The Sixth Service: What the Reorganization of Special Operations Forces Can Teach Us About Space Force


“At the end of the day, establishing a new department or Service would be the most significant defense reform since those precipitated by the landmark Goldwater-Nichols Act. Such a change would not be quick or easy.”

Sadly, the Star Trek and Star Wars dreams of millions of Americans are not being realized in the Trump administration’s recent decree to create a space force, but the administration has paved a vague path to establishing several new national security space organizations within the Department of Defense.

The announcement has raised a number of questions among policymakers and experts: Why a whole new force? Why now? Can’t the existing military services continue to manage missions in space? Won’t change be too disruptive? Will it rob from one essential mission set to pay for another?

For those of us who study Defense Department organizational reform, both the proposals and the debates have a familiar ring to them. In 1987, Congress passed legislation that created U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), the assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict, and a low-intensity conflict board at the National Security Council. In the years preceding passage of that law, the Pentagon and Capitol Hill wrangled over the best ways to organize and resource the nation’s special operations forces. Some voices in the House called for a separate special operations military service, and even a whole separate agency, while most in the Pentagon argued for modest adjustments in policy oversight.

Like the arguments in the 1980s about the structure, funding, and authorities for special operations forces, today the United States is again moving forward with implementation before major questions have been resolved. This article examines the special operations forces organizational reform process for lessons that may apply to today’s space force debate. The history of special operations forces reform suggests that significant objections to reorganization in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Joint Staff, and military services can isolate a capability from the rest of the force, deepening habits of self-sufficiency and secrecy by the new bureaucracy, and making oversight both inside and outside the Defense Department more complicated.


An earlier War on the Rocks article detailed specifics of the administration’s proposal, but for those catching up, a review: First and foremost, the administration is touting a U.S. Space Force, a sixth uniformed service that will be responsible for organizing, training, and equipping forces to protect U.S. national security interests and assets in the space domain. But creating a new military department requires an act of Congress, so in the interim the administration has proposed several initial steps that move in this direction. First, it wants to create a Space Development Agency, similar to the Missile Defense Agency, that would be responsible for developing and fielding space capabilities. Additionally, a Space Operations Force will be established. Like current special operations forces, the Space Operations Force will comprise space personnel from all U.S. military services and work to develop space leaders and joint space warfighters. If or when a space force is created, the people and organizations that make up the Space Operations Force will become the foundation of the new military department.

Do we need a Space Force? Check out our roundtable debate at the Texas National Security Review featuring Joan Johnson-Freese, Namrata Goswami, Doug Loverro, and Harvey M. Sapolsky.

The Space Operations Force will initially be overseen by U.S. Space Command — a new unified combatant command responsible for preparing for, deterring, and, if necessary, fighting a conflict in space. The job of the service is to organize, train, and equip forces, and the job of the combatant command is to employ those forces. In the near term, the administration will create a new civilian position, assistant secretary of defense for space, to organize and lead these efforts until a secretary of the space force position is created.

What does this all mean for the structure of the Defense Department? Most unclassified space assets and capabilities are currently housed in the Air Force. Air Force Space Command alone has “more than 30,000 professionals worldwide.” However, the Navy and Army acquire, operate, and maintain their own space assets separately from the Air Force, as do the National Reconnaissance Office and other intelligence agencies. The space force would, in theory, integrate all these existing space organizations under one unified chain of command.

How to best organize the national security space enterprise has been an ongoing debate for years. Prior to the administration’s decision to create a space force, debates on Capitol Hill and in space policy circles were centered on a space corps, not a space force. A space corps would act as a distinct service but remain within the Department of the Air Force, similar to the Marine Corps. Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Paul Selva, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein all publicly opposed the establishment of a new service, whether a space corps or space force. Their argument was that increased bureaucracy and needless separation would be more disruptive than other changes the Defense Department could make within its existing structures.

To understand how these issues may play out, it is instructive to look at the debate over SOCOM in the 1980s. Where did this debate come from, how did it unfold, and what finally prompted legislative change?

