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Space Command flag
US Space Command, formally reestablished in 2019, is temporarily headquartered in Colorado, but the Air Force announced in January plans to move the headquarters to Alabama. (credit: DoD photo by Lisa Ferdinando)

Don’t move US Space Command

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On January 13, the United States Air Force selected Huntsville, Alabama, as the new home for the space domain combatant command, United States Space Command. You would not be alone if you misidentified this as the organize, train, and equip entity, the United States Space Force, but that, like all the other services, is led from the halls of the Pentagon. Space Command was re-established in August 2019. While initially established in 1988, it was deactivated in 2002 and merged with United States Strategic Command, the unified combatant command responsible for the United States nuclear triad’s employment, among other things.

The decision to move US Space Command to the Army’s Redstone Arsenal is enigmatic.

Amid the emergence of both Chinese and Russian antisatellite weapon capabilities to challenge the American space dominance that has been unrivaled for more than 50 years, the need for a more emphatic inflection in space defense set the stage for reconstitution of Space Command. While resurrected under the Trump Administration, it had been a conversation point in previous administrations. In an effort to reform the national security space enterprise, the House Armed Services Committee’s strategic forces subcommittee started the process in a 2016 hearing and championed it with bipartisan support led by Reps. Mike Rogers (R-AL) and Jim Cooper (D-TN).

In 2007, China demonstrated their ability to target space assets with a kinetic kill vehicle. This engagement shocked many, and the debris it created continues to create risks for collision: current estimates predict 79% of the debris will still be in orbit until the year 2108. The demonstration showed that China could hold US capabilities at risk, and the United States responded a little over a year later in 2008 with its intercept to demonstrate it too still had the prowess to defend their assets. In 2019, India demonstrated its own ASAT ability, and as recently as December 2019 Russia has reaffirmed it too still possess the capability.

All this emphasizes that the kinetic threat to space is real and increasing in complexity. However, it is not just deliberate offensive action that troubles space; it is the thousands of objects in orbit that our space professionals work day in and day out to ensure they move without incident. A large percentage of these space professionals—including those in the Space Force now nown as “guardians”—operate from darkened operations centers deep in the heart of the American continent in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs is where US Space Command is presently, but temporarily, located. With a mission to “conduct operations in, from, and through space to deter conflict, and if necessary, defeat aggression, deliver space combat power for the Joint/Combined force, and defend U.S. vital interests with allies and partners,” it made logical sense to collocate it with the preponderance of its operational units, the people, and infrastructure in Colorado.

This makes the decision to move US Space Command to the Army’s Redstone Arsenal enigmatic. Redstone is home to the Army’s R&D and doctrine development for missiles. Redstone also hosts the Missile Defense Agency and NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, responsible for propulsion R&D for America’s human spaceflight programs. What it is not home to, though, is operational space units. So why put a functional combatant command there? If the purpose of the resuscitation of the command is to reemphasize space as a warfighting domain, the decision to move it mid-fight leaves one to wonder.

If the mission is critical, asking the personnel to relocate mid-fight is likely to bring challenges and create a seam for our adversaries’ exploitation.

Additionally, the new administration is likely to continue to try and flatten defense spending in fiscal year 2022 and beyond; despite the need for 3–5% growth, why spend the money on moving the chairs? To further confound those executing the mission, the two subordinate components are thousands of miles from Redstone. The Combined Force Space component command (CFSCC), which “plans, integrates, conducts, and assesses global space operations in order to deliver combat relevant space capabilities to Combatant Commanders, Coalition partners, the Joint Force, and the Nation,” is located at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, and the Joint Task Force Space Defense (JTF-SD), which “conducts, in unified action with mission partners, space superiority operations to deter aggression, defend U.S. and Allied interests, and defeat adversaries throughout the continuum of conflict,” is located at Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado.

In a January 26 letter, the entire Colorado congressional delegation urged President Biden to reconsider this decision by conducting a thorough review. Of course, it goes without saying the delegation has much to lose if they move the command, but leaving it where it presently exists makes sense for so many other reasons. Eight of the nine space deltas (the organizational element of the Space Force) are located in Colorado, and a large mission partner to the Space Command, the National Reconnaissance Office, has an operations complex at Buckley Air Force Base in Denver, from which they operate the intelligence community’s space assets. Coordination between the two elements is paramount to achieve unity of action. When time is the dominant factor in a space fight, relocating the command to be further from the effects they own makes the decision loop that much longer and increases risk. If the mission is critical, asking the personnel to relocate mid-fight is likely to bring challenges and create a seam for our adversaries’ exploitation.

The good news is that most of the operators aren’t like to move from their current operational location. Guardians will continue to execute their mission Semper Supra—“always above.” The mission will go on. However, it certainly seems prudent to reevaluate the previous administration’s decision to move the combatant command to a location that does not support either of the subordinate commands or the preponderance of the assets that are presently conducting the mission on behalf of the United States and our allies. The members who are asked to relocate may well choose to; some may not. Our nation’s men and women who serve in uniform are inherently resilient and used to moving frequently. The civilians, most prior military, likely understand the job too. If you tell them there is a reason it has to be, most will pack their bags and get to it. However, a detailed review to understand and articulate the rationale to them and the taxpayers who will be asked to foot the bill as we try and navigate a global pandemic and a national recession will go a long way. If there is operational efficiency is enough to justify the move, let us do it. But let’s continue to use the resources, infrastructure, aerospace industries, and personnel who call Colorado home if it is not.

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