What Problem is a US Space Force Trying to Solve?

Editor’s Note: The following article is the first of a two-part series. This article outlines four outstanding issues a US Space Force could potentially address. The first part of the article describes two problems a US Space Force could solve. The second part describes two additional problems a US Space Force could solve and examines spacepower theory and underlying assumptions of spacepower.

By: Timothy J. Cox

Read Time: 10 Minutes

If you have been on a staff in any way related to the Department of Defense in the last few years, you may have been exposed to P.W. Singer and August Cole’s book Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War. While a work of fiction, many view this book as the futurist’s look at what a post-modern world war might look like.  Incidentally, the book has become ‘mandatory’ reading for many a planner, thinker and staff officer in the vein of Tom Clancy’s cold war era epic Red Storm RisingGhost Fleet is a great techno-thriller and provokes many questions about potential future military capabilities. I reference the novel because when I hear someone say, “we don’t need a space force” or “what problem is a Space Force going to solve”, I am reminded that in Ghost Fleet, (spoilers ahead) the only solution to Russian and Chinese space dominance is to allow Sir Aeric K. Cavendish, a Branson/Musk like tech billionaire to take down the Russian and Chinese dominant orbital capabilities by getting letters of marque from the United States and heading off to orbit as the first space pirate. He eventually seizes control of enemy platforms and allows the retro-tech US military to counterattack. Space Force nay-sayers, hear me: That is not actually going to happen! In the non-fiction world, if the US continues to let adversaries gain on and surpass its warfighting capabilities in space, there will not be a space pirate to bail out the US military in a peer/near-peer conflict. In the following, I will outline the problems a Space Force would solve in hopes of avoiding the disaster predicted in the novel.

The first problem that demands a US Space Force is the reality that adversaries are, or are becoming, more capable of space warfare than the United States. One will often hear that the US dominates in space. This is objectively true if one is measures the number of platforms deployed or the ability to find, fix, and track space objects. Neither provide a meaningful combat edge to the US on orbit. More platforms mean more dependency and more targets. While being able to watch satellites is extremely useful, it cannot be determinative if the adversary has the same ability. The Combined Space Operations Center’s (CSPOC) catalog of virtually all orbital objects is the envy of everyone else vested in space, whether government or commercial. This space catalog, which draws data for predictive surveillance from sensors located around the globe, allows anyone with a calculator to predict the location of almost every object in orbit at a chosen time. The US has made the catalog publicly available and is working through the Department of Commerce to share even better quality data across a wider commercial spectrum in the interest of responsible space traffic management. While a thoroughly commendable and wise policy choice from a safety of flight perspective, such data sharing reduces much of the US’s orbital military advantage enabling potential adversaries to target satellites for intelligence gathering, interference or destruction. Simultaneously, those same adversaries have recognized that the US, is deeply committed to utilizing space as a crucial domain for military support and commercial activities (communications, environmental monitoring, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR), Precision Navigation, and Timing (PNT), etc.). However, the US is not well prepared to conduct operations to prevent an adversary from using anti-satellite capabilities to deny the advantages derived from the US’s space assets. This makes space a potential Achilles heel for the United States (or at very least a center of gravity); lots of capability on which there is a great dependency, but not a lot of ability to protect it. This vulnerability put the US at greater risk to attacks on space assets. It is unlikely an enemy would allow another to maintain such a comparative advantage when it can be so easily negated. The US does not need a Space Force to enable or launch more capabilities into space. The US needs a Space Force to protect the capability it already has on orbit.

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Currently, the five core Air Force missions are Air and Space Superiority, Global Strike, Rapid Global Mobility, Command and Control, and Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance. Many current and former senior leaders argue the alignment of space and air missions make sense because air and space are linked domains.  In addition, the number of personnel and dollars invested in military space is relatively small. Arguing that the current level of investment justifies organizational structure is circular as you will never have a larger organization without greater investment. The space and air domains are linked, like the land and air domains are linked. However, resources taken from the land component are refined into aircraft, manned by people who live on the ground, which take off from and land on the ground, to surveil activities on the ground, transport personnel or equipment between ground locations, service ground targets, protect places on the ground or to protect and service other aircraft fulfilling these roles. By this argument, there is really no reason to have a separate Air Force. Since such a strong link exists between the land and the air and the Army is a much larger organization (more than one million total force soldiers versus half as many total force airmen).  Therefore, shouldn’t the Air Force, simply be reincorporated into the Army? Certainly not. It is a ridiculous argument on its face. The Army was, at best, a mediocre steward of air power. Soldiers believed airpower existed to support ground operations, as they still do. This meant aviation planning and acquisitions were focused on battlefield effects which enabled ground operations. In contrast, Airmen argued that well-developed airpower could, in many cases, prevent the need for ground operations entirely. Slow to respond to military aviation developments, it took the devastation of the Second World War for the Army to recognize the true value of airpower.  As a separate service, the Air Force was able to become so dominant that since 1991 no other country has been willing to engage the US in the air.

