Here's How The Pentagon Plans To Create A New U.S. Space Command Within Months 

The U.S. military is consolidating space-focused operational activities, but questions remain regarding budgets, roles and missions, and more.

Lockheed Martin

The Pentagon is reportedly working to create a new U.S. Space Command to oversee the nation’s space-focused military forces and a new entity to handle buying military satellites and space launch services within months. This could serve as a stepping stone to a fully independent Space Force service branch, but the plan already highlights many of the potential pitfalls of pursuing that course of action, including who will pay for it and how it will fit in with other, existing military organizations.

Defense One’s Marcus Weisgerber got the scoop that the U.S. military is planning to implement the sweeping organization changes by the end of 2018, according to a draft of a report. Following a failed push by some members of Congress to pass legislation to create the wholly separate Space Force in 2017, the Pentagon agreed to study the issue and give its recommendations to lawmakers on how American forces should handle operational and other activities related to space in the future.

“The Department of Defense is establishing a Space Force to protect our economy through deterrence of malicious activities, ensure our space systems meet national security requirements and provide vital capabilities to joint and coalition forces across the spectrum of conflict,” the draft report, dated July 30, 2018, says, according to Defense One. “DoD will usher in a new age of space technology and field new systems in order to deter, and if necessary degrade, deny, disrupt, destroy and manipulate adversary capabilities to protect U.S. interests, assets and way of life … This new age will unlock growth in the U.S. industrial base, expand the commercial space economy and strengthen partnerships with our allies.”

Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan is reportedly the principal architect of the report. He is no stranger to controversial decisions, having also been the primary author of the Pentagon’s latest policy regarding cluster munitions.

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The US Air Force's secretive X-37B space plane, one of the projects that could end up under the control of a new US Space Command or Space Development Agency.

Three new space-focused organizations

His plan for space will create three distinct entities, U.S. Space Command, a Space Operations Force, and a Space Development Agency. This goes beyond the provisions in the proposed defense spending bill for the 2019 fiscal year, which called for the creation of the first organization, but within U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM). The Senate is expected to vote on that legislation in August 2018, after which President Donald Trump could quickly sign it into law.

Though the changes the Pentagon review recommends will be significant, creating a functional U.S. Space Command, or SPACECOM, will be among the easiest things for the Pentagon to do. Between 1985 and 2002, this entity actually existed before then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld ordered it merged with STRATCOM. This subsequently evolved into the Joint Functional Component Command for Space, or JFCC-Space, which stood down in December 2017. The head of the Air Force’s own Space Command, or AFSPC, was also in charge of JFCC-Space and now has the additional title of Joint Force Space Component Commander.

Shanahan’s report describes creating a new, fully separate SPACECOM that will be on equal footing with the U.S. military’s other three functional commands – STRATCOM, U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), and U.S. Transportation Command (TRANSCOM) – but that still shares a commander with AFSPC. In effect, substantial parts of the existing U.S. military space bureaucracy will gain new titles and certain additional authorities, but will remain otherwise unchanged.

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The insignia of US Space Command, which existed from 1985 to 2002.

The same goes for the Space Operations Force, which will have to be abbreviated SpOF to prevent confusion with Special Operations Forces, or SOF. “Similar to Special [Operations] Forces personnel provided by all military services, the Space Operations Force will be composed of the space personnel from all Military Services, but developed and managed as one community,” the draft report says.

It’s not clear if this is truly an accurate representation of the plan, though. When it comes to the SOF community, individual services continue to have some administrative responsibilities for these specialized units, but cede all operational control of them to SOCOM.

The SpOF could similarly end up referring to a collection of existing space-focused units, such as those under AFSPC, with a similar command relationship to the future SPACECOM. It might also refer to the services contributing personnel to create new units, similar to how U.S. Cyber Command went about establishing the National Cyber Mission Force for operations in cyberspace. It may turn out to be a combination of both.

Either way, this will almost certainly involve leveraging most, if not all of the existing U.S. military space units and expanding them, but only as necessary. Again, though this will help improve communication and coordination between existing organizations, it won't necessarily fundamentally change much of their existing command structure, especially at the lower echelons.

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Vice President Mike Pence during a visit to the US Air Force's 50th Space Wing at Schriever Air Force Base. This unit could end up as part of the new Space Operations Force.

A single manager for buying satellites

The biggest change, by far, will be with the creation of the Space Development Agency, or SDA, which will be similar in concept to the Missile Defense Agency, or MDA. It’s not clear if SDA will be a separate entity as is the case with MDA and distinct from SPACECOM or if this organization will be subordinate to the new space-focused headquarters.

Regardless, this new agency will take charge of buying any new military space systems or services, Defense One explains. As existing space-related contracts come up for renewal, responsibility for continuing those deals, or not, will pass to SDA.

