WASHINGTON — A decision to form a Space Corps as a separate military department is on hold pending an independent study that is now under way. Meanwhile, another legislative push is ramping up to give space forces more autonomy than they currently have under the U.S. Air Force.

The House Armed Services Committee Strategic Forces subcommittee in its markup of the Fiscal Year 2019 National Defense Authorization Act directs the establishment of a “subordinate unified command for space” under U.S. Strategic Command. This command would be “responsible for joint space warfighting operations.”

Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) said a sub-unified command for space “will further normalize joint space warfighting operations across all services.”

This is the same provision that was inserted into last year’s NDAA but was removed in 11th hour negotiations. “I’m not surprised that they included this in the bill again,” said Todd Harrison, director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“Establishing U.S. Space Command as a sub-unified command elevates space operations on par with Cyber Command, which is something the HASC has been advocating,” Harrison told SpaceNews.

Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy Doug Loverro said lawmakers “still view this as something that has to get done.”

Loverro, who has advised Rogers on space issues for the past two years, said the desire to create a sub-unified command has been there for some time although the debate last year was overshadowed by the Space Corps language.

“The whole point is to get joint warfighting in space,” Loverro told SpaceNews. “In my mind it’s a good thing.”

A push for joint space warfighting was the reason Gen. Jay Raymond, commander of Air Force Space Command last year was made “Joint Force Space Component Commander” under U.S. Strategic Command, led by Gen. John Hyten.

Raymond in December became dual-hatted as both commander of Air Force Space Command and Joint Forces Space Component Commander. As commander of Air Force Space Command he reports through Air Force channels and as the Joint Force Space Component Commander he reports through operational channels to Hyten.

In the dual role, Raymond is responsible for organizing, training and equipping Air Force space forces and executing operational command and control of joint space forces. This is a similar structure to other combatant commands such as U.S. Central Command, where there is an air component commander, land component commander, and maritime component commander responsible for operations and assigned forces in each of those domains.

The FY-19 NDAA language goes further by creating a whole new organization, likely to be named U.S. Space Command, within Strategic Command, following the same model as U.S. Cyber Command. “It started out as just another joint forces component commander for cyber. Then it went to cyber sub-unified command. Now it’s a unified command,” Loverro said. “This is the natural evolution of this.”

What distinguishes a sub-unified command from a joint force component commander? It is a significant distinction, Loverro explained. “A sub-unified command is in charge of plotting strategy for the domain, whereas under the joint forces component commander rubric, the strategy portion is still owned  by STRATCOM.”

U.S. Strategic Command today “has too many things to do to spend time adequately plotting strategy for space warfighting,” said Loverro. “A sub-unified command would free up STRATCOM and allow a more space-focused look at strategy.”

Raymond conceivably could be put in charge of U.S. Space Command. “That’s a decision that somebody has to make,” said Loverro. “They could organize it under General Raymond. They could organize it as a joint unified command and put Raymond as dual-hatted or they could put somebody else,” he said. “If it became a unified command they would probably get a separate leader.”

Opponents will argue that creating a new command will add unnecessary overhead. Loverro doesn’t buy it. “A sub-unified command doesn’t bring that much extra burden,” he said. “Building bureaucracy is a choice you can make,” said Loverro. “You can choose to make a sub-unified command with very little bureaucracy. It’s about how you choose to put it together.”

HASC Chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) has been pushing the Pentagon to cut excess overhead, so this could become an issue in the Space Command debate. Loverro pointed out that Thornberry has been in favor of giving space forces more autonomy. “Whether he’ll agree with this is still up in the air.”

New numbered Air Force

In the FY-19 NDAA, Rogers also is calling for the establishment of a new numbered air force, responsible for carrying out space warfighting operations.

The 14th Air Force at Vandenberg Air Force Base now oversees all the space wings. A new numbered Air Force may not be a drastic departure. This language is more about the subcommittee attempting to do something to promote the development of space forces within the Air Force, said Loverro. “Rogers is trying to wall off a separate section of the Air Force that wants to build a corps of individuals who think and breathe space,” Loverro said. “Even the leaders of the Air Force know that we need a new way to raise space personnel.”

Although the Space Corps argument has not been settled, these new proposals in the NDAA show that lawmakers are “trying to wall off space within the Air Force. They are trying to make space ‘special’ within the Air Force,” said Loverro.

U.S. Strategic Command spokesman Maj. Brian Maguire said the subcommittee mark to establish a sub-unified command for space would mirror the current structure of U.S. Cyber Command. “Until U.S. Cyber Command becomes a combatant command, they are a sub-unified command under U.S. Strategic Command,” Maguire said in a statement to SpaceNews.

“Joint Publication 1, Doctrine for the Armed Forces of the United States, states that when authorized by the Secretary of Defense, the commanders of unified combatant commands may establish subordinate unified commands (also called sub-unified commands) to conduct operations on a continuing basis,” Maguire noted. “A subordinate unified command — such as United States Forces Korea — may be established on a geographical area or functional basis.”

Loverro does not expect the Air Force or the office of the secretary of defense to resist a congressional push to reorganize Space Command if the language is adopted by the full committee. “Last year the Air Force made a mistake by trying to oppose the HASC legislation by appealing to the Senate Armed Services Committee,” he said. “I think the Air Force is wise enough this year to figure out how to negotiate with the HASC and figure out what is the right step. I think the secretary and the chief of staff know that things need to get done. I think they want to get it done.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...