A Speech for the Next SECAF to Launch a New Era of Spacepower
Barbara Barrett, the president’s nominee to be secretary of the Air Force, will be leading the service at a historic time. If things go as planned, she will be the first Air Force secretary ever to have working for her not one but two chiefs of staff — one for the Air Force and another for a space force. Bureaucratically, that could make her the most powerful secretary of the Air Force ever. It is an unprecedented opportunity to create a lasting legacy, not just to shape the U.S. military, but humanity’s relationship with space.
The stage is set. The leadership of the House Armed Services Committee, the president, and the vice president have been clear about their desire to birth a space force. Barrett has been well served by Acting Secretary Mathew Donovan, who has powerfully and articulately argued for an independent space force in law. A plan is in place, and key general officer thought-leaders are now publicly supporting a space force. A bold and ready-made vision of the power of space has already been released by Air Force Space Command to the applause of supporters.
Barrett is in a position to lift the eyes of the nation and inspire the members of her department. She can demonstrate to the administration and Congress that the Air Force has is looking beyond the tactical to a strategic vision for humanity in space in a time of great power competition. I used to be the director of the Air Force Space Horizons Task Force, which is charged to prepare the intellectual ground for American spacepower over the long term. All bold new directions often begin with a speech, and I have written one that I think she should give.
The speech below could have been given by her predecessor. Indeed, I originally penned it for her predecessor in summer of 2017, but then-Secretary Heather Wilson passed on the opportunity to create an enduring spacepower legacy. The history of the speech goes back to 2015, when then chief of staff of the Air Force, Gen, Mark A. Welsh, asked Air University to supply some “big ideas” for major initiatives for the Air Force and help construct a bold new Air Force narrative. Later, the Undersecretary of the Air Force also encouraged Air University to conduct a year-long study of the new space industry, resulting in the Fast Space report in late 2016. These efforts, along with two years of the Space Horizons Research Task Force, convinced some faculty at Air University that space represented “a vast domain of opportunity” both for the Department of the Air Force and the nation, and recommended the United States “begin a process of internal examination of how best to organize the totality of its space enterprise.” Those ideas were further developed as part of an essay contest to elevate “big ideas” sponsored by Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein in early 2017.
However, in the summer of 2017, trouble had erupted between the House Armed Services Committee and the secretary of the Air Force over the House-proposed Space Corps. The speech was then revised for the sitting secretary as a way to steal back the initiative, show the Air Force had got the message on Space Corps, and demonstrate the leadership expected by Congress.
But it was not to be. For reasons unknown to me, no part of the speech ever became part of Air Force messaging. The Department of the Air Force would have to wait two more years — till 2019 — for more favorable leadership to articulate a case for the Space Force, for the Air Force to offer a compelling vision, and for senior space professionals to display proud ownership of a Space Force.
The document remains an example of a missed opportunity, of ideas before their time. Perhaps now is the time.
Once Barrett is confirmed, I believe this is the first major speech she should deliver.
Congress has given us a task — to build a Space Corps. We all have a lot to do. But if you really think about it, it is pretty exciting — our generation gets to build Starfleet.
All of you should feel proud that work you have been doing has been deemed so important that Congress wants to elevate it.
This is a big deal for our department, our relationship with the American people, and our ability to provide the best military advice. I’ll have one chief that will talk squarely about airpower. I’ll also have a commandant that can answer every aspect on spacepower. It means the department will have two seats on the Joint Chiefs of Staff and another Department of the Air Force seat on the Joint Requirements Oversight Council, the key body that validates military requirements to authorize systems acquisition
From an identity perspective, these reforms will make creating meaningful identities easier. Each service will be able to follow its own focus and create its own unique culture, even while we as a department pursue a concept of Department of Air Force combined arms warfare. We won’t tie ourselves in knots trying to define airpower as including other things that aren’t airpower.
Now why is Congress asking us to do this? Well, they are frustrated not to have a “single belly button,” as the saying goes, in charge. They are frustrated that they don’t have a single responsible position whose first thought of the morning is not about fighters and bombers but about space. They are frustrated that space must compete internal to the Air Force budget against air superiority, and not directly against the other services. They are frustrated that spacepower might be limited by the starting point of thinking that starts in the air domain.
