Lift Off… At Last

Lift Off… At Last

The Long and Winding Journey of the Space Force


Establishing an independent Space Force is the appropriate response to the increasing economic significance and national security threat posed by space as a warfighting domain. After years of bureaucratic procrastination, the Trump Administration has taken tangible steps to securing US interests in space. The most newsworthy of these proposals was to establish a Space Force, which as the sixth branch of the military, would reorganize and build upon existing government space organizations under one military department. However, opposition from Congressman and Air Force officials may derail Space Force prospects of being independent from the Air Force or passing the House at all. However, the arguments made against Space Force are not new. Examining early calls for Space Force and assessing the Air Force’s track record on space shows that a fully independent Space Force would best secure US interests in space.


On June 18, 2018, President Trump announced the Pentagon would begin crafting a Space Force as the sixth branch of the US Armed Forces. In tandem with Space Force, Trump called upon Congress to invest $8 billion into space security systems over the next five years. [1] Two months later on August 9, Vice President Mike Pence released a preliminary Pentagon plan to create Space Force. The Pentagon is currently taking immediate steps to establish a US Space Command, Space Operations Force, and Space Development Agency. However, Space Force will require congressional authorization in accordance with Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution. According to Pence, by the end of 2019 the White House and Congress will hopefully enact the statutory authority (under Title 10 of US Code) for Space Force in the FY 2020 National Defense Authorization Act. [2]


The planned Department of the Space Force subverts sci-fi induced public expectations of futuristic space warfare. Space Force itself will organize, train, and equip forces to accomplish four priorities: (1) protecting the nation’s interests in space and the peaceful use of space for all responsible actors, (2) deterring aggression and defending the nation, (3) protecting U.S. allies and U.S. interests from hostile acts in and from space, and (4) projecting power in, from, and to space in support of the nation’s interests. [3] Currently, space responsibilities are fractured across countless organizations within the government, military, and intelligence community. There are 60 organizations responsible for space acquisitions alone. [4] Overall, tens of thousands of military personnel, civilians, and contractors operate and support government space systems. [1] Space Force would primarily combine Army, Navy, and Air Force space assets, freeing them from subservient, underfunded, and compartmentalized positions. Because Space Force would draw from existing budgets, the reputable Center for Strategic and International Studies estimates it would require only $0.30-$0.55 billion in new funding. [5] Independent and unified, Space Force would be able to focus on satellite warfare, developing space doctrine, training and equipping space officers, and protecting US satellites from Russia and China. [6]


Creating a Space Force would also protect growing commercial interests in space. As affirmed in the 2018 National Space Strategy, the US has a vital interest in ensuring unfettered access to space in order to secure commercial benefits. [7] Space is one of the fastest-growing sectors of the global economy, and is estimated to be worth $640 billion by 2030. [8] Asteroids contain water and minerals like platinum, gold, titanium, iron, and nickel. Scientists estimate a small platinum-rich asteroid could be worth $30 billion if mined. [9] An increasing array of private-sector companies (e.g. SpaceX) are investing in asteroid mining, space tourism, and potential colonies. Much like how the Coast Guard and Navy protects US commercial shipping and international free trade, having a strong US presence in outer space will be vital for free trade in space. [10] Establishing a Space Force would demonstrate that America will lead in space and ensure strategic competitors cannot dominant the domain.
Space Force is necessary to defend the national security of the US. There is credible evidence that Russia and China possess and are developing capabilities to disable US satellites. These capabilities include anti-satellite missiles, laser systems, jamming, ramming vehicles, dazzling, and cyberattacks. [11] When asked if US space warfighting forces were ready to defend against these threats, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy Douglas Loverro testified to Congress that the US is not ready, nor is it on a firm path to be ready. [12] The gravity of this threat can be realized after even a brief survey of US dependence on space-based capabilities. If the US were to lose some of its satellites, communication systems, internet connections, GPS, weather prediction, television signals, transportation, and much more could all be seriously affected. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine sees the need for Space Force in protecting the US energy grid and all banking transactions (which relies on GPS) from going offline. [13] For the military, satellite dependence is even greater: communications, targeting, surveillance, cyberspace, reconnaissance, positioning, navigation, and missile defense all rely on space-based capabilities. [2] 70% of the US Army’s weapons are spaceenabled and every single military operation relies on space-based capabilities. [14] The US military would essentially become blind and immobile if China or Russia disabled US satellites. When asked what the U.S. military would do without space, Gen. John Hyten replied, “What happens is you go back to World War II. You go back to industrial age warfare.” [15]


