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Experts Weigh the Future of the Pentagon’s Space Force

The U.S. Air Force 45th Space Wing supported SpaceX’s successful launch of NASA’s Commercial Resupply Mission 13 aboard a Falcon 9 rocket from Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS), Florida, Dec. 15, 2017. DoD Photo

The Trump administration’s push to create a U.S. Space Force could be more like a Space Corps– similar to the Marine Corps – or a separate combatant command, a panel of national security experts predicted on Monday.

Speaking in Washington, D.C., Brian Weeden, the director at the Secure World Foundation, some leaning toward a Space Corps nested in the Department of the Air Force with its own service chief and acquisition line. But creating a Space Corps that operates like the Marine Corps isn’t the only possibility, the panelists said.

Another option could be to establish it as something similar to the Coast Guard with both military responsibilities in times of national emergency and civilian duties in other times. Where such an organization would be placed in the government remains unanswered.

A fourth possibility would be to shape it like the current Special Operations Command. In that case, Space Force the would be a separate command that would draw upon the services for personnel and possibly some equipment but have its own acquisition budget for unique requirements. This command would report to the Defense Department.

A fifth possibility would be to create a unique organization that blends elements from a host of existing federal agencies that deal with space, to include both its increased use commercially and the military’s role in handling national security in a potential warfare domain. Again, where this entity would be positioned inside the federal government is unanswered.

Personnel in a Space Force would not be frontline warfighters, the speakers stressed. It would function like the existing services and be expected to organize, train and equip a force for the regional combatant commanders’ missions.

Weeden and other panelists, including former Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, said the groundwork in Congress has already been laid for change, after Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan was tasked to deliver an interim report to the Hill by next month on space reforms and a finished product by December on the way ahead.

While all the discussion about a possible Space Force is speculation at the moment, space operations for the Army and Navy are likely to change very soon, the panelists said.

Shanahan’s report and the new subcommand are two critical pieces in overhauling how space is addressed inside the Pentagon and the broader national security establishment. That includes its intelligence-gathering agencies and reconnaissance organizations.

The next budget, usually delivered in February following the president’s State of the Union address, “will show what’s going to happen” in terms of the administration’s immediate steps to get moving on a space force.

“We’ll be having this debate for real next spring,” Weeden added.

In a way, for the space security mission inside the Pentagon, this is a return to the past “when it did have its own combatant command” status. That was eliminated following the terrorist attacks on the United States in 2001 and the creation of U.S. Northern Command concentrating on the homeland and immediate neighbors.

James, like her successor Heather Wilson as Air Force secretary, is not in favor of creating a separate Space Force, terming it “disruptive and a distraction.” She added even a change like that takes time and is not cheap.

Creating a sixth armed service is a far larger challenge — from career track for civilian and uniformed workers, to uniforms, to mission statements and more.

At the Brookings Institution event, James pointed to the continuing difficulties in the Department of Homeland Security in coordinating its activities and responsibilities among the different agencies under its umbrella, like the Coast Guard, as an example of how change distracts from an overall mission, does not come about easily and is not guaranteed success in the end. She also cited the Missile Defense Agency as an object lesson for Congress’ consideration when it debates space reforms as answers to new challenges from Russia and China. “It is not the poster child of speed and agility,” she said.

The question that has to be asked: “Is the juice worth the squeeze” in weighing all the options, James said.

“I hope [Congress] will fold in the NRO [National Reconnaissance Organization], the Army, the Navy” if it goes ahead with proposals for a separate force. But she and other panelists stressed that any change must continue to foster integration between space and ground forces and retain the jointness the Pentagon has achieved in the last 25 years. “The services are supposed to be mutually supportive.”

Steve Jacques, the managing partner at Velos LLC, a consulting and engineering services firm, said any change of that magnitude in creating a separate force or corps “is going to take a few years” to sort itself out, particularly its impact on workers.

Panelists agreed that about 40,000 service members and contractors are now engaged in space-related activities for the Pentagon. The bulk of the workforce, including contractors, are in the Army, and about half of the department’s spending on space comes through the Air Force.

Jacques, a retired Air Force officer who favors an independent Space Force, said “I worry about tribalism” creeping into the organization and working against the integration and jointness that the Pentagon has achieved. The tribalism, in this case, could also fail to take into account how what the new organization does could affect businesses and other government agencies.

But “I think a focal point is needed … inside the national security establishment” on space, he said. “The COCOMs increasingly rely on space” to carry out their missions. He added it is dangerous thinking to “assume space systems will always be there” when needed in a crisis. He said the Ukrainians learned that danger when Russia disrupted its communications links in battling Kremlin-backed separatists.

Brookings’ Frank Rose said the nation already had its “Pearl Harbor minute” in space, referring to a term used in an earlier commission report on space. The term took on added meaning when the Chinese shot down one of its own satellites in 2007. The downing raised questions about satellites’ survivability in war and what was an act of war in space.

Calling for more State Department involvement in this new endeavor in space and noting there are few treaties covering conduct in this domain, Rose said, “the Trump administration has done a good job on focusing attention on space,” but “we also need to engage Russia and China” in discussing rules of the road for future operations.

Today, the U.S. retains the lead in space capabilities and use.

“We are the number-one country in space and every other domain,” James said. “Every other country looks at us with envy,” but that doesn’t mean that investment in space should flatten out or decline or that organizations inside the government should remain unchanged.

  • Ed L

    Time to get get off this rock and into space with a permanent presence. NASA is too political and too cautious. Both the Army and Airforce has plans for moon bases and exportation of the solar system back in the 1950’s. They were confident that by 1970’s there would have been an American Moon Base

    • Centaurus

      Lets have a Space Farce. It can be as mismanaged as any other DoD mission.

  • proudrino

    Space is a de facto warfare domain. It is about time that DOD organizes itself accordingly. The only unfortunate thing is the fact that they are calling it “Space Force.” That term seems to trivialize what is a serious and important reform. Maybe something like Space Operations Force would help change the branding.

    • waveshaper1

      The simplest solution (in my simple mind) would be to reverse course and make this new “Space Force” a Combatant Command. We can call this new Combatant Command “USSPACECOM” just like we did before it was absorbed into USSTRATECOM back in 2002. The original USSPACECOM lifespan was 1985 – 2002 (17 years). If our leadership is really serious – then maybe this new version of a Space Force/Space Command will last longer then 17 years this round.

      • proudrino

        Actually, that is part of what is supposedly in the “Shanahan Report” that was originally going to be released to Congress today.

  • proudrino

    Who wrote this?

    “I think it is time for each of the Fleet Commanders and possibly CINCLANT and CINCPAC to have a Space Section in their staffs whose main function would be to ensure that the commands are fully cognizant of all Space activities and their influence on war planning, readiness, et cetera.”

    Answer: Arleigh Burke in 1959

    The point being is that the Space Operations Force has been a long time in coming. Probably too long.

  • James Bowen

    I don’t think an independent branch of service for space is a good idea. At present, DoD’s activities in space are almost entirely orbital and suborbital. These fall well within the scope of STRATCOM’s domain. For any future voyages and activities beyond Earth orbit, the Navy is the logical service to take that up.

  • John B. Morgen

    This force should be a space arm of the Air Force, and not a separate military command..

  • Arthur Vallejo

    USSS – United States Space Service