At a White House Rose Garden ceremony Aug. 29, President Donald Trump activated U.S. Space Command as the military’s newest unified combatant command. The move was hailed as a necessary response to adversaries challenging U.S. dominance in space.
Air Force Gen. John Raymond, commander of U.S. Space Command, said the job of the military’s 11th warfighting command will be to “protect and defend the space domain.”
Because much of what the military does in space is classified, many of the details of how the command will operate will be kept secret.
Based on what we have learned so far, here are five important things to know about the new command.
U.S. SPACECOM will treat outer space as a theater of war
The United States first stood up Space Command in 1985 but merged it with U.S. Strategic Command in 2002 in a post-9/11 realignment of military resources.
While the Aug. 29 ceremony at the White House was technically a re-activation of the command, officials point that this U.S. SPACECOM is different from its predecessor.
“The major difference is the environment,” Raymond said Sept. 27 at a Mitchell Institute talk on Capitol Hill.
In the 17 years since the original U.S. SPACECOM was shuttered, the military has grown more dependent on satellites for every aspect of military operations. Meanwhile, China and Russia have developed electronic and kinetic weapons that, military leaders warn, could be used against U.S. satellites.
“That threat required us to make a change,” Raymond said.
As long as space remained the responsibility of U.S. Strategic Command, whose primary focus is nuclear deterrence, it would not get the full attention and visibility it deserves, he said. “At U.S. SPACECOM, space is No. 1.”
U.S. SPACECOM has been established but is not yet fully operational
Raymond has been authorized to build a roughly 300-person staff at U.S. SPACECOM’s temporary headquarters at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado.
The No. 2 officer at U.S. SPACECOM is Army Lt. Gen. James Dickinson, who is also the commander of the Army Space and Missile Defense Command in Huntsville, Alabama. Dickinson will relinquish the Army SMDC post in the coming months when a replacement is named. Raymond, who retained his command of Air Force Space Command, is considered dual-hatted.
U.S. SPACECOM will be supported by two field organizations: a Combined Force Space Component Command (CFSCC) at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California; and a Joint Task Force Space Defense (JTF-SD) at Schriever Air Force Base, Colorado.
The CFSCC oversees more than 70 Air Force, Army and Navy space units; and ensures space capabilities such as GPS navigation and satellite-based communications are available to U.S. commanders and allied nations. It also operates the Combined Space Operations Center (CspOC) where U.S. and allied personnel track objects and activities in space. The commander of CFSCC, Air Force Maj. Gen. Stephen Whiting, is also the commander of the 14th Air Force. In that capacity, he reports to Raymond as head of Air Force Space Command. But as head of CFSCC, he reports to U.S. SPACECOM. The 14th Air Force oversees the Air Force’s five space wings.
The JTF-SD, located at Schriever, is a new organization that will operate, along with the U.S. intelligence community, the classified National Space Defense Center. The JTF-SD will be in charge of monitoring potential threats and drawing up options to defend satellites if they come under attack. Army Brig. Gen. Thomas James was named commander of JTF-SD.
“We never had that before,” Raymond said of JTF-SD, “an operational level command solely focused on protecting and defending that domain.”
But much work remains to be done for the command to be fully operational. Officials said it could take up to a year to reach “initial operational capability” and longer than that to achieve “full operational capability.”
Raymond and his staff are in the process of defining the criteria for achieving those goals. And getting there will depend on “ensuring the command has the right capabilities in place to fully accomplish its mission,” says a U.S. SPACECOM fact sheet.
The appropriate size and staffing for the command is still being studied. And a permanent location for its headquarters has yet to be decided. The finalists are Alabama’s Redstone Arsenal, California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base and Colorado’s Peterson Air Force Base, Buckley Air Force Base, Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station, and Schriever Air Force Base.