However, the future of Space Force has been imperiled by partisan politics. Despite the legitimate need for Space Force, its televised announcement was met with controversy. Public discourse has largely focused on President Trump, rather than the compelling drivers behind Space Force. In 2017, Reps. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) and Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) attempted to include legislation that would’ve establish a Space Corps in the Air Force; similar to the Marine Corps being a component of the Navy. Unfortunately, the proposal was met with significant pushback from the Air Force, Pentagon officials, and the Senate, which cut it from the FY 2018 NDAA. [16] Now, Space Force must reattempt passage by the House and Senate when the issue has only become more politically polarizing. Many commentators project that the White House will be unable to win over the House’s Democratic majority. [17] Specifically, the Chair of the House Armed Services Committee— Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.)—has been a vocal critic of Space Force, siding with the Air Force and citing the costly bureaucracy it would create during a time of limited resources. [18]


The Air Force is also largely opposed to the creation of an independent Space Force. Since the Cold War, the military domain of space has primarily been delegated to the Air Force, which has its own internal Space Command. More than 80% of the DoD’s unclassified space funding is typically allocated to the Air Force. [4] Thus, establishing an independent Space Force would take away substantial assets, authority, and prestige from Air Force. While Air Force officials have long criticized the concept of a Space Force, tangible bureaucratic opposition has arisen against recent proposals. Both USAF Secretary Heather Wilson and USAF Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein have spoken out against the creation of a separate Space Force. [19] The Air Force Association, representing around 100,000 members, has come out against Space Force as well. [20] Speaking at a Brookings roundtable on Space Force, former Secretary of the Air Force Deborah James said, “None of them are in favor of a Space Force. I say none of the top leaders, but they’re stuck.” [21] Air Force criticism stems from the belief that the department is capable of handling the domain of space and that a new military branch would create unnecessary bureaucracy.


It remains uncertain whether Space Force will take the form of an independent military department. On November 28, Defense One reported on an October 26 memo from Scott Pace (National Space Council) and Earl Matthews (National Security Council) asking the Pentagon to provide alternate recommendations to an independent Space Force. [22] There appear to be four forms that Space Force could take: (1) a Space Force under the Air Force that utilizes only Air Force space assets, (2) a Space Force under the Department of the Air Force that utilizes Air Force, Army, and Navy space assets, (3) an independent service that utilizes the other three armed services, and (4) and an independent service that utilizes the three other armed services and the Intelligence Community. [23] However, on November 29, Politico indirectly responded to Defense One by reporting on recent a draft presidential directive. The draft affirmed the White House will propose an independent Space Force department to Congress. [24]
The concept of an independent Space Force has been touted for two decades now. In 1998, Senator Bob Smith gave a speech in which he criticized the Air Force for refusing to build “the material, cultural, and organizational foundations of a service dedicated to spacepower.” His conclusion was that “if the Air Force cannot or will not embrace spacepower… we in Congress will have to establish an entirely new service.” [25] Senator Smith enumerated several benefits that an independent Space Force would bring, including: (1) better position for funding, (2) alleviating Air Force’s divided interests, (3) protecting space programs from being cut in favor of popular programs, (4) incentivizing people, through promotion, to develop space skills, and (5) consolidating tasks that require specialized knowledge. [25] In 2001, the Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organization (aka the Rumsfeld Commission) recommended the creation of a Space Corps within the Air Force. However, the Rumsfeld Commission gave a caveat that in the long term it may be necessary to establish a military department for space. The report recognized that a Space Corps would not eliminate competition for resources and that “a Space Department would provide strong advocacy for space and a single organization with the primary mission of providing forces for conducting both military and intelligence space operations.” [26] Since Senator Smith and the Rumsfeld Commission, the necessity of a Space Force has been routinely revisited by individuals such as Air Force Major Richard Moorehead in 2004 and Army Major William Moncri in 2010 to name a few. [27, 28]