Special Operations: A Case Study

Historians and contemporary authors have identified three related factors that led to the overhaul of how the Defense Department organized and budgeted for special operations. The first factor, the department’s persistent underresourcing of special operations units and platforms, led directly to the second, gaps in military capacity to deal with terrorism and Soviet-sponsored “Third World” insurgencies. These two conditions resulted in the third factor: catastrophic operational mistakes that drew the attention of lawmakers. The progression establishes both parallels and contrasts with how discussions about space force have evolved. Similar to the special operations debate, those who advocate for a space force argue that under-resourcing and gaps in capacity are already happening, and that only a separate force can prevent a catastrophe.

Working with Less

By the early 1980s, the Department of Defense had shifted away from the Vietnam-era emphasis on counter-insurgency and low-intensity conflict and back toward a focus on major conventional war. In her singular book Unconventional Warfare, scholar Susan Marquis shows how, consistent with this change, the military departments had slashed their special operations force structure and redirected funding for special operations capabilities toward the conventional force. The Navy and the Air Force both oriented their special operators toward major conventional missions, with the Air Force in particular shifting funds away from special operations-oriented platforms.

The Army gave its special operators much greater scope. During the 1970s, a handful of senior officers perceived the rise of terrorist attacks from armed Islamic groups as well as state sponsors and determined that the Army would need a counter-terrorism capability. Over the course of the decade, they resurrected the 1st and 2nd Ranger battalions and stood up Special Forces Operational Detachment – Delta. With Special Forces, Rangers, and Delta, the Army positioned itself as the lead service in terms of special operations capabilities.

The different approaches to special operations forces prevailed not only across the services, but across the theater commands as well. Although the Reagan administration had come into office touting a revitalization of special operations forces and had tripled the associated budgets, most of the lucre went “toward upgrading the capability of SOF [special operations forces] to support the CINCs [combatant commands] in the prosecution of their conventional war plans.”

This division of labor in the development and use of special operations forces created a kind of bureaucratic homeostasis. The Pentagon therefore had a turf-related institutional bias against reorganizing those forces that persisted throughout the 1980s, and even into the first years of SOCOM’s existence. The Reagan administration dragged its feet so heavily on appointing an assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict that Congress resorted to naming the secretary of the Army as the acting head until a suitable nominee could be identified and confirmed. Prior to passage of the law establishing SOCOM, the Pentagon argued persistently that special operations must maintain their attachments to the conventional force and the military departments.

Unprepared for the Unconventional

Such arguments ran into a wall of evidence that what modest changes had been made were not equal to the international security environment’s growing demand for capabilities at the low end of conflict. In 1983, a terrorist attack on the Marine barracks in Beirut killed 242 Americans. In 1984, extremists kidnapped and tortured the new CIA Beirut station chief — convincing the Reagan administration that “terror was emerging as a new form of warfare for which the United States was poorly prepared.” Events in 1985, particularly the hijackings of TWA flight 847 and the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro by militants, also inspired debates about appropriate uses of force in response to terrorism.

At the same time, defense planners were increasingly concerned by Soviet-sponsored communist uprisings in Latin American and Africa. In 1986, the Army-led Low-Intensity Conflict Project released a two-volume report declaring that “conflicts short of conventional war” were “the most probable conflict [the U.S.] will face in the foreseeable future.” Yet, the report argued, the military was fundamentally unprepared for this form of competition. Instead, it turned again and again to conventional operations. In fact, as early as 1983, Reagan explained to the American people that an invasion was necessary against the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada because the Soviets were building facilities there for the purpose of “power projection.”

