no need for a space force until we deliver offensive effects from space. The problem with this view is that it looks at the value and utility of the space medium through the lens of the air medium. All four mediums that we operate in (air, sea, land, and space) have their own utility, strengths, weaknesses, and challenges. Viewing the value of any of them through the perspective of any of the others does not do a service to the medium in regards to its value or challenges. We wouldn’t want to assess the Air Force’s value against its ability to occupy ground or separate combatants from non-combatants. As a nation, the Defense Department has done very well when our services have looked at the medium they operate in a focused fashion and with world-class experts and leaders in that medium. Space is unique and brings capabilities none of the other domains can contribute. Thus, the use of space systems should be addressed by space professionals steeped in the missions accomplished through, to, and from space.

Another issue raised is that a different military service would complicate interaction and communication within the Air Force between space and air elements. The real truth is that the majority of support from space is to the Army, Navy, Marines, and Special Operations; all are bigger users than the Air Force itself. We already assure space is fully integrated into the operations of the other services (Army, Marines, Navy, and Coast Guard) in addition to the Air Force. Space is a domain that transcends regions, and can provide global reach. Also, an on-orbit asset can support different warfighting regions at different times and even multiple regions at the same time. Its domain is one that transcends the boundaries of the current services.

Some have said re-constituting US Space Command as the unified command for space is one, if not the answer, to the problem. While I don’t think it would hurt, I don’t believe having Strategic Command (STRATCOM) as the warfighting command has caused any of our current challenges. In fact, STRATCOM has been a good steward of the space mission. However, there are advantages if a dedicated US Space Command is done correctly.

We have been operating in space for well over 50 years. Why now? What has changed?

“Most people don’t realize China and Russia are no longer our near-peers in space. They are our peers. And if we don’t do something dramatically different, they are going to surpass us. And that’s unacceptable.” – Congressman Mike Rogers

We have been the clear dominant player in space for more than 25 years. Our ability to dominate was not significantly challenged for many years. While we have dominated space it has remained a safe and protected place, with amazing growth of a commercial space industry worldwide. Today, space is an international domain with more than 60 nations using space in a peaceful unthreatened fashion. Unfortunately, the guarantee of operating freely in space no longer exists.

Congressman Cooper said, “Some have argued that the U.S. taking a more belligerent approach to space could encourage a new arms race. But this notion is uninformed. Space is already a war-fighting domain. Pretending our satellites are safe right now is foolish.”

While we have not been surprised at the types of systems that Russia and China have been pursuing, we have been surprised by the speed at which Russia and China have developed sophisticated space and hypersonic threats. Space has become contested; our adversaries have demonstrated capabilities that threaten our on-orbit capabilities. More concerning is that they are implementing new technologies in a rapid fashion, and their technology-based demonstrations challenge the assured availability of our space capabilities and threaten people and facilities on the ground.

Peers, near-peers, regional powers, and even non-state actors can now hold either all or some of our space assets at risk and deny the United States freedom of passage through and operations in space. They also have developed technologies that threaten US assets on the ground. Hypersonic systems threaten our troops and US facilities and equipment and our civilian population.

Space acquisition is a critical issue we must grapple with today

We need the ability to acquire systems to defend our space capabilities and defend our homeland in a timely and responsive fashion. We also need to assure our space capabilities are available, without interruption. Retaining a competitive and protected presence in space is threatened by an outdated acquisition processes that has evolved over time. These processes needs a reexamination in light of today’s realities—current process are slow, inefficient, and expensive. Divided leadership and decision-making authority in requirements development, acquisition, resourcing, and execution contribute to these problems. Leadership has recognized this challenge, and a great deal of thinking is happening. All of this thinking needs to be translated in to real change.

At the Future of War Conference in April of 2018, undersecretary of defense for research anf engineering Mike Griffin said, “The US acquisition system is built for a period of time in which American preeminence was not really questioned, and throughout the last 70 years the US has had the luxury of time to make decisions as if others couldn’t catch up. Now we should know that they can, and we can either devote ourselves to the maintenance of the structure that we have, or we can devote ourselves to remaining on top, but that’s the choice we face.”

