Asia Defense | Security

How the US Space Force Doctrine Paves the Way for Future Warfighting

The first doctrine for the new U.S. military branch answers some key questions — and raises some more.

Franz-Stefan Gady
How the US Space Force Doctrine Paves the Way for Future Warfighting

Capt. Ryan Vickers stands for a photo to display his new service tapes after taking his oath of office to transfer from the U.S. Air Force to the U.S. Space Force on Sept. 1, 2020, at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar.

Credit: U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Kayla White

The U.S. Space Force, established in December 2019 as a separate branch of the U.S. Armed Forces under the Department of the Air Force, unveiled its first capstone doctrine, entitled “Spacepower,” in August 2020. Building on previous doctrinal publications such as Joint Publication 3-14 and coming only weeks after the Pentagon released its Defense Space Strategy, the new document for the first time defines space as a separate warfighting domain rather than an enabling domain for military operations in the air, land, sea, and cyberspace.

The U.S. Space Force is expected to eventually consist of 16,000 uniformed and civilian personnel. The service’s budget proposal for 2021 is $15.4 billion with an annual increase of $600 million over the next five years. Out of the total, over $10 billion will go into research, development, testing, and evaluation of space systems including funding for new missile warning satellites; $2.4 billion for procurement; and around $2.6 billion for ongoing space operations and training. To date, the force consists of over 2,400 active duty troops (and is about to get its first astronaut), although it reportedly has already 10 units stationed outside the continental United States. In September the service for the first time deployed to the Middle East.

The Doctrine

Capstone doctrine documents, usually reviewed and updated every four years, serve as a frame of reference for military leaders, as well as for the development of future training and education programs pertaining to their subject. They also serve as the foundation for other more specific tactical and operational doctrines published by a U.S. service branch. As such, the doctrine will be instrumental in creating a separate Space Force culture, which in turn will influence the development of the service branch’s operational style and how it prioritizes and conducts future missions.

At the core of the doctrine lies military space power, which, according to the publication, consists of deterrent and coercive capabilities to be used for defensive and offensive purposes in the domain. This includes attacking or threatening to attack satellites, as well as gateways and links from satellites to ground stations, and defending communications links and space-based assets from enemy attack. Notably, the doctrine states that defensive operations can includes active defense to “destroy, nullify, or reduce the effectiveness of threats.” It fails, however, to explain the distinction between active and passive defenses, and also does not elaborate under what circumstances active defense will be employed.

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The new doctrine lays out Space Force’s three cornerstone responsibilities: preserve freedom of action, enable joint lethality and effectiveness, and provide independent options for the U.S. Armed Forces. It also outlines five core competencies including space security, combat power projection, space mobility and logistics, information mobility, and space domain awareness. Cornerstone responsibilities like preserving freedom of action and joint lethality, in addition to core competencies such as combat power projection, are in line with doctrines from the other branches. Others like providing leaders with “independent options” – the ability to achieve independently strategic effects – are more specific to Space Force, but a logical consequence of the nature of the space domain. For example, offensive cyber operations executed via the space domain (via satellite links) can achieve independent strategic affects across multiple domains.

Space as Separate Warfighting Domain

The Space Force is responsible for developing space warfighting capabilities. U.S. Space Command is the combatant command in charge of employing those capabilities in operations.

Classifying space as a separate warfighting domain is significant for two reasons, one external the other internal.

First, it reiterates the growing importance of the domain as a key enabler for current and future terrestrial military missions. As the document states: “The U.S. does not project or employ power without space.” This doctrinal principle will ring even more true as the U.S. Armed Forces are set to adopt a new Joint Concept for All Domain Operations slated to be released by the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the end of 2020. The concept seeks to more seamlessly integrate cyber and space capabilities into joint force operations. New and burgeoning offensive capabilities such as conventional prompt global strike, or non-kinetic (i.e. cyber) “global fires,” as well as “global operations short of fires” – all part of the new joint concept – are dependent on the intricate link between space and cyberspace. Furthermore, space-based assets like satellites rely on cyberspace links for the flow of data to and from them, linking command, control, communications, computers, and intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (C4ISR) systems. This includes the command and control leg of the new warfighting concept called Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2).

Second, the official establishment of space as a separate warfighting domain will help coordinate and streamline overall U.S. efforts in the extra-terrestrial environment and achieve more focus and urgency to field specific capabilities. As one analyst put it: “One of the jobs of the Military Services is to organize personnel into domain-centric clusters to develop domain-centric strategy, doctrine, and policy.” Prior to the Space Force’s creation, the USAF controlled the vast majority of U.S. military space-assets and around 80 percent of the Department of Defense’s (unclassified) funding. A sizable portion of technical capabilities and personnel remains scattered across various other service branches and intelligence agencies. The initial core of Space Force manpower is to consist of around 2,400 USAF personnel. Escaping USAF influence is part of the reason why the latest House version of the National Defense Authorization Act includes a provision calling to abandon USAF grades and ranks and instead use a system of ranks and grades similar to the U.S. Navy. USAF saw space as a secondary operational domain in comparison to air. The single focus of Space Force on this new warfighting domain, will help facilitating the integration of space capabilities from other service branches (e.g. the Army and Navy) into the organization, which is expected to happen in the near future.

Unanswered Questions

The capstone doctrine left several questions unanswered, which presumably will be addressed in follow-up publications. They include the balance between warfighting and enabling the operations of other services. Related to that, what actual combat capabilities is Space Force going to have, or will combat capabilities still rest principally with the U.S. Air Force or Navy? Furthermore, will the Space Force have kinetic capabilities including direct ascent anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons (i.e. ground-launched missiles) or co-orbital (i.e. the target and interceptor are in the same orbit) ASAT weapons? And will Space Force be focused on enabling space defense capabilities or will it also expand to include offensive capabilities to be used in other domains?