White House race for Space Force raises questions about a 6th military branch
Since President Donald Trump issued the Space Command directive in June, there has been a mix of reactions from enthusiasm to skepticism, but mostly questions about how the administration would carry out its vision.
On Thursday, Vice President Mike Pence and Defense Secretary James Mattis provided a bullet-point outline of the administration's ambitious plans to establish Space Command as an entirely new branch of the U.S. military by 2020.
While some hoped the Thursday speech would provide clarity on the path forward, the four points outlined in the plan revealed the immensity of the task that the administration seeks to undertake at breakneck speed.
"Our adversaries have transformed space into a warfighting domain already," Pence said, stressing the urgency of the new military force. "The United States will not shrink from this challenge."
There is little debate that space has become increasingly contested and congested in recent decades, with dozens of nations fielding roughly 1,500 military, commercial and scientific satellites into orbit around the earth.
Over the past decade, China and Russia have incorporated space into their military doctrines and demonstrated worrying advances in anti-satellite weaponry. At the same time, top officials at the Pentagon have warned that the United States is losing its competitive edge to strategic rivals in every domain, including space.
On Thursday, Sec. Mattis said the renewed focus on space reflects a "clear-eyed view of the future" and where the next major challenge will be. "It is becoming a contested warfighting domain and we have got to adapt to that reality."
However, it is an open question both within the military and among outside experts whether the creation of a new combatant command, a new specialized space force and an entirely new branch of the military is the right way to adapt to the challenges that clearly lay ahead in the so-called final frontier.
The Department of Defense has understood the threats and challenges in space for a long time, explained Bryan Clark, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic Budget Analysis and former special assistant to the Chief of Naval Operations. "The understanding in DOD was that standing up a new organization is not the way to solve the problem."
The outline provided by the White House and submitted by the Department of Defense to Congress outlines four components of the Space Force, each inherently complex as well as potentially costly and duplicative.
First, the creation of a unified combatant command for space led by a four-star flag officer. It will be called U.S. Space Command and it's structure will presumably be comparable to the other ten combatant commands, integrating personnel from each of the military branches to develop a space warfighting doctrine, tactics and procedures.
Second, the creation of a Space Operations Force, "an elite group of joint warfighters" who will specialize in the space domain and provide that expertise to each of the other combatant commands.
Third, the creation of an agency that will develop and field the new technologies, tools and weapons needed by the Space Operations Force. The Space Development Agency will focus on "innovation, experimentation." The White House suggested it would be able to quickly test and acquire new technologies without facing the typical bureaucratic hurdles and delays.
Fourth, the appointment of a civilian head to manage and be accountable for the Space Force as a sixth branch of the U.S. military, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space.
The administration may be making the mistake of "throwing organization at a problem rather than looking at the capabilities they need to solve it," Clark said.
In his speech, Vice President Pence said the aim of the Space Force initiative was to cut through the bureaucracy, but there are concerns that it will add to it. Already, the Air Force, Navy, Strategic Command and Cyber Command have many of the capabilities and responsibilities implied in the proposal, to say nothing of NASA. The commercial space industry is also available to fill many of the capability gaps identified by the Pentagon, potentially without the additional burden of standing up a separate Space Development Agency.
"It's hard to understate the impact of setting up a new combatant command," Clark said, reflecting on the harsh lessons learned when the Obama administration ordered the creation of Cyber Command. "The experience was so disruptive, so costly it created so much bureaucracy that we're only now, almost ten years later, getting to the point of the operational capabilities they wanted."
Another concern about the new organization is that it could potentially take away resources from other military branches, that are only now recovering from deep budget cuts over the past seven years.
Defense Sec. Mattis raised that precise concern after the House of Representatives authorized the creation of a separate Space Corps in the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act. The House proposal, offered by Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala. and Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., would have made the Air Force Space Command its own independent service. The proposal failed in the Senate, in part at the urging of Mattis who sent letters to leaders of the congressional armed services committees explicitly opposing the creation of a Space Corps as a new military service.
Peter Huessy, president of the defense consulting firm, GeoStrategic Analysis and longtime consultant for the Air Force, emphasized that the new Space Force should add to the other branches, not subtract.
"However we do it, I want to make sure the space people are whole, the Air Force is whole and the Space Force is whole," he said. "The key is, this is meant to lift space up, to make space a huge No. 1, No 2. and No. 3 priority ... but you can't cut the money the Air Force needs to help the space business, because you'll be cutting off your nose to spite your face."
It is not yet clear how the administration wants to fund the new Space Command, Space Force, and Space Development Agency. The Pentagon submitted a full report on the plan to Congress. The White House intends to release its funding request in February and anticipates Congress will authorize Space Force in its National Defense Authorization Act by the end of 2019.
Even if a Star Wars-like future is not immediately on the horizon, the creation of a Space Force has also raised concerns about the militarization of space, including space-based weapons and combat operations. There are many who argue space has been militarized since 1957 with the launch of Sputnik.
"What we're doing is keeping the commons safe," said Huessy. Russia and China were already intent on deploying additional military assets in space regardless of whether or not the U.S. formed a space command. "There may be some blow-back rhetorically about America 'militarizing space,' but if anything [our competitors] will say, these guys are serious."
Others, like John Watts a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Center for Strategy and Security, are concerned that the U.S. initiative will trigger a new, more urgent militarization of space as nations compete for dominance.
Space is already a contested domain and will continue to be in the future, he said. With the U.S. military's reliance on space-based assets for communication, surveillance and intelligence, it is also an increasingly integral part of modern war.
"It's good to be on the leading edge and get ahead of your competitors, but I think by taking this step we are going to guarantee the militarization of space, effectively," Watts said, warning the U.S. Space Force "gives a green light" to other countries to deploy assets or additional assets.
America's top adversaries in space responded to the president's proposal months ago, specifically warning against a new, militarized space race.
China's Foreign Ministry issued a statement advising strongly against "the placement of weapons and an arms race in outer space." The Russian Foreign Ministry stressed that "a military buildup in space, in particular, after the deployment of weapons there, would have destabilizing effects on strategic stability and international security."
As those countries develop ground and space-based capabilities as part of their defense strategy, both China and Russia have publicly argued that they view the use of outer space in terms of peaceful purposes. Notably, the United States, Russia and China have avoided signing on to a United Resolution committing to the peaceful use of space.