It’s Not About Where U.S. Space Command Goes But Whether It Should Exist At All
When it comes to real estate, what matters most is “location, location, location.” But the federal government should not be concerned with the Colorado versus Alabama brawl over the potential future headquarters of U.S. Space Command and instead should rethink the organization altogether.
As the location of U.S. Space Command has become front page political news, the debate has effectively devolved into a misguided discussion of infrastructure. Instead of arguing the merits and quality of life in the Rockies or the southeast, Congress and the Department of Defense should be ruthlessly examining redundant or duplicative organizations and streamlining bureaucracy within the department. We believe that the debate Congress should be having is whether the Department of Defense needs U.S. Space Command at all.
That statement may seem at first like heresy, given the growing strategic importance of space in the military competition with China, Russia and others. Space is now widely recognized as a fully operational warfighting domain and one that the United States cannot afford to neglect.
Alongside a fully functional Space Force, however, Space Command serves little added purpose. The Space Force, which accounts for the vast majority of the U.S. military’s space forces, capabilities and command structure, is fully capable of managing the joint space operations of the U.S. military without the redundant bureaucratic overhead of a geographic combatant command. Simultaneously, Space Command is costing the Department of Defense hundreds of millions in increasingly stretched defense dollars that could be spent more effectively elsewhere. These redundancies and high costs should be cause for the Department of Defense to consider merging Space Command into the Space Force. This small but meaningful reform could control a growing bureaucracy and allow the U.S. military to efficiently coordinate its space operations.
The Resurrection of Space Command and the Establishment of the Space Force
The first iteration of U.S. Space Command was established in 1985 at a time when the military utility of space was rapidly emerging. A functional combatant command was needed to coordinate space activities and operations across the military services because the Air Force, Navy and Army each had space capabilities of their own. Space Command was created to provide joint command and control of all military space operations in support of the geographic combatant commands. But, by 2002, the number of combatant commands had grown too large and the George W. Bush administration decided to reduce the number. After deliberation, it was decided that Space Command was the most dispensable and its responsibilities were rolled under U.S. Strategic Command. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld claimed that merging the commands would “eliminate redundancies in the command structure and streamline the decision-making process.”
Fast forward to 2018 and the debate over whether to create a separate military service for space was well underway. Proponents of creating the Space Force cited the need to consolidate responsibility for space acquisitions, personnel, and operations under one service. The Air Force leadership at the time staunchly opposed the creation of the Space Force, and in its efforts to dissuade Congress from creating it, one of the alternatives offered was reestablishing U.S. Space Command. Opponents of the Space Force argued that the integration of space capabilities would be better achieved under the umbrella of a reinvigorated Space Command. Moreover, recreating this organization would not require congressional approval and would be less disruptive to ongoing operations. The Trump administration ultimately decided to proceed with both: Space Command was reestablished (this time as a geographic combatant command) in August 2019, and the U.S. Space Force was established in December 2019.
A Resurgent Redundancy
Now that the Space Force is nearing its fourth anniversary and has exceeded expectations in many ways, the redundancies between Space Command and the Space Force are becoming more evident. With the transfer of space-related missions, personnel, and organizations from the other services to the Space Force, the centralization of responsibility and authority has largely been achieved in the new military service. The role of the Space Force, as is the case with each of the other military services, is to organize, train and equip forces and employ them as requested in support of the combatant commands. To carry out this responsibility, the Space Force is creating component field commands assigned to each of the geographic commands, the first of which was assigned to U.S. Indo-Pacific Command. These component field commands provide direct support to the combatant commanders to “optimize space effects across all the other service components operating in the area of responsibility, including satellite communications, overhead persistent infrared missile warning, precision navigation and timing, and weather.”
The role of U.S. Space Command is also to provide space support to the other combatant commands. While it is technically labeled as a geographic command (with an assigned area of responsibility that includes the entire known universe except for a tiny sphere around the Earth), in nearly all cases it operates like a functional command in support of the geographic commands. As Kaitlyn Johnson wrote, “Because the space domain is an overarching part of operations in all other domains, a conflict in space will likely be tied to a nation or region already supported by a different geographic command.” In other words, Space Command will always be a supporting command and the other geographic combatant commands will always be the supported commands. And here’s the kicker: The logical evolution of Space Command in its supporting function is to create separate, and entirely redundant, U.S. Space Command functional components at each combatant command.
This begs two questions: What is the role of Space Command if the U.S. Space Force is already supporting the geographic combatant commands directly through its component field commands? And what is the role of Space Command if the forces and capabilities it requires are almost entirely provided by a single service? Moreover, the coordination of global U.S. military space operations is already centralized under the Space Force’s Space Operations Command, and this entity carries out this function for Space Command. The functional combatant commands, such as U.S. Transportation Command, U.S. Cyber Command, and U.S. Special Operations Command, exist because the forces and capabilities they employ come from multiple services — there is a need for a joint command to integrate and coordinate their employment. But there is a reason the U.S. military doesn’t have other domain-centric combatant commands like an air command, naval command, or land command — it would be redundant with the military services that already exist for these domains.
