“Everybody’s watching — we can’t build a heavy
bureaucratic structure even if we wanted to.”
– Lt. Gen. David Thompson, Vice Commander of the Space Force
“You can’t do that. If you let your friends
blow up the Earth, I’ll never speak to you again.”
– Space Invaders, 1990
Asking the media to think about the president’s decisions on their own merits — to separate them from the man himself — is like asking people to laugh at Bill Cosby’s comedy, listen to R. Kelly’s music, or watch Woody Allen’s films. It’s too difficult for people to grapple with that kind of objectivity when what they see is a president ignoring domestic problems, like the opioid crisis and health care or infrastructure and education, in favor of stargazing and vanity projects intended to help gain political capital or win re-election.
Whether or not a Space Force is a good decision can and should be debated on good faith alone. It’s not a solution in search of a problem. It’s been called a premature move for at least two decades now. It makes one wonder: When is the right time, then?
Personal feelings about the president aside, a Space Force is not insane. Debate it in the arena of national security. The new space race, and militarization of space, has already been happening. According to some, we are behind. To ignore that is the real folly. Space is not a sovereign country. It will be dominated by at least one group, and for now, it is still up for grabs. Ask yourself this: do you want it to be dominated by Russia or China?
I’ll admit, I thought the Space Force sounded funny at first, too. Just the name, Space Force, conjures scenes from Mel Brooks’s Space Balls. But look past the sci-fi movie bullshit, tinfoil hats, sexy female aliens with green skin, and Rico’s Roughnecks fighting alien insects on the bug planet Klandathu, and you’ll see that the argument for and against the Space Force has to do with money, bureaucracy, and America’s current satellite system and commercial space flight operations. It’s more about boosting reconnaissance and cybersecurity than fighting in orbit.
Space Force and the Battle of the Bureaucracies
Critics view the creation of the Space Force as additional bureaucracy in the Department of Defense. Many see it as the thing that will start a new space race between the U.S., Russia, and China. It will involve a lot of money, some complain. Still others maintain that it needlessly introduces an extra layer of complexity in the Pentagon and the larger overall military organizational chart.
“The Pentagon is complicated enough,” former Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said in June 2017. “This will make it more complex, add more boxes to the organization chart, and cost more money. If I had more money, I would put it into lethality, not bureaucracy.” At a time when military leaders are looking to simplify, streamline, and move toward joint warfighting after the longest war in the nation’s history, creating a sixth branch sounds like the opposite of “keep it simple, stupid.” Or is it doing exactly that?
When sifting through the emotionally charged arguments against the Space Force by people who resent that it was spoken by the president (tell me, if his opponent in 2016 had won, and done the same now, would she not be lauded and praised as making history as the first female commander-in-chief to form a new military branch in more than seventy years?), I only came across one compelling counter argument. Simply put, the argument is that the creation of a cyberspace force would be a better use of funds. With new cyberattacks raising eyebrows and political hackles alike, it seems reasonable that a cyberspace force is a more immediate need.
Still, most agree that more emphasis and military presence in space is a good thing, and the massive organizational change and expense, a bad thing. Put those two opinions in a blender, hit purée, and voilà, the debate.
In the antagonist camp, people like Brian Weeden of the space policy think-tank Secure World Foundation and a former Air Force officer, “oppose forming a separate service for space in part because […] it won’t necessarily solve one of the key problems facing defense space operations: a sluggish, bureaucratic acquisition process.” In Congress, Rep. Rogers and his allies argued the opposite (successfully, it seems), that the Defense Department needs a separate force focused on space dominance in order to have a more rapid acquisition process and its own funding stream.
“Why not just solve the problem with what we have right now?” Mr. Weeden said. “I have my own frustrations. It’s been seven, eight years since [the Air Force] ha[s] had this direction to focus on resilience and we haven’t really seen them do anything. But in the last six months, there have been signs that they’re finally taking it seriously and making changes.”
Casting blame on the Air Force is not new. They’ve borne the brunt of the military’s responsibility for monitoring and securing space up until now. Carving the Space Force out of them is like using Adam’s rib to create Eve. It is seen as a way of relieving them of that duty so they can continue focusing on the thousand other projects they oversee.
Okay, But Who Owns Space?
But where will air end and space begin? How will the air and space domains, which were once the purvey of the Air Force, be carved up? While not definitive, at 62 miles above sea level the Kármán line is conventionally seen as the start of outer space in space treaties and for aerospace record keeping. We can now also look to Spacepower Doctrine for answers:
“The boundaries of sovereign airspace do not extend into space, and the earliest applications of orbital flight established the international norm of unrestricted overflight for all spacecraft. This makes space a shared environment equally open to all members of the international community. Under this arrangement, the scientific and economic potential of the space domain is boundless. As we look to the near future, orbital flight affords access to an immeasurable supply of economic resources. These resources represent untapped economic opportunities that further elevate the value of the space domain and the imperative for orbital flight.
“The physical dimension of the space domain encompasses the orbital environment and the spacecraft operating within the domain. This dimension starts in the upper reaches of Earth’s atmosphere, intersecting and extending beyond the physical location required for sustained orbital flight.
“Since the dawn of the Space Age, attempts to define the space domain have focused on the boundary between air and space. This demarcation has been the source of considerable debate. But just as the ocean’s rising and falling tides insufficiently express the depth and complexity of the maritime domain, defining space based on a lower physical boundary neglects the domain’s vast expanse and dynamic character. Space is more than an altitude. Space is more than just orbital flight; the concept of space operations must span a physical dimension, network dimension, and a cognitive dimension, among others, in order to completely understand the relationships and interlinkages with the other domains. This functional definition is a necessary component of any attempt to capture the complete utility and potential value of the space domain.”
