The U.S. military’s youngest branch celebrates its first birthday. The U.S. Space Force, born December 20, 2019, when the White House signed a defense bill authorizing it into existence, is now wrapping up its first 12 months, during which it has developed a whole new command structure, recruited thousands of new service members, and completed its first mission—i.e., the launch of a military communications satellite last March. Defense officials had said that activating the Space Force would be an 18-month process, and that process appears to be on track and likely to hit more key milestones in the year to come.
The military has always had an interest in space. The first U.S. rockets to reach space were military rockets, and the first astronauts were all active-duty service members. And from the 1950s on, military satellites have been providing U.S. forces with critical surveillance and communication links. In 1982, the U.S. Air Force formed the U.S. Air Force Space Command (AFSPC) to oversee space support services, including GPS navigation and the monitoring of ballistic-missiles launches by other nations or forces across the globe, to all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces.
Satellite systems have become more and more integral to military operations in the years since. And some U.S. leaders contended that the job of securing space and protecting U.S. interests in Earth orbit had grown too big for one single Air Force command. They recommended a new, independent military branch capable of focusing exclusively on space. With that in mind, lawmakers crafted language last year in the Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020 calling for funding to convert the AFSPC into this new branch, to be called the U.S. Space Force. This bill went into law last December, and with it, the Space Force emerged.
Progress So Far
The Space Force has around 2,000 personnel as of this month, most of whom are transfers from the Air Force. Defense officials expect it to grow to 16,000 people eventually. Ads for new recruits went out online and on TV last May, featuring young men and women gazing up at a starry sky while a voiceover spoke of space and exploration.
It also has one satellite mission under its belt: In March, it lifted an AEHF-6 military communications satellite into space aboard a United Launch Alliance rocket. Space Force officials are now arranging for a second launch, which will take place in 2021 and will deploy a new satellite to watch for enemy ballistic-missile launches, according to a statement released this month. Lockheed Martin completed the satellite, the SBIRS GEO-5 (SBIRS is short for “Space-based Infrared System”) in October.
A New Structure for a New Force
Any military branch needs a working command structure, and Space Force officials have spent much of this year drawing up theirs. Their new branch will have a total of three commands when they are done:
- Space Operations Command will oversee the day-to-day monitoring, operating, and protecting of spacecraft.
- Space Training and Readiness Command (STARCOM) will be in charge of personnel training and education.
- Space Systems Command will be responsible for designing and acquiring new satellites and other hardware.
Space Operations Command debuted during a ceremony this October. The Space Force set up a “provisional” STARCOM in a ceremony in June. The third command is not far behind: Space Force’s top officer, Chief of Space Operations General John “Jay” Raymond, told reporters on December 15 that plans for the Space Systems Command are “finalized” and that it will spring into action next year.
Other Next Steps
Space Force wasn’t the only new space-oriented military organization to spring into being last year. Independently of Space Force, Pentagon leaders formed the Space Development Agency (SDA) in March 2019 as an agency that would facilitate the development and upgrading of the military’s space-based systems. In its first year, the SDA made plans to deploy a new network of hundreds of satellites capable of helping U.S. forces track their targets and monitor enemy missile launches; these satellites would launch into orbit from 2022 to 2026.
The SDA may yet bring this satellite network to fruition, but it will now do so as part of Space Force. The Pentagon announced that it will merge the SDA into the Space Systems Command between now and October 2022.
Military leaders will consolidate other military space programs into Space Force in the year ahead, Raymond told Air & Space Magazine: “Year Two is all about flexing our muscles as an independent service,” he said.
Space Force also plans to roll out new Space Force uniforms. And eventually—maybe next year, maybe later—the branch will get its own Under Secretary of the Air Force for Space.
Shaking up military command structure is never easy. Nor is creating whole new command structures in the old ones’ place. Pentagon leadership have been undertaking this challenging work over the last 12 months, however, to formulate the new Space Force. They have done so with the hopes that their creation will be what the U.S. military needs to meet the much greater challenges of keeping the United States safe in a 21st century where space is bound to be a critical factor in fighting and winning, or—most important of all—preventing upcoming wars.