What Problem is the US Space Force Trying to Solve: Part 2

Editor’s Note: Today we present part two of a two-part series. This second part frameworks describes two additional problems a U.S. Space Force could solve and examines spacepower theory and underlying assumptions of spacepower.

By Timothy J. Cox

Estimated Reading Time: 8 Minutes

The third problem that demands a Space Force becomes apparent when leaders repeatedly argue that “no one has developed a theory of space warfare.” While the validity of the statement is disputable, if it is true and there is no theory of space warfare, then what has the Air Force been doing as the steward of military space? Returning to airpower as an example, (not because it is a perfect fit, but because it is the only modern parallel) it is perhaps useful to consider the relevance of the defining theories of airpower, prior to the creation of the Air Force. The three great inter-war thought leaders on airpower were Giulio Douhet, Hugh Trenchard, and William  “Billy” Mitchell. Douhet’s theory assumed: airpower is inherently offensive and that the bomber will always get through (this one turned out to be disastrously wrong), all future wars will be total wars (also wrong), civilian morale can be diminished by direct attack (not always: Japan, Germany, Britain), and the dominance of the defensive form of ground warfare is permanent (false, see the battle of 73 Easting). To these, Trenchard’s theory added new assumptions: the offensive is the stronger form of war (maybe, still debated); night navigation, target acquisition, and bombing accuracy are manageable problems (proven); and air superiority is a prerequisite for all other military operations (valid). Finally, Mitchell added these further assumptions: the advent of aviation was revolutionary in military affairs (valid); anti-aircraft artillery is ineffective (false, please meet my friend SAM); airpower can defend the Continental US more economically than the Navy and that naval warfare is obsolete (at best still unproven); airmen are a special and elite breed of people, and they alone can understand the proper employment of airpower (valid). These defining historical theories of airpower, which justify a dedicated military service, get less than half the underlying assumptions right; which is, in the final analysis acceptable. We are, after all, talking about theories.

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Credit: Timothy J. Cox

With that in mind, one can easily apply the validated assumptions of airpower to spacepower for comparison.

1) Night navigation, target acquisition, and bombing accuracy are manageable problems–my spacepower translation: rapid launch cycles, debris mitigation and orbital strike and defense capabilities are manageable problems.

2) Air superiority is a prerequisite for all other military operations– my spacepower translation: Space superiority is a prerequisite for all other military operations.

3). The advent of aviation was revolutionary in military affairs–my spacepower translation: The advent of military space exploitation was a revolution in military, civil, and commercial affairs.

4) Airmen are a special and elite breed of people, and they alone can understand the proper employment of airpower–my spacepower translation: Military Space Professionals are a special and elite breed of people, and they alone can understand the proper employment of spacepower.

For argument’s sake, these can be called the four underlying assumptions of space power; assumptions one and four will likely have some nay-sayers, although they really shouldn’t. But assumptions two and three can’t really be subject to much debate.

Today, airpower theory derives from Air Force doctrine, making the accepted definition of airpower a product of an extant Air Force. At the time of the Air Force’s creation, there was still vigorous debate about what airpower was and how best it could be employed, particularly between the Army and the Navy, who were both employing airpower, but in each case, in a way subordinated to their principal missions. After its creation in 1947 the Air Force defined airpower principally through the lens of strategic bombardment based on the experiences of World War Two which built on the previously mentioned assumptions. Today, airpower is agreed to be the ability to project military power or influence through the control and exploitation of air. With that in mind, an underlying acceptance is as airpower theory evolves, so will spacepower theory. Spacepower can be defined as “the ability to project military power or influence through the control and exploitation of space to achieve strategic, operational or tactical objectives.” Since it takes an actual Air Force to define, redefine and make doctrinal the common understanding and theory of airpower, it is only rational to have a military Space Force department responsible for institutionalizing the theories and understanding of spacepower, perhaps derived from the proposed verbiage above.

The Fourth and final problem a space force would solve is one of consistency.  According to the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act, military services in the United States exist for two stand-out reasons.  The first is to organize, train, and equip military forces specific to their assigned domains, Army: the ground; Navy: the maritime domain; Marines: the Littoral and the Air Force: the air domain. The second, to advocate within the Department of Defense (DoD) for the capabilities which can be used within their domains to execute joint operations in service to national security requirements. The services do not fight wars. They present domain specific forces to Joint Force Commanders. Following the creation of a Space Force, air superiority assets would continue to be presented by the Air Force while the Space Force would present orbital assets and derived capabilities. Joint Force Commanders would then employ them (along with required Army, Navy, and Marine forces) in an integrated fashion to win wars. This is the legal and practical model for military force presentation in the DoD. Yet, in the case of the space domain, forces are presented by three separate military departments without the cohesive vision or understanding that would come from a dedicated service. This inconsistency prohibits warfighting commanders from having the same level of space leadership and integration that is assured from the other domains.

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With these premises understood, the most pressing remaining question is when a Space Force should be created. Many experts writing and speaking on this topic seem to agree that there may be a need for a Space Force, but that it should happen in the future, not now. As in all out-years planning, this approach takes the essential and makes it the aspirational; and like all out-years planning, it is nothing more than a money game. Services (and their advocates) have huge mission and austere budgets. Therefore, they are not interested in supporting endeavors as fiscally disruptive as the creation of a new military department. This makes sense from the parochial service point of view. For the remainder of DoD and national leadership, however, it is necessary to recognize that the threat to orbital forces and their dependencies is real in the here and now. The first kinetic shots of the next great power conflict will be fired in space. Space capabilities are a center of gravity for US forces that any enemy would be foolhardy not to attack early in the conflict. If the US waits for a destructive event on the scale of the previous world wars to compel action on the creation of a space service, then it will have squandered the opportunity to potentially prevent such an event from happening at all. Would Japan have attacked Pearl Harbor if leaders had listened to airpower theorist who called for intercontinental ranged bombers and continuous combat air patrols? Certainly the knowledge that Japan would immediately receive a retaliatory strike would have been a compelling consideration against taking action.

In the face of adversaries with proven anti-satellite capabilities and the realization that any maneuverable space object can be turned into a co-orbital weapon, the time to act is now. The Air Force has not failed to secure assured space dominance because of poor leadership, lack of imagination, or incompetent execution. It has been unsuccessful because it is the Air Force…a service created to dominate the air. That is not going to change no matter how long the US may decide to wait. As time passes, however, what will change is the relative competitiveness of potential adversaries and their space capabilities. It will take years and commitment to achieve dominance in space as it did in the air, on the sea, and on land. Thus, the US cannot afford delay. Space pirates are not standing-by, ready to blast to the rescue. American space dominance in the future will be decided by the choices we make now. Choose wisely.

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 U.S. Government.

Spacepower Theory chart and space power definition are original to the author.

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