WASHINGTON — The decision to establish an independent Space Force under the U.S. Air Force is now in the hands of Congress. Committees soon will begin negotiating the final version of the Fiscal Year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act and the Trump administration is working behind the scenes to ensure the NDAA gives the Pentagon legal authority to stand up the new service.

Hanging over the discussions are questions on whether the Air Force denied space advocates a voice in the debate on the future of the new branch. These accusations have put the service in the uncomfortable position of having to simultaneously argue for the establishment of a Space Force and fight back criticism that senior leaders quashed public discussion on the subject.

Fueling the controversy are editorials and news stories published over the past month about a three-star general who claims to have been forced to retire because of his Space Force advocacy. Other recent op-eds allege senior Air Force leaders have undermined the broader discussion about space by restricting what officers could say or write.

Air Force spokesman Brig. Gen. Ed Thomas said in a statement to SpaceNews that service leaders are aware of the criticism and are taking steps to ensure there is a more open debate about space.

Acting Air Force Secretary Matt Donovan and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein are “100 percent committed to establishing a space force, and we welcome debate and critical thinking,” Thomas said. “Some uncertainty existed more than a year ago — as Congress debated the need for a space force — about who should be engaging the press and representing the Air Force,” Thomas said. “That time has long since passed and we have moved out.”

The Air Force needs the “full intellectual firepower of our force, especially our Air Force leaders with a deep expertise in space operations,” Thomas said. “This means writing, publishing and engaging the media and, as a service, having the humility and respect to ensure we are examining all sides of the issue.”

Damaging media coverage about the Air Force suppressing speech has drawn high-level attention. Goldfein is said to have been especially troubled by a Wall Street Journal op-ed published Aug. 26 titled “End the Gag Rule, Start the Space Force.”

The piece by law professor Daniel Lyons questioned why the Air Force’s own space think tank at Air University, Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, has been “muzzled by a service-wide gag order.” Lyons suggested that space scholars kept quiet perhaps because of former Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson’s known opposition to forming a new service. “Whatever its origin, the gag order tilted the public conversation about Space Force by silencing some of its most knowledgeable proponents as politicians, civilian scholars and comedians took pot shots at the idea.”

In a Washington Post op-ed published Aug. 30, policy analyst Namrata Goswami echoed the criticism. “Top leadership stifled a serious policy debate within the Air Force on how the service should be constituted, issuing a ‘gag order’ on advocacy for a space order,” she wrote. The directive “prevented those within its ranks with the necessary military space expertise from weighing in publicly,” Goswami said. As a result, the discussion on space was ceded to late-night comedians and others who don’t understand the implications of having a separate space service and what it would mean for space policy in the long run, she added. “Without healthy democratic debate, we are left with strategic incoherence regarding U.S. space strategy.”

In a statement to SpaceNews, Wilson denies there was a gag order. “Not only was there no limitation on discussion about space, I thought there should be much more than there was,” she said. “There is still a shortage of academic and public discussion on the space threat, space strategy, space policy, space programs, and space organization. We expected faculty at the Air University to lead robust discussions about a wide range of national security policy issues.”

Goldfein a year ago became aware that officers at Air University believed the Air Force was censoring articles on space. In a Sept. 4, 2018, email to Lt. Gen. Anthony Cotton, the commander of Air University, Goldfein wrote: “I took a question from one of your civilian faculty regarding restrictions on publishing about the space force. I would never want to silence intellectual dialogue, but my gut level answer might have missed something I just didn’t know. I looked at your academic freedom policy note, and had my staff scan DoD guidance. I can’t find anything on space that changes your frame for student and faculty expression. AU enjoys academic freedom as it should. Please pass this on broadly to Schriever Fellows and across our academic institutions.”

A recently retired Air Force officer said Goldfein consistently was “supportive of officers speaking up about where we should go with space, even if it ran 180 degrees from his and the secretary’s opinion.”

Current and former Air Force officials said the communications strategy on the Space Force was largely shaped by the political climate. They recall tense times in 2018 when it was unclear who could and should talk about space. A Sept. 2018 Air Force public affairs “Space Force Messaging” memo obtained by SpaceNews laid out communications guidance. “The Air Force has developed a proposal for a sixth branch that is bold and advances American dominance in space,” the memo said. It noted that this message should only be communicated by Air Force civilian leadership and was not a discussion point for general officers. “Uniformed space leaders should focus their discussions on space warfighting and what we doing today to become a more lethal and ready force regardless of the organizational construct.”

