Op-ed | Go really bold: Nix Space Force and remake Air Force into Aerospace Force

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When President Donald Trump unexpectedly mentioned the possibility of a Space Force in a speech at a San Diego air base on March 12, 2018, it caught his top military advisers off guard. Three months later, the impromptu remark was massaged into a formal proposal announced at the White House. The choppy rollout of an organization dealing with the protection of our nation’s corner of the cosmos became fodder for late-night comedy and social media satire.

Only it’s no joke because the U.S. military got its first new service in over 72 years when the president signed the Space Force’s enabling legislation at Joint Base Andrews on Dec. 20, 2019, just before catching a flight to Mar-a-Lago for the holidays. Ironically, before becoming president, the reality TV star’s only hands-on experience with anything vaguely related to the upper atmosphere was the launching of an airline bearing his name that fizzled almost as soon as it got off the ground.

Yet the greater irony is that well before the president riffed in public about a Space Force, Defense Secretary James Mattis and Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, both Trump appointees who subsequently departed the administration, had strongly rejected congressional rumblings for a separate military service focused exclusively on space. Secretary Mattis, a retired Marine general, took the unusual step of publicly opposing the fledgling congressional initiative, opining that a separate service “would likely present a narrower and even parochial approach to space operations.” Secretary Wilson, an Air Force Academy graduate, emphasized the need to integrate space operations across the services rather than add a separate service and stated that if she had more money, she would “put it into lethality, not bureaucracy.”

The most knowledgeable people were saying that the Space Force does not make sense, notwithstanding the growing importance of space as a warfighting domain. Their argument held that Air Force Space Command, the relevant part of the Air Force at the time, could function more efficiently than a whole new space-oriented service with its own chief and chain of command. Additionally, the pressing need was to synthesize operations rather than stovepipe them. The point was buttressed with the impending reactivation of U.S. Space Command, a unified combatant command, where the cornerstone promised to be joint-service participation.

Trump’s flamboyance fetish

U.S. Space Command was stood up Aug. 29, 2019 after a 17-year hiatus. While in itself a positive development, the primary service support for this unified combatant command will now come from the new Space Force, weighted by its extra layer of bureaucracy. Moreover, the Space Force as a separate service is liable to sow doubt about the importance accorded the other services’ legitimate interests in space. Sadly, on a grander scale, this debate over structure diverted attention away from what is arguably the greater issue: defining a new space doctrine in light of the seriousness of the evolving threats.

As the debate wore on, Secretary Wilson, a former member of Congress attuned to political states of mind, did not want to displease her boss who sensed the popular appeal of such an intriguingly titled military organization as the Space Force and who began to champion it with his trademark flippancy. Secretary Wilson dropped her opposition and embraced a variant of the proposal that was a little less bad. Rather than a totally freestanding service on par with the Air Force, she offered a Space Corps within the Department of the Air Force to be modeled after the Marine Corps, which falls under the Department of the Navy. The final legislation incorporated this approach, though in a sop to the Trumpian fetish for the flamboyant, the new organization is known by the name first blurted out by the president in his riff — the Space Force, leaving the military to figure out how to clean up the linguistical absurdity of a space force in an air force.

Notably, the Marine Corps with 182,000 personnel is the smallest of the traditional military services (not including the Coast Guard, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security). By contrast, the Space Force is expected to get going with approximately 16,000 personnel, mostly the men and women of Air Force Space Command. That number is likely to creep up over time as is the pattern when bureaucracies become entrenched. Nevertheless, the new service’s roster will be drastically smaller than any other military service, which makes it a stretch to see how this specialist cadre warrants status as a separate service.

The remaining roadblock to the creation of the Space Force was surmounted during negotiations over the final language of the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act. Republican lawmakers accepted the Democrats’ push for a generous family leave provision for federal workers. Reportedly, in exchange for the favor, Democrats acceded to the Space Force. And rather than initially funding the new service at the Air Force’s requested level of $72.4 million, Congress allocated only $40 million. Such is how sausage is made and Space Forces are born.

The Space Force’s main promoters in the House, Alabama Republican Mike Rogers and Tennessee Democrat Jim Cooper, had asserted that recent advances in space by Russia and China are nothing short of alarming. This is not in dispute. However, from this widely accepted premise, the two congressmen leaped to the conclusion that the only way to deal with the looming danger was to stand up a new military service.

In the course of his advocacy, Rep. Rogers revealed further insight into his thought process. He faulted the Air Force’s pilot-centric hierarchy for obsessing over air dominance to the detriment of space. But this is a preconceived notion predicated on stereotypes that simply doesn’t correspond to the reality that most Air Force leaders, regardless of their specialty, have long recognized the critical nature of space in preserving the national defense.

Bureaucratic bloat

While being led by pilots over the last several decades, the Air Force has orbited constellations of ever advancing, world-beating satellites that permit secure communications, precise navigation, indispensable weather forecasting and unmatched intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance. As far back as the 1950s, an Air Force bomber pilot by the name of Bernard Schriever pioneered the Air Force’s ballistic missile and military space program, which included development of the Thor, Atlas, Titan and Minuteman ballistic missiles, a proud legacy felt even today. Clearly, the assumption underpinning the legislation of an Air Force brooking a bias against space was terribly flawed.

