Organizing to Deter or Prevail in Space Warfare

Star trails in Space Command

Does the United States need both an armed service and a unified combatant command to defend its national interests in outer space? The answer is yes, given the imperatives to counter threats posed by foreign powers to the freedom of space and assure effective support to joint or combined military operations. Indeed, as former Vice Chief of Space Operations Gen. David Thompson stated, “Both China and Russia are regularly attacking U.S. satellites with non-kinetic means, including lasers, radio frequency jammers, and cyber-attacks.”

The U.S. Space Force was founded as the sixth military branch and U.S. Space Command was reestablished as the eleventh combatant command in 2019 in response to the renewed threat to U.S. interests in space. Questions about the need for both organizations were addressed before President Donald Trump issued Space Policy Directive 4 directing the secretary of defense to develop a legislative proposal for the U.S. Space Force and the memorandum directing reestablishment of Space Command as a unified command. Similarly, they were considered by Congress before it passed legislation to create the Space Force within the Department of the Air Force.

Nonetheless, some commentators are again questioning the need for both the Space Force and Space Command. In War on the Rocks, for example, Mackenzie Eaglen and Todd Harrison asserted the debate about locating the command’s headquarters in either Alabama or Colorado obscures the issue of whether the command should exist at all. They argue that it should not for organizational and economic reasons. As the former assistant deputy under secretary of defense for space policy, I am very familiar with the debate about U.S. national security space management and organization reforms and am in a good position to assess the argument for eliminating Space Command.

The argument to eliminate Space Command because of perceived redundancy with the Space Force and opportunities to save costs is neither persuasive nor prudent. The armed service and unified combatant command have different missions, roles, and functions. Elimination of Space Command will not save costs given the increasing need to allocate resources for protecting and defending U.S. interests in a contested space operating environment. The division of labor between the service and combatant command is effective and consistent with how the Department of Defense is organized for other domains. Eliminating Space Command would unnecessarily risk creating interservice rivalries and adversely impacting jointness. A unified command has a joint perspective and personnel with a better mix of knowledge and experience than a service to integrate space capabilities into joint and combined operations. The Space Force is still in the early stages of development and should strive to excel at its core responsibility of organizing, training, and equipping space forces. Additional organization churn would unnecessarily perturbate the national security space enterprise. In short, eliminating Space Command would unnecessarily risk undermining America’s ability to employ spacepower as an instrument of statecraft and warfare.




The decision to establish the Space Force and Space Command was bold given that national security space management and organization were a recurring and unresolved issue. Since the Cold War ended, there were more than 25 reviews, studies, boards, panels, and commissions, including the 2001 Rumsfeld Commission and 2007 Allard Commission, which examined the subject. These considered the advantages and disadvantages of alternative models including a military department, armed service, corps, defense agency, combat support agency, and combatant command with budget and acquisition authority.

The concerns expressed by executive and legislative overseers about the national security space program included fragmented management and organization, inadequate advocacy and stewardship, and misaligned authority, responsibility, and accountability. Symptoms of those problems included erosion of U.S. strategic advantages in space, lack of preparedness for the threat or use of force in space, cumbersome decision-making processes, architectural churn, acquisition inefficiencies, program and budget instability, inadequate personnel management, and lack of a warfighting culture and ethos.

The Space Force and Space Command are intended to resolve the problem and counter the threat. U.S. adversaries learned from the Persian Gulf and Kosovo wars how the integration of space capabilities into military operations increased America’s ability to project power with precision, speed, and lethality. Subsequently, Russia and China created space forces, dramatically increased their numbers of satellite systems, and are developing, testing, and fielding weapon systems that threaten freedom of action in space, jeopardize U.S. and allied military forces, and put America’s and allies’ homelands at risk. This includes various cyber, electronic warfare, kinetic energy, directed energy, nuclear, and orbital weapons. Iran and North Korea also have cyber, electronic warfare, and missile capabilities to interfere with space operations.

The division of labor between the Space Force and Space Command is consistent with the principles of the Defense Reorganization Act of 1986. That legislation, named for its co-authors, Senator Barry Goldwater and Representative Bill Nichols, reorganized the Department of Defense to improve its management and the effectiveness of military operations. The Goldwater-Nichols Act, among other things, reformed the organizational model that allowed the services’ rivalries and parochial interests to dominate the joint interests of the department and unified commands.