Donovan, the acting secretary, told SpaceNews in a July interview that Wilson and then secretary of defense Jim Mattis in 2017 pushed back on House-backed legislation to create a Space Corps but changed their stance in June 2018 after Trump directed DoD to form a separate military service. Since taking over as acting secretary on June 1, 2019, following Wilson’s departure, Donovan has been vocal about the Air Force being firmly in support of the establishment of a Space Force. He said he had not previously aired his views on space because Wilson was the service’s public face on the issue.

A former Air Force official who was involved in space discussions said Wilson worried about protecting officers from the political crossfire and was not trying to muzzle anybody. “This process was very inclusive across the Air Force — and in no way should be construed as a gag order.” After Trump announced his decision to establish a Space Force, the former official said, “the Air Force leadership was fully committed.” A rift between Wilson and then acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan, however, relegated the Air Force to the sidelines, the former official said. “There were many people in various senior positions within the national security structure that resisted the Air Force having any role in shaping the way forward.”

The former official also denied that Wilson set restrictions on the writings of Air University, an academic institution created to generate independent alternative ideas. “Sadly, some people have confused the university’s mission with that of the responsibilities of senior leader decision makers, policy makers, the legislative liaisons and public affairs,” the former official said.

Three-star general stirs controversy

An anonymous mass email titled “Air Force is firing Gen. Kwast for supporting the Space Force” was sent July 16 to SpaceNews and other media organizations. The email blast was followed by op-ed pieces seeking to back up that claim.

Lt. Gen. Steven Kwast, a former commander of Air University and recently the commander of the Air Education and Training Command, was portrayed in these articles as a Space Force proponent who was being forced to retire because of his dissenting views.

This media campaign blindsided the Air Force leadership. A career fighter pilot, Kwast had written an academic paper on space at Air University in 2016 but beyond that he was not considered a space expert nor had he ever been involved in space policy, according to several officials. Leaders were caught off guard on Aug. 10 when a Kwast op-ed appeared in Politico arguing for a more aggressive space posture tied to deep space exploration and colonization. In an interview with Politico Aug. 19, Kwast reinforced that message. “We are not aggressive about it. We have the wrong strategy, the wrong ideas, the wrong doctrine. We are trapped in an industrial age model of thinking about space,” said Kwast.

Air Force officials declined to speak on the record about Kwast. He is still on active duty but in transition to retirement. Kwast did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

According to current and former Air Force officials, Kwast’s retirement was not related to his views on space or the Space Force. He served in two posts as a three-star since 2014 and did not earn a promotion so retirement is the next step. This is what happens to most general officers because the four-star slots are so few. But it was no secret in Air Force circles that Kwast had drawn the ire of senior leaders over the past several months for “going rogue,” one source said. Leaders were particularly outraged about Kwast going to Capitol Hill and “lobbying to get promoted,” this source said. “Kwast would go off script when talking at forums or having personal meetings with lawmakers” without notifying the Secretary.

An Air Force official told SpaceNews that some space advocates in the Air Force actually agree with Kwast’s supporters that the United States today lacks a vision for space. The problem is that Kwast and other like-minded commentators set up a false dichotomy, the officer said. They criticize the Air Force establishment for casting the Space Force as a passive organization that would exist only to protect satellites, while “visionaries like Kwast think we need to go into deep space,” the officer said. “What Kwast is saying is good but it’s not practical. These are things that we will get to, but there are immediate things that we need to be able to do now so we’re not outpaced by Russia and China. We have to protect and harden satellites, we have to have space situational awareness so we can do the deep space, more visionary things.”

Air Force leaders see naïveté in Kwast’s views, the officer said, because they ignore fiscal and political realities. “They’re only going to give us so much budget to do so much, so we have to make sure we’re doing what the military is expected to do be fore we go ‘Starfleet’ and try to do things that NASA is actually charged with doing.”

One former Air Force official who read Kwast’s December 2016 Air University paper — titled ”Fast Space: Leveraging Ultra Low-Cost Space Access for 21st Century Challenges” — noted that the Air Force has actually embraced some of ideas discussed in the paper.

One of the primary contributors to the paper was Lt. Col. Peter Garretson, who has since left the service and is now an outspoken Kwast supporter, as well as author of some of the op-eds accusing the Air Force of firing the three-star general for his views on space. Garretson did not respond to a request to comment for this story. In his recent editorials, he is listed as an independent strategy consultant and a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, a conservative think tank.

Some of the policies that Kwast promoted in the paper are to help accelerate the acquisition of space technologies from the private sector. “Some of it is being implemented, such as launch vehicle Other Transaction Agreement public-private partnerships,” the former official said. “The Air Force is also partnering with new small launch vehicle providers, and the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center has an office specifically for reaching out to the commercial space industry,” the former official noted. “I’m surprised at how much of the Kwast study the Air Force actually adopted.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...