Why the United States needs a Space Force
The president got it right. We need a Space Force. Space is too critical for the nation’s defense not to have an organization that speaks for its importance, defends it against all comers, and jealously advocates for new missions and new responsibilities. Space is too crucial to national security to be stalled by a lack of focus and an unwillingness to respond until pushed.
President Trump on June 18 ordered the Pentagon to create a separate military service to focus on national security space. Outside a cohort of people who have worked this issue for many years, the announcement was met with a different mixture of reactions — Star Wars humor, political derision and interservice sarcasm. The reactions reveal a broad misunderstanding of what a Space Force would do or what it would look like.
The most common critique was that the president had suddenly militarized space. He hadn’t. That process began decades ago under President Eisenhower.
In the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958, President Eisenhower and the Congress created NASA to control all U.S. space activities except those “peculiar to or primarily associated with the development of weapons, military space operations, or the defense of the United States.” That military job was handed to the Department of Defense. That same year, DoD created the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA then, Defense ARPA or DARPA now) specifically to prevent the kind of technological surprise that Sputnik represented. ARPA quickly became the lead for all military space activities. While work actually took place in the Army, Navy, and Air Force, ARPA guided it; and over the next decade, just about every military mission we do today in space was birthed and tested.
While in a classic sense many of those missions did not appear to be military weapons, they quickly became an integral part of the way the U.S. planned to execute war, specifically nuclear war. And in the nation’s first space policy, National Security Council Planning Board memo 5814, Eisenhower envisioned that “The effective use of outer space…will enhance [our] military capabilities.
Military uses of outer space would include anti-ballistic missiles; communications, weather and navigation; defensive outer space vehicles; and even bombardment from space. Space has been militarized from the very beginning. And that’s a good thing. Over the decades, those military space missions have saved tens of thousands of American, allied, and non-combatant lives, led to dramatic decreases in collateral damage, and allowed the U.S. and others to provide swift and timely responses to humanitarian needs and security crises worldwide.
Many of the president’s detractors pointed out, incorrectly, that the Outer Space Treaty reserves space for only peaceful purposes, but that’s just not true. It is true that the treaty specifically restricts the Moon or other celestial bodies for peaceful purposes, but it was intentionally silent with regards to outer space — simply because the two major signatories, the United States and the Soviet Union, were already using space for military applications and planned to continue to do so into the future.
But these points don’t really answer the questions on the minds of most Americans, “Why do we need a Space Force? Doesn’t the Air Force already do this job? Isn’t this just more, new unnecessary bureaucracy?”
In a word, no.
What the president proclaimed was not the beginning of the militarization of space, nor the start of a space arms race, but rather that military professionals who concentrate on space needed their own organization to truly focus their efforts on a singular task — to protect and defend U.S. and allied interests in space and to assure their other service brethren never find themselves lacking the space support they need. To do that would require a career of training, experiences, motivations, and insights, and a mixture of skills and specialties with a focus on space, that can’t be developed within the constraints of the current military branches. To develop the proper culture of space professionals who marry their personal and organizational identity to this domain, and jealously advocate for its advancement, takes more than a loose assemblage of individuals from different career fields who dabble in space during their career, but all too often view space as an assignment rather than as a home.
Lessons from Army Air Corps
This idea, that military space requires an organization of its own to reach its true potential for the nation is not a new concept. It’s the exact same argument made in the 1930s by Army Air Corps leaders as to why the nation required a separate Air Force, one not focused on the business of the Army, but rather, the air defense of the nation. As one of those founding leaders General Frank Andrews, a revered Air Force pioneer for whom Andrews Air Force base is named, wrote:
“I don’t believe any balanced plan to provide the nation with an adequate, effective Air Force… can be obtained…within the War Department [Army]…and without providing an organization, individual to the needs of such an Air Force. Legislation to establish such an organization…will continue to appear until this turbulent and vital problem is satisfactorily solved.”
Andrews knew what any organizational theorist knows, that these twin ideas of “organizational identity” and “jealous advocacy” are the crucial elements in the success of any enterprise.