U.S. SPACECOM is big on working with allies but can’t share everything
The “C” in CFSCC stands for combined, which emphasizes the role of allies. “We ensure U.S. forces have all the space support they need, and we provide support to key allies,” Whiting, the commander of CSFCC, told SpaceNews Oct. 10. He said Raymond has been emphatic about forging stronger ties with allies.
The CSpOC was previously known as the Joint Space Operations Center and was changed to a combined center in July 2018 to bring more focus to the role of allies. That came at the urging of Gen. John Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, who championed the value of alliances in space operations. Partner nations with a permanent presence at the CSpOC include Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom. There is also a “commercial cell” to allow U.S. satellite operators to share information.
Hyten in 2018 started a space warfare planning effort called Operation Olympic Defender, that has now transitioned to U.S. SPACECOM. The United Kingdom was the first country to join the operation. “We expect more announcements,” Whiting said. And more international liaison officers will be invited to the CSFCC at Vandenberg, he said. “We have France and Germany. Other countries have expressed interest.”
But given the classified nature of space operations, efforts to work with allies can be difficult. Raymond said he has already moved to recommend some de-classification of information that U.S. SPACECOM deems important to share with key allies. “If you are going to deter you have to be able to talk about things,” he said. “Expect more to follow.”
The Pentagon is often criticized for over-classifying intelligence about the potential threats to U.S. satellites. Raymond acknowledged that part of his command’s deterrence efforts will require some ability to discuss these threats more openly. One way to deter aggression is to convince adversaries that attacking U.S. space assets is not worth the effort. But doing that means having to disclose at some level what capabilities the United States has to fight back.
“We have to ensure we’re able to talk with our allies and the American public about the threats,” Stephen Kitay, deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy, said Sept. 30 at the Atlantic Council.
U.S. SPACECOM is not the NRO’s boss, but will take charge if need be
At an Aug. 20 meeting of the National Space Council, acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire announced an agreement that would put intelligence-community assets under the operational control of the military during a conflict if U.S. satellites came under attack. A joint command structure will be created at the National Space Defense Center, said Maguire. “For the first time it will be a unified structure,” he said. Should conflict extend to space, the National Reconnaissance Office would take direction from the commander of U.S. SPACECOM.
Raymond said he is working with the NRO to jointly develop a playbook. “At the National Space Defense Center, we sit in the same room, we share information,” he said. “What we decided is that in times of conflict when decisions have to be made quicker, somebody has to give direction, and that somebody is the United States Space Command.”
This does not mean the NRO is in the military chain of command, Raymond cautioned. “They don’t work for me. But in the ‘protect and defend’ mission we’ll work together and they’ll take direction.”
U.S. SPACECOM is not a Space Force, but it wants one
Given the wide attention Space Force has received since Trump called for establishing a new military service to defend U.S. interests above Earth’s atmosphere, it’s no surprise that some people mistook Trump’s formal establishment of Space Command as the creation of his often-touted Space Force. So part of the Pentagon’s public outreach has been to explain the difference between U.S. SPACECOM and Space Force.
As a combatant command, U.S. SPACECOM is responsible for preparing all military operations in space, and is supported by service members drawn mostly from the Air Force but also from the Army, Navy and Marine Corps.
The Trump administration has proposed creating a Space Force as a separate service under the Air Force, much in the same way the Marine Corps falls under the Navy.
The U.S. military services provide the forces and the equipment that combatant commanders need to be able to carry out those operations. A Space Force also would be empowered to advocate for more resources for equipment and training.
The House and Senate versions of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2020 have different proposals for creating a space service. Representatives from both chambers are in negotiations and a compromise is expected to be reached sometime in November.
Raymond called on Congress to enact a Space Force in order to ensure there is a branch of the armed forces focused on space. He described the functions of U.S. SPACECOM and those of a Space Force as complementary. “We’re planning for a Space Force, we need a Space Force, our nation needs a Space Force,” he said. “We hope Congress will pass the NDAA that will allow that to happen.”
This article originally appeared in the Oct. 21, 2019 issue of SpaceNews magazine.