war on the rocks

Make It So: Putting Space Force in Context

August 15, 2018

Unless you have been on another planet over the last week, you have doubtless heard that the Trump administration announced its intention to create a new military service — the Space Force. But you could be forgiven for being somewhat puzzled by this proposal: Details are hazy, particularly if you are looking for a coherent description of the problem to which this is a solution. Indeed, only certain members of Congress have articulated a rationale for changing the nation’s military space organizations. Vice President Mike Pence’s announcement last Thursday did anything but clarify what, exactly, this is all about, since he compared it to both the Air Force and to Special Operations Command, the latter of which is not, turns out, a military service at all.

The United States has been tinkering — in ways large and small — with its modern defense establishment since the end of World War II. The tension at the heart of these changes is achieving unity of effort on the one hand and creating the conditions for the development of specialized expertise on the other. Virtually every president since Harry Truman has tasked an outside commission to review the nation’s defense organization and recommend reforms. Though the resulting reports have varied in their overall emphasis, such commissions typically decry the nation’s lack of preparedness in one respect or another and tend to attribute the latest disaster(s) to organizational deficiencies.

Sometimes, reorganization has been arguably in order. But in the spirit of don’t-hate-the player-hate-the-game, it has also served as a useful mechanism to avoid assigning blame to any one service, individual, administration, or Congress for a given debacle, from Pearl Harbor to Desert One. Or, as Charlton Ogburn wrote in 1957, “perhaps because we [Americans] are so good at organizing, we tend as a nation to meet any new situation by reorganizing; and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization.”

Already, a majority of defense experts have expressed skepticism or heaped outright scorn on the Space Force proposal, and for some good reasons. Yet the proposal itself remains confusing and confused. It is worth viewing it in the context of ways that the United States has tried, in the past, to address the tension between unification and specialization. Despite the administration’s stated intent to stand up a new military service, they need congressional approval for this. The Hill may consider and support alternative courses of action, particularly once the expert class – to say nothing of key constituencies in the Pentagon – offers opinion and testimony on the subject. The first question, of course, is whether the problem is an organizational one or is susceptible to amelioration through a change in the old line and bar charts. The second question, if one adjudges the first answer to be yes, is what kind of changes are most appropriate.

There are three major organizational options with historical precedent that various parties have mooted and merit consideration: First, create a specialized “corps” inside an existing service. Second, establish a functional combatant command and empower it to focus on the capabilities in question. Or third, create an entirely new military service. Regrettably, the differences between these options (and their relative merits) have not been terribly clear in much of the public discussion, not least in statements by members of the administration.

A Corps Inside a Service or Department

The Air Force got its start as the Army Air Corps, and then the Army Air Forces. For decades, what we now know as the Air Force was a subordinate organization in the War Department (i.e., the Army). It enjoyed a seat on the Joint Chiefs of Staff during World War II — at the time an ad hoc organization established for the purposes of fighting the war and coordinating with the British — but was a component of the Army and not its own service. The 1947 National Security Act made the Air Force not only its own service, but its own department underneath the National Military Establishment (later the Department of Defense), on a par with the Departments of the Army and the Navy.

The Marine Corps has remained a component of the Department of the Navy since its founding in 1775, but has been a separate service, a status made unambiguous in the Douglas-Mansfield Act of 1952 (Public Law 416, 82nd Congress). This legislation not only put the existence and minimum size of the Marine Corps into law (a status no other service enjoys), but also allowed the commandant to attend meetings of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for matters pertaining to the Corps. The commandant became a full-fledged member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1978, though the Marine Corps remains part of the Department of the Navy. The definition of the armed forces in U.S. Title 10 names the Marine Corps as one of its five branches — the others are the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, and the Coast Guard.