Most of us probably do think about space as “just a little higher, just a little faster” and as a support function for airpower and the terrestrial warfighter. We are starting to think a little more about space as a warfighting domain, and Congress certainly wants us to be on top of that. They want us to be leading with ideas of how space can be a maneuver force and how it can create independent effects.
But Congress also has a much broader view concerned with comprehensive national power. Our Congress and our industry have vast visions. They want to mine the Moon and asteroids, to build giant solar power stations, to move industry off Earth, to become a multi-planetary, even star-faring species, and for millions of Americans to live and work in space. They want to transform it from a mere $500 billion industry to an industry worth tens to hundreds of trillions.
And, here is the kicker: They want a U.S. Space Force up there to protect it. They aren’t just talking about support for terrestrial warfighting — not just spotter balloons for artillery. They aren’t just talking about satellites circling the planet — not just coastal fishing vessels forever in sight of the shore. They are anticipating blue water operations in the great beyond.
If that is really the direction our nation has chosen, then America needs a Space Corps for its future, and we are going to give it to them. We can’t wait, we can’t be dragged into this future. We need to act now. We have to be a willing participant and leader in bringing about this future. The task of our generation — the legacy we will leave behind — is to build Starfleet for America. That’s what America expects, and that is what we are going to give them.
So we are going to get started now, even before legislation is passed. I’m announcing here today the creation of a provisional U.S. Space Corps within the Department of the Air Force, created under the statutory authority provided by myself and the Secretary to organize, train, and equip forces for the prompt and sustained combat in space.
I have directed my legal team to prepare a legislative proposal to Congress to confirm these moves, incorporate what we think are the most forward-thinking ideas with respect to missions, and to provide us with a range of authorities we think such a Space Corps would need.
This is a great opportunity for forward movement. We are not thinking small — we are going full speed on mission growth.
I’m naming our current commander of Air Force Space Command as the provisional First Commandant of the Space Corps, and directing an initial plan and vision to be briefed to Congress within 60 days. I’m going to share with all of you the guidance I am giving him. I want you to know where we are taking the future of American power.
First, we are going to take on planetary defense. You are going to be part of the department that protects planet Earth and ensures humanity doesn’t go the way of the dinosaurs. In the process, we are going to develop the propulsion and refueling capabilities that will equip us for deep space operations and will create technology that will enable America’s private sector to mine asteroids, adding trillions of dollars in value to our economy. That is something you can be proud to tell your kids.
Second, we are going to go big on global vigilance—the ability to know what is happening on planet Earth. Between the ultra-large space constellations being planned by industry and recent developments in space manufacturing, the seeds are in place to create a space-based command-and-control network with total-Earth broadband communication, and global space-based surveillance of air and ground moving targets. In the process, we are going to advance the precursor technologies — large surveillance apertures, high power, on-orbit construction that will give the United States an advantage on space solar power, the one aerospace technology that could truly alter our nation’s energy security and secure another American century. I will be going to the Office of the Secretary of Defense and Congress to request more resources.
Third, we are going to create, or at least accelerate, a revolution in transportation. Already our private industry is demonstrating the early stages of reusable rockets and talking about in-space refueling. We are going to pour fuel on that fire. I am standing up a Space Rapid Capabilities Office with prototype, innovation prize, and other transaction authorities. I’m standing them up right in the heart of the new space industry amongst the entrepreneurs. And I’m giving them a five-year mission—to develop and fly a fully reusable two-stage-to-orbit vehicle no later than Sept. 1, 2024.
Our Space Corps is going to pursue a maneuver advantage. If spacepower is anything a nation can do in space, then we must realize that doing anything in the domain requires ever-improving access. Earth to orbit is just one part. We need to be capable of deep space operations — beyond low Earth orbit, in CIS-lunar space – the volume of space that includes Earth’s moon and its gravitational influence — and anywhere the sphere of American commerce expands — providing stability and presence. I’m issuing the following general guidance: We will be first to demonstrate and field an operational in-space refueling capability, and we will develop and field deep space propulsion on par or better than our competitors and the civilians we protect. We will aggressively partner with industry to develop and experiment with capabilities that would expand our maneuver advantage: use of space resources, power beaming, on-orbit servicing, and on-orbit construction.
