WASHINGTON — The Space Force is a separate U.S. military branch but will have to stay “tightly coupled” to the Air Force in order to be successful, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said Jan. 19. 

Kendall, the top civilian leader of both the Air Force and the Space Force, spoke at a Center for a New American Security virtual event. 

Because of its small size, the Space Force needs significant support from the Department of the Air Force to perform its activities, Kendall said.  The Space Force operates the military’s satellite systems and also is responsible to provide space-based services to the Defense Department and allies such as communications, navigation, weather and missile warning. 

When the Space Force was established, officials projected it would have a force of about 16,000 people, and was intentionally created as a lean organization due to congressional concerns about the cost of adding a new military branch. 

The Space Force currently has 13,525 members known as guardians, 50% of whom are military service members, with the other half made up of civilians. The Space Force is tiny compared to the Air Force that has more than 650,000 military personnel. including active duty, Air National Guard and reserve forces. 

Kendall said his office is still reviewing the Space Force organization, its dependence on the Air Force and where it might need additional help, he added. “We are looking at those arrangements. And we’ll be doing some fine tuning and tweaking,” Kendall said. “We want the Space Force to be an independent, separate service. But we also want it to stay as tightly coupled to the Air Force and the Department of the Air Forces as it’s necessary for it to be a success.”

The chief of staff of the Air Force Gen. C.Q. Brown and the chief of space operations Gen. John “Jay” Raymond have worked to “establish a solid relationship between the two services as well as with the secretary,” Kendall said. 

Because space is vital to national security and is a domain of war, the Space Force is “very small terms of numbers of people, but it’s very large in terms of its importance,” Kendall said. “But in order for it to be successful, it’s going to need a lot of support from the Air Force, and also from the department Air Force. So we’re trying to make all those arrangements work as effectively as possible.”

One advantage of being small is that the Space Force can adapt to change more easily that the larger military services, Kendall noted. “So I think they can be a an experimental area or pilot for things that we could broaden and expand to greater scale.” 

For example, the Space Force has a goal of being a “digital service” that uses cutting-edge data analytics and information technology. “I think that’s a worthy goal. And one that the larger department hasn’t really caught up with yet, and hasn’t done as much as it could,” Kendall said. “So there is an attempt to establish a unique culture, but also to keep it tightly coupled to the Air Force as a whole.”

Space Force personnel reforms

One area where the Space Force will seek to depart from tradition is in personnel retention and workforce management, Raymond said Jan. 19 at at a separate event hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

For example, the Space Force is considering giving people more flexibility in pursuing assignments and lateral transfers based on their career goals. “We want to give people opportunities to go to NASA for an assignment, come back, go to industry, and come back.”

As a new service, “we are trying to start with a clean sheet of paper and think very differently,” Raymond said. “If we go into this and just iterate our way down the path and become nothing more than an air force that changes a little bit here and there, we’ve missed a huge opportunity.”

Going through these early steps, he said, “we want to be bold but not reckless.”

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...