Was there a man dismayed?
Not though the soldier knew
Someone had blundered.
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.
— Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “Charge of the Light Brigade”
The national security press is making a big to-do over the fact that many of the top Pentagon brass, including Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Paul Selva, cannot bring themselves to give a full-throated endorsement of the president’s call for, and orders to begin planning for, a Space Force. They’re moving out and drawing fire, as we say, following their orders. Forgive me if I don’t lose any sleep over their perceived level of enthusiasm.
A tale of two press conferences
Mattis is out of town for the week, on a trip across South America. During the flight on Sunday, he was asked about his views on the idea. He gave a thorough answer, stating that since the earliest days of the administration, there have been discussions “on how do we organize for space?” He stated that his earlier opposition “was not going against setting up a Space Force,” but instead, “what I was against was rushing to do that before we define those problems.”
When another reporter tried to get him to answer “yes” or “no,” the best he would give them was, “We’re in favor of warfighting capability organized along the lines of what the president has laid out.”
In a media roundtable after the vice president’s Pentagon speech last week, Selva said that “It’s our obligation to deliver [the president] a set of legislative proposals that make some sense,” on how best to organize a new space force. He added that “I wear this uniform, he’s the commander in chief, he’s asked us to do it, we’re going to do it.” That has tongues wagging that he’s not on board.
When after reading the whole transcript, I don’t see it as nearly the hedge that others do. Selva is choosing his words carefully, but there really was nothing that indicated he was about to be a foot-dragger on the idea.
Organizing around the domain
Way back in the olden days, there were only two warfighting domains: land and sea. There were two cabinet-level departments, the War Department and the Navy Department, to organize the armed forces. With the addition of the air domain shortly after the invention of the aircraft, thoughts began to change. It took a long time, but the National Security Act of 1947 cemented the concept of organizing by domain.
The Act renamed the “Department of War” the “Department of the Army,” detached the Army Air Corps to create the Department of the Air Force, and subordinated all three to a single cabinet-level Secretary of Defense. The “National Military Establishment” was renamed the “Department of Defense” two years later.
We are now faced with the necessity of organizing around a fourth domain.
Russia and China: Why We Need a Space Force
Any doubts of whether space is a physical warfighting domain should have ended on Jan. 11, 2007, when China successfully destroyed a Fengyun weather satellite in polar orbit.
The U.S. had been conducting anti-satellite tests since at least 1963, when a Nike-Zeus missile launched from the Kwajalein Atoll successfully passed close enough to an orbiting rocket stage that the engineers were confident it was “well within what was expected to be the lethal range of the Zeus nuclear warhead.” And on Sept. 13, 1985, an American F-15 Eagle fighter launched an ASM-135 ASAT anti-satellite missile that successfully destroyed a failing scientific satellite.
That remained the only successful intercept of an orbiting satellite until the Chinese test. I’ve told everyone who will listen, and a few who wouldn’t: learn to read a paper map. Because without serious attention to defending our military and commercial satellite constellations, in a future conflict, your GPS will be inoperable. The 30 satellites that enable it will have been reduced to rubble.
I guarantee you they are already programmed into Chinese, and probably Russian fire control systems.
Confronting the threats In Space
Perhaps the services can meet this threat on their own. But the threat is real enough to justify a concentrated effort. That’s exactly what Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan explained when he said, “Space force is about concentrating resources so we can go faster.”
On Monday, President Donald Trump signed the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019 in a ceremony at Fort Drum, N.Y. The bill required the DOD to establish a sub-unified command for space, under the U.S. Strategic Command, which is responsible for the nation’s nuclear forces. The president’s decision to establish a unified combatant command takes that direction one step further.
It “Provides a four star who is responsible and accountable for tactics, techniques, procedures, training, and management of forces and will have a voice in requirements very much like the Special Operations Command model.” That’s a fair start. And as I’ve argued before, it’s a hedge against congressional inaction.
There’s no guarantee that Congress will approve the creation of a sixth service. But if it does not, the COCOM will still exist, continuing to lead the military’s space efforts. Something tells me the administration, and the nation’s military leadership, can live with that.