Saturday, June 23, 2018
A Primer on the Proposed "Space Force"
Last week, President Trump spoke to the Space Council and announced his direction to the Department of Defense to create a new military service--a "Space Force"--to join the current Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force. In reading lots of commentary on this proposal, it was clear to me that most Americans are really not understanding what this is all about. The purpose of this post is to offer a primer on the idea, and to express my own views. (By way of background, I was involved with our Nation's Space military operations while serving as Air Force General Counsel, and currently serve on the Board of the Aerospace Corporation, a non-profit federally funded research and development corporation that advises the Air Force and Intelligence Community on technical issues involving operations in space.)
And it is also worth emphasizing that our Nation also relies heavily on space for many non-military applications as well--GPS, weather, entertainment and communications. Most of our point-of-sale payment systems would not work without space.
For many years, space was not really a contested environment. We launched our highly sophisticated (and stunningly expensive) satellites into orbit (low earth orbit, high elliptical orbits, and geostationary equatorial orbits) with little concern that an adversary could take them out. That is no longer the case. And it the fact that space is now a contested environment that has led to proposals to create a separate space force.
While all of the services have at least part of the Department of Defense Space mission, the Air Force has the lion share of the responsibility. Through its Space Command, the Air Force is responsible for developing the architecture for the satellite constellations, acquiring satellites and their ground-based communication systems, launching the satellites, and then operating the satellites while in orbit. A newly arising mission is the make sure that our space assets are resilient, and capable of surviving in a wartime environment against emerging Russian and Chinese capabilities. And because space is also an increasingly crowded environment, the Air Force Space Command is also responsible for keeping track of every item in space near Earth.
Several members of Congress, most notably, Mike Rogers of Alabama and Jim Cooper of Tennessee, have argued that the Air Force is not paying sufficient attention to the space mission. And by not "paying attention," I think they really mean that the Air Force is not allocating enough resources to the space mission. The concern is that the Air Force prioritizes aircraft such as the F-35 and the new bomber over needed investments in space. The New York Times has a good article today that describes this argument. President Trump has apparently agreed with Rogers and Cooper, despite the fact that Congress itself resoundingly rejected the argument earlier this year.
So what do I think? While I think our nation needs a new and more innovative focus on the problem of providing resilient space operations in a contested environment, I don't think that a separate space force will help us get there.
First, I was deeply involved in Air Force and Department of Defense budgeting decisions from 2009 to 2013, and I did not see an Air Force that ignored the space mission in order to fund the space mission. It simply did not happen. In addition, during my tenure at the Air Force, I saw leaders of the Air Force Space Command, such as General Willie Shelton, raise the concerns about a contested space environment only to see their proposals rejected as too expensive by the Department of Defense leadership (not Air Force leadership) and by the General Accountability Office space experts. While the Department of Defense has changed its tune since 2014, in my view, the Air Force is not the reason we now play catch up to the Chinese and Russians.
Second, while the space mission is vitally important, from a manpower point of view, it is really too small to justify an entirely new military service. Air Force Space Command, for example, has about 22,000 military members and 9,000 civilians. A new Space Force would likely have no more than 30,000 military members and perhaps 10,000 civilians. Given the entirely new infrastructure that would need to be created--a recruiting command, a training command, a space staff and a civilian secretariat (not to mention the inevitable Space Academy and Space Band)--this seems too small a force to justify an entirely new military service.
So what should we do instead? Quite frankly, much of what needs to be done seems to be underway: we need to change how we design and deploy satellites so they are more resilient, we need to reform the acquisition process so we can respond more rapidly to emerging threats, and we need to train airmen, soldiers, marines and seamen to fight through interruptions in space assets. While I don't think a new Space Force necessarily makes sense, it may make sense to create a new Combatant Command devoted to space military operations just as we created a separate Cybersecurity Combatant Command. (My caveat here is that Strategic Command now has the joint space mission and General John Hyten, the former Commander of Space Command, is the best strategic thinker we have ever had on space issues).
In short, when you think "Space Command", don't think of manned and armed space craft of science fiction lore. And don't even think about Death Stars or weapons in space directed at targets on Earth. It is instead simply a proposal about how we best organize how the military organizes space assets. While there are certainly ways we can improve how we organize this mission, a "Space Force" is the wrong approach.