WASHINGTON — When the window for applications opens May 1, more than 7,000 enlisted airmen and officers will be asked to volunteer to give up their commission in the Air Force and transfer to the U.S. Space Force.
Lt. Gen. David Thompson, vice commander of the Space Force, said he expects a majority of those eligible to transfer will do so, and he is seeing great enthusiasm in the ranks about the opportunity to serve in the newest branch of the military.
“We’re beginning the next phase of activities to really build out the Space Force,” Thompson said April 23 during a SpaceNews online event.
Currently about 16,000 military and civilians from the former U.S. Air Force Space Command are assigned to the Space Force. The space branch today has only 88 members who were officially sworn in: Chief of Space Operations Gen. John Raymond, the senior enlisted advisor Chief Master Sgt. Roger Towberman and 86 new graduates from the U.S. Air Force Academy.
Airmen who volunteer to transfer and are accepted will be re-enlisted or re-commissioned starting this fall.
All current Air Force officers and enlisted members in space career fields will be eligible to transfer. The Space Force also wants to bring in airmen who work in intelligence, cyberspace operations, engineering and acquisition. Thompson said he predicts more people will apply for those jobs than there are openings so the selection process will be competitive.
“We’ll create a board process to review applications,” said Thompson. “By the time we’re done with that we’ll have more than 7,000 people.”
For now there are no plans to invite members of the Army or the Navy, even though these services have a large population of space experts.
Thompson said there is a “general authority for members of the services to cross commission.” That is an existing authority and “nothing would prevent folks from using that today,” he said.
But the Space Force will not “actively engage with the Army and the Navy” until a process is developed to figure out who will be eligible, said Thompson. “A lot of decisions have not been made yet.”
Brian Weeden, director of program planning at the Secure World Foundation, said during a panel discussion after Thompson’s remarks that the issue of whether Army space operators should be part of the Space Force is a “real question.”
The Army has a large contingent of space experts “who help the Army understand how to use space capabilities like imagery, satellite communications, positioning, navigation and timing,” Weeden said.
The question is whether Army space operators should be soldiers who learn about space or Space Force people who learn how the Army works. “There’s pro’s and con’s to both,” said Weeden. “There’s no clear answer. It’s part of what has to get sorted out.”
Thompson said the Space Force is working on a proposal on how to align multiple acquisition organizations involved in space acquisitions. He said he has heard complaints from defense contractors that they would like to work with a single organization that oversees all space acquisitions.
Within the Space Force, there is the Space and Missile Systems Center and the Space Rapid Capabilities Office. Outside the Space Force, the Space Development Agency, the Missile Defense Agency and the National Reconnaissance Office also oversee space acquisitions programs.
There are no plans to integrate the NRO with the Space Force. But the Space Force is developing a plan to realign SMC, RCO, SDA and MDA, said Thompson.
“It’s our responsibility to bring forward to the secretary of defense a proposal for how the acquisition functions and organizations that are space related should be aligned, under what authorities, and how they should operate,” he said. “We are definitely engaged in developing that proposal.” One of the questions to be answered is which organizations need to work together or independently.”
A separate proposal was developed and will be sent to Congress to change the acquisition process for Space Force programs. Thompson said he could not discuss details. Raymond has said previously that the Space Force needs new authorities to manage and fund programs so they can move faster than traditional Air Force programs.
J.V. Venable, a defense policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, said it is unrealistic for the Space Force to expect Congress will support an acquisition process for space that would be dramatically different from the Air Force’s process.
“They’re going to dance around this for a while,” Venable said during the panel discussion.
“This is like one person riding two dolphins at Sea World,” he said. The Air Force and the Space Force “answer the same mail.” There will be office changes and name changes, but Venable said he is skeptical that any drastic changes will be made to the acquisition process.