Space Force must be established as an independent branch of the military in order to escape the conflicts of interests within the Air Force. Military branches are organized around their primary domain of responsibility. To the Air Force, space is secondary to the domain of air. Todd Harrison, Director of the CSIS Aerospace Security Project and former Captain in the USAF Reserves, says the Air Force uses space to support air warfare rather than conducting and preparing for space warfare. [4] This bureaucratic bias has manifested itself in meager budget allocations, no distinct space career path, slow development of space programs, and failure to preemptively counter growing ASAT threats from China and Russia. [12] As Brian Weeden, a former USAF officer and Chair of the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Space Technologies, summarized, “Let’s put it this way, in 2011 the Obama administration released a national security space strategy that outlined steps to make space forces more resilient and deter attacks. It’s hard to name a specific change or program that was done as a result of that to meet that direction, seven years later.” [19]

In the end, the burden of bureaucracy far outweighs keeping imperative space services within the confines of the Air Force. Army Colonel Kurt Story came to this conclusion in his 2002 Senior Fellowship Research Paper, finding that “a strong space culture independent of the parochialisms of air power appears essential in the formulation of space power which is required to guarantee our nation’s continued superiority in space.” [29] Space Force must be made independent.

  1. Vice President Mike Pence, “Remarks by Vice President Pence on the Future of the U.S. Military in Space,” The White House, 9 August, 2018, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefingsstatements/remarks-vice-president-pence-futureu-s-military-space/.
  2. “Final Report on Organizational and Management Structure for the National Security Space Components of the Department of Defense,” Department of Defense, 9 August, 2018, https:// media.defense.gov/2018/Aug/09/2001952764/-1/ -1/1/ORGANIZATIONAL-MANAGEMENTSTRUCTURE-DOD-NATIONAL-SECURITYSPACE-COMPONENTS.PDF.
  3. Jacqueline Klimas, “Trump going for full-blown Space Force, White House memo reveals,” Politico, 29 November, 2018, www.politico.com/story/2018/11/29/space-forcemilitary-branch-999528.
  4. Todd Harrison, “Why We Need a Space Force,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, October 2018, http:// defense360.csis.org/wp-content/ uploads/2018/10/ Harrison_Endgame_D360_.pdf.
  5. Todd Harrison, “How Much Will the Space Force Cost?,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, November 2018, https://csisprod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/ publication/181119_Harrison_SpaceForce_layout_FINA L.pdf?LlAkboQr_CHUjM6RcscgyV39dlNpX.U.
  6. Dr. Robert Farley, “Is It Time for a Space Force?,” Lawfare, 12 August, 2018, https:// www.lawfareblog.com/it-time-space-force.
  7. President Donald Trump, “President Donald J. Trump is Unveiling an America First National Space Strategy,” The White House, 23 March, 2018, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefingsstatements/president-donald-j-trump-unveilingamerica-first-national-space-strategy/.
  8. James Black, “Our reliance on space tech means we should prepare for the worst,” Defense News, 12 March, 2018, https:// www.defensenews.com/space/2018/03/12/ourreliance-on-space-tech-means-we-shouldprepare-for-the-worst/.
  9. Namrata Goswami, “China in Space: Ambitions and Possible Conflict,” Strategic Studies Quarterly 12, no. 1 (2018): 74-75, http:// www.jstor.org/stable/26333878.
  10. Namrata Goswami, “The US ‘Space Force’ and Its Implications,” The Diplomat, 22 June, 2018, https://thediplomat.com/2018/06/the-usspace-force-and-its-implications/.
