WASHINGTON — More than 70 years after the U.S. Air Force split off from the Army, disagreements linger over whether air forces do enough to support troops on the ground.

With plans now underway to create an independent service for space, it would be useful to look back at the history of the Air Force and make sure mistakes are not repeated, cautions Dan Grazier, military fellow at the Center for Defense Information at the Project on Government Oversight.

Supporters of the Trump administration’s Space Force plan argue that this is a natural evolution of the armed forces, as when the Air Force grew out of the Army Air Corps. The thinking was that air power, if controlled by airmen, could decisively win wars. That same thought process cannot be applied to space, however, because space power is not decisive independently. “Space power is an enabling function of the other services,” Grazier said in an interview.

Administration and congressional proponents of a Space Force say a separate service is justified because space is a domain of war. “Yes, it’s a domain. We need specialists. I don’t disagree with that,” said Grazier. “But when you create a new bureaucracy, that bureaucracy tends to focus on its own ends. That’s where the problems happen.”

He predicts that “if we create this new bureaucracy, its first goal is going to be protect its own existence. A secondary goal will be to justify its existence. Only after that it’ll start focusing on the mission at hand. And even then, the mission at hand is going to be disconnected from the operations of the other services.”

All four military services today are highly dependent on space-based services for everything they do. The Space Force presumably is being stood up to ensure that those services are not disrupted and that all the armed forces get the support they need. But to ensure that happens, the supported services should have a say in what resources are provided to the Space Force to accomplish that, Grazier said. “The only way you can effectively connect space operations with the other domains is through budgets.”

Already the military struggles to deliver space capabilities to forces in the field because the organizations that worry about space are not responsible for the equipment that is needed on the ground. The Air Force buys satellites but the Army has to buy the radios that talk to the satellite. “We see this now,” says Grazier. The Air Force might deploy a new satellite but soldiers on the ground can’t access the capabilities. “This problem will get worse if you have three services involved in all this.”

Space operations will not be decisive on their own, he says. “Their true potential can only be realized as supporting efforts of operations on the sea and especially on the ground. An independent service dedicated to space will quickly forge its own bureaucratic path separate from the existing military forces. This will provoke more inter-service rivalries and distract from rather than contribute to future military success.”

Experience shows that an independent Space Force will “work to first carve out its own unique identity. Its leaders will insist on having their own service schools, sources of supply, uniforms, and bases,” Grazier said.

An independent Air Force set off decades of inter-service fights, Grazier insisted. “You can’t put the genie back in the bottle,” but it should serve as a cautionary tale, he said. “We haven’t quite made that mistake with the Space Force yet.”

Proposals that are now circulating on how the Space Force would be organized say one of the central missions of the new branch will be to support the other military services. Again, this is no guarantee it’s going to happen, said Grazier. The 1948 Key West agreement that was signed months after the Air Force was created specifically stated that the Air Force has to support the Army, he noted. “But the Army has had to fight tooth and nail for more than 70 years for the Air Force to meet all of its responsibilities,” he added. “The only way you can ensure support is to make sure the services have a say in the budget of the service that has to provide support. And we don’t have that.”

Another argument that Space Force proponents frequently lay out is that the Air Force has not been a strong enough advocate of space as a domain. “Advocacy is important,” said Grazier. “But it also can be very detrimental because it’s often self-serving.” Before a Space Force is created, “it’s important that existing services carefully evaluate their real needs. Sometimes the problems that space programs are meant to solve can probably be solved through other means that are more effective and less expensive and less complicated.”

Congress especially will have to consider carefully the “actual operating needs of the forces in the field,” said Grazier. “It’s important that the people who are going to be supported take charge.”

Reorganizing space activities is not a simple process to be sure, he said. And the fact that the administration wants to rush this through in one year makes it less likely that these issues will be studied in depth. “The speed that they’re trying to do this does surprise me a lot,” Grazier said. “It took 40 years for the Air Force to gain its independence. Congress started looking into a Space Corps in 2016. “The process being sped through before anyone has a real ability to argue and figure out the proper course of action.”

Space Development Agency
As part of the space reorganization, the Pentagon has recommended standing up a Space Development Agency to focus on the procurement of technologies and on delivering systems to combat forces more rapidly than under the traditional system. Grazier said the SDA “would be vastly preferable to an independent service, but I still think it would be unnecessary.”

Space operations are a supporting function every bit as transportation and communications, he said. The Army has the Transportation Corps and the Signal Corps to handle its own support. Imagine if the Transportation Corps became an independent service with the mission of supporting all of the services. It would be pulled in at least three different directions since the Army, Navy, and Air Force have their own transportation needs, Grazier noted. Army commanders would have to compete for resources for a very basic function while not receiving exactly what they need since any solution would be a compromise.

Space Force leaders, Grazier predicts, “will likely only work with the other services when forced to by an outside entity like the secretary of defense or Congress, and even then, as history shows, the resulting cooperation is likely to be half-hearted and will vanish as soon as the source of external pressure moves on.”

One alternative proposed by Grazier is to have the leaders in each of the services carefully assess their space domain needs and tailor an appropriate organization to meet them. “Should there be Department-wide requirements, the secretary of defense should determine which service has the greatest stake then assign it as the lead agency while the other interested parties contribute accordingly. Constrained budgets force service leaders to pursue more practical and simpler designs that usually perform better than the overly complicated systems born when money flows more freely.”

Officials calling for an independent Space Force will claim this domain holds the key to victory in any future conflict and requires an independent branch. “But, just like with aviation, space operations will not be decisive on their own. Their true potential can only be realized as supporting efforts of operations on the sea and especially on the ground.”

One of the staunchest proponents of a Space Force, former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy Doug Loverro, also has cautioned about making sure the new service does not become too inward-looking.

The Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force all need space support around the clock, he said at a recent conference. “We need to recognize this very important fact. The Space Force is more powerful when it provides capabilities to other forces, not when it acts alone.”

Loverro noted that not everyone agrees on that point. “I can tell you there are absolutely two camps within the space cadre of DoD,” said Loverro. “Those who believe that the most important thing for Space Force is to actively defend U.S. space capabilities or attack other nations’ space capabilities. and those who believe its most important job is to provide space capabilities to terrestrial forces,” he added. “Those two ideas will be in tension” and could create divisions within an independent Space Force.

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...