Consequently, the Space Force is a service with responsibility to organize, train, and equip space forces and present them to Space Command and other combatant commands, while Space Command is a unified command with responsibility to plan and execute space operations, deliver space capabilities to joint and combined forces, and defend the space domain. In short, the Space Force is a force provider to Space Command. A unified command includes components from two or more services. In addition, under the president’s unified command plan, which establishes the missions, responsibilities, and geographic areas of responsibility for commanders of combatant commands, Space Command is a geographic combatant command with an area of responsibility beginning at 100 kilometers (62 miles) above mean sea level and extending beyond.

In terms of command and support relationships with other combatant commands, the designation of Space Command as a geographic command is noteworthy. As such, it may be supported by other combatant commands as well as provide support to them. A supported commander has the authority to exercise direction of efforts to support operations. This includes designation and prioritization of targets or objectives, timing and duration of supporting actions, and other guidance to ensure the efficiency and success of the supported operation. In its previous instantiation, Space Command was a functional command without an area of responsibility. It was only a supporting command to the geographic commands.


The two main arguments put forward for eliminating Space Command are organizational and economic. The former involves the assertion that there is unnecessary redundancy with the Space Force. In large part, this is because the Space Force has the preponderance of military space forces, has established a major command for space operations, and is in the process of creating component field commands to support the geographic combatant commands. Eliminating Space Command thus would eliminate the alleged duplication of effort. The latter involves the assertion that eliminating Space Command would produce substantial cost savings. According to Eaglen and Harrison,

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.

The Department of the Air Force’s desire to have the dominant or exclusive responsibility for military space activities is not new. Indeed, it was a recurrent theme since the beginning of the space age. Instead of making the Air Force responsible for all overhead reconnaissance, however, President Dwight Eisenhower created the National Reconnaissance Office as a joint activity of the Defense Department and the Central Intelligence Agency. Similarly, President Ronald Reagan founded Space Command as a unified command that included Army Space and Missile Defense Command, Naval Space Command, and Air Force Space Command components. Subsequently, President George W. Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld merged Space Command and U.S. Strategic Command following the 9/11 terrorist attacks to create strategic forces comprised of nuclear weapons systems, non-nuclear strategic weapons, and space capabilities to strengthen deterrence by providing the president with increased options for rapidly striking anywhere in the world.

While the creation of the Space Force with a four-star chief of space operations who is a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is an essential step to address concerns about space management and organization, it is only part of a series of reforms directed by recent policy and law. The changes also included establishing an assistant secretary of defense for space policy, an assistant secretary of the Air Force for space acquisition and integration, a space acquisition council, and Space Command. Indeed, the reforms were designed to be implemented together to redress fragmented management and organization, inadequate advocacy and stewardship, and misaligned authority, responsibility, and accountability.

Merging Space Command into the Space Force, as Eaglen and Harrison recommend, likely will create new intradepartmental friction and interservice rivalries and undermine the jointness contributing to America’s military prowess. It could unnecessarily complicate the relationship between the service branches and combatant commands. Goldwater-Nichols intentionally removed the secretaries of the military departments and the Joint Chiefs of Staff from the operational chain of command. That chain now runs from the president as the commander-in-chief, through the secretary of defense, directly to the combatant commanders. Similarly, the administrative chain of command now runs from the president to the secretary of defense, through the secretaries of the military departments, and, as prescribed by the secretaries, to the commanders of the services.

When the commander of U.S. Space Command and the commander of Air Force Space Command were dual-hatted (that is, the same general officer served in both roles), the commands often took different positions on the same issue. Similarly, differences of opinion between the commander of Space Command and chief of space operations are not uncommon. Such disagreements are productive in informing deliberations by the president, National Security Council, and secretary of defense. Might such differences between the service and command exist if Space Command is merged into the Space Force?

While creation of a specified rather than a unified combatant command for space is feasible, it would disenfranchise the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard from the planning and execution of military space operations. Doing so would be imprudent because the Space Force is nascent, continuing to evolve under only its second chief of space operations, and still forming its own culture and ethos. It would be unwarranted because the Space Force has yet to demonstrate consistent proficiency at its core responsibility for organizing, training, and equipping space forces, and further churn would unnecessarily perturbate the enterprise. Moreover, it would be ill advised given the Army’s and Navy’s significant legacies and capabilities in space programs and activities as well as other services’ perspectives, knowledge, and operational and tactical experience in employing space systems to support operations in the land, maritime, air, and cyber domains.

