A Space Force for the Future

May 27, 2019

President Trump has spent nearly a year pressing for the creation of an independent Space Force. Over the next few months, Congress must decide how—and whether—to act.

Advocates for a separate Space Force argue that Russia and China already see space as a warfighting domain. “They view space as important to modern warfare and view counter-space capabilities as a means to reduce US and allied military effectiveness,” said the Defense Intelligence Agency in a January report titled Challenges to Security in Space. Both rivals reorganized their militaries in 2015, emphasizing space operations and both have developed space weapons.

Anyone who has watched US military operations over the past 25 years knows how much the American way of war depends on space for situational awareness, communicating, navigating, and precisely putting weapons on target. Today, China and Russia view those largely undefended military space assets as the soft underbelly of our technologically superior force. Iran and North Korea do, too.

Opponents of an independent Space Force counter that splitting out space from the Air Force will disrupt existing synergy, fuel inter-service rivalry, and divert funding and attention from adding capability in favor of building bureaucracy. They note correctly that the administration’s Space Force proposal does nothing to address a US government space enterprise that’s fragmented across 60 civilian and defense agencies, and that the plan does little more than repackage Air Force personnel into a new headquarters with virtually no new people or assets from other organizations.

To see the way forward, it is helpful to look back in history. Airpower had already won a war when the decision to create a single Department of Defense with an independent Navy, Army, and Air Force came about in 1947. In World War I, airmen harnessed nascent aviation technology in the combat arena; in the interwar years, they developed strategies, operational concepts, tactics, and new capabilities. World War II tested those ideas under fire, fueling rapid innovation in both the conceptual and technological realms. Allied forces landed in Normandy on June 6, 1944, and brought an end to the war just 11 months later, fighting through the very same territory that had stalemated rivals in a bloody war of attrition from 1914 through 1918. The difference was airpower. The nuclear strikes against Hiroshima and Nagasaki were even more game-changing.

In other words, having been nurtured and developed since its first tentative uses in WWI, airpower and its role in the American way of war had evolved. By 1947, there was little question that the Air Force did not just deserve to become an independent force—it had to.

By contrast, however, the US today possesses no weapons in space, nor does it have a defined strategy or doctrine for when or how to fight in space. America’s space assets make us more aware and more precise, but they are not the stuff of an independent armed force. Not yet.

In the joint world, Air Force Lt. Gen. David W. Allvin, director of strategy, plans, and policy for the Joint Staff, is leading a critical effort to develop a more integrated way of war for US forces, one that leverages US capabilities in space and cyberspace—and could help define future capabilities not yet in place.

“More than ever before, the world is trans-regional. It’s also all-domain,” Allvin told a Mitchell Institute for Aerospace gathering at AFA headquarters in May. “Anything we contemplate is going to have to be in all domains. We have to integrate that better. It’s critical to have cyber and space integrated into our way of war.”

Yet, today our ability to generate effects in space is less mature than our ability to generate cyber effects—even though we’ve been operating in space for far longer. The United States has been so far ahead in space for so long that it hasn’t had to worry about defending those advantages until recently.

“Now that space is recognized as a warfighting domain,” Allvin said, critical questions must be answered: “What do we protect, what do we want to attack? That’s what I mean by integrating the planning: It’s not just that you have an annex out there, but rather that it becomes part of the planning options to do things that you can’t do in the other domains that might be able to broaden the decision space.”

This will take time. Rather than split space off on its own today and expect a new force to develop all that from scratch while simultaneously maturing as a full-fledged member of the armed services, Congress should think back to the interwar years when airpower was developing inside the Army Air Corps. It is wiser to set the conditions for nurturing today’s capabilities within a cohesive and established ecosystem, so that it can develop the strength and infrastructure to stand on its own in the future.

By redesignating Air Force Space Command as the Air Force Space Corps (reflecting the early history of the Army Air Corps) or the Air Force Space Force (in order to more firmly set the tone for future intent), Congress can establish the groundwork for a future Space Force with the tools and doctrine needed to be successful. Over time, space assets and personnel from the Army, Navy, and National Reconnaissance Office can be integrated into that force, building capacity and capability at the same time as space becomes better integrated into national security plans, policy, and strategy.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office analyzed the costs of creating different kinds of space organizations in a report published in May. Focusing on the incremental management and overhead costs of several different kinds of space organizations, CBO estimated that a new military service would increase DOD’s costs by $820 million to $1.3 billion a year, plus one-time costs of $1.1 billion to $3 billion.

Taking the more incremental approach outlined here would help hold down costs, enabling more rapid investment in military capability as the Joint Staff and others develop the plans and strategy for future military action in space.

This is a common-sense, solution that would nurture success—and avoid the kind of bureaucratic traps that inevitably result from growing too fast.

The administration launched this important and essential debate. Now Congress gets a vote. It should choose a prudent route that poses less risk today and leaves open all options in the future.