A separate “Space Force” is a bad idea…for now anyway

This week CNN reported that President Trump “signaled once again…that he wants to create a new branch of the US military dedicated to fighting in outer space.” Although no one questions the importance of space to military operations, the creation of yet another military branch is a bad idea…for now anyway.

Today, the Air Force (from whose resources most of a new space force branch would come from) is the service with principal responsibility for military space operations. In fact, it serves as the world’s preeminent “air, space and cyberspace” force (bolding added). And most Americans seem rather satisfied with how the Air Force is conducting itself. Polls show that Americans view the Air Force as the “most important branch” of the armed forces, and it’s the service that most Americans would recommend “if a child or grandchild was considering entering the military.

Secretary Wilson

The Air Force is keenly aware of the importance of space. Just recently Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson pointed out that the service is “responsible for 90 percent of America’s military space assets” and explained that the Air Force is “dramatically increasing [its] space budget this year and [it is] developing concepts and capabilities to deter and defeat any adversary who threatens our ability to freely operate in space.”

Does Wilson fully recognize the threat? She insists that ensuring “space continues to be open and accessible to the world and that our systems are secure from attack…is an urgent national priority.”

The Air Force budget request reflects what Wilson says. Space News reported in February that:

The 2019 request is 7.1 percent more than the Air Force sought in last year’s budget [for space]. Over the next five years, the Air Force projects to invest $44.3 billion in space systems — $31.5 billion in research and development, and $12.8 billion in procurement. That would mark an 18 percent increase over the $37.5 billion five-year plan submitted last year.

Rep. Rogers

That apparently isn’t good enough for Representative Mike Rogers (R-AL) who has long championed a separate Space Force (or Corps). He claims that “space has not been able to get the attention it needs, culturally or resource wise” within the Air Force, and wants to “segregate the space professionals” into their own branch.

It’s disconcerting to hear a congressman talk fondly about segregation in the armed forces as military leaders see warfighting effectiveness in exactly the opposite way. Secretary Wilson (who is a vet as Rodgers is not) calls for integration, not segregation. Space News reports her as saying:

We need to integrate and elevate space as part of a joint war fighting force. To me anything that separates space from the joint fight is moving us in the wrong direction,” said Wilson. “I agree with Chairman Rogers that the focus has to be on moving fast and providing capabilities to war fighters. But I don’t think that creating more seams between a space corps and other services helps in that regard.”

For his part, Air Force Chief of Staff General David Goldfein adamantly opposes Roger’s space segregation proposal. Roll Call quoted Goldfein:

“If you’re saying the words ‘separate’ and ‘space’ in the same sentence, I would offer, you’re moving in the wrong direction,” Goldfein said. “That’s why the secretary and I are focused on how we integrate space. . . . Every mission that we perform in the US military is dependent on space. Now is not the time to build seams and segregate and separate — now’s the time to further integrate.”

In fact, it is hard to find any senior military leader with real military experience (and especially those with space experience) who favor the idea. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis plainly opposes it. In a letter last fall he told Congress that he opposed the creation of a Space Force and its “additional organizational layers at a time when we are focused on reducing overhead and integrating joint warfighting efforts.”

The importance of integration is something military found with respect to cyber capabilities. Remember that is wasn’t long ago that we were hearing calls for an independent cyber force. That faded much because there is a realization that integration, not separation optimizes military capabilities. Cyber infuses everything the military does, and if the space advocates are correct, so does space. Accordingly, it just doesn’t make sense to “segregate” and isolate space professionals from the warfighters who need their talents.

Rogers has also proposed a “Space Corps within the Air Force, much as the Marine Corps is a part of the Navy.” However, comparisons with the 184,000 strong Marine Corps simply don’t wash, as a Space Corps would be miniscule in comparison.

Air Force Space Command currently claims to have “[m]ore than 36,000 professionals assigned to 134 locations worldwide,” but as many as of 17,000 those are in 24th Air Force which means they are involved with cyber and communications operations, not space activities. They presumably would not follow (and would not want to follow) into marginalization in some sort of “Space Corps.”

