As the U.S. Space Force turns four this month, a pair of retired military leaders outline the Space Force's critical need for resources to counter evolving threats and maintain the United State's security interests in an increasingly competitive space environment.
Space is critical to everything we do. The United States has been the dominant player in space for over 40 years, and during this time over 60 nations have been able to use space for their nation’s benefit in a free and open environment, allowing a thriving global commercial space industry to grow. However, this reality is changing with space becoming contested, congested, and competitive. We now have peer and near-peer competitors that do not have the same view on the open and free use of space as the U.S. does, resulting in a competitive new space race, that will have far-reaching effects on the global community. Space is no longer a sanctuary.
The Space Force (USSF) was established in December 2019, with personnel manning levels that were appropriate to what was planned for the service at that time and were constrained by what the U.S. Air Force was already doing, and therefore, currently consists of personnel transferred from other services who were already doing space missions. However, new evolving threats, and the USSF response to these threats, require growth. As documented in the August 2023 Comprehensive Strategy for the Space Force, “the Space Force is focused on validating that a projected end strength of 8,600 uniformed personnel along with approximately 5,000 civilians.” If this increase is enacted, the Space Force would still be the smallest service in the U.S. military, well behind the Coast Guard, the second smallest service, which has approximately 40,000 personnel. We understand that at a time of frugal defense spending, any new requirements should be scrutinized, but we feel that the Space Force’s needs are critical to our national security. Space is integral to the way the United States, our allies, and partners fight wars; space capabilities connect dispersed forces, warn of threats, and allow us to rapidly mass fire on our adversaries at a time and place of our choosing, giving us an asymmetric advantage. The major goal of the USSF is to utilize this “Competitive Endurance” to avoid conflict by using this advantage to deter and allow the free and open use of space both internationally and commercially.
The Space Force was established to rapidly respond to evolving threats from Chinese and Russian systems: anti-satellite weapons, hypersonic missiles, and cyber threats to space systems. The most significant challenge of these threats is that they rapidly evolve, with new, unique systems produced every two to three years. To meet the challenge, the Space Force has developed an impressive array of innovative architectures, which include distributing vulnerable GEO capabilities to LEO and MEO; establishing proliferated architectures; establishing an orbital transport layer; significantly increasing the pace of launches; adding on-orbit and ready-to-launch spare spacecraft; and incorporating commercial capabilities. However, to implement this on a timeline that matches the threat, the Space Force needs the ability to compete, manage the acquisition of, field, and recompete newer systems on a timeline unmatched anywhere else within the DoD. Additionally, they have to launch, operate and battle-manage these exponentially growing constellations, along with managing all of the data they produce, and training people on these ever-evolving capabilities. Finally, as the Major Command support levels transferred to the USSF, the numbers of overhead personnel required to interface with the other services on an equal basis have proven inadequate to handle these new and expanded requirements. This requires additional, dedicated acquisition, contracting, testing, training, and support personnel.
Finally, several other requirements evolved in response to these new and challenging threats. The first was the need for service components within Combatant Commands (COCOMs) other than United States Space Command. The Space Force has an obligation as a service to provide the best military advice to Combatant Commanders as well as exercise control over Space Force assets within COCOMs. The Space Force has activated these service components with required COCOMs by cannibalizing existing resources, exacerbating limitations elsewhere. The second requirement identified after activation was the need for dedicated public affairs, legislative affairs, and other Chief of Space Operations (CSO) support staff. The assumption was made that existing resources could be shared by both the CSO and the Chief of Staff of the Air Force. However, having these personnel support two bosses without additional manning has degraded the support both service chiefs receive.
The Space Force has been meeting its mandate to innovate. New warfighting capabilities have been fielded to face our threats. The Space Force also built the flattest service organizational structure, with only two levels of command between lieutenant colonel-led squadrons and colonel- or brigadier general-led Deltas, and only one level of organization whereas traditional services have four or more intermediate commanders. With this new look at organizing in a digital age, the Space Force’s overall structure is small and rational, with Operations, Acquisition, and Training aligned under single commands. However, the consequence of these new and innovative approaches and architectures is the need to acquire, operate, process and move all of the additional data at speeds heretofore unimagined. This requires proliferated, agile, and responsive support closer to the warfighter.
From space-based reconnaissance to satellite communications, space capabilities allow the United States and its allies to respond anywhere in the world, virtually instantaneously. Our potential adversaries have had 20 years to observe this and are prepared to deny this. In its short history, the USSF has developed a response to counter these threats based on resilience. This is why the Space Force was established. It is time to finish the job and give them the resources they need.
Retired Maj. Gen. Thomas “Tav” Taverney is chairman of the Schriever Chapter of the Air and Space Force Association and was Air Force Space Command vice commander prior to his 2006 retirement after 38 years of service. Retired Col. Stuart Pettis served 29 years as a space operator in the U.S. Air Force, where, among other assignments, he was a member of the Secretary of the Air Force’s Space Force Planning Team.