Home » Aviation » Panel Asks: What Problem Does a U.S. Space Force Solve?

Panel Asks: What Problem Does a U.S. Space Force Solve?

Team Vandenberg supported the successful launch of the fifth Iridium mission on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Space Launch Complex-4 at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California on March 30, 2018. US Air Force Photo

The question around a push for new Pentagon organization to oversee the military’s interest in space is defining, “what’s the problem we’re trying to solve” a group of national security agreed on Monday.

“There isn’t clarity at all what the problem is,” Sean O’Keefe, a former secretary of the Navy and NASA administrator, said at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. on Monday. The Department of Defense “sure doesn’t require another ‘stovepipe of excellence’.” he added.

But O’Keefe and the other panelists agreed a unified space command under the Department of the Air Force control “has great value” with certain caveats, especially when it comes to a Space Development Agency charged with acquisition.

Space is a contested domain “and could be decisive in a future conflict,” Retired Air Force Gen. Robert Kehler, who headed Strategic Command, said. He said it comes down to a matter now of readiness and how to address that challenge as a joint warfighting problem. “We have space operators today,” but “we need combat space operators” who use lethality as their metric for success.

Robert Work, former deputy secretary of Defense, said space was integral to its Third Offset Strategy, was a central focus of his tenure and was given great importance in earlier administrations as well.

While space has been important to the Pentagon, there was a shift of focus and priorities after the terrorist attacks on the United States in 2001, Kehler added.

Although Congress and the Trump administration “want to see concrete steps” taken to emphasize space as a separate domain central to the Pentagon mission, Work said they need to realize that it cuts across all the services — in the same way that nuclear, cyber and electronic warfare does. “Budget share [between the services and Office of the Secretary of Defense] is very difficult to move,” say taking some money from shipbuilding and moving it to cyber.

Current Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan identified “Air Force Space Command is the shell” in going forward as a solid move, Work said. He added the existing Space and Missile Center provides the base for a future Space Development Agency for research and development and procurement. As for personnel in the future as a separate command, it could pull them from all the services like Special Operations Command.

“A separate military department must be set up for success,” Kehler said. That is “more than a patch change” and a “minimalist approach” of shifting the 15,000 military and civilians already in the Pentagon engaged in space activities and their budgets to a new department.

Letitia Long, former director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, said, “Form follows function,” so basic organizational questions have to be addressed. She included forward-deployment of forces, such as Cyber Command, does now; what is the role of intelligence -gathering and dissemination in the new command or department; who is responsible for missiles in space; how does the commercial sector fit?

Some of “those functions don’t exist today… we’ll have to grow them. It’s not a trivial matter,” as are those surrounding tactics, techniques and procedures

Looking solely at satellites as a space issue, “government does not do what the commercial sector does,” which insists on speed and throwing out “a satellite a day” to a communications constellation as its model, Kehler said. It has different requirements than, cheaper, faster, more profit.

“Small satellites don’t work” against near-peer competitors like Russia and China, which have already demonstrated their military capabilities of anti-access/area denial in space, Work said. “A medium-sized bus that has the fuel to maneuver” is an approach that the Pentagon can follow that provides satellite communications resiliency if attacked.

“We have to have spiral development” in building satellites that speed the acquisition process and provides the fidelity combatant commanders demand and the resiliency the Pentagon needs for security from threats in space or ground-based jamming or laser strikes, O’Keefe added.

The fact is “the pace of technology is going faster than the [Pentagon’s] acquisition system” can handle and that shows the need for rapid prototyping and spiral development, Kehler said.

Work and Kehler stressed the United States retains a competitive edge in space over Russia and China, particularly, and North Korea’s jamming capabilities as well. “We are really, really thinking hard” about how to provide security for the future in the domain and how “we can threaten theirs,” Work said.

  • Damon Graham

    First I’m an Army vet so saying this makes no difference to me. Give Space to the Navy and call it a day. If or when an asteroid becomes a danger that is when we need a force that is Space focused.