In another tack, proponents insisted that a separate service devoted to the ultimate high ground would be the only way to foster the ethos required for warfighting in space. But if our military personnel operating in exotic domains need their own services to achieve success in battle, where would the surfeit of new services end? Wouldn’t the Navy’s submariners need an independent and distinct Submarine Force? And how about a separate Cyber Force for our uniformed techies concerned with the no less vital or boundless cyber domain?

It also strains credulity that adding to the already bloated senior tier at the Pentagon will lead to a more cost-effective and battle-worthy space warfare unit. For perspective, it should be noted that during World War II, the Joint Chiefs of Staff was convened as a bare-bones and nimble group of generals and flag officers. Emulating the British template, it consisted of the heads of the land, sea, and air forces — Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Marshall, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Ernest King and Commander of the Army Air Forces Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold. President Franklin Roosevelt added his special military adviser, Admi. William Leahy, bringing the total number of uniformed leaders around the table to four.

In subsequent years, congressional mandates led to the three traditional service chiefs being joined on the Joint Chiefs of Staff by a chairman, a vice chairman, the Marine Corps commandant and the chief of the National Guard Bureau. As called for in the recently adopted legislation, a year from now the head of the Space Force, known as the Chief of Space Operations, will get a seat at the Joint Chiefs’ table, expanding the number of members from seven to eight. Thus, under some perverse logic the peak of our military pyramid will have doubled since World War II despite the fact that 16 million Americans were in uniform then versus about 2.1 million now. While touting the virtues of thinking and moving quickly in an era marked by rapid change, today’s military leadership is set to become even more unwieldy with greater risk of being bogged down in its own burgeoning committee-style labyrinth

The chorus of sycophancy

Military personnel are supposed to follow orders and in the American system it is the duly elected civilian leaders who are in charge. Obedience is a necessary aspect of daily life in the military, and service members are encouraged to take on new assignments with gusto. That’s as it should be in normal times. But when orders stem from misguided policy promulgated by a leader who doesn’t bother to consult senior military officials ahead of time and who has the habit of putting his personal and political fortunes above everything else, pliancy in the ranks can have counterproductive and harmful consequences. In this case, the White House’s full-court press triggered an echo chamber among pawn-like Republicans anxious to avoid being targeted by a Trump twitterstorm. As passage of the legislation increasingly looked to be assured, the generals fell in line, providing public endorsements of the new service they had not asked for.

The chorus of sycophancy culminated in nods from the administration’s latest round of civilian higher-ups at the Pentagon. Current Defense Secretary Mark Esper smiled broadly at the signing ceremony and issued a statement completely contrary to former Secretary Mattis’ original position a few years before. Referring to the establishment of the Space Force, Secretary Esper said it is “a strategic imperative.” At the same time, in an equally glaring reversal of former Secretary Wilson’s original position, newly sworn-in Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett, either naively or gratuitously, went so far as to call the new service “agile” and “lean.”

The country will have to fix this. Hopefully, the next president will consult with Congress and military leaders before announcing his or her decision on how to unravel the ostentatious farce engendered by an ill-advised, impulsive and grandstanding predecessor. The parties should work together and seize the opportunity to implement an overdue top-down reorganization of the Defense Department aimed at reinvigorating its warfighting essence to include paring the swollen Joint Chiefs of Staff to its original number of members. In the process the Space Force should revert to its earlier, more sensible iteration. The Air Force should be reconstituted (or, if you like, rebranded) as the Aerospace Force, which is what should have been done in any event as the genuinely bold way to acknowledge the equal importance of the air and space domains.

The Aerospace Force should have a streamlined structure in which a single Chief of Staff oversees those two naturally dovetailing domains. A newly energized Space Command within the Aerospace Force should be designated the permanent executive agent of U.S. Space Command. With the revised structure, all the services will be able to support each other’s space activities as co-partners. Most importantly, the urgent matter of space doctrine can at long last be addressed.

America’s space warfighters deserve to operate within the most conducive framework and amid an aura that promotes an esprit de corps. But, ultimately, where the space warfare unit fits in an organization chart and what name it goes by are secondary to the sense of purpose, depth of character, managerial skill, forward thinking and vitalizing spirit of the warriors charged with defeating our enemies far above the horizon. If our airmen, or more accurately our uniformed aerospace professionals, fall short of these criteria because of the inept tinkering of civilian leaders or because of the degradation of the parent service’s core values, it will not matter how their unit is organized or what it is called.

It bears remembering that some of the nation’s greatest glories in the sky were achieved during World War II when the Air Force’s precursor, the Army Air Forces, was not an independent branch but an appendage of the Army.


Philip Handleman is a longtime pilot and aviation author whose latest book, Soaring to Glory, describes the challenges of an Army Air Forces fighter pilot. He testified before the National Commission on the Structure of the Air Force in 2013 and campaigned to preclude retirement of the A-10.

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 20, 2020 issue of SpaceNews magazine.