U.S. Space Force has lifted off, now the journey begins

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A team of U.S. military and civilian defense officials spent most of 2019 drawing up plans to create a Space Force as a new service branch within the Air Force. But it wasn’t until Congress reached a deal in December on the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act that the Space Force went from concept to reality.

Even the planners of the Space Force didn’t know if or when it would happen.

“We honestly didn’t know until mid-December,” said Air Force Maj Gen John Shaw, commander of the U.S. Space Force’s newly created Space Operations Command at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.

“It’s one thing to be thinking ‘this might happen,’” Shaw said Jan. 10. But after President Donald Trump on Dec. 20 signed the NDAA into law, “that’s when it became real.”

As an independent service with Title 10 responsibilities, the Space Force will be responsible to organize, train and equip forces to support operations run by U.S. Space Command or other combatant commands.

The commander of U.S. Space Command, Gen. John “Jay” Raymond, was sworn in Jan. 14 as the first chief of space operations of the U.S. Space Force at a White House ceremony by Vice President Mike Pence.

By creating the Space Force, said Raymond, “the president and Congress have given us a great opportunity to build the force we need to respond to the challenges we face in the space domain.”

It has been 72 years since the United States last created a new military service when the U.S. Air Force was born out of the Army Air Corps.

Having a sixth branch of the military dedicated to space, Raymond said, is “not only historical but it’s critical to our national security and that of our allies.”

“We do not want a conflict to begin or extend into space. We want to deter that conflict from happening. The best way I know how to do that is from a position of strength.” — Gen. John “Jay” Raymond, chief of space operations of the U.S. Space Force. Credit: U.S. Air Force photo by Andy Morataya

Raymond said a key goal of the U.S. Space Force will be to deter a conflict from extending into space. China and Russia have embarked on ambitious programs to develop offensive space control capabilities, which prompted the United States to declare space a warfighting domain. “We want to deter conflict from happening,” he said Dec. 20 at the Pentagon. “The best way I know how to do that is from a position of strength.”

In a Jan. 16 interview with SpaceNews Jan. 16, Raymond said efforts are underway to organize the Space Force staff and field commands. “There is a lot of planning going on,” he said.

Over the next several months, Space Force headquarters will be established at the Pentagon with a staff of 200. Air Force space installations will be renamed Space Force installations. The Space Force’s 2021 budget proposal will go to Congress this winter. Personnel transfer policies will be introduced to allow members of the Air Force to leave the service and take the oath to serve in the Space Force.

The NDAA created a Space Force within the Department of the Air Force, the same way the Marine Corps is a separate service within the Department of the Navy. But Congress set conditions. Out of concern about bureaucratic bloat, Congress established the Space Force by renaming the Air Force Space Command, directing the Defense Department to form the new branch with existing Air Force resources. The Space Force will be by far the smallest of the military services with a projected size of 16,000 people. By comparison the Marine Corps has about 180,000.

Secretary of the Air Force Barbara Barrett said about 16,000 personnel from Air Force Space Command have been assigned to the U.S. Space Force but it remains to be seen how many are actually transferred. The transition will take about 18 months, she said.

For now, the same people who have operated satellites and conducted space activities in the Air Force will continue to do the same job under the Space Force. The Air Force and the Space Force are going to remain closely entwined until the new branch develops its own identity and culture, a shift that will take years.

Over the next year, Congress will demand frequent updates on the status of the Space Force. As early as Feb. 1, Barrett has to deliver a report to the defense committees outlining the organizational structure of the Space Force and projected budgets for the next five years.

The NDAA does not allow DoD to assign Army or Navy units to the Space Force. Barrett said the plan is to eventually bring the other services on board. “Naturally, the Army and Navy will be partners,” she said. The Air Force is also drawing up plans to allow National Guard and Reserve units to serve in the Space Force.

The Army has significant space capabilities. The 1st Space Brigade conducts a wide range of space operations. Sources said the Army will consider allowing the transfer of some portion of its space cadre but will oppose turning over to the Space Force units that support Army combat operations. More likely to be moved to the Space Force is the 53rd Signal Battalion that operates the military’s wideband communications satellite payloads, these sources said.

The Navy’s space cadre primarily operates narrowband communications satellites, teleports and networks. These satellite operators would likely be the only Navy personnel who would move to the Space Force.

Most of the money for the Space Force will be transferred internally from the Air Force’s budget. Congress approved $40 million for Space Force standup costs in fiscal year 2020, far less than the $72.4 million requested by the Trump administration.