Organizational identity pushes organizations to defend and define the rationale for their own existence, anytime that existence is threatened or questioned. In the 1860s, when the first U.S. naval vessel was sunk by a new machine called a submarine, the Navy did not retreat from the water; rather it developed a whole new school of undersea warfare. Similarly, when naval relevance was called into question at the end of the Cold War, the Navy discovered that there was an entirely new mission for it to execute — littoral operations.
Jealous advocacy works in a similar fashion to shape and strengthen an institution. Institutions that understand their domain and can see future changes and potential threats, jealously advocate for changes to their mission to stay in the lead. They do so in a bureaucratic struggle for resources and importance. As the role of unmanned aerial vehicles began to grow during operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and services other than the Air Force began to fly them, Air Force leadership made the argument that only they should fly UAVs.
At the end of the day, they lost that fight and other services retained their own UAVs. But the point is the Air Force saw UAV operations as its mission and jealously advocated that position. Just as generations before, early air leaders had jealously advocated for an air service, which became the Air Force. It’s a dynamic at play in every bureaucratic structure and that competition keeps every piece strong.
But these fundamental forces have thus far been absent from space. When the Chinese shot down their own satellite in 2007, both Air Force and non-Air Force leaders throughout the Pentagon could be heard saying that there was no way to defend space, and that we should move to non-space alternatives. The Air Force, in fact, famously initiated a series of exercises labeled “a day without space” so they could figure out how to conduct air operations without space capabilities. How different from the Navy’s submarine experience where the threat was met not by retreat, but by boldly pioneering a new means of warfare.
Space not part of Air Force identity
In fact, in the seven years after the Chinese attack, from 2007 till 2014, the Air Force had yet to even begin to articulate the need to respond, much less begin to change their structure or their budget to do so. It took action from space advocates in the office of the secretary of defense, rather than on the Air Staff, to begin that change.
The Air Force failed to identify space as essential to their identity. A Space Force would have had no such qualms. A Space Force would have used the opportunity of the threat to push even harder and faster to defend U.S. space assets, not engage in a retreat — because if they did not, they would no longer matter.
Similarly, while the Air Force jealously advocates for more and more resources for air operations, and consistently attempts to expand its mission space to engage in new areas of warfare, it consistently tries to shed space missions as unnecessary or unessential.
Such was the case when the Air force failed to craft a future space weather program after the cancellation of their joint effort with NOAA in 2010, famously cancelling the launch of an already built and paid for half billion-dollar weather satellite, DMSP-20. And as the Air Force grudgingly moved to respond to the threats in space they were forced by DoD to address, they adopted a strategy that viewed that move as a zero-sum game. Future reduced capabilities would be provided to the other services in exchange for space defense, coining the term, “warfighter essential requirements” as shorthand for the cuts. A space service would have demanded increased resources and would have promised even more valuable services rather than fewer.
The difference in action and impact is most clearly seen today in the DoD-congressional struggle that is playing out in the field of missile defense. Remarkably, the service least invested in missile defense — that has almost zero dollars or people — is the Air Force, the same force that is supposed to defend the space through which every missile flies. The Congress has been pushing DoD to structure a space-based missile defense sensing system for the last four years. In any sensical world, the service that “owned” space would be arguing strongly for that mission, those needs, and by extension, those resources. They would insist that they owned that mission in the same way that the Air Force insisted it owned UAV operations. Yet, in their actual legislative proposal, the Air Force was silent on the mission, and their internal plans reveal that they would cede that mission to the Missile Defense Agency and use it to reduce the cost of the Air Force’s own future space missile warning system.
Now while it may be true that MDA is the best place for such a system, this reaction is the exact opposite of jealous advocacy and organizational identity. A true space service would fight for that mission and push it more quickly and more aggressively. And the tragedy of this is not that the Air Force gets less money, it’s that the nation gets less missile defense. The internal, messy, lack of identity and advocacy mean things get done more slowly, resources fail to be moved to areas of importance, other nations catch up, and the U.S. lead shrinks.
Space is too vital for the nation to not have a military service devoted to the idea that its singular job is to keep the U.S. in the lead. The Air Force has done a fine job of birthing U.S. space services, but it will take a Space Force to rocket them to the forefront.
Doug Loverro, president of Loverro Consulting, LLC, is the former deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy. He also served in the Air Force and the National Reconnaissance Office and has been a longtime advocate for U.S. space forces.