Perhaps inspired by these examples, last year the U.S. House of Representatives passed an amendment as part of the 2018 National Defense Authorization bill to create a Space Corps inside the Air Force. That legislation would make the Space Corps a branch of the armed forces, like the Marine Corps, but inside the Department of the Air Force. The amendment did not make it through the Senate but was a powerful shot across the … pointy nosed fighter planes … of the Air Force. Some in Congress do not think the boys and girls in blue have given space capabilities their due attention. The result was an instruction to the Department of Defense to commission an outside group to conduct a study on the issue. The Pentagon tasked the Center for Naval Analyses — an organization, per congressional instruction, without strong affiliations to the Air Force — to undertake the study.

The differences between these historical precedents and the proposal to create a Space Corps are important. The Marines are, well, the Marines. They have been around for almost 250 years. Meanwhile, the Army Air Corps developed its capabilities, institutional culture, doctrine, and identity inside the Army over the course of decades. It had established its value and its institutional élan by fighting in World War II. By the time of the 1947 National Security Act, a coherent organization could realistically establish itself and take its seat next to the other services. Moreover, as the Cold War got under way, the only U.S. nuclear weapons were those that could be dropped from airplanes, so bombers became a centerpiece of American grand strategy.

There are space capabilities inside the individual services (though the majority are in the Air Force), which might conceivably come together into a new organization. But the analogy with the Air Force falls apart quickly — a coherent organizational culture, raison d’etre, and history do not exist for a Space Corps, much less a history of successful warfighting. Nor is there today a geopolitical situation that puts fighting in space at the center of American strategy.

There is an Air Force Space Command, but to transition this organization into a corps inside the Air Force raises a whole host of questions, not least what happens to the space capabilities inside the other services — both the Army and the Navy have important space-related organizations. Given the squabbles over the fate of aviation components in the Navy and Marine Corps when the Air Force emerged, it is easy to imagine that the creation of a Space Corps risks inviting epic, internecine squabbles amongst the services, the likes of which we have not seen since the 1950s. Moreover, it remains unclear what the assumed causal relationship is between ensuring continued U.S. dominance in space capabilities and the establishment of a specialized corps inside the Air Force, or what such an entity could do that the existing Air Force Space Command could not do, if properly funded and empowered.

A Unified Command

Those paying attention to Pence’s remarks and the measures he outlined last Thursday can be forgiven for some befuddlement on exactly what the administration is proposing. One example he laid out was that of the Special Operations Command, which is not a service, but a unified combatant command that has special authorities that allow it to organize, train, and equip special operations forces — tasks normally performed by the military services. The Pentagon report to Congress is more coherent in describing the establishment of Space Command and the other measures announced last week as interim steps on the road to the creation of a new service, but they could also serve as a natural stopping point, as some in Congress have suggested.

The creation of Special Operations Command emerged from a sense in Congress that the services paid too little attention to the necessity of highly skilled and capable special operations forces — a comparison that advocates argue applies to space capabilities today. The Nunn-Cohen amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act established Special Operations Command in 1987 and awarded it unique authorities to ensure the development and protection of special operations resources from services that might otherwise prioritize their primary missions amid the tugging and hauling of budgetary competition.

But for all of its specialness, Special Operations Command is nonetheless composed of forces ultimately developed by the existing military services. Indeed, the four measures that Pence outlined in his speech are reminiscent of those taken to strengthen special operations forces: creating U.S. Space Command, a new unified command; establishing an “an elite group of joint warfighters specializing in the domain of space,” which will be drawn from the existing services; standing up a Space Development Agency, which the vice president compared to Adm. Hyman Rickover’s nuclear Navy organization inside that service; and appointing an assistant secretary of defense for space, just as the Nunn-Cohen legislation created such an assistant secretary for special operations and low intensity conflict. In other words, all of these measures are ones the Department of Defense has taken in previous eras that fall well short of creating a new service.

If the causal relationship to the problem becomes clearer and a number of details can be worked out, this option likely makes the most sense, and may be all that the administration gets. Some senators, including Jack Reed, support this approach. Indeed, it is similar to the solution for cyber issues through the creation of U.S. Cyber Command. A functional unified command may well solve the problem of assigning responsibility for development of joint space capabilities to an entity outside of the Air Force. Indeed, the administration has yet to explain why we have approached the cyber question — one with dire, and recent, consequences — differently than space.