Space Command’s Budget Could Be Better Spent Elsewhere
From its inception, separating Space Command from its position within Strategic Command would come with an additional cost. The creation of a new combatant command carries with it numerous initial startup costs, as staff must be pulled from the services and new facilities must be built to house the command. The Congressional Budget Office initially estimated a one-time start-up cost for establishing a new combatant command as ranging from $520 million to just over $1 billion, alongside an annual cost of up to $120 million and 600 additional personnel.
Space Command has quickly fulfilled this prediction, having already cost the Department of Defense over a billion dollars in its short lifespan. Total spending is already rapidly approaching that of Strategic Command, from which Space Command was broken off in 2019. In Fiscal Year 2016, total spending on the direct operation of Strategic Command (which handled joint space operations) peaked at around $760 million. Now, in FY2024, proposed spending on Strategic Command is $541 million and Space Command is another $401 million, for a combined total of $942 million. That means the Department of Defense is effectively spending hundreds of millions more than it used to for a combatant command that supports a vague and redundant purpose.
Despite its abstract mission, Space Command has also grown to be one of the most expensive combatant commands in its short lifespan. According to Department of Defense budget documents, over the past half-decade, the core operation and mission budget of a functional U.S.-based combatant command averaged around $270 million. In FY2023, Space Command received $327 million and is on track to receive $401 million in FY2024, far and above the average funding level.
While it’s not clear cut which of these costs are associated with the initial revival and standup of Space Command, the command has also already surpassed the Congressional Budget Office’s initial cost estimate in civilian personnel alone. In the Department of Defense’s FY2024 budget request, Space Command is planning to expand to 800 personnel. This level of personnel puts it above other geographic combatant commands with more clearly defined mission sets and operation areas, such as U.S. Northern Command in North America or U.S. Central Command in the Middle East.
Space Command’s redundancy is even starker when looking at the resources being allocated to the Space Force. From being stood up just four years ago, the Force has expanded to 9,000 military personnel (all of which were transfers from the other services) and requested $30 billion in the FY2024 budget request. With such tremendous investment and resources, it is far more logical to allow the Space Force to take the lead on coordinating joint space operations, rather than paying more money for more bureaucracy.
While Space Command’s annual budget of $401 million may be comparatively small change in relation to the $840 billion defense budget, the money could certainly be better spent elsewhere. With the administration’s defense spending locked in from the debt limit negotiations, every dollar counts. Funding being wasted on an unnecessary combatant command could be better invested in hard power assets such as F-35s for the Air Force, critically needed long-range precision munitions or other unfunded priorities.
Real Defense Reform by Rescission, Not Addition
When budgets begin to tighten and the “spigot of defense funding” begins to close, politicians often advocate for defense reform to help save money. These efforts typically mean cutting procurement and cutting or canceling weapons systems. Rarely does reform mean reductions in missions, regulations, laws, or layers of bureaucracy. Take the recent defense bills moving through Congress as an example. House appropriators were quick to slash procurement of key munitions but were far more reluctant to broach more serious changes to the Department of Defense’s layers of bureaucracy. Real reform will take time, but targeted assessments of the necessities of certain organizations and workload would be a refreshing step in the right direction.
Instead of engaging in the political theater of deciding whether Space Command headquarters should stay in Colorado or move to Alabama, the Department of Defense should step back and review whether the command’s core functions could be folded into the U.S. Space Force. Where gaps in statutory authorities are identified, Congress should step in and provide the Space Force with those unique authorities. The commander of Space Operations Command could be specified as the global integrator responsible for delivering space-enabled combat effects to the joint force, and the position elevated in rank. Space Command positions, including the hundreds of civilians who work for the command, could be transferred to the U.S. Space Force, and redundant overhead eliminated. These steps would go a long way to help correct what David Ignatius identified in a recent Washington Post article as an insufficient number of command slots and headquarters staff in the Space Force to effectively compete in Pentagon power struggles.
As Washington returns from summer recess and the defense bills continue to move through both chambers of Congress, the debate should not be about where Space Command headquarters should go but whether it should exist at all as an organization that has outlived its usefulness. Serious defense reform requires leadership and doggedness of implementation.
Mackenzie Eaglen is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. She has previously worked in Congress and at the Defense Department as well as on the staffs of three previous national defense strategy commissions.
Todd Harrison is currently the managing director of Metrea Strategic Insights, where he leads the organization’s efforts to conduct innovative, insightful, and pathfinding research. Previously, he was the director of Defense Budget Analysis and director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.