In our acquisition system, we have institutional and organizational problems that have grown, little by little, over the years, resulting in added cost to the systems we are building and time needed to get capabilities on orbit. We are already pursuing significant changes to space systems procurement; we simply need to move much faster. A key element of any new Space Force will be implementing new approaches to rapidly acquire what we buy and how we buy them. This requires a culture change.

The Final Report on Organizational and Management Structure for the National Security Space Components of the Department of Defense calls for what may be a new acquisition organization. It is not yet clear if this is a truly new organization or a change in focus of the Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC). It appears that one of the biggest questions on space development is whether it would be within or independent of Space Force.

However, other big questions exist. If we don’t use SMC as the foundation, where do these people come from? Additionally, a decision to integrate all of current space forces (NRO, MDA, SMC) with their own acquisition organizations, processes, and cultures presents a significant challenge. We have found having the acquisition organization as a critical part of the major command (MAJCOM) allows cross-fertilization of personnel at the MAJCOM, warfighting command, and through the area of responsibility, bringing key knowledge to the people acquiring the systems. How do we integrate Air Force Space Command, SMC, MDA, and the NRO’s disparate acquisition systems, processes, and cultures? This is definitely a work in progress.

Regardless of how we do space systems acquisition, we need to turn requirements faster, ans move from specificity in requirements to focus on mission-level objectives. We also need to rethink the current Joint Capabilities Integration and Development System processes. We need a new and faster process for the functions being performed by analyses-of-alternatives, and new processes for acquisition strategy reviews and approvals. Finally, we need to better align authority and accountability, pushing this down to a lower level while eliminating non-decisional and non-value-added reviews.

In addition to making how we buy systems more efficient, we also need to change what we buy. We understand a determined peer or near peer adversary can eliminate nodes (satellites) in our constellations, and the mission must survive such actions. We need missions that survive the attacks of determined peer adversaries. We need to move to resilient architectures. We also need to buy systems that can insert technology faster, and move to more affordable shorter-life systems.

DoD is re-learning about how to do rapid acquisition (As a reminder of how we did acquisition in the past, the first DMSP satellite was built in ten months.) When are taking advantage of innovative acquisition instruments? Use of Other Transaction Agreements (OTAs), urgent needs, prototypes, and rapid capability organizations are underway (they developed ORS-1 and CHIRP in approximately two years each and were on orbit in less thsn three years).We need to understand and institutionalize rapid acquisition processes, but not abrogate intelligent, effective oversight.

What are the drivers for a Space Force?

  1. We need to ensure the current systems we fly in space—to support military operations, limit collateral and infrastructure damage, and support international disaster relief—can continue to support their missions, even while those systems could potentially come under attack from kinetic, electromagnetic, cyber, or other threats, and even when nodes of the architecture are successfully negated. We are not in this game to only protect our satellites. We are also in this game to protect those men and women that need our space capabilities to successfully carry out their military and civilian missions.
  2. Russia and China are developing anti-space capabilities threatening freedom of action in space. We need to assure freedom of action in space (for peaceful purposes) for the United States, our allies, and the world so space commerce can continue unthreatened and unabated.
  3. Additionally, Russia and China are developing hypersonic glide missile threats to the US, our infrastructure, our people, and that of our allies and friends. We must defend ourselves against these threats. We need space-based systems to locate and track these threats before they hit the United States or our allies. As Griffin has said, “We are playing catchup ball.”
  4. We were somewhat surprised at the progress Russia and China made in these areas. We certainly knew they were pursuing hypersonic technology, but the speed at which they have done it has apparently been a surprise. We need to make it somebody’s job to not be surprised.
  5. Russia and China are advancing space technology faster that we currently are. They seem to be turning technology in three to four years, while we are turning technology in seven to twelve years. While we remain the preeminent nation in space, and the leader in space technologies, it is clear it will not take many of their advancement cycles before we begin falling behind.

