President Donald Trump on Dec. 20 established the US Space Force as America’s sixth military service, one of the most significant changes in Air Force history and a milestone in America’s exploration and militarization of the cosmos.
The Space Force is the Pentagon’s first branch of the military solely dedicated to organizing, training, and equipping personnel to operate and protect military space assets like GPS satellites. It sits within the Air Force and draws on much of the service’s existing bureaucracy, while aiming to create its own culture and structure to prioritize and tackle space in new ways.
Trump signed the fiscal 2020 National Defense Authorization Act into law the evening of Dec. 20 at JB Andrews, Md. Under that legislation, Air Force Space Command, the USAF organization that provides space experts and systems to military commanders, is transformed into the Space Force.
“The Space Force will help us deter aggression and help us control the ultimate high ground,” Trump said.
Over time, the Space Force will bring the bulk of Defense Department space programs under one roof. Certain entities that also handle space, like the Missile Defense Agency, National Reconnaissance Office, and National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, will continue on as normal. The Space Force is separate from NASA, a civilian agency.
Proponents say a Space Force is a needed step to ensure US dominance in the cosmos as the commercial sector sets its sights on orbit and as other countries improve both their space capabilities and their anti-satellite weaponry. Detractors say it’s unclear how exactly the new service will improve upon what Air Force Space Command already offered.
The Space Force will be comprised of about 16,000 active-duty military personnel and civilian staffers from AFSPC at the outset, Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett told reporters Dec. 20. They will be assigned to the Space Force effective immediately, though the formal transfer process between services requires people to volunteer for and re-enlist in new jobs over the next few months.
About 3,400 officers and 6,200 enlisted members are eligible to join the Space Force, if they so choose. The rest of the service will be comprised of civilians, according to an Air Force official. The remaining 10,000 or so current AFSPC employees, like Numbered Air Force workers and contractors, would stay assigned to the Air Force until further notice.
More people will be added in over time, including space professionals from the Army and Navy, as well as Guardsmen and Reservists, though officials did not pinpoint how large the new service could grow.
Gen. Jay Raymond, head of AFSPC and US Space Command—the combatant command that carries out daily space operations—is the new service’s first boss. He can serve as chief of space operations for a year without needing Senate confirmation. When the White House nominates Raymond’s replacement, that person must go through the Senate vetting process.
After one year, the CSO can join the Joint Chiefs of Staff to help set high-level military policy.
Almost all officer and enlisted space operators will move into the Space Force, Raymond said. Support workers like security forces and lawyers will largely remain with the Air Force. Those in the gray space between, such as acquisition or intelligence staff, may transfer into the Space Force.
DOD will start hiring people into the Space Force on Dec. 23, a second Air Force official who agreed to speak on background said. The new service still needs a pay and promotion structure in place so workers can properly transfer.
Leaders provided vague details about what they plan to accomplish to stand up the Space Force over its first 18 months. The Air Force previously thought it would have a year before it needed to assign airmen to the new service, but under the final legislation, that process starts now.
That shift means planners are changing which milestones they want to hit and when as the service unfolds, according to the Air Force official.
“It begins today,” Raymond told reporters. “We have detailed plans that will continue to evolve, that will be broken up into days, weeks, months, and maybe years ahead. It’s going to take some time to grow this, but we are moving out with due diligence to make sure that we do it right.”
The Air Force will start to make noticeable changes in the coming weeks and months as it converts its Air Force Space Command into the new Space Force. Key USAF space installations across the country will change their names to become something like, for example, Schriever Space Base, Colo., instead of Schriever Air Force Base, Raymond said.
Peterson AFB and Buckley AFB, Colo., Vandenberg AFB, Calif., and Patrick AFB, Fla., are among the bases that would be renamed, he said.
Raymond indicated that the new service will take on a mammoth review of whether and how to reorganize wings, squadrons, and other parts of the organization to better tackle the space mission, free from the constraints of the existing USAF setup.
“I absolutely think we have an opportunity,” Raymond said. “We’re starting from scratch, and there’s not a really good playbook on, how do you stand up a separate service? We haven’t done one of these since 1947, when the Air Force stood up. … We’ve looked at and will continue to look at different organizational constructs to build this force in a way that is consistent with what we need.”
Lawmakers floated the idea for a Space Corps in legislation a few years ago, but the plan stalled. It picked up momentum in the Trump administration amid a slew of military and civilian space initiatives and a renewed push in Congress.
Congressional appropriators gave the Air Force $40 million to create a Space Force in fiscal 2020, about half of what USAF requested. Barrett said they will plot out the phases of development based on the funding they received, noting that even though the pot of money is smaller than expected, it will be spread across a shorter period of time because the 2020 budget is coming three months into the fiscal year.
Barrett added that the Air Force doesn’t have a particular deadline to choose a space acquisition executive, who will oversee the procurement process for those systems as the space counterpart to USAF acquisition boss Will Roper. The Air Force is considering a pool of people who were recommended for the job, she said.
The space acquisition executive is slated to start work in 2022, according to the NDAA. Around the same time, the Pentagon’s new Space Development Agency would move from a high-level office within the Defense Department to sit inside the Space Force.
“This is an exciting time to be in our business,” Raymond said. “America’s leadership in space and [the military, civilian, and commercial] sectors is impacting and resonating across the globe.”