Defining the job duties of the Space Force will be a knotty task
WASHINGTON — In future deliberations over the Trump administration’s Space Force plan, the mission of the new branch could become a debate far more contentious than picking the logo or the color of the uniforms.
A report the Pentagon sent to Congress Aug. 9 says the Space Force will “protect our economy through deterrence of malicious activities, ensure our space systems meet national security requirements, and provide vital capabilities to joint and coalition forces across the spectrum of conflict.”
The statement is clear about the Space Force having a dual combat and support role, providing services like satellite-based navigation, remote sensing intelligence and weather data to the other branches of the military. These two key functions — the defense of space assets and the support of the other military services — are now performed by the U.S. Air Force and the intelligence community. Within these organizations, however, there are internal divisions over what takes precedence: war fighting or providing services, said Doug Loverro, an industry consultant and former deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy.
Creating a new service could get messy not just from a political standpoint but also because there are vast cultural gulfs within the space community about what the primary mission of the Space Force should be. “There is true danger that an Air Force-heavy space culture will focus too much on the direct combat side of space, rather than on the support side of space, and that support will begin to erode,” Loverro said last week at a panel discussion hosted by the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum and the IDA Science and Technology Policy Institute.
“This is one of the key doctrinal issues that the Space Force is going to have to wrestle with,” said Loverro, who is a strong proponent of separating space functions from the Air Force.
He draws a parallel with the creation of the U.S. Air Force more than 60 years ago, when concerns emerged that the new service would concentrate on air warfare at the expense of close-air support to troops on the ground. “There is a risk that we could see, with the separation of a space force, like what we saw happen with the separation of the air force,” he said. The space force could end up paying too much attention to the space battle, “which is important but not as important as supporting terrestrial forces.”
The Strategic Forces subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee led the push last year to create an independent space corps on grounds that the Air Force was taking resources from space budgets to fund air warfare programs. If the Congress moves to separate space out of the Air Force, Loverro cautioned, it will have to make sure the Space Force does not become too inward looking.
“This will be a big issue going forward,” Loverro said.
The Air Force has stepped up its focus on “warfighter requirements as they spent more time, energy and money protecting space assets,” he said. If that trend continues to be emphasized in a Space Force, that could detract from the support mission.
The Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force all need 24/7 space-based support services for almost everything they do. “We need to recognize this very important fact,” said Loverro. “The Space Force is more powerful when it provides capabilities to other forces, not when it acts alone.”
Not everyone agrees on that point, though. “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.
Loverro said he has seen Air Force Space Command over time retreating from the idea that its main role is support. “They have always embraced the idea that they wanted to be warfighters.” That is driven by a culture in the command where there is a mix of space and strategic missile backgrounds.
U.S. Strategic Command on the other hand is populated by joint service officers. “They recognize that the joint force needs space services,” said Loverro. “So they pay more attention to that role.”
The larger divide is between Air Force Space Command and the National Reconnaissance Office, he said. “The NRO views itself as a service provider and takes immense pride in delivering the best overhead space reconnaissance support that can be done.”
Loverro also raised concerns that the administrative issues surrounding the Space Force could become a problem. Critics have questioned the need for an expensive bureaucracy that would come with a new stand-alone military service
“We have to be careful about what we include in the Space Force,” said Loverro. “We should have a simple mission statement: Protect the national interests from attack and provide support to warfighter,” he said. “I would hesitate to give Space Force a law enforcement and regulatory role.” And overhead costs should be kept to a minimum. “There is no rule that says every service must have its own academy, its own cooks, cops, or reserve component,’ Loverro said. “We need to not fall into the trap that if we create a Space Force, all these things must come with it.”
By rough estimates, national security space spending is about $17 billion to $18 billion a year across DoD. How much cost should the Space Force add? If the bureaucracy is kept small, Loverro said, the Space Force could be funded with $500 million a year that would come from savings by eliminating redundant programs that exist today, such as overlapping research and development projects.