The unclassified version of the Biden administration’s long-awaited National Defense Strategy released Oct. 27 doesn’t contain any great revelations, but change is there in subtle ways. The language of defense is changing.
“Strategic competition” is out, appearing just once. China as “the pacing threat” is in. So is Russia as an “acute” threat, the terminology seeking to capture the currency and intensity of the threats posed by Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine and its spillover effects in Europe and across global food and energy economy.
“Space domain,” entirely absent in the 2018 document, appears five times. “Integrated” appears 21 times compared to just once in 2018; “joint” 35 times vs. 21; and “resilient” and “resilience” 28 times combined in 2022, nearly triple the 2018 usage.
Focus changes the way we see things.
In Ukraine, SpaceX’s Starlink satellite network has proven crucial to that nation’s resilience under attack by bigger, better-equipped Russian forces. Starlink is every bit as important as U.S.-made HIMARS precision artillery systems. Starlink has kept Ukraine’s command and control, communications, and intelligence operating even in the face of intense cyber attacks. Those videos we see of precision bombing runs over forests in Eastern Ukraine, or HIMARS strikes against Russian forces are made possible by satellite communications.
The Space Force needs the scale and means to assert authority.
No surprise, then, that the NDS mentions threats posed by Russian and Chinese counterspace capabilities four times.
Both China and Russia have proven they can destroy things in space, and neither seems particularly concerned that such acts threaten to turn space into a swirling junkyard of wayward projectiles slinging their way about Earth at 17,000 miles per hour. We can hope for and strive for a rules-based order of international norms to keep space safe and peaceful. But we can’t bet our future on that hope.
Thus, the Space Force enters a very critical period. As it concludes the incubation phase under its founding father, Gen. John “Jay” Raymond, it is launching into its first stage of maturity under the second Chief of Space Operations, Gen. B. Chance Saltzman. Just 53, Saltzman moves up from his role as Deputy CSO for Operations, Cyber, and Nuclear. He is a career operator, Weapons School grad, and former Combined Force Air Component Commander at U.S. Central Command, a planner experienced in both the field and the Pentagon.
He will have to grow the Space Force into a full-fledged military service, while still holding to its entrepreneurial roots and objective: to be a 21st century service component unconstrained by 75 to 250 years of history, tradition, doctrine, and structure. He will also have to articulate for the public—loudly, clearly, and with less constraint—the purpose of an independent Space Force.
Most Americans still don’t understand why we have a Space Force; many don’t realize the service exists. Too much talk about the Global Positioning System and how the Space Force tracks space junk diminishes the message. Those missions could be assigned anyplace.
Given his experience, the CSO is well-armed to make the case for the reasons we have a Space Force, which is about the requirement to be able to operate—fight—from, in, and through space. America didn’t create an Air Force to get troops and gear from Point A to Point B. We don’t have a Navy to ferry people across oceans. These are important warfighting missions—the Army can’t operate without airlift and sealift—but the Air Force’s raison d’etre is to fight in the air, from the air, through the air. Having that capability is key to deterring war in the skies. Having a Space Force is crucial to deterring war in space.
Saltzman inherits the foundational work Raymond did to establish the form and cultural norms of the new service: organizations, ranks, uniforms, the song, and a unique patching ceremony that connects new Guardians to others who have come before them. That means he’s free to focus on next stage projects, especially empowering the Space Force to operate as an equal partner at every level of the defense establishment.
The Space Force needs the scale and means to assert authority. This is not just about money, though that is important. And it’s not about numbers of people. It’s about establishing world-leading expertise. Here we can draw on a lesson from former Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Larry D. Welch. In a recent interview, Welch recalled being a member of the mid-1990s Commission on Roles and Missions of the Armed Forces. The question arose: Did the nation really benefit from establishing an independent Air Force or might it have done just as well had the component remained part of the Army?
The Roles and Missions panel was a cross-service group, with every military service represented, and their conclusion was unequivocable, Welch said. “It would have been a disaster. If you didn’t have a service, a professional corps that was focused on operating in, through, and from that domain, we never would have developed anything like the range of capabilities that now are available—not just to the Air Force—but to the other services.”
That is why we have a Space Force. To achieve that won’t take a whole lot more people than currently planned, about 11,000. But who those people are, and what’s on their shoulders will be key. The Space Force needs more clout. Rank and tenure are real currency in the Pentagon, and without them you are a bit player. As long as the Space Force lacks enough senior officers to match up with the other services in joint meetings and the like, it will be a poor stepsister.
If the Space Force sends a colonel to a meeting of two-star generals, the message is it’s not a serious player. And with too many leaders double, and even triple-hatted and stretched too thin, the Space Force leadership may lack the bandwidth to stay in synch with its sister services. This is not sustainable. The Space Force needs a force structure that looks like its Delta logo, tall and narrow; the Army needs a pyramid that’s wide and squat. These are the structures right for the domains and challenges each service has.
An Army Brigade Combat Team has 4,500 people and is commanded by a colonel. A Navy Carrier Strike Group might have 7,500 people under the command of a one-star rear admiral. The Space Force might have units with a few dozen or maybe a few hundred people headed by a one-star. So be it. That’s what technology and automation can do. Amazon Web Services and Microsoft operate data centers as large as car factories, processing enough data to let whole cities stream Netflix at once, but they employ just dozens in each center. Car factories have more touch labor and employ thousands. But both models make sense for the mission.
Free the Space Force. Give it the maneuver room to build a leadership structure that works.