Why pursue a Space Force as a response to these drivers?

“So this is a reality. We are not initiating this. We are saying we will be able to defend our satellites in space. At the same time, if someone is going to try to engage in space with military means, we will not stand idly by. We don’t intend to militarize space. However, we will defend ourselves in space if necessary.” Secretary of Defense James Mattis

Regardless of the organization, the US needs a smart, robust defense—and offense—in space. We also need to assure our space systems support all of the services. Establishing a Space Force is not only about providing effects from space, it is about focus. Congressmen Rogers, Cooper, and Thornberry have stated their goal is to get more focused space activities without diversion of attention to other activity. The issue is not the capability and commitment of the Air Force leadership, it is the focus. There is no question that current Air Force leadership is both capable and committed. The problem is that space is only one of the missions they have to deal with every day. With two other major missions (air and cyber), the focus for space issues tends to be reactive instead of proactive.

If your singular raison d’être is space, then you wake up in the morning and go to bed at night thinking of space and only space. You grow people with a career of experience in space, but with a strong set of warfighter experiences to supplement this. Space professionals need to understand the criticality of their systems to the warfighter and gain experience in how they are used. Implementing a Director of Space Forces in the area of responsibility is a good element of this, but, we clearly need to build closer ties with all of the services and go forward with them to fully understand how space is being used, and be able to determine how it could be used. This will lead to better systems and support. Success in the terrestrial battlespace requires significant cross-domain employment of land, maritime, air and space in mutually supporting and supported relationships.

When you do this, instead of reacting to the problem of the day (and with the Air Force having three major missions there is always a problem, or two, of the day) you are able to think about the “what if’s.” What if our adversaries develop hypersonic and multi-burn weapons? What if our adversaries develop more robust antisatellite weapons? What do we do if a determined adversary takes out one of our satellites? What if our adversaries begin turning technology faster than us? When you are busy solving an F-35 production issue, there simply is not time for this type of thinking. So Congress has expressed frustration at the lack of this type of proactive thinking and has been driving the Space Corps/Force solution for a few years.

So, how do we create the right Space Force?

Rep. Mac Thornberry, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said he worries that too much attention is being paid to org charts and not enough to the substance of what space forces need: “Being able to get more capability in space faster should be one of the top priorities of this whole broader effort, and being able to defend what you have in space. If we only talk about, think about, write about organizational structure, it’s not capturing the concerns and goals involved in the space reform effort. It’s really about capability in space and defending that capability.”

Clearly as we go through developing the Space Force, we simply cannot lose sight of the ultimate goal, capturing superiority in Space so that we can guarantee our space capabilities are always available, that we turn technology as fast or faster than our adversaries, and that we assure the free and unfettered use of space for all. Therefore, as the Space Force is formed, it will clearly have to focus on freedom of action in space, assuring the US space capabilities are available without interruption, and the ability to use space where necessary to respond to all threats to the US and our allies.

Regardless of whichever organizational approach that is taken, the Space Force needs an integrated, well-defined decision line to:

  • Set policy implementation approaches and strategy
  • Take mission level requirements from the JROC and create system requirements in the long term and short term
  • Set priorities and have the ability to rapidly adjust based on adversary actions
  • Budget resources and the ability to change rapidly, add/delete funds, and cancel programs
  • Acquire capabilities
  • Train professionals to employ capabilities against threats.

Despite the clear direction to proceed with a Space Force, the debate about the value and cost of a Space Force will continue. However, it is now time to address the best and most cost-effective way to set up a new dedicated Space Force. Whatever form it takes, the key goal should be to align accountability and authority for operations in the space domain in a professional space organization, run by space professionals, with adequate manpower to execute its missions, and with the authority to generate and execute a budget that is sufficient to fulfill requirements. While, clearly the Defense Department has a clear direction, obviously Congress will have a big say. Regardless of what happens with the Space Force, focus needs to be placed on the issue of peer adversaries and their ability to turn technology very rapidly.

