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What’s at Stake for the US Air Force with an ‘Independent’ Space Force

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What’s at Stake for the US Air Force with an ‘Independent’ Space Force

The idea of a Space Force versus a Space Corps or Space Guard means very different things for the USAF institutionally.

What’s at Stake for the US Air Force with an ‘Independent’ Space Force
Credit: Flickr / Gage Skidmore

When President Donald Trump announced the creation of a separate U.S. Space Force last month, the U.S. Air Force (USAF) was taken by surprise. This was specifically so, given the USAF has its own Air Force Space Command, with an organizational belief that it was adequate and capable of defending space, despite criticisms to the contrary: that mastery of the space domain was not a top USAF priority and pride, not amounting to much in a culture that revered fighter pilots. Secretary of the Air Force, Heather Wilson, a Trump nominee, insisted in several videos and statements that “outer space” was indeed a top priority of the USAF. Both Wilson and General David L. Goldfein, Chief of Staff of the USAF had publicly voiced opposition to the idea of “Space Corps or Force.” Subsequently, the Department of the Air Force refused to engage with the idea despite prior leads that the president and those who crafted space policy under him in the reconstituted National Space Council (NSC), to include Vice President Mike Pence and Executive Secretary of the NSC Scott Pace, were serious about that idea. Pace argued that China and Russia’s actions in space were changing the context of outer space from being a “sanctuary” to a “war-fighting domain.”

Caught on a backfoot by the sudden announcement, the USAF leadership shot out a letter subsequently, reassuring their space command air personnel that they had nothing to worry about:

as such, we should not expect any immediate moves or changes. Our focus must remain on the mission as we continue to accelerate the space warfighting capabilities required to support the National Defense Strategy.

The general thrust of the debate following the June 18 announcement is that setting up a Space Force would require several layers of complex meetings and Congressional approvals; a process that may well outlive Trump’s presidential term. This is captured by the statement issued by Pentagon Chief Spokesperson, Dana W. White:

We understand the President’s guidance. Our Policy Board will begin working on this issue, which has implications for intelligence operations for the Air Force, Army, Marines and Navy. Working with Congress, this will be a deliberate process with a great deal of input from multiple stakeholders.

This perspective has been supported by several pieces that have come out since the announcement with “not so fast” perhaps being the battle-cry of those who oppose such an idea. This was reflected in the title of an article carried on the Brookings Institution website. The article’s main argument centers on the idea that the USAF is adept at being in space and can create the technologies required for both Space Situational Awareness (SSA) as well as presence. The author argues that breaking the USAF into two, with the creation of a Space Force, is not a promising idea as it is not clear that separating them will improve focus and effectiveness when it comes to outer-space. Most arguments against the Space Force assert that perhaps Trump wrongly announced the creation of a Space Force as a separate and equal sixth branch of the U.S. military. What he really meant to announce was the creation of a “Space Corps” or “Space Guard” within the Department of the Air-Force, focused on space but not independent.

Nothing can be further from the truth. In his announcement Trump is clear that he wants the Pentagon to start working toward establishing a separate and independent Space Force. This is notwithstanding the fact that the Pentagon has enlisted the CNA. to study and offer recommendations on the establishment of a separate department of space. Trump’s announcement on June 18 has now shifted the debate from whether such a force is required, to how it should be organized institutionally, for the mission goals it will be mandated to accomplish, most importantly, U.S. presence in outer space given the growing competence of China in the same domain, and the burst of commercial interests in the CIS-LUNAR economy. This perspective was augmented by Newt Gingrich, one of Trump’s closest advisors, asserting that space will become a hub of commercial activities by 2024, especially with growing commercial sector activities. Space Policy Directive 2, signed by Trump on May 24, 2018, directed the U.S. government to establish regulations that promote economic growth in space and protect private industry and foreign policy interests; and encourage U.S. leadership in space commerce. The Secretary of Transportation was directed to establish a single license for launch and re-entry for commercial space flights, and the Commerce Secretary was to establish a “one stop shop” for regulatory purposes, specifically designed to “unleash American economic power.” Trump’s National Space Strategy has urged to update and build new institutions to galvanize U.S. leadership in outer-space.