Although the invasion of Grenada was a military success, it was unnecessarily sloppy from planning to execution, especially for the special operators. The special and conventional forces divided their labor poorly, and 13 special operations personnel died during the operation. These difficulties frustrated special operations leaders and demonstrated to Capitol Hill that the Pentagon still did not adequately prioritize special operations forces. Just three years earlier, the aborted covert mission to rescue U.S. hostages in Iran had ended in a disastrous midair collision between a helicopter and a transport plane. Eight servicemembers died with many others badly burned, and the news of the tragic outcome of Operation Eagle Claw embarrassed the Carter administration and the American military. Although the Pentagon had made some effort in the years since the 1980 disaster to improve joint special operations, most pointedly by establishing the Joint Special Operations Command, Grenada showed that in the absence of major institutional investment, these incremental reforms could not be effective.

Eagle Claw and Grenada radicalized a few key members of the active and retired special operations community, who took their frustrations to Capitol Hill. They argued that the Defense Department’s systematic neglect was responsible for the poor preparedness, and persuaded lawmakers that the United States needed special operations forces to be ready for a range of low-intensity threats. Sen. Sam Nunn of the Senate Armed Services Committee told one reporter:

In my view, the most likely use of force by the United States in the foreseeable future is by our special operations forces. The threat that we face from terrorism and from other forms of low-intensity conflict mean that we must be prepared to deter and respond if necessary with special operations forces.

The committee held hearings to learn specifically about special operations resourcing and bureaucratic support. According to Marquis and William Boykin, one hearing in particular appeared to make the major difference in spurring Congress to pass binding legislation: when the very recently retired commander of Joint Special Operations Command, Brig. Gen. Richard Scholtes, testified about his experience in Grenada in a closed session. The transcripts have not been made public, but Hill staff later claimed to Marquis that Scholtes’ testimony alarmed and galvanized Sen. William S. Cohen into a far more assertive legislative approach.

The final legislation represented the triumph of the Senate’s vision over the House’s. Primarily, the Senate rejected the notion of a separate agency for special operations forces, which the House had championed. Senate personnel argued that a separate agency would strip power from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the combatant commands, the exact problem that the Goldwater-Nichols defense reform legislation was attempting to ameliorate.

But the resulting law was still a hybrid between separating special operations forces into a service and keeping them embedded in the military departments. It gave SOCOM service-like training, equipping, and doctrine-writing responsibilities, and presented it with a separate budget program, Major Force Program-11. SOCOM also acted as a force provider to regional combatant commands, making its relationship to Joint Special Operations Command — the most kinetic arm of special operations forces — ill-defined from the start. Meanwhile, the services were still in charge of special operations recruitment, basic equipping, and career management.

Finally, the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict was a unique and awkward bureaucratic element of the reorganization. While the other four-star-led combatant commands reported to the secretary of defense, SOCOM’s immediate civilian oversight was at the level of an assistant secretary. The unusual chain of command and budgetary authorities meant the Pentagon spent the first few years after passage of the SOCOM legislation devising internal processes and working relationships. The call for a study of SOCOM and special operations and low-intensity conflict in this year’s National Defense Authorization Act indicates that these structures have never quite reached a workable equilibrium. Rather, in the rush to find something palatable to enough stakeholders, Congress ensured that special operations forces were neither fully separated from the services nor integrated with the operational force.

Lessons for Space Force

There are important similarities between the special operations reorganization and the proposal put forward for the space force. For one, both are specialized forces that require unique skill sets that cannot be developed overnight. As much as space capabilities revolve around hardware, the “software” of the necessary human resources is, as with special operations, the key factor in building capabilities. The White House’s intentions with establishing a sixth service must certainly include the development of space professionals through unique training. Currently, space officers in other services often receive a space assignment for a few years and do not often make a career in space-related positions.

Because of the specialized nature of both special operations and space, they are not well-understood by outsiders. This can lead to challenges in both management and oversight, and empowers those with the requisite expertise to shape change. Just a few men with backgrounds in special operations drove Congress to consider and then pass the sweeping SOCOM legislation, using insider knowledge to overcome Pentagon objections. Space policymaking and management require at least conversant understanding of the domain itself as well as the technical challenges to operating there — e.g., different orbital planes and inclinations, or debris that lingers and perpetually threatens satellites. Compounding this dynamic is the tendency in both communities toward secrecy and classification, which limits the number of people who understand how these forces operate and what kinds of organizational constraints and opportunities they face. Giving these communities organizational independence allows them to further control access to information, which in turn exacerbates the problems of unique expertise.

