The stakes are high for President Trump’s nascent Space Force because a poorly integrated service is a price America cannot afford to pay. This means a careful, thoughtful, conditions-based approach must be followed to assess if and when an autonomous military space organization will provide the best path forward.
All four services will contribute to a Space Force and they won’t be alone. The National Reconnaissance Office, the National Geospatial Agency, the Missile Defense Agency, and elements of others such as NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who are in the business of maintaining space situational awareness and space traffic management functions may all come together.
For lessons in how to avoid creating a service that just ends up being a stovepipe, consider the Air Force’s experience when it became a service in 1947. Even though this occurred over three quarters of a century ago, the broader evaluation points are still valid.
Setting the Conditions
The successful establishment of the United States Air Force in 1947 validated five conditions necessary to justify a new armed service. First, it needed to demonstrate a unique, actionable theory regarding airpower and air warfare to ensure the appropriate linkage between ends, ways, and means. Technology and people are only effective if they are strategically employed to achieve a specific set of aims.
Second, airmen needed to demonstrate that they could produce direct combat effects in and from the air in a useful fashion at a scale equivalent to the other services. Airpower had grown to a level of pragmatic scale where it redefined how the country operated and identified itself. Airpower was also able to fulfill peacetime roles on a mass scale. Finally, airmen were able to argue a convincing case sufficient to win in the political realm. Using these same standards for America’s military space capabilities suggests that a Space Force may not yet meet those conditions.
When it comes to the theory of spacepower — doctrine, strategy, operational concepts, and tactics — there is still much work to be done. For years, space was a technical services-based enterprise. Space operators gathered intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance data, communicated, and enabled navigation through satellites and their associated operating systems.
In many ways, these were like civilian utilities such as water and power—absolutely vital, but very technical in nature and not necessarily involving combat strategy and tactics. That is changing.
With adversaries extending warfighting operations into space, operators from that domain are now expending considerable time and energy considering not just on how to provide technical services, but also on how to project combat power in a contested environment. This is a massive shift in thinking. Given its nascent form, it may be premature to spin the space domain off as a stand-alone entity. More time will be required to develop robust space-based combat principles.
It is also important to assess what actual power projection capabilities exist in and from space. While it has long been technically feasible to fight in and from orbit, this activity was long discouraged by the international community. That is now changing, driven by events such as China’s 2007 kinetic anti-satellite demonstration and associated events. Currently, this type of power projection is very basic. Space-based forces are a long way from contributing to multi-domain combat operations equivalent with land, air, and sea power. This will likely change over time but are very limited today.
While these two significant conditions need more time to mature, three other conditions show positive momentum with respect to space power evolving as an independent organizational entity.
First, the United States long ago transformed into a space power. Satellites are the crucial backbone of everything from Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) navigation to global communication. America is a space nation writ large. Space has critical civilian applications. America’s crucial finance sector could not function without the timing and connectivity provided by space infrastructure; civilian navigation on land, at sea and in the air relies on space assets, as do world-wide communications. Finally, the idea of an independent ‘Space Corps’ or a separate military service (Space Force) has earned some momentum in Congress and with President Trump.
Major building blocks—especially when it comes to the importance of the domain—are firmly in place. Other aspects regarding the intellectual framework and actual warfighting capabilities for a Space Force are still evolving and will require significant time to mature. Advocates for an independent force should consider the wisdom of a longer-term development window. Pushing too far and too fast will create significant risk to our national security space enterprise and broader elements of joint power projection, all of which rely upon space-based services.
For an example of the risks look at airpower in its formative years after World War One. While individuals such US Army Air Service Brig. Gen. Billy Mitchell aggressively championed an independent air service, the foundations of his argument were highly theoretical. Mitchell saw the potential of airpower in ways that were prescient. But, he and his fellow airmen lacked the strategy and technology to transform their theory into reality. Early airplanes had more in common with kites than lethal warfighting machines. The air strategy of the time was woefully underdeveloped to allow airmen to make a concerted difference in war. As one airmen commented at the conclusion of World War I, “The decision to ‘bomb something up there’ might have appealed to one’s sporting blood, [but] it did not work with greatest efficiency against the German fighting machine…”
Nor did airmen’s overreach endear them to the executive branch and Congress. Upon America’s entry into the conflict in 1917, lawmakers appropriated $1,691,854,758 for military aviation activities. Lacking a prudent vision to net significant war-winning power from these resources, America’s first combat airmen failed to net much of consequence from this vast sum. With their credibility in question after this ordeal, they had to spend most of the 1920s and early 1930s making do with World War I-era equipment that was more adept at killing American airmen through performance shortfalls and mechanical unreliability that holding the enemy at risk.
Only through strategic conceptual work and technological achievement did airmen craft an air arm that proved so decisive 20 years later in World War II.
