Over the last two years, the debate about how best to organize U.S. military space activities has intensified and received significantly more political attention, in large part because of President Donald Trump’s call for the creation of a separate space force. The rhetoric used to advocate for or against a space force unfortunately gives the impression that a “space war” will involve Hollywood-esque scenes of satellites shooting laser cannons at each other, killer robot satellites locked in close combat, and space marines invading space stations and habitats. The reality is, however, that space will be part of future conflicts on Earth, as the critical role space-based capabilities such as satellite communications, intelligence, and navigation play in supporting and integrating with terrestrial military operations will only grow. As a result, space capabilities will increasingly become military targets and subject to a variety of counterspace threats.
While hopefully such a scenario will never come to pass, the fact remains that space will be a growing domain of military activity and it is therefore critical that U.S. policymakers get the organizational structures for those activities right. The conventional wisdom is that resurrecting a separate unified combatant command for space, namely the U.S. Space Command that previously existed from 1985 to 2001, is a sensible decision, but splitting off current Air Force, Army, and Navy service-level efforts into a separate space force might cause more problems than it solves. A deeper dive shows the case is likely the exact opposite: establishing a space force with the right culture is likely to yield more benefits for the United States and avoid creating more overhead and complications, while bringing back U.S. Space Command may make things worse.
Understanding why this is the case requires a quick dive into how the U.S. military is organized. The U.S. military can be thought of as having two separate organizational structures. One structure comprises the military services (the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard). They are responsible for recruiting new servicemembers, acquiring and developing new capabilities, and training servicemembers to operate those capabilities. For example, the Air Force is responsible for deciding which aircraft it needs in order to provide air power capabilities, running the acquisition programs to design and build the aircraft, deciding how many airmen are needed to fly and maintain the aircraft, recruiting new officer cadets and enlisted personnel to fill those billets, setting up schools to train them, and then establishing squadrons and wings to make those capabilities operational.
The other organizational structure comprises the combatant commands, which are mostly divided up into geographic regions (European Command, Central Command, Indo-Pacific Command, Northern Command, Southern Command, and Africa Command) along with a few domain-specific commands (Strategic Command, Special Operations Command, Cyber Command, and Transportation Command). The combatant commands are responsible for planning, preparing, and conducting military operations and warfighting in their area of responsibility. The combatant commands decide which tanks, fighters, bombers, ships and other capabilities are necessary to carry out their operations and task the services to provide those capabilities. When deployed into a theater, those military units are transferred or “chopped” from the services over to a combatant command and fall under its operational command.
Concerns about the organization of the U.S. national security presence in space date back at least two decades. Currently, the Air Force is responsible for nearly all the operate, train, and equip functions for U.S. military space programs but there is growing frustration that the Air Force has not been a good steward of those programs. The Air Force has responded by shifting around its own internal organization for space, including proposing a new space office on the Air Staff. Those changes have not appeased the many critics who insist the Air Force is not moving rapidly enough to change the way it does business to match the changing threat landscape. At the same time, there have been calls to shift the responsibility for space warfighting from U.S. Strategic Command to a resurrected U.S. Space Command because of the latter’s primary focus on nuclear warfighting.
Shifting the operate, train, and equip functions for military space activities to a separate organization makes sense to address current problems. For one, it would provide the U.S. military with the ability to inculcate a new generation of space professionals who understand the unique dynamics of the space domain and how it fits into future conflicts and military activities — a challenging task for a service dedicated to the air domain. Creating a new organization would also help break the organizational and cultural shackles that currently prevent the U.S. military from adapting to changes in the space domain. The Air Force has built an acquisitions culture around building very large, expensive, and vulnerable satellites for decades and that culture has resisted policy directives to develop new space architectures that provide better space mission assurance.
By contrast, establishing U.S. Space Command to take over space planning and warfighting functions could introduce more complications and overhead for future military operations. Normally, the four-star commander of a combatant command is the ultimate authority for planning and military operations in his or her geographic area of responsibility. For example, if there were a conflict in the South China Sea, the commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command would oversee running all U.S. military operations. In a scenario where U.S. forces near Taiwan were experiencing significant GPS jamming, the Indo-Pacific Command commander would decide what countermeasures to use, such as boosting the power of the military GPS signals or using an airstrike to destroy the jamming source.
Adding a four-star U.S. Space Command commander into such a situation would make it more complex as he or she might assume to have operational command over the situation because the jamming is an attack in the space domain. U.S. Space Command would have its own war plans and doctrine for how to respond to the situation, which might conflict with those of Indo-Pacific Command, and the space commander might feel that Indo-Pacific Command should be supporting U.S. Space Command instead of the other way around. Although some of this complexity exists in current conflicts today, it is mitigated by the Strategic Command commander delegating authority down to the Combined Space Operations Center and its support-oriented relationship with the other combatant commands. Space Command might not have the same culture.
