Vice President Mike Pence made it official on Thursday: The administration will ask Congress to authorize a sixth military service for the space domain. In the meantime, the Pentagon will work to create an infrastructure around which it will build this new force.
Where will a space force fit among the other service branches?
Speaking to an audience of Department of Defense employees in the Pentagon Auditorium, Pence laid out the case for the new service. Since we created the Air Force as its own service from the Army Air Corps, we have organized our armed forces by warfighting domain, land, sea, and air. The Marine Corps is, in the words of a friend and fellow Army veteran, “the Navy’s army that has its own air force”—an expeditionary force that fights across all three domains.
But new concepts of warfare expand those three traditional warfighting domains to include four additional ones, one physical and three virtual. The three virtual domains are cyber, electronic, and information. The last physical domain is space. While it’s not currently a popular opinion, it makes sense to pull the space-oriented forces from each service to organize around this new domain.
I can almost guarantee that 98 percent of current soldiers could not tell you that the Army has a Space Cadre of more than 2,300 soldiers and civilians supporting space operations, including 285 active duty Space Operations Officers. Space doesn’t get the attention it deserves from any of the existing services. Heck, the Air Force doesn’t pay enough attention to the close air support mission, and it’s been around as long as we’ve had aircraft flying over the battlefield. If space is to get the attention it deserves, a new service is probably necessary.
Calling For Congress to act swiftly
Creating the new force will require changes to Title 10, the portion of U.S. law that governs the armed forces. “Ultimately, Congress must act to establish this new Department which will organize, train, and equip the United States Space Force,” Pence said. He established a goal of achieving this by 2020. This isn’t so far away. Next year’s NDAA will be the Fiscal Year 2020 edition.
The Pentagon sent its report to Congress on the need for a Space Force Thursday afternoon. It was met with at least some bipartisan applause. Republican Rep. Mike Rogers of Alabama, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Strategic Forces advanced the first serious proposal for a space force earlier this year. He and the subcommittee’s ranking Democrat, Rep. Jim Cooper of Tennessee, released a joint statement .
“We have been warning for years of the need to protect our space assets and to develop more capable space systems. We are glad that the Pentagon is finally taking these steps in enhancing our space strength.” The pair added that they “look forward to the establishment of a much-needed independent Space Force, as called for by President Trump.”
That’s not to say that it will be smooth sailing. The House rejected Rogers’s space corps idea this year. But it did so because he hadn’t made a strong enough case for it, and the Pentagon opposed the idea. But it’s not a partisan issue, and now that the Trump administration backs the idea, it has at least a fighting chance.
Combatant Command is the first step to a service HQ
In the mean time, there are steps the administration can take, and Pence laid them out.
Evoking the disaster at Desert One that ultimately led to the creation of the U.S. Special Operations Command, Pence said that the Pentagon will soon create the United States Space Command, a unified combatant command, led by a four-star general and equal to the other combatant commands.
Some questioned the need for a combatant command when a new service headquarters is hypothetically just around the corner. But it makes sense for two reasons: It provides a hedge against congressional uncertainty, and it gets the ball rolling.
I am willing to wager that when (okay, maybe “if”) Congress finally does authorize the creation of a space force, this combatant command will become the force’s headquarters and there will no longer be a need for the COCOM. I became more convinced of this when I read the Pentagon report.
The report said that establishing a space force will be “multi-dimensional and phased.” The first phase is to establish these new organizations. The second phase is for Congress “to combine these components into the sixth branch of the Armed Forces.”
Further supporting my theory is the fact that the current commander of the Air Force’s Space Command will be “dual-hatted” (having responsibility for two organizations) as the U.S. Space Command Commander, but future commanders will be “single-hatted.” I suspect that is because the Air Force will surrender its Space Command infrastructure to the new space force.
Joint warfighting capability, procurement, and oversight
Until such a time as we can start putting service members into Space Force uniforms (just no red shirts, please), the Pentagon will organize the space-focused personnel from each service into a joint Space Operations Force. If nothing else, this will force the space personnel from each service to collaborate more closely, operating much like the nation’s special operations forces do.
A new Space Development Agency “will break free from ineffective and duplicative bureaucratic structures to focus on innovation, experimentation, and forging the technologies of the future.” The hope is that this new agency will be able to procure space-related technology faster than existing acquisition organizations. The report did not specifically state that the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center, which buys most of the military’s space hardware, will transform into the Space Development Agency, but it’s hard believe that won’t be the case.
Finally a new Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Operations will provide civilian oversight of the new enterprise. With the (near) completion of the reorganization of the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics into two separate under secretary offices – research and engineering, and acquisition and sustainment – the department has at least one spare Assistant Secretary of Defense (ASD) slot to devote to this effort.
How this ASD fits into future bureaucratic organization isn’t clear. Congressman Rogers’ proposal was for the space corps to be organized under the secretary of the Air Force the way the Marine Corps is organized under the Secretary of the Navy. It’s very unlikely then that we’ll see a new secretariat, but there must be some new structure to govern the enterprise. Those are some pretty big details left open.
But the fact that there are a lot of decisions to be made (we haven’t even begun to discuss installations) shouldn’t dampen the enthusiasm. It’s easy to make “space cadet” and Star Trek jokes, but space as a warfighting domain is serious business. The space force is an idea whose time has come.