  • Todd

    1.the air force has been s c r e wing the pooch with space operations, they has shown they can’t do the job.
    2. The Navy is actually more dependent upon space assets than any other service
    3. the air force needs to concentrate on their core mission (that which was branched off from the Army), that is, winged assets
    4. future warfare will involve space assets, for better for worse, the air force has not prepared for that eventuality
    5. the most likely future conflict will be in the Pacific where space assets will play a major role, this will be primarily a Navy/Marine corp war, the air force will be minimally involved simply because any bases in the Pacific will be quickly lost, therefore only their long range bombers will have any role to play
    6. space is bigger than the air force alone, a separate force will be better suited to handle it going forward
    7 the air force is very very fat and inefficient, a new branch, free of all of the slow moving and spend happy air force bureaucracy is needed, a force that isn’t s u ck ing on Lockhead’s t i t.

  • Brian Smith

    Agree with Todd and I’d go a couple steps further- there’s too much bloat and bureaucracy in the defense establishment already. Instead of adding more, let’s get rid of some:

    1. Disestablish the Dept of the Air Force and fold it back into the Army. The army has had to develop its own aviation branch- again- because the USAF abandoned the missions the Army needs. Return the USAF to its USAAC roots, giving it the same relationship to the Army that the Marines have with the Navy.

    2. Give space responsibilities to the Navy. They are frankly better equipped for it, IMHO, and already leading the charge on BMD. Furthermore, as we eventually move toward manned space-combat operations, the Navy already has the appropriate experience in operating in hostile environments- at sea, under the sea, and in the air. Every milestone in the space program was spearheaded by then-current or former Naval Aviators: First American in space, first American to orbit the Earth, first to walk on the moon, first space shuttle crew, first un-tethered spacewalk, and the last man to walk on the moon.

    • RobM1981

      I could get behind this, actually, if just to see the look on the USAF faces when the term “Air Corps” is refloated…

      Awesome idea

    • sferrin

      Oh FFS, not this nonsense again. Making the USAF part of the Army would be as stupid as putting the USAF in charge of the Army. Let it go already.

      • On Dre

        As stupid as flying the flag of racist traitors?

    • James Bowen

      Excellent comment, I couldn’t agree more. One minor tweak I would make with what you suggest is to merge the Air Force and Army Departments into a single War Department within which the Air Force and Army remain distinct branches of the service (like the Navy and Marines).

      This would also clear up confusion about the Posse Comitatus in that it would apply to the the branches in the War Department but not the Navy Department.

  • Samuel Clemens

    Anyone who thinks the overhead of putting humans into space war can be anything other than a colossal waste and weakness does not understand the forward arrow of technology points towards autonomous system capable of inhumanly fast calculations, sensory input, decision making, physical maneuvering far beyond human tolerance by tens or hundreds of Gs, and toleration of hostile environments. Space warriors are not just dead warriors, they are seriously in the way.

    Here’s a flash for the 21st century, maybe it is time of a unified command rather ancient organizational structures, roll the remaining human elements into one unified US Forces.

    • Duane


      Too many folks are still stuck in 20th century thinking. The world has already moved on well beyond that mentality.

      • Curtis Conway

        That kind of thinking gave us the LCS. Great platform (tongue in cheek).

    • Curtis Conway

      O Canada!

      • Samuel Clemens

        Oh you noticed. I wondered if anyone would. 🙂 Still, the question should be asked.

        • Curtis Conway

          In fact and in truth, there should probably be ONE basic training followed by a specific training for each branch (except the USMC), unless your Special Forces, and they should go to a hybrid of all of them put together. The US Navy used to have its own testing, selection, training (basic to advanced) in recognition that one CANNOT walk on water, and when you try . . . the inhabitants thereof are trying to EAT YOU, forget the fact that man cannot BREATH WATER! The new Space Force will have to go really deep into physics and human physiology, for those who must operate in the environment of space, and that will be few at first.