Anything we do will require change, and that is always hard. The best argument against forming a Space Force is the cost. Many say it is better to spend our Defense Department dollars on equipment, systems, and training. This is certainly a valid argument to be had with Pentagon leadership and Congress. However, using the only number that currently exists (that provided by Secretary Wilson), the cost would be on the order of one half of one percent of the Defense Department budget. And, indeed there may even be ways to lower this estimated cost with a more efficient organization. While some options may save money in the long run, every option would have a near-term cost; the question is how much is that near-term cost.

Obviously the creation of a completely separate service equivalent to the Air Force, Army, or Navy would create the greatest cost and bureaucratic disruption. A Corps or Guard may be less disruptive and costly, but still would come with a price tag. We should not create a big bureaucracy and the kind of footprint that would bring a new constellation of civilian leaders, under-secretaries, assistant secretaries, deputy assistant secretaries, their attendant staffs, and all the accompanying bureaucracy. We need to consider the value added of replicating things like basic training, service academies, recruiting, and so on, and what may be more cost effective functions for the Defense Department to cross-utilize versus the value of a totally independent service. We need to fix the problems that are absolutely essential to fix. Leaving the organization as-is would still require some disruption, and may not serve the long-term need of a focused, professional space organization living and breathing space every day.

As we proceed on a Space Force a huge issue to deal with is whether this will or will not be the single space entity that would include Army Space and Missile Defense Command, the Missile Defense Agency, and the NRO. The most logical option is to have a true Space Force and include these entities; however, politics will play. Whether any of these other organizations, or all of them, become part of the new Space Force will be determined over the next two years, but, whatever option we choose, ways must be found to use this pool of capability efficiently and effectively and not lose the capability in the rush to build something new. As Betty Sapp, the director of the NRO, has said, “We need to take care not to impact the doers while any transition occurs.”

The advantage of being able to take a fresh look is you can take advantage of modern information systems to do business in a more efficient and effective fashion and with fewer people. The proper alignment of authority and accountability will be critical. The Space Force does not have to be an onerously expensive organization. By exploiting instantaneous digital communications, we can architect a much leaner organization with fewer levels of organization, shorter lines of communication, and more rapid, cleaner decision-making. We can create mission managers, combining operations and acquisitions within the same organization. In effect, we can disaggregate the organization and ensure that senior leadership gets and sees everything of use to them. No longer will decisions get staffed and manipulated by a cast of thousands.

However, we need to be vigilant: as Gen. Bernard Schriever observed, the procedures that the Western Development Division created to expedite acquisition and deployment of the first ICBMs and spacecraft devolved during the 1960s into a bureaucratic web that bogged down the acquisition process. How do we put in place safeguards against a similar devolution in the future, without impacting efficiency, speed, and effectiveness, and while including intelligent focused oversight? We can get a strong clue from commercial space and early space developments of co-locating smart engineers with authority and responsibility into the developers site.

Probably the key recommendation from Vice President Mike Pence’s speech in August is to establish an Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space to drive and organize this transition. This has to be someone steeped in space and all of the elements of launch, on-orbit operations, command-and-control, launch, and, most importantly, acquisition. This person also needs to have a predilection for out-of-the-box thinking and change. This person needs to be committed to doing this with a very small staff, commit to total accessibility, and have the authority and accountability to get this job done. Most importantly, this startup person needs to commit to the first six months, then get off the stage and let the process pick a qualified secretary unburdened by the inevitable broken glass from setting up a new organization. The skills to start up a new organization and the skills to be a secretary are substantially different. With a lean organization of similarly qualified people, this office must lead this transition, with some likely reluctant partners.


“We are going to have the Air Force and we are going to have the Space Force. Separate but equal. It is going to be something. So important.” President Donald Trump, June 2018.

The commander-in-chief has spoken, and the time to debate is over. Rather than debate the value and cost of a “Space Force” whatever it may look like or whatever it is called, it is now time to figure out the best and most cost-effective organizational alignment to get the job done, present recommendations to the White House and Congress, and let them do their jobs.


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