The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews
 


 
SBIRS satellite
A separate branch of the military would be better suited to manage and take the best advantage of space systems like SBIRS. (credit: Lockheed Martin)

United States Space Force: sooner rather than later

It’s time to admit that the 2001 decision—in keeping with the recommendations of the second Rumsfeld commission—that made the Air Force the “Executive Agent for Space” has just not worked: not due to any malfeasance or corruption or lack of good will, but simply because the USAF has other priorities.

The Air Force is all about airpower. Before World War Two, when it was still the Army Air Corps, its leaders believed that America needed airpower. In the grand scheme of things, they were completely vindicated, and no one more so than Hap Arnold, the Chief of Staff for air from 1939 to 1945. Arnold’s vision of a military organization dedicated to constantly developing its fighting edge through the use of science and technology is still one of the USAF’s core strengths.

The primary manifestation of airpower is air superiority or air supremacy—being able to put your airplanes in the sky over the enemy and preventing him from putting his airplanes over your own forces or even over his own. The ultimate expression of air supremacy is being able to prevent an opponent from flying anywhere above his own homeland. Today, the preferred instrument of this concept is the F-22, by far the best fighting aircraft ever built. The question the Pentagon and Congress are trying to answer is whether future air superiority campaigns be hard—that is, conducted with a force of 180 F-22s—or easy, conducted with more than 350?

It may be argued that while the Navy tends to neglect mine warfare, no one talks about taking this mission away from them and setting up a separate Mine Warfare Force. Sadly, too many mistakes have been made, too many programs are in deep trouble, and things show little sign of improvement.

The Air Force (and the Army) also needs more than the 180 C-17s planned for in the recently released Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), as well as more money to develop the new F-35 and the next generation of long-range strike systems. These last will most emphatically not include space weapons. The air part of the Air Force has a full plate and it is hardly surprising that, at a time when they are being asked to do more with less, space systems are, if not neglected, not given the detailed attention other mission elements are getting.

It may be argued that while the Navy tends to neglect mine warfare, no one talks about taking this mission away from them and setting up a separate Mine Warfare Force. So why should space be any different? Perhaps America’s space warriors should just accept their fate and learn to live with their relatively low status.

If it were just a question of ego, such a situation might be acceptable. Sadly, too many mistakes have been made, too many programs are in deep trouble, and things show little sign of improvement. The Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) is obviously the most visible symbol of the failure of the current institutional set up. Even though its problems go back to its beginnings in the mid-1990s (getting the US Forest Service involved was questionable, to put it mildly) the changes made in 2001 have done nothing to fix it or the other troubled space programs.

Part of the problem is the long-standing failure of acquisition reform. Today’s situation is so bad that the price of a $2 billion system can literally double in a matter of minutes just by letting a few government lawyers into the room where the project managers are meeting. Fixing these laws and regulations should be a high priority. America cannot expect to effectively fight a war using peacetime rules.

The most important reason the US Department of Defense needs a Space Force is that space has different properties from land, sea, and air environments found on Earth. The “terrain” of the Earth-Moon system combines orbital dynamics and gravitational forces in constant and sometimes subtle interaction. Senior officers, no matter how sincere, whose formative experiences consist of flying machines that are supported by the relationship between propulsion and air pressure cannot be expected to instinctively understand the nature of space warfare. The small space cadre that is slowly coming into existence will, without doubt, never produce an Air Force Chief of Staff.

A new space service, with its own promotion ladder and its own training and doctrine development system, will insure that when the Joint Chiefs and their civilian superiors meet to plan an operation, someone with four stars will be there to make sure that the capabilities and limitations of US and enemy space forces are taken into account. Military space expertise is becoming more widespread than ever and even the least sophisticated future foe will know enough to try and avoid being detected or targeted by US or allied satellites.

With its own budget, the space service will be able to concentrate on making sure that all the other services have access to the best space-based support possible. The Army, Navy, Marines, Coast Guard, and others who use America’s military space assets will not have to worry about institutional favoritism, although it should be pointed out that, since 2001, there has not been any evidence that the USAF has abused its authority to the detriment of the other services. Instead, the problem is that, within the Air Force, there has not been enough top-level attention paid to the needs of space operations.

A new USSF should not get control of everything that now comes under the heading of “Air Force Space.” For example, the ICBM force should continue to be controlled by the USAF. In contrast, the new organization should take control of the space-based elements of all missile defense systems, including tactical ones. Missile warning and tracking is a global requirement that can best be done from space. SBIRS and its successors will need to be controlled by space warfare experts controlling networks that can instantly pass information on to those who can shoot the enemy target down. The Space Force will, eventually, control space-based anti-ballistic missile weapons, anti-satellite weapons, satellite defense weapons and space-to-Earth weapons when US policy makers decide that these systems are needed.

The new force will also get control of the GPS and military communications networks and of the space access infrastructure. This will give them control of the Delta 4, Atlas 5, and other rockets. It will be up to the new force to continue the recent record of safe and successful military space launch operations. The Space Force will have the responsibility for developing new launch systems, including laying the basis for a future reusable launch vehicle (RLV).

With its own budget, the space service will be able to concentrate on making sure that all the other services have access to the best space-based support possible.

Every major, and many smaller, joint headquarters will have a representative of the USSF present and with a legitimate seat at the table. In order to show their commitment to support the troops who carry the greatest burden, the USSF should, on a day-to-day basis, wear fatigues rather than flight suits. This will also make it plain to members of the Army, Navy, and Marines who will be joining the new organization that it is not just another version of the Air Force.

It will be able to make its acquisition decisions based on the need to keep a healthy American space industry in existence, rather than catering to the needs of the aerospace industry. This should allow for a new set of corporate players to get involved alongside the older large contractors. As the Space Force proves itself, Congress may be expected to show a greater level of confidence and allow needed systems, such as Space Radar and the TSAT communications satellite program, to be fully funded.

Leaders inside the Pentagon keep saying that space is the critical backbone of network-centric warfare. The evidence shows that, without space, American global military superiority would not be anywhere near what it is today. Our enemies know this and are working hard to find new ways to damage and degrade US space superiority. To counter this, and to give America a new set of grand strategic options, a new space force is needed: not immediately, but within the next five or ten years. Future presidential candidates, if they want to show they are serious about national security, should consider making this reform part of their platform.


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