  11. Elbridge Colby, “FROM SANCTUARY TO BATTLEFIELD: A Framework for a U.S. Defense and Deterrence Strategy for Space,” Center for a New American Security, January 2016, https:// s3.amazonaws.com/files.cnas.org/documents/ CNAS-Space-Report_16107.pdf.
  12. Douglas Loverro, “Warfighting Readiness: Policies, Authorities, and Capabilities,” House Armed Services Committee, 14 March, 2018, https://docs.house.gov/meetings/AS/ AS00/20180314/107973/HHRG-115-AS00Wstate-LoverroD-20180314.pdf.
  13. John Siciliano, “NASA: Space Force needed to protect energy grid from ‘existential threat’,” Washington Examiner, 26 August, 2018, https:// www.washingtonexaminer.com/policy/energy/ nasa-space-force-needed-to-protect-energy-gridfrom-existential-threat.
  14. “The Army’s Dependence on Space,” U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command, 23 February, 2017, https://www.army.mil/ standto/2017-02-23.
  15. David Martin, “The Battle Above,” 60 Minutes, 26 April, 2016, https:// www.cbsnews.com/news/rare-look-at-spacecommand-satellite-defense-60-minutes/.
  16. Jay Bennett, “Is a Space Force Really the Best Way to Defend Space?,” Popular Mechanics, 22 June, 2018, https:// www.popularmechanics.com/military/ a21729409/us-space-force-orbit/.
  17. Adam Twardowski, “How will the new Congress approach the defense budget?,” Brookings Institution, 28 November, 2018, https:// www.brookings.edu/blog/order-fromchaos/2018/11/28/how-will-the-new-congressapproach-the-defense-budget/.
  18. Joe Gould, “Midterms could crash Trump’s Space Force on the launch pad,” Defense News, 5 November, 2018, https:// www.defensenews.com/congress/2018/11/05/ midterms-could-crash-trumps-space-force-onthe-launch-pad/.
  19. Lara Seligman, “Space Force Is Trump’s Answer to New Russian and Chinese Weapons,” Foreign Policy, 10 August, 2018, https:// foreignpolicy.com/2018/08/10/space-force-istrumps-answer-to-new-russian-and-chineseweapons/.
  20. “Now is not the time for a new Space Force,” Air Force Association, 25 September, 2018, https://www.afa.org/publications-news/ news/2018/09/26/now-is-not-the-time-for-a-newspace-force.
  21. “SPACE FORCE: THE PROS AND CONS OF CREATING A NEW MILITARY BRANCH,” Brookings Institution, 30 July, 2018, https:// www.brookings.edu/wp-content/ uploads/2018/07/ fp_20180730_space_force_transcript.pdf.
  22. Marcus Weisgerber, “White House Seeks Alternatives to Independent Space Force,” Defense One, 28 November, 2018, https:// www.defenseone.com/politics/2018/11/whitehouse-seeks-alternatives-independent-spaceforce/153119/.
  23. Kyle Mizokami, “’Space Force’ May Be Hobbled Before Liftoff,” Popular Mechanics, 29 November, 2018, https:// www.popularmechanics.com/military/ a25350131/space-force-part-of-air-force/.
  24. Jacqueline Klimas, “Trump going for fullblown Space Force, White House memo reveals,” Politico, 29 November, 2018, https:// www.politico.com/story/2018/11/29/space-forcemilitary-branch-999528.
  25. Senator Bob Smith, “THE CHALLENGE OF SPACEPOWER,” USAFA Space Group, 18 November, 1998, http://usafaspace.tripod.com/ other/SenSmith_speech.htm.
  26. “VI. Organizing and Managing for the Future,” Federation of American Scientists, 11 January, 2001, https://fas.org/spp/military/ commission/chapter6.pdf.
  27. Major Richard Moorehead, “Will We Need a Space Force?,” Military Review, July-August 2004 issue, http://www.au.af.mil/au/awc/ awcgate/milreview/moorhead.pdf.
  28. Major William Moncri, “Building a United States Space Force,” Army Space Journal, Winter/Spring 2010 issue, https://apps.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/ fulltext/u2/a525363.pdf.
  29. Colonel Kurt Story, “A SEPARATE SPACE FORCE: AN OLD DEBATE WITH RENEWED RELEVANCE,” Senior Service College Fellowship at The University of Texas at Austin, 2002, https://apps.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/ a404193.pdf.

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