In a Dec. 2 memo, Barrett requested funds be transferred from Air Force to Space Force accounts for fiscal year 2020: $9.3 billion for weapons systems and operations, $1.4 billion for weapons system sustainment, $275 million for major command support, $26.3 million for education and training and $95 million for headquarters expenses.

Space Force not a new idea

The debate over the necessity of a separate space service gained impetus in 2001 when the Rumsfeld Commission called for establishing a senior interagency group for space in the National Security Council. The thinking was that the United States needed to be prepared for the possibility that its space assets could be threatened. The commission also recommended that studies be pursued on how to create an independent Space Corps within the Department of the Air Force.

The push for reform took a back seat after the 9/11 attacks. But by 2017, momentum to stand up a separate space service started building when Reps. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) and Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) — the chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the House Armed Services Committee’s strategic forces subcommittee at the time — wrote legislation to create a Space Corps within the Air Force. Their proposal, however, was shot down by the Senate.

Trump seized on the notion of a space service and in June 2018 stunned the Pentagon when during a White House event he asked then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford to create a Space Force. The Pentagon and the Air Force had opposed the Rogers-Cooper bill but had to fall in line after the president issued the order. Although Trump has taken credit for the idea, the Space Force language in the NDAA largely mirrors the Rogers-Cooper proposal. The White House helped considerably by leaning on the Senate to ensure passage of the 2020 NDAA.

About 16,000 Air Force Space Command personnel, such as those who staff the Combined Space Operations Center at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, have bee assigned to the Space Force. Credit: U.S. Space Force photo by Staff Sgt. J.T. Armstrong

John Stopher, space policy adviser to former Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, was involved in the early stages of Space Force planning before he stepped down in July. He gives credit to the Trump administration for backing down from the president’s original demand to create a Department of the Space Force, “separate but equal” to the Air Force. That would have been really costly and would have been difficult to get past Congress, Stopher said. By making it part of the Department of the Air Force, the Space Force doesn’t have to duplicate the overhead and support structure that already exists in the Air Force. Stopher believes that the Space Force eventually will need its own personnel and recruiting centers as it tries to build its own identity.

One of the challenges for the new service will be to figure out how to manage acquisition programs, Stopher said. The NDAA requires the appointment of a Senate-confirmed acquisition executive for the Space Force who would report to the secretary of the Air Force.

“Many of the criticisms of our efforts in space from Congress were related to acquisition performance, which remains a big challenge,” Stopher said. “Unfortunately, there are many examples of poor performance, such as unsynchronized space and ground segment developments, development programs that are unsuccessful and lack of commitments to programs that our sister services depend on, such as weather and GPS upgrades.”

Those problems were cited as justification for taking space out of the Air Force, Stopher said. Now the pressure will fall on the leaders of the Space Force to explain how they will fix those problems.

The NDAA directs that the Space Development Agency, currently under the oversight of the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, be moved to the Space Force by 2022. According to a draft proposal, one of the options being considered is to create a U.S. Space Force Systems Command to absorb the Space and Missile Systems Center, the Space Rapid Capabilities Office and the SDA.

Obstacles ahead for Space Force

Amid the euphoria and enthusiasm about the standup of a new service, it’s easy to forget that the Space Force faces lots of challenges, warned retired Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula, dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.

Deptula worries that the Space Force will struggle from a lack of resources. “The Space Force must succeed because all of the Department of Defense depends on it,” he said. A key concern will be personnel. The standup last year of U.S. Space Command is creating a higher demand for space operators, he said. “Today, there is simply not enough trained space personnel to cover all these additional new military space organizations.”

The intelligence community has pushed back on efforts to merge the National Reconnaissance Office with the Space Force, but Deptula believes that battle should continue to be fought. The Air Force elements within the NRO that directly support satellite operations should transfer to the Space Force, he said. That would help consolidate space expertise in DoD and could enhance training of space personnel.

Some think the Space Force can be done on the cheap because it’s drawing on Air Force resources, said Deptula. “But if you don’t give the Space Force additional resources, it won’t be able to fulfill the vision that was the basis for standing it up in the first place —to increase our capabilities across the space enterprise.”

He suggested Space Force leaders should move quickly to start developing doctrine for space warfighting to help the service build a distinctive identity. Another priority should be to start developing new space technologies and weapons systems to make the Space Force a true warfighting service.

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 20, 2020 issue of SpaceNews magazine.