          Mark Twain . . . you do have a sense of humor!

          • Samuel Clemens

            As long as they drink and swear like sailors it will be tolerable…

  • tim

    Overhead is usually something you want to minimize. However, in the armed forces, this maybe not so. You need to “park” “redundant” soldiers and knowledge somewhere useful. Given that, it is only logic to add “space” to all the other services. There will always be overlap, the “worst” of all the Marines. I agree with the formation of this new agency.

  • RobM1981

    Wow… the representatives of the Status Quo are arguing against change? I am stunned.

    Inasmuch as the Air Force is always flying over either land or water, it could be argued that the USAAF and the USN could handle that theater, could it not?

    And yet the Air Force held its breath and stomped its feet and did whatever it had to do for “independence.”

    OK, fine.

    Space is as different from air, as air is from water. The weapons and vehicles and tactics will be every bit as diverse. There will be overlap, in the same way that both the Air Force and the Navy fly, but there will mostly be differences.

    The first man to step on the moon was an aviator, not a pilot. The first American to orbit the globe was an aviator, not a pilot. Space is hardly the exclusive domain of the Air Force. There is no air in space – thus no Air for the Air Force.

    The decision is made, flyboys. Get over it.

    • Duane

      No, the decision is already made that there will NOT be a new “Space Force” – the Senate overwhelmingly rejected it.

      There will be a USAF Space Command.

      Battles are not fought in a single environment. In the 21st century all battles are fought in all domains simultaneously. Creating new bureaucratic stovepipes defeats our ability to fight in all domains simultaneously, as we must.

      • Curtis Conway

        THAT is what Joint is all about.

      • tom dolan

        Land based ballistic missiles are a dead end as are land based strategic bombers. The F22 air superiority fighter acquisition was curbed at 187 units. I suppose the Airforce is nominally useful carrying the groceries in C17s but in terms of world wide useful military deployment minus safe foreign airfields is the US Coast Guard with wings

  • RobM1981

    By the way, I vote that the new Space Command be called…

    wait for it…


  • James Bowen

    This “Space Force” is an not a good idea at all. The DoD’s current use of space assets is almost entirely within Earths’ orbit. This is well within the abilities of STRATCOM (drawing on personnel and system expertise from the Air Force and Navy) to handle. Any future voyages and operations beyond Earth orbit would fall neatly into the Navy’s purview.

  • Secundius

    Donald Trump’s “Duck Dodger’s in the 24th & 1/2 Century” Ego, probably…

    ( https : // www . gstatic . com / tv / thumb / tvbanners / 229122 / p229122 _ b _ v8 _ ac . jpg )

  • Leroy

    We have got to start somewhere, sometime. Now is perfect!

  • Mark P

    So if we get a Space Force as a separate branch of the US Armed Forces, do we need to reconstruct the Pentagon into a hexagon?

    • Secundius

      Don’t you mean a “Pentagonal Polytope” instead…

      • Mark P

        Your accuracy in definition does you honor. I stand corrected.

    • tom dolan

      My guess is that you build upward..lol

  • tom dolan

    I suggest that the Navy’s development of high energy rail guns makes a lot more sense in an orbital deployment then it ever did aboard a ship. I’d further suggest that a Space Force as a military organization would need the technical expertise of both the Navy and the Airforce and a command structure independent of both of them.

  • Charles Pierce

    The US followed the UK after the war in creating a separate Air Force. Did great things early but after the cold war has had some mission problems. I believe that it was Goldwater who when the got legislation passed to reorganize the service, it created the Unified and Specified Command structure. Does not take away from any of the services but does all the military to task organize stuff to meet the Defense needs at the time. The idea works well. If we are going to have a space force then it should be a Unified Command or a Specified Command not a new organization. The military is becoming more purple than green/blue/or tan.