The second problem that demands a Space Force is that, like their Army predecessors, Airmen tend to see space as a domain to be exploited for enhancing terrestrial operations with relatively little regard to how space capabilities will be protected. To be fair, this thought process developed organically from the post-war period when the American economy was completely dominant and US military rivals could not match US investments in space. Over the decades since, declining military spending and the availability of cheaper space technology has allowed adversaries to begin to catch up, while US planners, so accustomed to available space support, have either failed to recognize the growing risks or have determined that any workable solution is unaffordable. Simultaneously, those same planners in the Air Force and other services have been forced to work in ever more austere fiscal environments to try and balance competing priorities. Naturally, space superiority has suffered in competition with the Air Force’s very real need for new air superiority, strike and lift capabilities. The service is after all named the Air Force. As with the army of old, there is little to be gained by criticizing airmen for valuing air-mindedness above space-mindedness. Airmen should be organizing, training, planning, developing and equipping themselves first and foremost to dominate the air.  If that is the case, then shouldn’t military space professionals be in a service dedicated to organizing, training, planning, developing and equipping themselves to dominate space?

Take personnel technical development as an example. In the Air Force flying community, there are different and separately managed career fields for pilots, navigators, weapons controllers and other aircrew. Within the rated community, there is separate training, development and management for fighter, airlift, helicopter, bomber and unmanned aerial system pilots. Within each of those communities there is further separation by mission and platform.  While not universal, for the most part, a pilot will spend most of a career with a single platform and when changing aircraft will stay within the larger mission area. On the other hand, in the Air Force space community, there is a single career field in which all space operators are treated as interchangeable. Space lift, offensive counter space, defensive counter space, space situational awareness, missile warning, satellite command and control and space communications are distinctly different mission sets, requiring different knowledge, understanding and training. Within those space missions there are numerous unique weapon systems, which require further delineated training and understanding. An average space career might include tours in three to five different space missions, not to mention an Inter-continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) tour or a “generic operator” tour supporting another Air Force or joint mission, which leaves personnel well rounded but not deeply developed in any single capability. By treating all space operations personnel as interchangeable, the Air Force has prevented the development of mission and weapon system expert cadres such as exist in the flying communities. The average F-16 pilot will spend more than two-thirds of a twenty-year career in the cockpit learning every nuance of that jet. The average space operator will not be in the same weapon system for more than three years at a time and will likely spend some years doing jobs that are in no way related to space operations. This loss of expertise reduces the innovation of TTPs (Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures) and the plans which would fully exploit the capabilities of systems to their maximum advantage. It also, incidentally, ensures that there are very few space professionals with enough depth and experience in a given space system to be as credible in force employment, presentation and capability requirements discussions as the average pilot is with respect to their aircraft. This unfortunate approach is judged necessary by the relative size of the space operations community, an assessment which provides little consideration for operational impact. The situation is arguably even more detrimental on the support side where personnel are pulled from aviation support duties to perform tours supporting space. Space innovation and operational, legal, and acquisition expertise will continue to suffer until space forces are organized to develop functionally and holistically in order to maximize exploitation of space system capabilities and the orbital environment.

Please continue to monitor OTH for part two of this article, “What Problem is a US Space Force Trying to Solve.”

Lieutenant Colonel Timothy Cox is an Instructor at the Joint Forces Staff College.  He has previously served as the Chief of the Space Control Division at Headquarters Air Force; Commander, 318th Recruiting Squadron; Director of Operations for the 20th Space Control Squadron; Chief of the Commanders Action Group at Air Forces Central Command; and the Air Forces Central Command, Deputy Chief of Staff.  He is married with four children, two of them are currently serving on active duty in the Air Force

Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the US Government.

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