On National Security | The Air Force’s change of tone in the Space Force debate

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“On National Security” appears in every issue of SpaceNews magazine. This column ran in the April 23, 2018 issue.

U.S. Air Force Gen. John “Jay” Raymond.
U.S. Air Force Gen. John “Jay” Raymond.

The high-level attention being paid to space — both as an economic engine and as a national security fighting ground — seems to be reaching new heights. So much so that the idea of having a separate branch of the military dedicated to space might be losing attractiveness.

“Rather than go through the difficulty of a new organizational structure, I believe the leadership we have now can execute,” said Air Force Gen. John Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command. Hyten has previously been critical of the Air Force for “not getting” what must done to ensure the military’s access to space is not challenged by China or Russia. He called out the Air Force for moving too slowly to modernize satellites and invest in resilient systems that can survive electronic or physical attacks.

The perception that the Air Force gives short shrift to its space responsibilities has fueled calls for an independent Space Force. Congress last year passed legislation that set in motion the possible creation of a space corps and President Trump said he was in favor of it. But the tone of the conversation shifted after the passage of a budget deal that gave the military a huge increase, which translated into more money for space. A senior Air Force official said privately that the budget was a major turning point. “Before we didn’t have the money to go faster in space. Now we do.”

At last week’s Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, military officials went out of their way to praise the Air Force for its support of space.

“The Air Force has aligned their leadership perfectly,” said Hyten. “I believe the Air Force will step up to go fast.”

There are still questions the Defense Department and the Air Force must answer to Congress before lawmakers decide whether a new organizational makeup is needed. DoD hired the Center for Naval Analysis to conduct an independent study.

In a keynote speech at the symposium, Gen. John “Jay” Raymond, commander of Air Force Space Command, said he sees unprecedented focus on space, and “space friendly” budgets. “There is a strategic alignment of leadership and resources.”

Hyten, also speaking at the symposium, noted all the VIPs who had showed up at the event over the course of 24 hours. “You have seen the vice president of the United States, the secretary of commerce, the acting administrator of NASA, the director of the NRO,” Hyten said. “And one of most amazing things you see, from the vice president all the way down, is you see alignment of purpose, alignment of vision, alignment of leadership.”

And yet there are still skeptical lawmakers and experts who insist the Air Force is culturally incapable of advancing space as a domain of warfare.

“Having spent nearly three decades as an Air Force pilot, with 17 of those years in Air Force Space Command, I can say unequivocally that air and space are completely unrelated domains, in the same way that land is a separate domain from the sea,” said retired Air Force colonel and NASA astronaut Terry Virts.

In a market trends report published by the data analytics firm Govini, Virts lists several missions that should be consolidated under the Space Force: launch and satellite operations, land-based ICBMs and missile defense forces. “The seaborne components of these functions should remain with the Navy and airborne components with the Air Force, but the overall mission of missile defense should be integrated and led by the Space Force,” said Virts. “The guiding principle should be if something needs to be launched to, intercepted or operated in, or returned from space, then the Space Force should be the lead.”

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson and Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein have been working to “normalize” space so that it is treated the same as air warfare.

They should brace for stiff headwinds.


Sandra Erwin

 

Sandra Erwin covers military space for SpaceNews. She is a veteran national security journalist and former editor of National Defense magazine.