Creating a U.S. Space Command that is culturally biased towards focusing on space as a separate warfighting domain, as opposed to space being part of a broader military picture that incorporates terrestrial military operations, would make things worse. Many of the most vocal military proponents of bringing back U.S. Space Command openly talk about the need to fight future battles in space itself and the importance of space as the “ultimate high ground,” while seeming less interested in how space capabilities support warfighting on Earth. While it may theoretically happen at some point decades from now, there’s no practical scenario in the near future of a “space war” that is completely dissociated from a terrestrial crisis or conflict. China has recognized this, as shown by their recent establishment of a Strategic Support Force that integrates space, electronic warfare, and cyber capabilities under a single military command, which is now taking part in military exercises.
Instead of rushing to bring back U.S. Space Command, the focus should instead be on increasing the number of space domain experts who are integrated into the existing regional combatant commands. Over the last several years, changes in Strategic Command policy for filling personnel billets have actually gone the other direction, in that fewer space domain experts are integrated into the combatant commands. This should be reversed. The current dearth of space domain experts integrated into combatant commands is tied to a broader shortage of such experts across the military. According to servicemembers who have recently filled such positions, only 65 percent of space billets at U.S. Strategic Command are currently filled because of this shortage. Many more space experts need to be trained before resurrecting U.S. Space Command should even be considered.”
The need to train those space domain experts is why establishing a space force should precede a U.S. Space Command. Although I was critical of Trump’s original demand for a space force, the formal plandeveloped by the Pentagon is pragmatic and sensible. That’s in large part because the Pentagon’s plan is not actually to create the “separate but equal” space force the president called for, but rather to establish a modified version of the space corps within the Department of the Air Force that Rep. Mike Rogers called for two years ago. The initial drafts of the National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2020 from both the House and Senate also point towards the creation of a space corps, although the Senate bill still calls it a space force.
Creating a space force or space corps is also essential to revamp current U.S. national security space capabilities to match the changes in the space domain and in combatant command needs. As open source research conducted by Secure World Foundation has shown, counterspace capabilities are proliferating and current U.S. national security space capabilities are not well architected to deal with those threats. U.S. national policy and strategy since 2011 has called for increasing the resilience and mission assurance of space capabilities, but so far there has been very little actual progress. The mission of the Space Force should be to develop a new cadre of space professionals along with new architectures for more resilient space capabilities that can better support and enhance terrestrial warfighting done by the combatant commands.
The key issue to get right with the establishment of the space force is its culture. The culture of a space force needs to be modeled more on that of Air Mobility Command than Air Combat Command. While Air Combatant Command focuses on the flashy fighter jets and tactical bombers used to achieve air superiority and deliver ordinance, Air Mobility Command focuses on the cargo planes and tankers that form the logistical backbone of every military operation worldwide. Like Air Mobility Command, Space Force needs to be the best space support force in the world, with capabilities that meet the needs of the warfighter and highly-trained professionals to operate them, because it is part of the support infrastructure for all future conflicts. Space operators should understand the impact of space weather as well as GPS jamming and spoofing on space support provided to military operations as expertly as pilots understand the impact of thunderstorms and air defense radars on their ability to provide air support to military operations.
That said, there is still going to be a role for a space superiority culture like Air Combatant Command’s in a space force, just not as prominent a role as most boosters probably want. There will still be a need, as there historically has been, for the United States to have the ability to defend its own space assets and deal with an adversary’s space capabilities in conflict. However, building new offensive space weapons should not be the primary function of the Space Force. There are many other techniques such as disaggregation, distribution, and reconstitution that can be used to enhance space mission assuranceand therefore deter attacks more effectively or efficiently that space weapons can. In a similar fashion, adversary space capabilities are likely to be dealt with using non-space or non-kinetic means such as jamming or cyber attacks than weapons placed in space. The goal should be to use the best method to accomplish the desired military effect, not recreate the latest Hollywood movie.
While culture is the most important aspect to get right in creating a space force, there are other concerns that need to be addressed in order for it to be effective. As currently proposed, the organization is top-heavy in its rank structure, making it an ill fit within the existing military personnel system. There are also concerns about how the new procurement functions of the Space Force would coordinate with the legacy functions and programs retained by the other services in the interim and a question of who will coordinate between the space force and the National Reconnaissance Office, which is planned to retain oversight of intelligence space programs. The current proposal would also do little to consolidate the decision-making authorities scattered across more than 60 entities, an oft-cited rationale for creating a space force.
In the end, it is extremely important that the United States makes sure its military space organization is properly aligned to fit both the changes in the space domain and serve its national security needs. Creating a space force that can improve the operations, training, and equipping of space capabilities across the Department of Defense is the best way to that, as long as the Space Force has a service-oriented culture. At the same time, creating a new unified combatant command for space is likely to create more complications and confusion than it clears up and should be deferred until a later date.
Dr. Weeden is a former U.S. Air Force nuclear and space operations officer and currently the director of program planning at the Secure World Foundation in Washington, D.C.