A year later, a new political reality for military space

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It was one the big headlines at the 2017 National Space Symposium: The Air Force was standing up a new three-star vice chief of staff for space operations known as A-11. This was hailed as a major muscle move by the service to show critics in Congress it was taking the space mission seriously.

That was only a year ago, but it might as well have been a lifetime.

Over the course of the past 12 months, not only did Congress pass a law that disbanded the A-11 position but it also stripped the secretary of the Air Force of her role as principal space adviser to the secretary of defense. And it has set in motion a possible massive reorganization of the Air Force. An independent review is now under way to look at how the military’s space missions might be spun off into a separate service.

It was one the big headlines at the 2017 National Space Symposium: The Air Force was standing up a new three-star vice chief of staff for space operations known as A-11.
It was one the big headlines at the 2017 National Space Symposium: The Air Force was standing up a new three-star vice chief of staff for space operations known as A-11.

The key sponsor of the legislation, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), chairman of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, told the government affairs breakfast at last year’s symposium that he wanted to shift the space functions now resident in the Air Force to a new branch he called the Space Corps. At the time few people thought this idea had a snowball’s chance.

A year later, Rogers is leading the congressional charge to create a Space Corps. Not only has his political standing risen on this issue on Capitol Hill but he recently found a surprising ally in President Trump. The president, out of nowhere — and contradicting his own administration’s position — endorsed the concept of a stand-alone Space Force in a speech last month.

The Air Force, to be sure, has not lost Title 10 authorities or control over space budgets and operations. Title 10 of the U.S. Code provides the legal basis for the roles, missions and organization of each of the military services. “The department of the Air Force will continue to be principally responsible for organizing, training, equipping and presenting ready Air Force space forces to combatant commanders.”

But the service is under scrutiny. Critics like Rogers do not believe the Air Force has the capacity to focus sufficient attention or resources on space simply because its primary mission is air superiority.

Section 1601 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018 was only the opening salvo, Rogers and other members of the HASC have warned.

Meanwhile, Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan has taken over the duties of principal space adviser on an interim basis until the independent study is completed, and has oversight of the military space portfolio.

Instead of the A-11, the Air Force established a three-star vice commander of Air Force Space Command resident in the Pentagon. Lt. Gen. David D. Thompson was sworn in as Air Force Space Command vice commander April 5.

U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. David D. Thompson became Air Force Space Command vice commander April 5. Credit: DoD
U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. David D. Thompson became Air Force Space Command vice commander April 5. Credit: DoD

Another change: The commander of Air Force Space Command will serve a term of at least six years and has become a “Joint Functional Component Commander” under U.S. Strategic Command.

U.S. Strategic Command is working on a “joint warfighting concept of operations” for space that is due to Congress in June.

In a March report to Congress, Shanahan assured lawmakers that the Defense Department is implementing the language in Section 1601 of the NDAA. Notably, Shanahan’s report was harshly critical of the Air Force procurement culture and processes for buying next-generation space systems. A review of the acquisition system is under way.

What to watch for next? Shanahan’s interim report to be submitted to Congress in Aug. 1, and a final report no later than Dec. 31. And, of course, defense committee deliberations as the 2019 NDAA spins up later in the year.

During a HASC hearing last week, Rogers asked Defense Secretary Jim Mattis if he had a “viable alternative to the space force the president’s called for and that this committee has called for.”

Mattis did not rule out a space corps, but said such a massive reorganization of the military needs to be thought through. “If a space force is the right thing to do, I have no reservations about it. But I don’t want to stand up in DoD, which is an enormous bureaucracy and has many sub bureaucracies, another bureaucracy as if that will be the solution, said Mattis. “If it’s the solution, then we will go there.”