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GPS satellite
While the Air Force has excelled at some space programs, like GPS, a dedicated space service might better meet the needs of all the other branches of the military. (credit: Boeing)

A new space service?

The latest and most serious call for a separate military space service is in this month’s issue of the US Naval Institute’s magazine, Proceedings, the US Navy’s principal professional journal. Written by Franz Gayl, a recently retired Marine Corps major, the article makes the case that the Air Force, due to perfectly natural institutional prejudices, is failing in its role as the executive agent for National Security Space or, as he refers to it, NSS. (Presumably, he does not know that there is another NSS out there.) This is an important article for several reasons. It is the first article in Proceedings calling for a separate service. It comes at a time when the Air Force’s management of some major space programs is under heavy and skeptical scrutiny. Also, there are growing calls in Congress and elsewhere for a national debate on space weaponization.

One of the most important points that Gayl makes is that the Air Force may plan to spend the necessary resources on space procurement and operations, but that when an important non-space program is in trouble and needs funding, the natural inclination is to take from space and give to F-22 or C-17 or JSF and so on. He points out that there is “less willingness to resource space capabilities that only indirectly contribute to the Air Force’s primary mission.” This is obviously true, even though Air Force leaders often pay lip service to the overriding importance of military space supremacy.

Air Force Space Command has sometimes done a superb job. The GPS and Milstar programs have proven themselves invaluable national assets. In other areas, the results have been less than adequate. The SBIRS system is an example of a vital national program that was mishandled and underfunded by the Air Force space procurement people. Congress is reluctant to allow the Air Force to begin serious work on the Space Based Radar satellite system and on the Transformational Communications program until the service has shown that it has fixed SBIRS.

The Air Force may plan to spend the necessary resources on space procurement and operations, but that when an important non-space program is in trouble and needs funding, the natural inclination is to take from space.

Gayl deals with the standard objections to a separate space force in exemplary fashion. In particular, he disposes of the old “there is no mission” canard by explaining that space today is “an exposed US flank.” There can be no doubt that other nations are working on weapons designed to neutralize America’s current overwhelming advantage. While the Air Force is working hard on concepts such as escort satellites and other defensive and offensive counterspace systems, thus far, no serious R&D or procurement money is going into these projects.

The proposals for how such a separate service should be built are, for the most part, pretty sensible, though he seems to have overestimated the National Aerospace Initiative’s current importance. He also errs when he anticipates that non-NASA space science and technology efforts could ever be wholly owned by a new military space service. NOAA would not easily or, perhaps, ever give up their Earth observation satellites, (One cannot, with a straight face, simply call them weather satellites any more). It is also difficult to imagine that the intelligence community could be persuaded to give up control of its satellites to a new service.

One interesting question is why are the Navy and Marines proposing this now? One good reason is that the fleet of the future will be far more dependent on space systems for its effectiveness than one now afloat. Smaller crew size means that “reachback” services for everything, from housekeeping and menu planning to sensor monitoring and intelligence analysis, will no long be done onboard. The Littoral Combat Ship, which is planned as a indirect replacement for the FFG-7 missile frigates, will displace 2800 tons and have 35 or 45 crew members. By contrast, the 3800-ton FFG-7 needs a 208-man crew to operate. The networked systems for the LCS and for other future Navy fighting ships will require secure reliable and robust military satellite communications links not to operate a peak effectiveness but just to maintain minimal capability.

The Navy and Marines’ need for space based surveillance for tactical and operational situational awareness will only increase as the numbers of ships shrink. Unmanned air surface and undersea vehicles can substitute for the loss of a number of ships, but not for all of them. Naturally, the Navy and Marines are worried that the Air Force will be reluctant to spend its own limited resources on systems that primarily support American seapower.

Naturally, the Navy and Marines are worried that the Air Force will be reluctant to spend its own limited resources on systems that primarily support American seapower.

Another reason the Navy and Marines may want to start this debate now is that they foresee the day, forty or fifty years from now, when the Air Force will be America’s primary warfighting instrument. If Air Force Chief of Staff General John Jumper’s vision of “cursors on targets” becomes a reality, replacing both platform-centric and network-centric warfare with a seamless reconnaissance strike complex (to use the old Soviet term), the other services will be reduced to providing support and follow-up forces to the USAF. Integral to this vision are space sensors and weapons that can not only perform first-day-of-war missions, but can do first-minute-of-war strikes, almost as soon as the President gives the order.

If the US Air Force could act against a sophisticated and well-equipped adversary the way it did in Afghanistan and Iraq, the need for ground and sea surface units capable of heavy combat would be seriously reduced. The Army and Marines would be reconfigured as counterinsurgency and nation-building forces. The Navy would provide taxi and trucking services for the ground troops, be a glorified international Coast Guard, and, as a national priority, maintain the world’s finest submarine fleet. The only people, aside from the Air Force, who would still have a major combat role would be the special operations forces.

From the Navy and Marine Corps’ point of view, a separate Space Force would solve some of these problems. A Space Force would naturally devote all its resources to its mission. The Navy and the other services would be able to count on the full-time support from this Space Force without having to worry about blue suiters favoring fellow blue suiters. A new service would go out of its way to prove its independence from its progenitor. This might mean more support for the Army, Navy, and Marines at the expense of the Air Combat Command.

A new space service may or may not be a good near term idea. However, a wise Air Force officer once said that a Space Corps will be obviously needed once there are sufficient national assets in space to defend. Will a Space Force be needed to defend America’s future space colonies? The debate promises to be fascinating.


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