Op-ed | Not all space capabilities should reside in Space Force
We are approaching a watershed moment in the future of the U.S. Space Force. Will all space systems be consolidated into the new service, or will the other services retain some capabilities and personnel? The 2021 National Defense Authorization Act requires the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the service chiefs to report on the space-related missions and expertise that should remain within each service. The decision that the Joint Chiefs reach in the next year will be as seminal for the future development of military space as any except the actual creation of Space Force.
Space Policy Directive-4, which directed the establishment of the USSF, also directed the consolidation of “existing forces and authorities for military space activities, as appropriate, in order to minimize duplication of effort and eliminate bureaucratic inefficiencies.” The “as appropriate” caveat was inserted because the National Space Council recognized that some space functions might have to remain in the other services. While an understanding has largely been reached that the other services should no longer develop or operate satellites, no similar consensus has been reached on other space capabilities or supporting space personnel, particularly the future of the space control mission.
Space control is an umbrella term for a broad set of warfighting capabilities that are not unique to a single service. It is broadly defined in Joint Publication 3-14 as “operations to ensure freedom of action for the United States and its allies in space and deny an adversary freedom of action in space.” Specifically, space control operations include both offensive and defensive capabilities that create effects in the space domain to support military activities in all domains.
While Space Force should be solely responsible for developing capabilities and systems that operate in space, it should not be the only service responsible for developing systems that create effects in space. As it develops into a mature warfighting domain, the other services will find it necessary to continue to build and integrate space control systems capable of protecting and enabling forces in their respective domains.
The space control missions that should be retained by the other services are most analogous to the air defense mission of the Army. While the Army does not operate aircraft for the purposes of protecting land forces from air attack, it has always retained various air defense systems designed to defend land forces from air threats. Absent its air arm, the Navy also conducts the air defense mission from surface vessels in a manner that another service could not replicate. In the same way that these services have integrated the air defense mission, the space control mission set will still need to be fully integrated into domain-specific platforms and will not be unique to any single service. In sum, while the other services will not operate systems in the space domain, they should not be excluded from creating effects in it.
Unlike the air defense analogy, the space control capabilities that the services need to retain will not be purely defensive. Defensive space control, as currently defined in JP-3-14, is limited to “active and passive measures taken to protect friendly space capabilities from attack, interference, or unintentional hazards.” It does not account for defensive space control actions that may be necessary to protect forces in other domains from adversary space capabilities. The space control capabilities the services need for protection will also have an inherently dual-use nature that will enable multi-domain operations which Space Command will integrate.
The joint integration of space warfighting within Space Command is another reason to retain some joint space control acquisition authorities. In addition to directing the creation of the Space Force, SPD-4 also directed the establishment of U.S. Space Command, noting that the command would perform its mission with “forces provided by the United States Space Force and other United States Armed Forces.” The space capabilities and personnel that the services retain will be the space forces that they will provide to Space Command. If the other services lack any organic space capabilities to present, they would only be nominally represented within Space Command. This lack of joint forces and expertise would create a disconnect between domains, generating the very inter-service issues that the Goldwater-Nichols Act was meant to resolve.
A counterargument to service retention of space control capabilities is that the consolidation of all things space within one service will lead to streamlined acquisition timelines and reduced cost. This is most likely true for the development of satellites and other in-space systems. But it is almost certainly not true when it comes to engineering space capabilities for the unique needs of each service at the user level. Today it is unrealistic to expect the Space Force to budget funds to develop satellite communications terminals designed specifically for the maritime environment. It is just as unrealistic to expect the Space Force to meet all of the Navy’s future sea-based space control needs. There will simply be too many demands on the Space Force budget to expect it to adequately fund all aspects of the space enterprise. Allowing the services to retain space control capabilities will ensure that they can allocate funds proportionate to the threat as they see it from their domain. This spreading of fiscal responsibility will create a healthier Department of Defense wide response to future space threats.
Retaining the space control mission within the other services will necessarily limit the number of space personnel available for transfer to the Space Force. A recent survey of Army Space officers demonstrated that enthusiasm for transfer is high, and if permitted, nearly all of them would transfer. The Army and the Navy will be reluctant to allow their space personnel to transfer en masse to Space Force if they still have a mission within their parent service. Limiting transfers will reduce the positive cultural impact that the mass transfer of non-Air Force space personnel would have on the culture of the new service. Without this infusion of new perspectives, Space Force will find the already difficult task of making a cultural break with the Air Force even more challenging. However, the presence of these skilled and experienced service retained space personnel at Space Command will be a mitigating factor. They will help ensure that a uniquely joint space warfighting culture develops at the combatant command level, where space forces are actually employed. On balance, the loss of the cultural impact that these personnel transfers would have on Space Force is less than the loss that their transfer would have on the integration of joint space warfighting within Space Command in the future.
Space control from within the space domain is a uniquely Space Force mission, but space control from other warfighting domains is not. As the space domain continues to evolve into an active warfighting domain with tactical, operational, and strategic implications across all domains, each service needs to retain the ability to create effects in space from their respective domains to protect their forces and enable multi-domain operations. These future space control capabilities will need to be fully integrated into land, sea, and air platforms and forces in a manner that the USSF will not be able to achieve. The task of fully integrating necessary space control capabilities into their forces is therefore best achieved by the services.
Lt. Col. Brad Townsend, Ph.D., PE, is an Army Space Operations Officer currently assigned to the Joint Staff J-5 Space Policy. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.
This article originally appeared in the Dec. 14, 2020 issue of SpaceNews magazine.