BOSTON — The report that laid the groundwork in 2001 for much of the Pentagon’s current management approach to space had raised the possibility of taking space out of the U.S. Air Force in the future, but senior military space leaders do not see such a change on the horizon.
Gen. Kevin Chilton, commander of Air Force Space Command, told reporters recently that he feels that the service has been an effective steward for space and should retain it as part of its portfolio. However, Chilton said the attention devoted to space could increase significantly in the years to come.
“We are an air and space force today,” Chilton said during a September 26 roundtable discussion at the Air Force Association’s Air & Space Conference 2006. “And as you look into the future, we can see a day where we’ll be a space and air force.”
Some space advocates had expected the Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organization to recommend creation of a space force or space corps. The commission, which was headed by Donald Rumsfeld until his nomination in December 2000 to serve again as secretary of defense, issued recommendations in January 2001 that stopped short of doing so, stating that revamping the Air Force’s space management structure was the most effective near-term option.
For the “mid term,” the commission suggested that a space corps within the Air Force, similar to the relationship of the Navy and the Marines Corps, might be appropriate, and a separate military department for space might be the best long-term option.
Howell Estes, a retired Air Force general who served on the commission, said that the time may be ripe for making changes along those lines. Estes, who served as commander in chief of U.S. Space Command before retiring from the military in 1998, said that by assigning the undersecretary of the Air Force to oversee space work, and aligning various Air Force organizations that handled space issues under a four-star general at Air Force Space Command, the commission was laying the groundwork for a smooth transition towards the creation of a new organization like a space corps.
Estes said there are parallels today between the Air Force’s approach to space, and the Army’s handling of aircraft prior to the creation of the Air Force. Air Force officials today see space primarily as an element supporting terrestrial options, just as the Army had viewed aircraft as supporting ground operations, Estes said.
A separate organization might help ensure that space does not continue to trail behind aircraft in priority within the Air Force, Estes said. In viewing space primarily as a support function, the Air Force is using the space realm too narrowly, and also is neglecting to properly protect its satellite fleet, he said.
While Air Force leaders today talk about the importance of protecting U.S. satellites during speeches, just as their predecessors had done for a long time, they have yet to take action to defend those assets, Estes said.
During his roundtable discussion with reporters, Chilton said that space does not suffer from a lack of focus within the Air Force. Capabilities delivered from the air today are “probably more dominant than space,” but space is crucial to air, sea and land power, he said.
The Air Force’s current approach to space ensures that the service does not draw boundaries between thinking on satellites and aircraft, Chilton said.
“If you think about how you employ airpower, at the same time the thought process applies to people who think about how you do space,” Chilton said. “So our air and space force today, I think, is the right way to go and will be for many, many years to come.”
Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, said during a recent interview that creating a separate space service likely would be prohibitively expensive for the Pentagon.
Recent steps like the creation of a Joint Functional Component Command for Space, which features an Air Force major general who is expected to be promoted to a third star in the near future, might help to counter perceptions that space has lagged in priority within the military, Cartwright said. Other steps that should be given a chance before the military makes a major change in its organizational approach to space include Strategic Command’s efforts to better coordinate space work with the National Reconnaissance Office and NASA, he said.
Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute, a think tank based in Arlington, Va., agreed with Cartwright’s sentiment that creating a separate service for space would be too expensive.
While space is a crucial aspect of military power, it is too low on the Pentagon’s priority list to expect it to create a new space organization in the foreseeable future, Thompson said. Creating and maintaining new services and organizations is so expensive that it is worth questioning whether the Pentagon has received sufficient return on investment with the Air Force and Marine Corps, Thompson said.