How to Configure the Space Force? A Question For All the Services


Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from “Policy Roundtable: Does America Need a Space Force?” by our sister publication, the Texas National Security ReviewBe sure to check out the full roundtable.

President Donald Trump wants to create a space force, America’s sixth armed service, to assure U.S. dominance in space. It doesn’t matter that America already has a sixth armed service (more on that later), and is already dominant in space. Nor does it seem to matter that the United States likely outspends the rest of the world combined on military space activities, or that it has many well-established government organizations dedicated to supporting the unhampered use of space. Nevertheless, there is a drumbeat for enhancing America’s presence in space — and Trump’s demand for a space force is its most authoritative (and tweeted) expression.

The Air Force is the main budgetary channel and nominally the lead acquisition service for what the Department of Defense does in space — global communications, navigation assistance, and surveillance — although all of the actual development and procurement of classified space systems is done by a central defense agency, the National Reconnaissance Office. The Air Force is responsible for the acquisition of the Global Positioning System (GPS) and some important strategic warning systems. It manages them in addition to some defense-wide communications satellites and the tracking of space objects via the U.S. Strategic Command (one of the combatant commands, where the Air Force Space Command is a major subordinate unit).

Perhaps because it has complained about the burden of being a provider of space services and, as Joan Johnson-Freese’s essay notes, is run by fighter pilots, the Air Force takes much flak from space force advocates who believe it intentionally neglects space, preferring to focus instead on supporting America’s several ongoing combat operations and recapitalizing its aging inventory of aircraft. From the advocates’ perspective, space makes up only a small part (less than 8 percent of personnel) of a very overcommitted Air Force, which is doing what it likes best and is best at doing: generating combat sorties and blowing up things on the ground. According to space advocates, military space needs an independent voice within the Department of Defense.

Who Are the Advocates?

There are at least two types of advocates for a U.S. Space Force. The first is the threat assessor: those who man America’s many intelligence staffs, think tanks, contractor business development units, war college faculties, and congressional committee staffs. These are the men and women who worry about what the Chinese, Russians, North Koreans, Iranians, and the like are doing to undermine America’s ability to prevail in any kind of warfare under any conditions. In the past, some of these forecasters of future wars imagined the possibility of a cyber Pearl Harbor, and successfully pushed for the establishment of a U.S. Cyber Command to fight America’s battles in cyber space. Recognizing the military’s dependence on space-based communications and surveillance systems, these advocates are certain that space is the next domain for warfare. America has to be prepared.

The second type of advocate might be called “space pioneers,” proponents for the increased use of space for exploration, commerce, and colonization. Space pioneers see today’s military as playing the same role the post-Civil War Army played in the American West — providing support for opening the frontier, protection, and infrastructure for space exploitation. It is difficult and costly to operate in space. However, space pioneers believe that the military — whether to ward off Martians or Russians — will find the budgets required to make space travel easier and safer. And if fear is the motivator needed for opening up this new frontier, then so be it. For the same reason, many space pioneers were enthusiastic supporters of President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, the famous “Star Wars” project to build ballistic missile defenses. Whatever lifts your rocket.

What Should a Space Force Look Like?

Opposition to creating a space force — beyond the cantankerous elderly (I am still very unhappy with the disestablishment of the bilinear Navy) and the miserly budgeteers who oppose any new organization as another mouth to feed — depends on how the new service is configured. Choosing his words incredibly poorly, Trump called for a “separate but equal” armed service for space. Ignoring the civil rights analogy, most know that there is always a pecking order among bureaucracies and that the armed services come in several different flavors. They are neither all separate nor equal.

The Six Services

At the foundation of the six armed services lie what are often called the “Big Four”: the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps. The nation started with two services, the Army and the Navy, and acquired a third, the Air Force, after World War II, through the transformation of the Army Air Corps into, first, the Army Air Force, and then, the independent U.S. Air Force. Burdened by the aviators’ insatiable budgetary and doctrinal appetites, the Army was happy to be rid of them. The Marine Corps fought its way to independence first by capturing the public’s admiration with courageous battlefield performance in both world wars, and then by maneuvering its way politically into a full seat on the Joint Chiefs in the 1980s. That left the Army, the Corps’ longtime bureaucratic foe, to wonder what hit it. Structurally, the Big Four look much alike, with the exception of the Marine Corps, which shares a departmental secretary with the Navy and which leans on the Navy for some acquisition and support functions.

The next two services are structured differently from each other and from the Big Four. The U.S. Coast Guard, the smallest of the armed services, spends much of its life as a civilian coastal and inland waterways law enforcement and infrastructure maintenance agency. Its side business is rescuing drunk boaters on weekends. Militarily, it is the Navy’s little brother, tagging along, when allowed, to whatever fight is ongoing. When formally mobilized for war, it becomes part of the Department of the Navy. But what is most interesting about the Coast Guard is that it combines that which the Defense Department is legally mandated to keep separate. By statute, the services are responsible for training and equipping forces that, when deployed, are commanded by joint combatant commands that report in a separate line to the president via the secretary of defense (the old bilinear structure that I love so much). In practice, the commandant of the Coast Guard is in charge of both training and equipping Coast Guard units and their operational use, without much, if any, secretarial supervision. The Coast Guard’s bureaucratic placement has been difficult. Initially part of the Treasury Department, it was transferred to the Department of Transportation before ending up with the Department of Homeland Security as its peacetime home.

