On Tuesday, February 19, 2019, the President signed a directive to establish the Space Force announced in August of 2018. The original plan included the Space Force being a “separate but equal” branch of the United States Military, similar to what happened when the United States Air Force became a separate branch of military service in 1947. The February directive orders a quite different approach.
The original announcement of a separate space-based military service did not sit well with some lawmakers and military officials including those at the already-in-existence Air Force Space Command.
The creation and maintenance of a new branch of the military is a complicated and political process, and after much controversy, the President’s actions on February 19th announced a scaled-back version of the original, more ambitious plan.
The first step towards the creation of a Space Force includes a new combatant command. The head of SPACECOM, Gen. Jay Raymond, will inherit 87 units and about 624 personnel, covering “missile warning, satellite operations, space control and space support. This is effective August 29, 2019.
Effective August 29, 2019, the official launch date of U.S. Space Command. The new U.S. Space Command should not be confused with the existing Air Force Space Command, which is a service-specific operation of the United States Air Force known as a Major Command or MajCom.
The U.S. Space Force is organized differently than a MajCom; it is one of the Combatant Commands operated by the Department of Defense and operates alongside United States European Command, Special Operations Command, and Cyber Command. As you can see, these commands do not replace the service-specific commands over operations such as Navy SEALs (Special Operations), etc.
The United States Space Force is not a brand-new concept. It was actually established as a functioning entity in 1985, but did not survive the merger with United States Strategic Command (STRATCOM) following 9/11.
Many published reports note that the establishment of U.S. Space Force as a one of the Combatant Commands is a precursor to the establishment of a sixth branch of the United States Military.
This idea was floated in a document known as Space Policy Directive 4 and an update on this concept was delivered in a speech at the Pentagon by Vice President Mike Pence on August 9, 2019.
That update includes the goal of establishing a space-oriented sixth branch of the U.S. military known as Space Operations Force, plus a joint effort known as the Space Development Agency. The timeline for this plan involves standing up the Space Operations Force by 2020.
Plans For The Creation Of The Space Operations Force
There are several aspects of the creation of the new Space Operations Force that were revealed in the 9 August speech. The include:
Not Starting From Scratch–the Vice President indicated that the Space Operations Force will draw on certain existing assets and infrastructure rather than starting with nothing and building an entirely new force from the ground up;
Trained Personnel Are Ready To Serve In Space Operations Force; the Vice President has gone on the record in this area stating, “Across this department and our intelligence agencies, there are literally tens of thousands of military personnel, civilians and contractors operating and supporting our space systems”;
The DoD Considers Space A Warfighting Domain; the Vice President’s speech noted the activities of U.S. competitors in space. “For many years, nations from Russia and China to North Korea and Iran have pursued weapons to jam, blind and disable our navigation and communications satellites.”
The February 2019 Presidential Directive Creates A Space Force Combatant Command
The “separate but equal” branch of service plan will not happen under the current directive; at the time of this writing, the new plan for the Space Force involves the creation of a service that falls under the Air Force. The new Space Force would be designed as a Combatant Command similar to those already established including:
- CENTCOM (Current Page): U.S. Central Command, MacDill Air Force Base, Tampa, Florida
- AFRICOM: U.S. Africa Command, Kelley Barracks, Stuttgart, Germany
- EUCOM: U.S. European Command, Patch Barracks, Stuttgart, Germany
- NORTHCOM: U.S. Northern Command, Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado
- INDOPACOM: U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, Camp H.M. Smith, Hawaii
- SOUTHCOM: U.S. Southern Command, Miami, Florida
- SOCOM: U.S. Special Operations Command, MacDill Air Force Base, Tampa, Florida
- TRANSCOM: U.S. Transportation Command, Scott Air Force Base, Illinois
- STRATCOM: U.S. Strategic Command, Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska
- CYBERCOM: U.S. Cyber Command, Fort Meade, Maryland
The organizations from CENTCOM to SOUTHCOM in the list above are all considered Geographic Combatant Commands, with SOCOM through CYBERCOM being Functional Combatant Commands.