Finally, special operations had a history of being underfunded and undervalued by the services. There were (and are) strategic and cultural reasons for the marginalization of special operations forces. Especially during the Cold War, articulating uses of force outside the framework of major conventional engagement or nuclear war was simply out of step with the defense establishment. The elitism, individualism, and organizational flexibility of special operations also alienated large services aligned with universal basic standards, mass coordination, and bureaucracy. Furthermore, space capabilities have suffered from fitting somewhat uneasily into the traditional service structures, which still prioritize conventional operational skills and equipment and define their identities by major war plans executed in their domains of historical expertise. Proponents of the space force as a sixth service argue that the Air Force has not prioritized or institutionalized space within its organization. For instance, advocates note that the Air Force has previously cancelled several space programs well into their development.

There are also lessons to be learned from the differences between special operations and space forces. Primarily, there has been no major disaster in space pointing to a clear need for change. Certainly the 2007 Chinese anti-satellite test shook the U.S. perception of a bipolar power system in the space domain, but the test did not cause direct harm to U.S. space systems. Special operations forces had the disaster in the Iranian desert, missteps over other hostage rescues, and the invasion of Grenada to point to as obvious reasons for reform. There has been no such public reckoning when it comes to the United States in the space domain. This may be because space capabilities are in fact being managed appropriately, or because the mishap has yet to occur. A definite positive outcome of the administration’s declaration of the space force is that it has forced policymakers and subject area experts to debate the most efficient and effective way to reorganize the national security space enterprise, rather than waiting for a mishap or serious incident.

Space is also a separate physical domain, while special operations is a capability applicable in all domains — perhaps someday even in space. The call for a separate special operations military department, while somewhat logical for purposes of advocacy and budgeting, never really made strategic sense. Special operations missions were not sufficiently detached from those of their parent services, critics believed, to merit full separation. The major lesson learned from missteps in the early 1980s was that special operations forces needed to be joint, integrated, and not as walled off from each other and service budgeting and planning. As an actual domain, space lends itself more to the traditional military department model. That said, much as in the special operations model, space forces would not be created from scratch and capabilities and personnel would need to transition from existing organizational structures to a new one.

Learning from History  

In his opening statement before one of the last hearings prior to passage of the SOCOM legislation, Cohen said, “I believe that if the United States is to be spared the bitter frustration we have experienced in earlier efforts to conduct counterinsurgency and counterterrorist operations, we must revamp the organization on which our special forces are built.” The United States has yet to experience such difficulties in space. But what is clear is that defense reorganization may solve an array of problems, but it also runs the risk of generating new ones.

Advocates on both sides of the debate should ask themselves whether the current organizational structure courts disaster or is already preventing it. If Operation Eagle Claw had had just two more helicopters at its disposal, the mission might have succeeded — or at least failed at a different point, perhaps driving different conclusions. If the current level and type of risk in space indeed demand a new organization, reform architects should consider the lingering challenges that the hybrid command structure, budgeting, and internal oversight of special operations forces pose to the department.

To properly reorganize and then oversee the national space security enterprise, policymakers should listen to advice from space security experts both inside and outside the Defense Department. A new service will require policymakers to grow and maintain experts able to probe the organization’s assumptions and assertions. Regardless, for space, as with special operations forces, Congress will likely have to be dogged in its follow-up as assets, people, and responsibilities leave one organization for another.

Special operations forces today inarguably operate with more sophistication and effectiveness than they did prior to the reforms of the 1980s. Is the space domain as neglected as low-intensity conflict and counter-terrorism capabilities were? And will further reorganization ameliorate such neglect? It appears the White House is determined to find out.


Alice Hunt Friend is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and was previously special adviser for strategy, plans, and forces and principal director for African affairs in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Kaitlyn Johnson is a research associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in the Aerospace Security Project.

Image: U.S. Air Force/Colville McFee