The sixth service is the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), created in 1986 to be the advocate and manager of America’s commando forces and supporting units, which are provided by the Army, Navy, Air Force, and the Marines (although the Marines did not initially sign up: “What’s so special about Special Ops?”). At SOCOM’s core are various elite units including Special Forces, the Rangers, Delta Force, the SEALs, and several highly capable aviation units. The impetus for creating SOCOM was much like that driving the current call for the space force: the belief among advocates that these specialized forces were being hamstrung or neglected by the conventional military — the Army in particular — and would likely remain so unless they had their own four-star protector.

Unique among the combatant commands, SOCOM has its own acquisition budget. Those funds are controlled by the military directly rather than by civilians, as is the case for the Big Four services with their well-staffed service secretariats. SOCOM is not totally devoid of civilian supervision, however, as the assistant secretary of defense for low-intensity conflict does provide some policy guidance. SOCOM grew rapidly after 9/11, when its operational arm, the Joint Special Operations Command, perfected the intelligence-driven night raids to roll up insurgent networks in Iraq and Afghanistan. The SEALs also led the attack that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. Today, SOCOM numbers nearly 70,000, bigger than the entire Canadian military.

Which Option Is Best?

Thus, there are many ways a space force could be configured. The one least likely to work, and certain to draw the most opposition, is to expand the Big Four into the Big Five and give the space force its own secretariat and acquisition authority. This, presumably, would take a chunk out of the Air Force and require transfers of space-related activities from the other services. This would result in an unhappy Air Force and cause concerns in the other services about the loss of their own connections to space and the new dependencies created by the space force. Moreover, because the standard service structure excludes control of operating forces, the space force would only be a training and equipping organization. The “space corps” variation — modeled on the Marine Corps — would likely make the new organization a subsidiary of the Air Force, but still separate from operational activities, which would remain in U.S. Strategic Command. So limited, the space corps would antagonize both the Air Force with its parasitic nature and the advocates with its impotency and continuing link to the Air Force.

The “space guard” option, creating a service like the Coast Guard, would involve mixing civilian and military activities within the same organization. The United States already has a civilian space agency — NASA — making this variant both duplicative and awkward. As an entirely civilian agency, NASA can work with governments that prefer to avoid ties with the U.S. military. Absorbing NASA into the space guard would tempt the military to seek its own space organizations, recreating the current circumstances. More complicating still, something would have to be done with the National Reconnaissance Office if the space guard were to be the main defense space service. This is surely the least feasible option.

That leaves the designation of a U.S. Space Command as one of the combatant commands, something that existed from 1986 until 2002, when it was disbanded and its functions were transferred to Strategic Command. During every crisis, the busy get busy and the rest devote their attention to reorganization. Embarrassingly enough, when the 9/11 attacks occurred, the military had to admit that, North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) aside, it had no overall command with the responsibility to defend the homeland. There was a Pacific Command, a European Command, a Southern Command, but no America Command. Thus, Northern Command was created, absorbing NORAD and taking on the responsibility of defending the continent against all enemies. Insanely, someone thought it was important to keep the number of combatant commands to ten, perhaps in keeping with the requirements of the enabling legislation, and U.S. Space Command was abolished. This is the stuff that feeds conspiracy theories. No doubt, both the threat assessors and the space pioneers have felt the loss ever since.

A new U.S. Space Command should look more like Special Operations Command rather than the old Space Command. That is, it should have some capability to develop space systems on its own and draw units from the other services. And, like Special Operations, it should have a joint combat-oriented, subordinate command allowing for offensive operations if they become permissible and necessary in space. It could even be called the space force. But essentially, Space Command would be there to service the operational needs of the other combatant commands and the defense agencies, conducting vital communication and surveillance tasks that dominate current military space operations. And, as they do now, the Air Force and the other services, plus several central defense agencies, would be developing new space systems as well.

Competition Will Solve the Problem

We do not know whether space will soon become a theater of war or how the threat of possible attacks against America’s interests in space will evolve. What the United States needs are many sets of eyes on the problem. All the services should be thinking about how they can use space. U.S. Space Command could provide operational coordination but should not hold a monopoly. It was competition among the services and with intelligence agencies that produced America’s early Cold War lead in space-based surveillance. Interservice competition similarly pushed the United States ahead of the Soviets in ballistic missile development. There is plenty of room for everyone to work in space.

Recreating U.S. Space Command would be an easy step toward modestly enhancing the organizational status of America’s space efforts without disrupting them. It is what most reorganization is about — giving symbolic recognition to advocates that their worries and their interests are important. But real progress comes only when several organizations are vying for the same job. If space becomes the next battlefield, we should want and expect all the armed services to compete in discovering America’s path toward victory.


Harvey M. Sapolsky is professor of public policy and organization, emeritus, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the former director of its Security Studies Program. He thanks Owen Cote, Karen Stenbo Sapolsky, and the editors for their helpful comments.

Image: NASA Hubble Space Telescope

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