It is important to recognize that independence of early air forces did not ensure military preparedness. The Royal Air Force (RAF) attained its autonomy from the British Army in 1918. When World War II began, the RAF found itself woefully underprepared. Its strategic bombing doctrine was questionable at best and its air defense force was so poorly equipped that it possessed just one Spitfire fighter when Germany occupied Czechoslovakia in 1938. When the Spitfire was pressed into service along with its stablemate, the Hawker Hurricane, two years later during the Battle of Britain, the RAF barely survived. The bottom line is clear: independence in name, but not full-fledged capacity and capability, is a dangerous path.
In looking at America’s present space functions, it is important to make an honest, pragmatic assessment. Do things look too much like America’s air arm in World War I? Military operations in space have fundamentally changed what it means to project power, but as a result of force enhancement not force application. Critical elements like overhead imagery, missile warning, precision navigation and timing, and communications are tools that make combat power projection possible, but they are not direct effectors in their own right. The vision for space-based combat operations is certainly on the horizon, but that is not the same as a fully operational capability. Space operators do not yet possess developed doctrine or a robust set of space strategies, operational principles, and tactics that might enable success across the spectrum of war. No space operator has yet to think past basic provision and operation of space service functions, but they are more like a utility. That is changing today given rapid shifts in the threat environment and technologies. However, perception and vision alone do not satisfy the five conditions outlined above that are necessary with establishing a separate armed service.
The risk in premature independence and segregation of the national space enterprise from the integrated operations currently ensconced in the Air Force could lead to three damaging outcomes. First, the current lack of cohesive spacepower theory will see space assets sub-optimized as they are used in an ad hoc fashion, not one governed by prudently considered operational parameters. This risks a reactionary effect as a response to space strategies of our adversaries. Second, our vital space-based capabilities will be negatively affected as a new space service would be consumed by focusing on the necessary bureaucratic elements that are not focused on warfighting. Third, collaborative linkages between air and space are incredibly important. Segregating space operators from today’s Air Force aerospace enterprise risks undermining the synergy of integrated effects in the third dimension that took decades to develop and that currently provide the US its asymmetric warfighting advantage.
The importance of space operations for joint missions cannot be questioned. Space is behind every mission the armed services execute. Troops on the ground, ships at sea, and airplanes in flight are highly compromised without the functions provided by our nation’s space enterprise. Making our force more joint involves an increasingly critical aspect of warfighting: integration. Service components do not fight on their own. They are deployed in an integrated, collaborative fashion: the essence of ‘jointness.’ It is important to recognize the benefits of co-locating air and space personnel in the Air Force as experts from the two communities engage in a collaborative and integrated fashion.
Advocates for an independent space corps or independent service suggest that housing this mission inside the Air Force robs space of valuable resources and diverts focus from war that includes space. Let’s be clear. This is not an issue of organization; it is an issue of funding.
The Air Force has faced decades’ worth of funding shortfalls that have left a fighter force predominately equipped with aircraft from the Ford, Carter and Reagan Administrations; a bomber inventory of which half predates the Cuban Missile Crisis; tanker forces whose primary aircraft was designed in the early 1950s; and an advanced trainer aircraft that was procured while John F. Kennedy was president.
Given this, funding shortfalls affecting the Air Force’s space force are not unique. It is the result of a broader resource debate that impacts aerospace forces writ large—regardless if they operate inside the atmosphere or outside of it. Given Congress’ role in passing sequestration, accusations regarding budget priorities are especially frustrating. At present, no Air Force mission is getting enough resources to meet the demands of the national security strategy. Standing up a US Space Force will not improve the resource deficiencies a robust space architecture demands. It will likely make the situation worse by burning cash on another bureaucracy.
Integration not segregation
Now, I am not arguing against creation of a Space Force. Its creation is not a question of if, it is a question of when. Now may be premature since two of five critical conditions are not met:
The US military does not have a unique theory of space power and space warfare to ensure the appropriate linkage between ends, ways, and means;
The US military needs the demonstrated capability and capacity to produce direct combat effects in and from space as a co-equal contributor to US military operations.
Looking to the future, it may be important to heed Billy Mitchell’s advice: “We must not prepare for what is going to happen yesterday, but what is going to happen tomorrow, and the day after.” While it may be emotionally satisfying to take dramatic action by establishing an independent armed space force today, the realities suggest that we should focus first on the conditions required to ensure effective space mission execution.
Dave Deptula, a member of the Breaking Defense Board of Contributors, was the principal attack planner for the Operation Desert Storm air campaign; commander of no-fly-zone operations over Iraq in the late 1990s; director of the air campaign over Afghanistan in 2001; and a joint task force commander twice. In each of these, space operations were critical components. He is dean of the Mitchell Institute of Aerospace Studies.
This article was first published by our partner Breaking Defense.