While at the level of debate, there is still confusion as to what the institutional structure of a new force would look like, the idea of a Space Force, and/or a Space Corps or Space Guard means very different things for the USAF institutionally. As per its website, the Air Force Space Command’s mission is to serve the Air Force, Joint Force and the U.S, by offering reliable space capabilities. On the one hand, there are those who argue that despite being within the Air Force, the Space Command is adept at developing a space-based culture, despite mostly consisting of Air Force Pilots and personnel trained in an air-domain focused culture with its organizational rotations and promotion requirements. On the other hand, still others argue that it is not enough for space to be part of an air domain culture aimed at combat readiness and simply developing joint war-fighters especially when what is required is a force that is specifically suited to maintain peace and stability in outer space, given growing commercialization, discovery of water ice on the moon, plans for space tourism, and CIS-LUNAR based private industrialization spanning several nations to include, China, India, UAE, Luxembourg, and Japan. The issue is no longer about who controls what space assets, but whether a country is institutionally adapting its civil and military institutions to keep up with the space economy. Doug Loverro, who served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy during the Obama Administration argued in an article that:

The Air Force failed to identify space as essential to their identity. A Space Force would have had no such qualms. A Space Force would have used the opportunity of the threat to push even harder and faster to defend U.S. space assets, not engage in a retreat — because if they did not, they would no longer matter.”

So, What’s at Stake for the USAF?

The real debate is what’s at stake for the USAF from this announcement of a separate Space Force, as a Chinese reporter for a Shanghai-based newspaper, asked me in an email.

When the Space Force comes into existence as a separate and equal sixth branch of the U.S. military, the USAF will have to give up its responsibility for space as well as the resources/budget allocated for that purpose. An independent Space Force would require separate and distinct recruitment procedures and uniforms, a Space Force Academy for training the space cadets and a Space University for continuing education for its officers and personnel, and promotion procedures focused on achievements solely in the space domain.

A Space Force will mean some rearrangement of air force bases and functions. There could be major institutional changes, to include the Air Force Space Command, the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command, Maxwell Air Force Base to include Air University, and to the Space and Missile Center at the Los Angeles Air Force Base. These are critical institutional rearrangements that require serious planning and thinking, for optimal gains. While this is not the first time such a major institutional change have occurred in the U.S. military [the USAF itself became a separate military service on September 18, 1947, until which date it was a subordinate component of the U.S. Army known as the Army Air Forces], it will still require detailed laying out of procedures.

Space Corps, A Better Deal for the USAF?

The Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management
and Organization had recommended the creation of a Space Corps. It stated in its 2001 report that:

A Space Corps within the Department of the Air Force may be an appropriate model in its own right or a useful way station in the evolution toward a Space Department. One model is the Army Air Force’s relationship to the Army during World War II. Existing Air Force space forces, facilities, units and personnel, and military space missions could be transferred to a Corps.

There are five ways that the establishment of a Space Corps under the Department of the Air Force and not an independent Space Force could have favorably impacted the USAF. First, it would have ensured a separate seat for the Space Corps’ Commandant on the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) like the Marine Corps Commandant, thereby offering a second seat of influence for the Department of the Air Force. Second, a separate seat on Joint Requirements Oversight Council (JROC). Third, it would have meant the Department of the Air Force maintain control of the proposed United States Space Command. Fourth, the Space Corps like the Marine Corps would have enjoyed a dedicated separate Commandant [Chief of Staff] that can lobby directly to Congress for resources/funds. Fifth, a clearer narrative that is divided between air and space domain, but each within the Department of the Air Force. 

In short, a Space Corps within the Department of the Air Force would have empowered the Air Force especially regarding bureaucracy because the department would have had two chiefs of staff and therefore two members on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Thereby it would have gained in negotiating power that could directly lobby Congress for money and could plausibly command their own sub-unified combatant Command. Consequently, for the USAF, the Space Corps would have been a better deal because it would have increased the bureaucratic power of the Department of the Air-Force as well as increased its resources. 

As to whether the Space Corps or Space Force would have independent operational capability, the answer, quite simply, is no. In the U.S. system, operational commands flow from the president through to the secretary of defense to the combatant commander which in this case is U.S. Strategic Command. Either a U.S. Space Corps or a Space Force would only provide forces to the U.S. Strategic Command.

In the final analysis, it appears that the lack of response and resistance from the highest levels at the Department of the Air Force to even discuss the idea of a Space Corps as it gathered steam after Trump took office meant that they gave up control of the narrative and were completely blindsided by Trump’s announcement of an independent Space Force’ instead of just a separate but dependent corps.