Space Force: Beyond Year One
“Innovation propels spacepower forward; for this attribute,
there can be no substitute. No amount of funding nor
reorganization can compensate for a lack of innovation.”
–Space Capstone Publication
a priori: adjective; relating to or denoting reasoning or knowledge which proceeds from theoretical deduction rather than from observation or experience
On December 17, 2019, Congress passed the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act. In doing so, it authorized the creation of the Space Force. The relevant provision was included in exchange for establishing paid parental leave for federal workers. The bill designated the Air Force Space Command as the sixth branch of the armed services, with the caveat that new billets would be prohibited. The Space Force will have to pull personnel from existing forces and “while the vast majority of the staff — about 151 people — will come from the Air Force, the other services will also transfer personnel: 24 from the Army, 14 from the Navy and Marine Corps, and nine from the Joint Staff, the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the intelligence community.” The monetary cost, as estimated by a congressional agency, will add $5.6 billion to the deficit through 2029.
Days later, on December 20, the bill went to the White House and was signed by the president, giving birth to the Space Force. How the Space Force will take shape was laid out in August 2019 by the vice president when he spoke at the Pentagon and described a four-step plan:
- Create U.S. Space Command as a new unified combatant command. The new organization will be led by a four-star general and will establish the space war-fighting doctrine, tactics, techniques, and procedures.
- Build an elite group of space officers called “Space Operations Force,” which will be comprised of all of the services and “grow into their own cohesive community” similar to that of special operators, Pence said. “They will support the combatant command by providing space expertise in times of crisis and conflict.”
- Develop the Space Development Agency, a new joint procurement arm for space products. Pence said space acquisition had become too bureaucratic and that the U.S.’s ability to innovate had been stifled by “needless layers of red tape.” The Space Development Agency, by contrast, would leverage prototyping and experimentation to achieve technological breakthroughs.
- Name a civilian to the post of assistant secretary of defense for space. This official will be charged with making the Space Force a reality, oversee the service’s expansion, and report to the secretary of defense. “This leader will be key to a critical transition to a fully independent secretary of the space force.”
After the first 18 months, the goal is for all those steps to be completed, and a ready plan to begin defending the “force multiplier” functions (comsats, navsats, reconsats) of the 60-70 assets that the U.S. has in orbit today. As details continue to be ironed out regarding the organization, training, and equipment of the Space Force, a lot of uncertainty lies ahead. How will President-elect Joe Biden’s administration influence the future of the Space Force? How will the culture of the mixed branch come together, with airmen, sailors, Marines, and soldiers finding themselves moved into a new service they may not have planned to join? Then there are the practical and personal questions of pay, promotions, and limited variety of billets, occupational fields, and accession. Will previous time in service count toward future prospects, and will it differ according to which branch personnel arrived from?
“How do you create a unified cadre of personnel in the Space Force, and what are the unique characteristics of people that you want in that cadre? Because it doesn’t need to necessarily model what the other services do in terms of the rank structure, in terms of career progression, in terms of the skills. I would go into this with a clean sheet of paper,” said Todd Harrison, director of the aerospace security project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Tabula rasa.
Guardians Are Getting Geared Up
So far, the Space Force has designed new uniforms, a logo, and a song. Air Force Academy cadets will be able to matriculate into the Space Force similar to how the Naval Academy feeds midshipmen into the Marine Corps. For enlisted personnel, boot camp will build on the Air Force basic military training with the addition of a space-specific curriculum.
With so much conjecture up till now, it’s finally time to start seeing results based on empirical evidence. Will the Space Force be successful? In less than one month, on January 20th, the president-elect will be inaugurated to become the commander-in-chief of six armed services, including America’s first new uniformed service in 73 years.
On December 11, Congress passed the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, nicknamed the “Starfleet Amendment,” authorizing $740.5 billion in defense funds. Of that amount, the Space Force budget is approximately $15.4 billion.
What will the Space Force do with those billions? How will it justify that cost, in terms of not only money but personnel and procurement? While that remains to be seen over the next five years, the expectations are high. It will be the first truly global branch of the armed services, able to provide perspective over any location on the Earth, even where current land, air, and sea military powers are restricted by international law and sovereign borders. Space is the ultimate “high ground,” allowing the Space Force to support, enhance, and enable all other domains: land, maritime, air, and cyberspace. While the Space Force alone will not win wars, it can potentially make the difference between victory or defeat. That is the strategic imperative for creating the United States Space Force. That is where the bar has been set.
In 1957, months before Sputnik’s launch, Air Force Major General Bernard Schriever said, “In the long haul, our safety as a nation may depend upon our achieving ‘space superiority.’ Several decades from now, the important battles may not be sea battles or air battles, but space battles, and we should be spending a certain fraction of our national resources to ensure that we do not lag in obtaining space supremacy.”
There is a thought that militarizing space sets the conditions for war; that our mere presence in space and our capability to project combat power from space invites challenge and conflict. Seen another way, space presence a form of deterrence against war. Written in the Space Capstone Publication is the reassurance that the Space Force must “make every effort to promote responsible norms of behavior that perpetuate space as a safe and open environment in accordance with the Laws of Armed Conflict, the Outer Space Treaty, and international law, as well as U.S. Government and DoD policy.”
Prepare for war, neutralize adversarial threats, and preserve peace, all in the space domain. That amounts to a tall order for a young service, born on the tail end of the nation’s longest war at a time when political and cultural divisions throughout the country have even led to strong public opinion for and against its very existence. The men and women forming its ranks have a once-in-several lifetimes opportunity to be trailblazers, pioneers in space.
And in the face of all the uncertainty that the future holds, they will be able to answer the question of why military spacepower is vital to our country’s prosperity and security.