Indeed, the Space Force must overcome its Air Force heritage to form its own culture and ethos. America must have joint warfighters who understand that space capabilities are the leading edge of information-age military power to realize the full potential of spacepower. For decades, however, Air Force Space Command suffered from having to conform to the dominant airpower culture within the service, which subjugated space to a supporting role. This led the Air Force space community to attempt to force-fit airpower doctrine into space operations doctrine despite the differences between the air and space domains as well as the physics of flight in the atmosphere and space. While borrowing analogies from other domains has its limits, developing space doctrine, operations concepts, and war plans would benefit from knowledge of operational experience in the maritime domain, particularly sub-surface operations, given its similarities in certain respects to the space domain.

As a unified command, Space Command now has warfighting units, including Army Space and Missile Defense Command, Naval Space Command, Marine Corps Forces Space Command, Air Forces Space, U.S. Space Forces — Space, and Joint Functional Component Command for Missile Defense. They provide a diversity and depth of knowledge and experience to perform the command’s missions. If it were a specified command comprised of only Space Force units, however, it would have limited knowledge and operational experience in other domains. This would have an adverse impact on its ability to synchronize and integrate space with joint or combined operations. A unified command with a joint perspective will have a different mindset than a Space Force–centric specified command. It will inherently think about what’s best for the joint force rather than for the service. Rather than normalizing space, a specified command for space would be different than how the U.S. military has organized for the terrestrial and cyber domains.

 Whether as a unified or specified combatant commander, the military officer leading Space Command will face the challenges of preventing the hostile use of space and utilizing the domain to support joint and combined operations. The trust of the other combatant commands, with forces educated and trained by other services, will be essential to the Space Command’s ability to perform its missions as well as implement joint doctrine and operations concepts in wartime. Space capabilities are part of the glue that holds together joint doctrine and enables information-enabled warfighting. Decisions about how, when, and where to allocate the command’s limited resources for either space or terrestrial campaigns in the event of a war that begins in or extends to outer space will be critical to mission achievement. Indeed, the ability to assure support to joint and combined forces under contested, degraded, and operationally limited conditions might be decisive in influencing the course and outcome of a future conflict, given that America is more dependent than its rivals on the use of space to project power to Eurasia and the Middle East.

Finally, the assertion that there are substantial costs to be saved by eliminating Space Command presumes there is significant redundancy between the Space Force and the command. Given the different responsibilities of services and combatant commands, this is not the case. Indeed, there should be synergy if the service and command stay in their lanes and work together. Consequently, the pertinent question may be: Why is the Space Force creating field units to support combatant commands rather than providing Space Command with the resources to do so? Even setting aside the questionable allegation of unnecessary duplicative efforts and associated costs, the opportunity cost of eliminating Space Command as a unified command with components from all the services would be considerable for the reasons discussed above. In fact, the costs of protecting U.S. interests in space are likely to continue to increase regardless of whether Space Command is a unified or specified command, given adversaries’ view that space is a domain in which America can be coerced given its dependence on satellite systems and their determination to hold such assets at risk.


It is essential for U.S. decision-makers to ensure the nation is properly organized to deter or prevail in a war involving outer space. As successive presidential administrations of both political parties have stated, unimpeded access to and use of space are a vital national interest because of its criticality to America’s security and economic well-being. The question of whether to sustain both the Space Force and Space Command thus is significant, particularly considering the actions foreign powers are taking to make space an increasingly dangerous operating environment.

The recommendation to eliminate Space Command because of alleged redundancy with the Space Force and opportunities for cost savings is unwise and unpersuasive. The nation both needs and benefits from the division of labor between the armed service and unified combatant command. Ensuring that interservice rivalries and self-interests will not dominate the common needs of the Defense Department and combatant commands is as important for military operations in space as it is on Earth. America’s ability to employ spacepower as an instrument of statecraft and warfare will be strengthened by sustaining both a space-oriented service and a unified command as well as properly resourcing both organizations to perform their distinct missions, roles, and functions.



Marc Berkowitz is an independent consultant and advisor to U.S. government and private sector clients. Previously, he served as the assistant deputy under secretary of defense for space policy and as a vice president for strategic planning at Lockheed Martin Corporation. The views expressed herein are solely those of the author.

Image: Tech. Sgt. David Salanitri