Similar to the role the Army Air Corps and U.S. Air Force played in developing the aviation industry, its innovation and economic might, our investments will be dual-use — building ourselves an access and maneuver advantage while enabling industrial might in space through a second industrial revolution, and the national power and security that comes from economic might and the ability to structure the rules and institutions of a domain.
And it won’t just be machines. If America wants millions of its people living and working in space, then we will be alongside them. And we aren’t going to be the laggards of the solar system. We will contract early to be among the first anchor tenants to lease space on a private space station both to give confidence and stability for our fellow Americans and to develop in-domain expertise. America is going to see our uniformed officers in space again.
The Space Corps will have responsibilities significantly different from today’s Air Force Space Command. With American citizens and industry on orbit, they may be called upon for rescue, law enforcement, and safety of navigation capabilities, so they will require authorities similar to the Coast Guard. They may be called upon to clear hazards, move asteroids, construct stations or other public works, and require authorities similar to the Corps of Engineers.
We won’t let our own visionaries be outclassed. We must think ahead. So today I’m directing the Air University Commander to establish a Space Corps track within officer professional military education to grow the most forward-thinking officers up to the task of building this new Corps and providing the best military advice. I’m also directing the standup of a Space Think Tank to work with industry to develop concepts and strategy for development of the space domain akin to the Air Corps Tactical School. The first real Capt. Kirk is going to be educated at a Starfleet academy that is on an Air Force base.
These are the first bricks, the first vector. Decades from now, America will have a ‘blue water’ Space Force protecting commerce, rescuing tourists and diverting asteroids and comets. The final form and its degree of independence we will leave to Congress. But whatever that final step, we — the Department of the US Air Force — are going to do the right thing by America. We are going to future-proof America’s space force.
It will not be said of our generation that we retarded space to keep it the handmaiden of air, that airmen thought too small, or that space had to be pried from our hands. Because this is not our tradition. As airmen, we have learned from our own history. We will aim to ensure that the birth of our space force is more productive and less caustic than was the birth of our Air Force. That will be a legacy of our generation. And each of you, whether you directly touch space or not, will have been part of the organization that willingly created and set free a new service to keep our nation and children safe, and that will be part of our proud tradition.
I’ve engaged my staff to figure out how we can rapidly consolidate these functions with the greatest forward movement and least amount of disruption. The broad outlines are that we will continue to be part of one department, sharing bases, schools, and administrative functions. We will encourage the development of separate cultures and traditions to maximize our development of access and capabilities in our respective domains, even while we expand our efforts at closer operational integration and our ability to conduct multi-domain operations. Consolidation and integration need not be at cross purposes. They are different axes that can both be pursued simultaneously. We can consolidate domain focus, expertise, funding, and acquisition to train, equip and present forces at the same time that we develop combined arms doctrine, concepts of operation, and collaborative command and control. And there are added benefits as well. Morale is often tied to focus and narrative. This separation will simplify our narrative and our identity, allowing the Space Corps to represent its contributions in the Space Domain, and the Air Force to represent its contributions in the Air Domain.
But make no mistake about it, we are taking a bold step in our history. This is about our generation’s responsibility to a future. There is a manifest destiny articulated by visionaries across society: that it is the destiny of America to be a spacefaring nation, and a second-generation industrial space power. Your leadership believes in this broader vision, but it will be you in the Department that implement it. It will be you, your generation that builds and launches Starfleet for America. Let’s get started.
Peter Garretson is an independent strategy consultant who focuses on space and defense, and a senior fellow in Defense Studies with the American Foreign Policy Council. He was previously the director of Air University’s Space Horizons Task Force, America’s think tank for space, and was deputy director of America’s premier space strategy program, the Schriever Scholars. All views are his own.