A New Military Department

The considerations above notwithstanding, the vice president was unambiguous that the steps announced last week are only the beginning. “The president,” he noted, “made it clear that our ultimate objective is to create a new branch of our military that is separate from, and equal to, [the] five other branches.” Moreover, he said this move would take place by 2020. Like giddy start-up founders, the president’s re-election campaign has already asked people to vote on a new logo.

This is by far the most ambitious and far-reaching approach and has the greatest potential for unintended, blow-up-in-your-face consequences. The rationale for this option is the least persuasive and also the most likely to fail in Congress. Not only would a new department and independent service require a new bureaucracy, funding, personnel, uniforms, and so on, the whole edifice of Department of Defense governance would have to adapt. Presumably even congressional committees would need adjustment in order to accommodate the oversight requirement for a new service.

The size of this task and its difficulty raises the fundamental question: Why are we doing this? The reason advocates provide is that the Air Force continues to prioritize the missions it likes better — bombing and flying fighter jets — over the requirements of the nation’s military space capabilities, and that, as a result, we are falling behind our adversaries, especially Russia and China. A new service would, its backers suggest, have as its primary mission the development of cutting-edge space capabilities and thus ensure that an entity is fully focused on this mission and empowered to fulfill it. With a seat at the table next to the other services, a Space Force could compete for budget share and ensure the continued advocacy for space capabilities.

But the problem with this argument is that, for now, the U.S. military is not planning to fight in space, but rather to defend the critical assets that are enablers for the other services and possibly provide offensive capabilities against the assets of our adversaries. Satellites provide vital information and capabilities to U.S. forces on the ground, at sea, and in the air (to say nothing of my sport watch, phone, and nav system). The jibes from late-night comedians and wags on social media notwithstanding, there will likely be no American space warriors in coming days, firing laser guns at cosmonauts and taikonauts in zero gravity. Instead, our space assets provide enablers and enhancements to the fighting forces of the other services. It is a little like arguing for a Transportation Force or a Logistics Force — come up with a logo for that one!

‘I’m Sorry Dave. I’m Afraid I Can’t Do That’

Speaking of transportation, the best analogy of all may be one I have not yet seen mentioned: U.S. Transportation Command. Though it lacks the sex appeal of Special Operations Command, Transportation Command nonetheless performs the vital, common, enabling functions of getting people, their gear, and the supplies they need around the world when and where they are needed. The Germans recognized the significance of logistics in World War II by attacking ships in the Atlantic that were bringing supplies to the beleaguered allies. If the Russians and Chinese have not already considered developing measures to hinder our ability to move forces, it probably will not be long before they do, just as they are concocting ways to degrade, disable, or destroy our space assets.

The first task for advocates of reorganizing for military space is to coherently outline the scale, nature, and timing of the problem. In past reform eras, much study and years of congressional hearings have preceded major changes to the defense establishment. Some may argue that time is a luxury we can no longer afford. Nonetheless, the Trump administration (and some congressional advocates) would improve its case by outlining precisely how the specific change in organization would lead to improvements in U.S. military space capabilities, rather than create a new form of obstruction in an already gargantuan and barely manageable apparatus. At the risk of departing from traditional American orthodoxy, perhaps the problem is not, in fact, an organizational one?

None of this is intended to trivialize how essential these assets are. It is vital to maintain an edge on our adversaries in space and to ensure the protection of the capabilities we have. But with or without a nifty new glyph, it is not yet clear that reorganization is the answer to this problem, never mind a new service. The establishment of one is as likely to bog our efforts in a new bureaucracy as it is to focus them.

 

Celeste Ward Gventer is the Associate Director of the Clements Center for National Security at the University of Texas at Austin. A former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense and consultant on defense organization in Europe and the Middle East, she is completing a dissertation on President Eisenhower and the 1958 Defense Reorganization Act.

Image: U.S. Air National Guard/Maj. Darin Overstreet