Op-Ed | Who should join the U.S. Space Force?

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Building a military space culture may not require mass transfers of Army, Navy units to the Space Force

The creation of the U.S. Space Force is a historic event, but many years of hard work lie ahead before we know what form the new service will take.

One unanswered question that will shape the new service is whether Army and Navy space capabilities and people should transfer to the Space Force which will be primarily made up of Air Force personnel.

Many have made comparisons to the transfer of whole units of personnel to the Air Force following the National Security Act of 1947, but the best way forward is more nuanced.

After the White House issued a policy directive to stand up a U.S. Space Force — known as SPD-4 — the Department of Defense in a legislative proposal submitted to Congress in March 2019 sought to consolidate most military space activities in the new service. It asked Congress for authorities to transfer personnel from the Army and Navy but Congress said no.

Since then, Congress has asked for more legislative changes to enshrine the Space Force in law. The question for DoD leadership is how to best integrate personnel from sources outside the Air Force to build a new military space culture and streamline space activities.

The answer to this question could be as simple as using existing authorities to transfer volunteers for the Space Force, or as complicated as involuntarily transferring whole units of civilian and military personnel from the Army and Navy, along with equipment, real property, and budget. The latter option could be problematic for the Army and Navy, the biggest users of military space capabilities.

DoD policy makers should consider three important areas as they formulate their recommendations to Congress: multi-domain warfighting, prior space studies, and the impact of emergent technology.

Each military service provides forces centered on core missions and domains. The Space Force was created to focus on defending our interests in outer space. The service-domain focus is important, but it should not come at the expense of each service’s ability to embrace a multi-domain vision.

The former commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command Adm. Harry Harris said multi-domain warfighting “requires all the services to exert influence in non-traditional domains.” He meant that the Army should be able to sink ships, neutralize satellites, shoot down missiles, and hack or jam the enemy’s ability to command and control its forces. Leaders ought to consider how transfers from one service to another would impact our approach to multi-domain operations. Every service must be able to operate across domain boundaries to support their core missions.

The most respected analysis of national security space matters in recent times is the 2001 Rumsfeld Commission. Advocates for the creation of a Space Force have cited this work’s findings and recommendations to justify many of the changes we are seeing today. But an often overlooked unanimous recommendation from this commission was that the Army and the Navy should have a role in establishing space requirements, and should develop and deploy space systems unique to each service.

In the commission’s words, the Army and Navy need “to maintain a cadre of space-qualified officers to represent their interests in space requirements, acquisition and operations.” Senior leaders should consider that even with the creation of a space service, every service will still need to retain space-smart personnel and the ability to use space technology for their own purposes.

Why should we care about service unique satellites? Consider the Global Positioning System, a capability that traces its lineage to a Navy satellite system called Transit. The Navy pioneered satellite navigation to enable submarines to fix their positions after traveling for long periods underwater. When Transit was built, no other service needed a satellite navigation system, and without Transit, it is unlikely the United States would have developed the GPS constellation.

The capabilities used by the Space Force will change rapidly. No one can predict the space technology that the military will need or use in the future. When the Air Force was created, the National Security Act of 1947 and the Key West Agreement moved all aviation assets in the Army to the Air Force. The Air Force was given the mission of supporting the Army’s air transport, reconnaissance, and close air support needs. However, disruptive technology would call that decision into question.

The emergent use of helicopters in the Korean War presented the Army with an opportunity to once again leverage the air domain for reconnaissance, transporting soldiers and providing close air support. After re-building its aviation capability, the Army entrenched the helicopter as an essential tool in ground combat and operates thousands of aircraft today.

The lesson for policy makers is to preserve options and consider the potential impact of technology that could emerge or decline. If new technology enables soldiers on the battlefield to directly access and control satellites, every soldier will become a “space operator.” It may not make sense to transfer people who use satellite data today when space technology is becoming more widespread.

Determining the best way to transfer personnel into the Space Force is not an easy task. DoD will have to balance its drive to change the culture of our current space operators and streamline space activities, with the potential impacts to other military branches that depend on space technology to fight and win.

Multi-domain warfare, prior studies, technology and history should be in the forefront of the conversation. We will need motivated recruits from every branch of the military to bring diverse skills and experiences to shape our newest service and ensure its success. Considering a full range of options beyond block unit transfers will allow DoD to discover the path that makes the most sense.

U.S. Army Maj. Ryan Stephenson is a space operations officer assigned to the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Space Acquisition and Integration. 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.