Op-ed | America needs a space corps

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America is so dependent on our satellites in space that we think it’s time for a branch of the U.S. military designed to protect them. That why we are proposing that Congress create a new Space Corps. Our reform passed the U.S. House Armed Services Committee almost unanimously and was included in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that passed the House of Representatives Friday.

Imagine driving without GPS. Everything from ATM machines to Zumwalt Navy destroyers use satellites. Whether we are watching television or North Korea, we need satellites.

 Our satellites were safe until about ten years ago, when China successfully attacked one of its own weather satellites. That test proved that China could destroy many satellites, as well as create a debris field that threatens everything in orbit. Nations like Russia have also taken aggressive actions in space.

 We regret that space has become a war-fighting domain because America pioneered the peaceful development of space for many decades. For example, take space traffic control. We give the world a priceless service for free when we warn every nation if its satellites face debris.

To pretend that our satellites are safe today would be foolish. An adversary attack in space could render us blind, deaf, and impotent before we knew what hit us. It would crush our economy and paralyze our military. World War III could be over before it started.

The U.S. Air Force has been in charge of our military space assets since we began responding to the threat posed by the Soviet Union’s Sputnik in 1959. Although they have a proud record of accomplishment, today’s Air Force has so many priorities that it is unable to give space the attention it deserves. Fighter pilots get almost all the promotions to general.

Our proposal does not take space away from the Air Force, but establishes a separate Corps within the Air Force. It would have the same relationship that the Marine Corps has to the Navy. The Space Corps would be led by a four-star general with equal status to the Chief of Staff of the Air Force. Both generals would serve on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and both would report to the Secretary of the Air Force. This does not diminish the Air Force but augments it.

We reluctantly take this step to reorganize the Pentagon. However, we are convinced that this change is needed to effectively compete in space. Our potential adversaries have already prioritized space; we are long overdue. Here are some examples:

∙ The U.S. has grown too dependent on the Russian-made RD-180 rocket for assured access to space. We have had decades to wean ourselves, but still rely on this questionable source.

∙ Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles has had great difficulty filling billets from Captain to Lieutenant Colonel when so few space experts are able to get on the promotion list to general.

∙ Delays of many years and routine cost-overruns plague existing Air Force space programs, despite our intelligence services getting better, faster results.

 While most of Air Force RDT&E and Procurement has recovered from sequestration, its space programs have not.  Where the Air Force puts its budget resources is the best single metric for what it prioritizes.  History has shown that the Air Force always prioritizes air dominance systems over space systems. 

We realize that no mere organizational change can solve our deficiencies in space, but the reliance on status quo is not the answer. The Air Force tried to head off our proposal by adding a new A-11 to its Pentagon staff, but we are convinced that deeper reforms are needed.

We give the new Secretary of the Air Force, Heather Wilson, time and flexibility to flesh out the details of the new Corps. We do not want to micro-manage. But we want to make sure that she has the institutional clout and momentum to maintain U.S. space dominance.

We cannot afford to rest on our laurels. America’s fate rests on its satellites. We must create a Space Corps to keep them, and us, safe.

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) is the chairman of the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee and Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) is the ranking member.