Indeed, a Space Force/Corps could be tiny. Federal News Radio quotes an interview with Doug Loverro, a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy as saying:

“Today, the Air Force Space Corps is made up of 2,000 individuals who are called space operators. They have a specific identification code. There are 2,000 of them, that’s all there ever will be. You can’t build a corps out of that. There are another 3,000 who do space acquisition who are not identified as space warriors, who should be because they have the skills there, they’re distributed between the National Reconnaissance Office and the [Air Force Space Corps] and Missile Systems Center’.”

Thus, a Space Force or Corps would be significantly smaller than even the Coast Guard (42,000 active duty members), the branch that is currently the smallest. Though highly-respected, only 4% of Americans think the Coast Guard is the most important service.

That’s a reality the advocates of a Space Force/Corps ought to think about if they assume having their own branch will automatically give space professionals more prestige.  Given the nature of space operations today, a Space Force/Corps would not have the long tradition or the often very dramatic stories to tell that help sustain the Coast Guard in popular perception. The public can readily see and admire what the Coast Guard does, as its mission can demand high-risk heroics in carrying out disaster relief, search and rescue, and counterdrug operations.

A Space Force/Corps would have none of that.  As important as its mission is, it would not require sending many space operators in harms’ way anytime soon. If Congressman Rogers is worried about “culture,” he should consider how not only the public, but other members of the armed forces might view an entire branch of the military that would virtually never be subject to the kind of physical danger that others in uniform routinely risk. I just don’t think that Americans will view, rightly or wrongly, sitting at a computer console in Colorado as having the same warfighting panache of the other services.

We’ve seen this problem before. The military drone community (even though most actually do deploy forward during their careers) once suffered a lack of respect. However, as it became clear that drone operators were directly involved in killing the enemy on the battlefield in actual combat operations (aided by realistic movie thrillers like Eye in the Sky to feed the public’s perceptions) respect grew to the point where Air Force Academy graduates “hoping to fly remotely piloted aircraft” jumped 47 percent in 2016.  And the popularity of drones generally no doubt added charisma to the force.

But the fact is that it’s unlikely that space operators will be involved in the same sort of direct combat with enemy fighters anytime in the foreseeable future. Space combat, if it does take place anytime soon, will be one machine destroying another. Again, the reality is that space operations are vitally important, but it’s a mistake to think that a Space Force/Corps would automatically earn the same place in America’s affection as the existing branches. I worry that whatever lack of respect space operators currently feel will only be amplified if they are segregated into a separate force with no combat history or tradition to draw upon.

These is also concern about the political signal a separate Space Force/Corps might send to the international community. Sean O’Keefe, who has served as both NASA administrator and as secretary of the Navy, has said that “some people may argue that a space force would “compromise the sanctity of considering space to be off-limits from warfare.” Of course, we know that the U.S. as well as adversaries are expecting conflict in space, but formally establishing a Space Force/Corps could make global publics think the U.S. is more belligerent and aggressive than is necessary. I simply don’t think that’s an image that would be helpful to the U.S. right now.

So what about the future? Sure, the time might come – someday – for a Space Force/Corps of some sort. Defense analyst Todd Harrison says that in “30, 40, 50 years most people agree that we’ll eventually need an independent space service.” But there are a lot of “ifs” involved: if weapons proliferate in space, if warfighting actually occurs there, if people come to live in space in any significant numbers, and much more.

But, yes, the day for a Space Force/Corps may come. After all, General Goldfein said that he believes “we’re going to be fighting from space in a matter of years.” But fighting in space does not necessarily require a separate Space Force/Corps right now. We need to better understand our space needs, and develop our capabilities and strategies before undertaking the bureaucratic burden of building an administratively separate military edifice.

I agree with General Goldfein that for now the Air Force is “the service that must lead joint war fighting in this new contested domain.” Is there work to do? Absolutely. As Goldfein admits:

A broader message is that the Air Force has to understand how to combine air, space and cyber to get the full picture of what is happening in a conflict, he said. Goldfein said the Air Force will have to play catchup as the cyber and space domains increasingly become “contested environments.”

Still, the way to address emerging security challenges in space is not to try to carve out another military fiefdom, but to seek holistic, cross-domain, and cross-service solutions. Further balkanization of the armed forces will only delay getting to where the Nation needs to be with respect to the security challenges of space.

But as we like to say on Lawfire, gather the facts, examine the arguments, and decide for yourself! 


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