Possible Space Force Command Missions
The February 2019 directive orders the Department of Defense to gather and use its resources to “deter and counter threats in space,” which is a mission that is already ongoing but would be formally handled by the new Space Force command.
Space-based missions could include counter-intelligence or other operations designed to push back against actions in space by China and other nations that regularly launch satellites, GPS technology, experiment with space-based research, etc.
Nuclear deterrence from space is another area that has been explored since the days of the Reagan-era “Star Wars” missile defense strategy. There are also some 1,700 satellites in space at the time of this writing, all of them are vulnerable to attack, compromise, and interference.
Going Forward Into Space
There are some who feel that the arguments in favor of this force historically mirror those used to justify the creation of a separate Air Force. History has proven the pro-Air Force contingent correct; control and dominance of airspace has been a key part of every military conflict American forces have participated in since World War Two.
But establishing a new Space Force has several technical and political issues that will serve as major challenges. In spite of a Presidential directive to create such a force even as a branch of service falling under the Air Force, funding issues, infrastructure, and recruitment will all be challenges in the road ahead.
And then there are issues related to other existing agencies that also work in space including the previously mentioned Air Force Space Command, NASA, civilian companies such as SpaceX, etc. How a newly established Space Force would handle such jurisdictional issues remains to be seen, and will definitely present challenges to Space Force leadership.
The directive as it was presented on February 19th has a goal of standing up the Space Force under the auspices of the Air Force by the end of 2020.
How It All Started
On August 9, 2018, the Vice President announced that the Department of Defense has been tasked to create a sixth branch, the U.S. Department of the Space Force, by the year 2020. Plans were also announced to establish a new combatant command — U.S. Space Command — as well as a Space Operations Force and a new joint organization called the Space Development Agency. A new Assistant Secretary of Defense position for space is also in the works.
“The time has come to establish the United States Space Force,” Pence said. The United States Space Force is the first proposed new branch of military service since the United States Air Force was officially created after World War II.
The announcement came following a seven-week feasibility study ordered by the President. The creation of the a Space Force has, according to a Department of Defense press release, been motivated by research and development of weaponized space platforms by rival countries including China.
Concerns about space warfare aren’t limited to operations outside the Earth’s atmosphere; the August 9th 2018 press release announcing the U.S. Department of the Space Force included a brief mention of rival nations’ attempts to interfere with U.S. space communication and navigational platforms using ground-based tactics.
In the past, the United States has also researched space-based weaponry. In the 1980s, then-President Ronald Reagan announced a controversial program called the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), derisively known as “Star Wars” by critics and opponents. R&D into space-based weapons systems at that time included research into x-ray lasers, “neutral particle beams,” and something known as the hypervelocity railgun.
Some thought the creation of such weapons systems could ignite a space-based arms race, but according to the Department of Defense, China has successfully destroyed targets in space in recent years; Russia is also attempting to develop an airborne laser presumably for similar purposes. Vice President Mike Pence intimated in the DoD press statement that North Korea may have tried its hand at developing space weaponry, but did not elaborate.
SDI ended in 1993 and defense emphasis shifted away from space and toward more theater-based missile defense systems.
The Space Force concept announced by the White House may or may not have been inspired by Air Force Space Command, which is headquartered at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado. The Air Force Space Command mission includes both space and cyberspace, but the United States Space Force would be an entirely new entity much larger than a major command, essentially proposed as its own branch of service similar to the Air Force, Navy, Army, and Marine Corps.
Benefits of a Space Force
Currently space-related efforts are scattered across the Army, Air Force, and Navy plus intelligence in the National Reconnaissance Office and Space and Missile Systems Center. About 80 percent of space qualified personnel reside in the Air Force, but all services have personnel with space expertise. A new service would theoretically ensure that there’s a branch of service focused 100 percent on space. Proponents have argued the Pentagon is complicated enough and this would just make it more complex. Another added benefit is that a Space Force would create career paths for people who specialize in space.
One particular area of national (and international) interest a U.S. Space Force could serve is protecting the network of satellites and other hardware used to maintain the effectiveness of Global Positioning System (GPS) operations.
