Op-ed | Time to Move ICBM and missile defense units to the Space Force
The Air Force personnel who control land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and the Army personnel who operate national missile defense systems will not be part of the U.S. Space Force.
That is a mistake.
ICBMs are very large rockets, designed to rapidly reach targets many thousands of miles away by transiting space on a ballistic trajectory. They are the same technologies which are used to launch satellites onto orbit. In fact, many of the launchers in use by the space program from its earliest days up unto the present were either retired ICBMS or technology which was directly evolved from them.
Missile defense interceptors, on the other hand, are smaller rockets which deliver an exo-atmospheric “kill vehicle” to near-earth space in order to engage and destroy ICBM warheads outside of the atmosphere. These kill vehicles are technological siblings of direct ascent anti-satellite (ASAT) systems like those currently deployed by potential U.S. adversaries Russia and China.
Both ICBMs and ground-based interceptors are dual-use technologies, which will do their mission in the space locality (near-earth space) occupied by many of the systems conducting other Space Force missions. Both systems are, for all intents and purposes, space warfare systems.
Since mass to orbit (space launch) or mass through ballistic delivery (ICBMs) follows the same physics and space personnel are trained in this domain, it follows that space personnel are already optimized to integrate these missions.
The Space Force will be the lead for developing new rockets to lift satellites into space. As ICBMs and missile defense systems are upgraded or replaced there will be acquisition pressure from Congress for the services to work together to find a common lift vehicle for satellites and nuclear warheads.
Don’t believe it? When the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps all needed a new fighter, the DoD was forced to integrate the acquisition programs to save money. The result is the F-35, arguably a great jet, or really three great jets that in a previous time would have been considered three completely different aircraft. The end result was increased overall costs.
Neither the space lift mission nor the ICBM mission, both somewhat neglected over the last few decades by the Air Force, can afford to be compelled into a joint service compromise where both systems are diminished to ensure conflicting equities are met.
The only way to avoid such a scenario is to place both missions in the Space Force. Placing the ICBM mission in the Space Force disperses the nuclear triad from two services to three. This is important for ensuring that nuclear systems are prioritized. The Air Force currently splits its support between nuclear bombers and ICBMs, tending to favor the aircraft and flight personnel over the missiles and the personnel who operate them, but never really having enough resources to handle both.
By dividing the Air Forces nuclear missions between the two services, there would always be a four-star on the Joint Chiefs of Staff to advocate for each leg of the nuclear triad. Additionally, the ICBM force has a cadre of maintenance specialists who are experts at maintaining rockets, a mission area which by necessity will be growing rapidly within Space Force in the coming decades, as indicated by recent language in the National Defense Authorization Act calling for tactical space launch capabilities.
ICBMs and ground-based missile-defense systems would open the Space Force to criticism that it should not be involved in terrestrial strike missions. But it is going to happen eventually, and not just in the United States.
This does not mean that all future terrestrial strike and defense operations will be nuclear centric, but simply that much of the employment doctrine, technology and thought processes are immediately applicable to other kinds of space warfare including terrestrial attack from orbital platforms.
Certainly, none of this sounds desirable, but it is unavoidable so the nation cannot just ignore it.
Currently most field grade and senior space officers will have some ICBM operations experience owing to the fact that until very recently, the Air Force considered ICBMs a space mission and cross-trained personnel to do both. In another five years, the vast majority of space operators will have had no interaction with a combat system capable of inflicting kinetic damage on an enemy. That is not a desirable knowledge and experience gap for a military organization dedicated to the profession of arms.
Concepts, thought processes and functions such as shot doctrine, target selection or weapons mix are not instantly developed or learned. ICBM and missile defense forces already have these developed and can provide a foundation for the space force.
There is also the issue of ICBM operators within the Air Force. For a long time, these personnel have been treated as second and even third-class citizens by the Air Force. Over the past 30 years they have been bounced from Strategic Air Command to Air Combat Command to Air Force Space Command before ending up in Air Force Global Strike command.
In each of those organizations there was at least one other mission area which was prioritized ahead of ICBMs. In the Space Force, ICBMs could form the foundation of a new major command focused on terrestrial strike capabilities. This would allow proper emphasis and professional development for the personnel assigned.
More importantly, this mission transfer enables deterrence and strike operations from the space domain through an organization dedicated to crafting the doctrine, tactics, techniques and procedures needed to provide a credible space threat to adversaries in peace and war. Likewise, ground-based missile defense forces could be integrated with missile and space warning to form the core of a major command dedicated to terrestrial defense against space threats.
The need to fill joint billets is also an important consideration. The ICBM and missile defense forces would add more than one thousand combat operations officers to the new service at no additional cost to the DoD. Thousands of enlisted combat operations, security forces, and maintenance personnel would need to transfer as well. These personnel will be critical for filling joint billets at regional and functional warfighting commands, organizations that will require Space Force representation to ensure mission success.
Finally, the additional personnel, billets and infrastructure that comes with the Air Force ICBM force and Army missile-defense force strengthens career development within the Space Force. More leadership opportunities, career fields, mission areas and assignment locations enhance the force structure by providing a wider range of experiences to influence service culture and doctrine.
As space warfare operational art develops, it will be vital that any ICBM operation, nuclear or otherwise, be coordinated by space warfighters.
ICBM and space operators currently lack a common frame of reference, even while operating in some of the same geological and astrometric spaces. The service which presents space warfighters is the Space Force, so all military space warfighting specialist should be in the Space Force.
Not only does this approach create synergy but also signals a commitment by the U.S. to deterrence in and out of the space domain.
The military space enterprise is currently in a period of disruptive flux, stemming from the creation of the Space Force, the Space Development Agency and the U.S. Space Command. Now is the time to make this integration. Not doing so is a mistake that U.S. adversaries are watching closely.
John “J.R.” Riordan is a retired Air Force colonel. He previously served on the Senate Armed Services Committee staff where he participated in the establishment of the United States Space Force. Daniel “Sphinx” Dant is a senior director at L3Harris and a retired Air Force colonel and space weapons officer. Timothy “Stepchild” Cox is a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and defense professional with decades of military air and space experience.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors.