Air Force Gen. John Hyten, U.S. Strategic Command commander, speaks Sept. 19 at the Air Force Association's Air, Space and Cyber Conference in National Harbor, Maryland. Credit: U.S. Air Force

WASHINGTON — Congress gave the U.S. Space Force a lot of elbow room to decide how it wants to organize itself as a new military branch. But if Space Force leaders take too long to deliver concrete plans, Congress will step in and do it for them, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. John Hyten said.

Hyten, the U.S. military’s second highest-ranking officer, spent most of his career in space operations and strongly advocated for the establishment of a Space Force as a separate military service.

Speaking Sept. 21 on a live virtual forum hosted by the Defense Innovation Unit, Hyten said these are “exciting times” in the space business due to the standup of the Space Force and U.S. Space Command.

Although the Space Force was only stood up nine months ago, Hyten said, Congress in legislation asked the Space Force and its parent service the Air Force to address specific questions about how the new service should be organized, how it should acquire equipment and how it should integrate members of other branches. If those questions aren’t answered soon, Hyten said, the Space Force will lose some of its latitude to shape its own future and open the door for Congress to set the direction.

Congress gave the Space Force “wide latitude to define their future,” said Hyten. “They said: tell us how you want to do acquisition, tell us how you want to do ops, tell us how you want to organize, tell us how you want to bring the other services in, tell us how you want to structure inside the Air Force.”

The Space Force is going through that right now, “and that’s exciting and that’s the right thing,” he said. “But the other thing I point out all the time is that there’s a finite period of time … Congress is an impatient body.”

Congress and the president “expect it to be done quickly and expect all those answers to be on the table, and if they’re not, what does Congress do? They’ll write it for us.”

Hyten suggested that the Space Force has to “work effectively with the Congress to make sure they answer all those questions. If they do, that’s the best way to go fast because how many times are you given the opportunity to define your own future?”

Hyten did not mention specific areas where the Space Force may have taken too long to make decisions.

Space Force leaders recently experienced a case of Congress stepping in on the issue of officer and enlisted troop ranks and insignia. An amendment in the House version of the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act requires the Space Force to use the Navy’s rank structure. The amendment — put forth by Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas) — will be debated later this year in a House and Senate conference.

Before the House passed the so-called “Starfleet” amendment, Space Force officials had been internally debating a new rank structure to set the space branch apart from its parent service the U.S. Air Force.

There is also proposed language in the NDAA that would direct the Space Force to establish a reserve component, and Congress has yet to authorize the transfer of Army and Navy units to the 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...