From left to right: Acting Air Force Secretary Matt Donovan, Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire, NASA Administrator James Bridenstine and Vice President Mike Pence address the National Space Council Aug. 20. Credit: NASA

WASHINGTON — The newly established U.S. Space Command and the National Reconnaissance Office will form a joint command structure for space operations, the acting director of national intelligence Joseph Maguire announced on Tuesday. For the first time, intelligence community assets would be under the operational and tactical control of the military during a conflict if U.S. satellites came under attack.

“I’m pleased to tell you that after months of analysis and deliberations, the intelligence community and the DoD agreed to align U.S. Space Command and the NRO into a new unified defense concept of operations,” Maguire said during a meeting of the National Space Council at the National Air and Space Museum in Chantilly, Virginia.

Maguire said more collaboration between DoD and the NRO is needed to defend space systems from anti-satellite weapons being developed by China and Russia.

Tuesday’s meeting was the sixth of the National Space Council, which is chaired by Vice President Mike Pence.

A space policy directive issued by President Trump in February — which called for the establishment of a U.S. Space Force — also directed the secretary of defense and the director of national intelligence to figure out how the military and the NRO can work together. The administration however did not recommend merging the Space Force and the NRO.

Maguire said that in response to the presidential directive, 14 organizations from DoD and the intelligence community came up with more than 50 suggestions to improve collaboration. The entire list of recommendations was sent to the White House for review.

While the intelligence community opposes a merger of the NRO with the Space Force, it supports the idea of providing operational and tactical support to U.S. Space Command.

The joint command structure will operate out of the National Space Defense Center in Colorado Springs. The NSDC “will become the center of gravity for defending our vital interests in space,” said Maguire. “For the first time it will be a unified structure that fully integrates intelligence community and space defense plans, authorities and capabilities,” he added. “Should conflict extend to space, the NRO will take direction from the commander of U.S. Space Command and execute defensive operations based on a jointly developed playbook and informed by a series of exercises.”

In opening remarks at the NSC meeting, Pence said the formal standup of U.S. Space Command will be Aug. 29 in Colorado Springs. The command’s leader, Gen. John Raymond, was confirmed by the Senate on June 27.

Space Force talks continue

Establishing a new military branch for space remains a high priority for the White House. Pence said the administration is working with Congress on legislative language to create a space service as the sixth branch of the armed forces.

Although both the House and the Senate have passed language in their versions of the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act in support of a space branch, DoD has argued that the proposed language does not provide sufficient authorities to establish a separate branch under the Air Force.

Speaking at the National Space Council meeting, Acting Air Force Secretary Matt Donovan cautioned that legislative provisions proposed in the NDAA “do not provide all the necessary authority to establish a separate service and sixth branch of the armed forces.”

A House and Senate committee to be formed next month will negotiate competing versions of the NDAA.

The House and Senate agree that a new organization is “required to retain American dominance in space and that it will reside within the Department of the Air Force,” said Donovan. But the proposed legislation does not change Title 10 of the U.S. Code to provide the legal authority for a new service to organize, train and equip forces, he said. “The Department is fully engaged with the defense authorizing committees to ensure the final language explicitly includes the United States Space Force as an armed force with necessary authorities in Title 10 and thereby codifying it alongside its sister services.”

Another issue for DoD is that the proposed NDAA provisions create a space service with Air Force personnel and do not allow the transfer of people and programs from other other branches. “This new service will reside within the Department of the Air Force, that does not mean it is solely an Air Force effort,” said Donovan. “To be truly effective the United States Space Force must integrate with larger national security space efforts collaborating across the whole of government.”

Donovan and other Air Force and DoD officials have been in talks with the House and Senate armed services committees. DoD objects to the Senate language that does not establish a sixth branch of the armed forces but instead re-designates Air Force Space Command as the U.S. Space Force. The Air Force also opposes the Senate proposal to create a principal assistant to the secretary of the Air Force for space acquisition and integration, as this would split the current portfolio of the assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition.

The Senate seeks to minimize costs and added bureaucracy, and mandates a one-year transition during which Raymond would serve as commander of the Space Force in addition to being the head of U.S. Space Command. DoD also objects to that provision.

In a new report, the Heritage Foundation agrees with DoD and takes issue with the space force proposals in the 2020 NDAA.

“The main flaw of both bills is their narrow focus on space assets belonging to the Air Force, leaving space organizations outside the Air Force largely untouched,” said the report. “According to the Government Accountability Office, there are 60 stakeholders in space throughout the federal government. Of those, only 12 are under the control of the Air Force. Hopefully, this is just the start of the process and the Space Force is able to incorporate other space organizations in the future,” the Heritage report said. In the upcoming NDAA conference, “the conferees should consider broadening the language describing the organizations subsumed in the space force.”

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...