Six Competing Visions for a Space Force
The war of words over how to organize the prospective space force is heating up as the likelihood of major change grows. The manner in which a space force is organized will entrench certain visions of the future over others. As I discuss in a recent report, much of the current upheaval stems from the jousting of six different schools of thought capturing different visions of what future wars will look like and the role of space in those wars. While no single person falls entirely within one school, by clarifying the distinctions between these schools, we can better understand the different visions of future war the various organizational schemes and their advocates seek to institutionalize.
So what are they?
The first argues America should gain space control first to allow all other uses of space to proceed. Space control first is a classic military approach: Defeat the enemy first and then worry about everything else. Not surprisingly, this school’s advocates are found mainly in those formations charged with operating and protecting U.S. military space assets. Its logic follows other military doctrines like command of the sea and air superiority. Space is now so important to fighting war, the reasoning goes, the military must gain control of space first, and the way to do that is space-on-space fights, albeit using unmanned satellites — not Buck Rogers space fighters. You hear this argument in the phrase “space is a warfighting domain,” and it comes out in today’s debate as an effort to give space more autonomy and priority within the U.S. military establishment.
The second school focuses on the assumption that new, space-based capabilities — such as ballistic and hypersonic precision-guided missiles — could enable America to fundamentally change how wars are fought. As such, members of this school want a space force to be ready to enable the conduct of a global missile war. These advocates argue that precision-strike missiles will sweep away traditional military units but only if we are able to track targets in real-time anywhere in the world and relay that information to shooters, as the 2019 Missile Defense Review describes. That is a different vision of future war and therefore a very different vision of how to organize space. This school is most closely associated with the Space Development Agency and Missile Defense Agency, which are charged with building a large, proliferated constellation of satellites to provide real-time communications and tracking. Whether the Space Development Agency fits under other space organizations or is independent is a key point of contention between space control and missile war advocates.
The third just wants to keep the plumbing running so that traditional military units can leverage GPS, communications satellites, imagery, and other space capabilities but use that technology to win wars in ways that are evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Those who want to keep the plumbing running agree that space is great and makes the U.S. military stronger, but it doesn’t fundamentally change war. Since this school captures the thinking of almost all the line officers of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and even some of the Air Force, it controls most of the money and power within the Defense Department. While sympathetic to the logic of space control first and supportive of the tactical goals of the global missile war advocates, this school makes up those who think future wars will still be fought principally by brigade combat teams, carrier strike groups, fighter squadrons, and other traditional military units. This school provides the bulk of the skepticism in today’s debate by asking if the national security space enterprise needs to be reorganized at all and how to balance space investments against others. And while this school doesn’t care enough to openly oppose the White House, it will weigh in on decisions for a long time, either accelerating or dampening any changes made.
A fourth school sees grander long-term uses of space for national security than the other schools — like coast guard-like space forces or even controlling what nations do on earth from space — but requires as yet unrealized technologies to achieve its vision. With a range of possible technological advances, this school encompasses different ways such advances may change war, including the possibility of a fleet of space cruisers patrolling between the earth and the moon, and even beyond. I call this one the galactic battle fleet school, which is a tongue-in-cheek reference to this school’s ambitious visions of war in space. Adherents of this school, however, are seriously discussing possibilities like exploiting Lagrange points, preventing an asteroid from striking the earth, and fundamentally changing the character of warfare with space-based weapons. As with the space control first school, proponents see an independent space force as critical to achieving their goals, but with greater ambitions for how technology that doesn’t exist yet may change war in the future, they sometimes chastise those of the space control first school for not thinking big enough.
The final two schools, which represent America’s original national security space missions, plod along but are not playing much of a role in today’s debate.
The fifth school prioritizes using space-based sensors to provide the president with frictionless intelligence, unencumbered by borders or other obstacles. The frictionless intelligence boosters prioritize providing the president with the most accurate intelligence utilizing national technical means, and they maintain there is no better place to achieve that than space. But with the intelligence agencies left out of space force in all the official proposals, few are trying to locate the precise balance between intelligence and warfighting, letting the existing bureaucratic divide continue.
The sixth school emphasizes space’s role in nuclear war and argues the United States should favor those satellites that provide warning of nuclear-tipped missiles and guarantee communications even in the midst of a nuclear war. This school’s advocates argue, above all else, that only platforms in space can truly be relied upon to inform leaders when a missile has been launched and then allow them to communicate with their forces. While this school’s advocates are also not driving the character of today’s debate, they still influence specific choices like how U.S. Strategic Command and U.S. Space Command divvy up responsibilities.
These six schools capture most of the visions for how and why space is valuable for the military and the role it will or should play in future war. The debate that’s getting so publicly tense right now is mainly an expression of where these schools disagree on priorities and which vision is prevailing at each step. America will make better choices about how to reorganize its national security space enterprise if civilian and military leaders understand the distinctions between the schools’ visions of future wars. Organizational choices today are also strategic choices for the future.
Russell Rumbaugh covers institutional space issues at The Aerospace Corporation’s Center for Space Policy and Strategy. He has worked on defense policy, budgets, and acquisition for the Pentagon, Capitol Hill, and think tanks, and he teaches those subjects at the graduate level.
Image: U.S. Air Force