When the U.S. Space Force was established in December 2019, it was purposely sized small to minimize cost and bureaucracy, and was created primarily with existing military personnel and funding.
With a projected force of 16,000 people, the space branch is tiny compared to its parent service, the U.S. Air Force, which has nearly 650,000 personnel.
In its third year, the Space Force is finding that being small has some advantages, such as flatter chains of command and more flexibility to try out new concepts. It is also becoming clear that because of its size, the Space Force will remain hugely dependent on the Air Force to perform its activities and, as a result, may struggle to define a distinct identity.
That reality was brought home by Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall, who commented last month that the Space Force is indeed an independent service but will need to stay “tightly coupled to the Air Force” to succeed.
Space Force leaders insist that the service is making strides as a separate branch. Chief of Space Operations Gen. John “Jay” Raymond said the Space Force does not plan to be “an air force that changes a little bit here and there.”
Meanwhile, some outside observers caution that a lack of resources undermines the Space Force.
David Deptula, a retired Air Force lieutenant general and dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, contends that the Space Force doesn’t have enough people or money to meet the national security demands of the space domain.
To make matters worse, the ongoing battles over federal spending are disproportionately impacting the Space Force, Deptula said on a recent podcast.
Congress has not passed a budget for fiscal year 2022, and the government has been funded since Oct. 1 by a stopgap measure that freezes funding at last year’s levels. New programs are not allowed to start under a continuing resolution, and budget uncertainty slows progress to a crawl, Deptula noted.
The failure to pass a 2022 budget is especially detrimental to the Space Force because most of its money is tied up in new programs. Raymond warned that unless a budget is passed soon, two of five planned national security satellite launches will slip from fiscal year 2022 to 2023, and several satellite programs will see delays.
If the Space Force cannot deliver the space systems the military needs, its clout will be diminished, said John Baum, senior fellow at the Mitchell Institute.
“Bureaucratically, the Space Force is unfortunately still fighting to justify its existence,” Baum noted. Even the staunchest supporters of the Space Force will grow impatient if the service cannot show progress modernizing U.S. space systems soon, he said. The Space Force has a lot of new programs “that need funding increases that a CR puts the kibosh on.”
This is a valid point, as one of the major reasons Congress supported the Space Force as a separate branch was the imperative to rapidly field capabilities that did not exist when space was under the Air Force.
Budget crises aside, the Space Force will have to overcome its lack of size by pushing innovative ideas and showing new approaches in the acquisition of space technologies. Military spending is projected to stay flat at best, making it improbable that the Space Force will see any substantive growth in personnel or funding.
Kendall noted that the significance of space in national security ensures the relevance of the Space Force, regardless of its size. As he put it, the Space Force is “very small relative to the other services. But in terms of importance, it’s at least equal to the other services.”
Sandra Erwin covers military space for SpaceNews. She is a veteran national security journalist and former editor of National Defense magazine.
“On National Security” appears in every issue of SpaceNews magazine. This column ran in the February 2022 issue.