Militaries and governments around the globe depend on GPS systems for a variety of uses on and off the battlefield. A physical threat to GPS hardware in space is something many refuse to take lightly; the creation of a Space Force in the minds of some would be a deterrent to a nation considering the tactical advantage of disrupting such systems.
Another serious issue is the ever-growing amount of man-made objects in orbit around the planet, creating potential hazards for space exploration.
A Space Force mission may include early warning and interdiction for nuclear missile launches against the United States or its’ partner nations, and could also operate space-based early warning and tracking missions for satellites that fall out of orbit and back into Earth’s atmosphere.
Space is an integral part of the National Defense Strategy and military operations worldwide depend on space. Squad operations in Afghanistan all the way through command and control of America’s nuclear deterrent depend on assets in space.
The Space Force is also expected to speed development and acquisition of space assets where there are currently around 140 military satellites. The plan would address who replaces those satellites, maneuvers them and who prevents tampering or jamming.
Do Other Countries Operate Some Form Of A Space Force?
A variety of other countries have operations that could be interpreted (loosely or otherwise) as a type of Space Force or an organization that could be modified to become more like a Space Force. They include:
- China – People’s Liberation Army Strategic Support Force
- Russia – Russian Aerospace Forces
- European Space Agency – A coalition of 22 member states but not under a militarized structure
- France – French Joint Space Command
- India – Integrated Space Cell
Opponents Of The U.S. Space Force As A Separate Branch Of The United States Military
In 2017, Defense Secretary James Mattis put his objections to the creation of a sixth branch of the service in writing. A report at DefenseNews.com includes this quote from Mattis, who said in a letter
“At a time when we are trying to integrate the Department’s joint warfighting functions, I do not wish to add a separate service that would likely present a narrower and even parochial approach to space operations vice an integrated one we’re constructing under our current approach”. Mattis wrote those comments in a letter to members of Congress.
The Mattis letter is not the only high-ranking objection to the creation of a sixth branch of the military. Air Force General John W. Raymond, head of Air Force Space Command, wrote an op-ed in 2017 for Defense One titled, We Need to Focus on Space; We Don’t Need a ‘Space Corps’. In that piece, Raymond states;
“We must acquire space capabilities on relevant tactical timelines. We must be more agile in fielding capabilities into orbit. With the help of Congress, the Air Force has been successful at getting ‘Milestone Decision Authority’ for key space programs back to the Air Force”.
“This means the Air Force is responsible for major decisions during program development rather than the Office of Secretary Defense, essentially removing a layer of bureaucracy.”
That might not constitute a flat-out opposition to the Commander-in-Chief’s 2018 plans to create a U.S. Space Force, but the fact that the author of this is the head of the Air Force’s current major command responsible for all things related to space is a significant fact.
Who Supports The Space Force?
There are many who disagree with the opponents of a United States Space Force, and one of the most significant voices supporting it as a unique entity is the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Administrator Jim Bridenstine.
Another high-profile supporter is the Chairman of the Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee, Alabama Rep. Mike Rogers.
Current Operations That Could Be Taken Over By A U.S. Space Force
The Air Force’s “Space Mountain” operation, formally known as Cheyenne Mountain Complex, has tracked a large number of man-made objects in orbit as part of the Air Force mission. This mission is essential for the safety of any space-based operation including supply missions to the International Space Station (ISS), manned trips to the moon or Mars, etc.
The NASA official site reports some 500,000 man-made objects currently orbit the planet. A separate Space Force may well take on the responsibility for tracking these objects as part of its’ mission and could even begin an aggressive program to eliminate orbiting hazards.
The President stated in 2018 that space is a warfighting domain and should be treated just like sea, sky, and ground-based operations. This echoes the words of General John Raymond’s article quoted above but obviously departs from General John W. Raymond’s notion of keeping space operations within the jurisdiction of Air Force Space Command.
Will an actual Space Force be created as the sixth branch of military service? It may be too early to tell how the President’s directive plays out, but it definitely seems to be a going concern.
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