At present, the Air Force handles approximately 85 percent of space-related acquisition. With SDA, the service’s direct role in this will effectively cease and could lead to the shuttering of the Space and Missile Systems Center, which oversees most of this work. It is possible that the center could simply morph into the SDA, too, and take on the small amount of space-focused purchasing that exists elsewhere in the U.S. military, primarily within the U.S. Navy.

Even more importantly, the Pentagon report says all of this will serve as a starting place for a fully-fledged separate service branch, as some members of Congress have called for in the past. The plan would be to include a request to create the Space Force in the annual defense budget request for the 2020 fiscal year.

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An artist's impression of “Neighborhood Watch” space monitoring satellites of the Air Force Space Command's Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program, or GSSAP, one of many programs that the Space Development Agency could take responsibility for in the future.

A change in attitude at the Pentagon

This is a dramatic change in the Pentagon’s opinion on the matter from just a year ago, when Secretary of Defense James Mattis personally intervened to kill the previous proposal to create a Space Corps under the Department of the Air Force. The Air Force itself remains vehemently opposed to the idea and stands to lose the most in terms of personnel and resources to an independent space-centric service.

“I think the most important thing is to stay focused on the warfighter and maintaining the lethality of the service, no matter how the org-chart boxes go,” Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson said during an event The Washington Post hosted on July 25, 2018. “If we keep focused on that and not on which boxes move around which place in the Pentagon, then we’ll do the right thing for the nation.”

K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal via AP

Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson speaks at an event in January 2018.

The shift at the Pentagon is likely in no small part due to Trump’s own increased support for a Space Force. The president has publicly declared more than once now that the new service is coming, even though it would be up to Congress to create it, and it continues to face opposition from the Air Force. Deputy Defense Secretary Shanahan reportedly cut the service out of the planning process some time ago, even though their participation will be essential to make the process work, according to Defense One.

And there’s no guarantee that even if a provision for a Space Force ends up in drafts of the Fiscal Year 2020 defense spending bill that it will be part of the legislation when it becomes law. When the plan first appeared in 2017, many lawmakers felt the idea had been sprung on them out of nowhere and questioned whether it made any sense. Those same individuals could easily seek to block funding just for the new SPACECOM or the SDA or demand the Pentagon make additional changes to its space-related command structures and budgeting.

There remains a healthy debate around the notion of a Space Force and it’s unclear how much support the initiative has in Congress at present or might have in the near future. The Pentagon’s immediate plans already underscore many of the possible issues with the idea, chiefly where the money will come from and how SPACECOM will work together with other agencies that have interests in space, such as MDA, the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), the National Security Agency (NSA), and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

Steve Helber—AP

President Donald Trump has become a vocal supporter of an independent Space Force.

Serious questions remain

As I have noted before, supporters of the Space Force concept argue that the Air Force doesn’t have the time or inclination to make space issues a priority and that a single manager is necessary to focus on the issue and streamline the purchases of necessary assets and services. But if the Air Force’s top space officer ends up in charge of SPACECOM, it’s hard to see how that changes. That individual’s attention, especially when it comes to developing budgets, will actually end up split between the service and the military-wide command in this arrangement. Critics have similarly questioned whether it makes sense for the head of U.S. Cyber Command to also be in charge of the NSA and whether that individual can realistically give adequate attention to both entities.

And if SPACECOM ends up having its own budget supplemented with funding through the individual services, as is the case with SOCOM, this might lead to confusion and disputes over who is actually responsible for paying for what programs. There’s also the simple matter of adding another major line into the Pentagon’s overall budget that could lead to infighting for certain resources. This could become more pronounced if SDA ends up separate from SPACECOM and requires its own distinct funding stream.

“Creating a Space Force won’t reduce those tribes,” former Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James, who is also opposed to the plan, said during a panel discussion at the Brookings Institution think tank on July 30, 2018. “It’s too small and will be lost in the shuffle.”

The budget issue will be inseparable from a discussion about what roles and missions SPACECOM, or an independent Space Force, will actually have, too. Any difficulty in segregating its functions from other organizations will become readily apparent if the Pentagon follows through with its plan to create the command and SDA by the end of the year.

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A view inside the U.S. military's Joint Space Operations Center.

Immediate hurdles

The proposed 2019 defense spending package requires MDA to begin development of new sensor-carrying satellites to spot and track incoming ballistic missiles, as well as weapons to destroy them on those missiles on their launch pads from space. Under the Pentagon’s plans, SDA could end up in charge of procuring the satellites and getting them into space, while MDA would be in charge of the payloads.

This could create additional layers of unnecessary bureaucracy and the potential for costly miscommunication that might lead to delays if there is any confusion about the exact technical requirements. The same questions will arise when it comes to other satellite launches for NRO or other intelligence agencies.

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A Cold War-era artist's conception of a notional hybrid ground- and space-based laser weapon to destroy enemy satellites or incoming ballistic missiles.

Of course, none of this is to say that the U.S. military doesn’t need to ensure that it remains serious about how it operates in space and responds to emerging threats in that domain. American forces are increasingly reliant on space assets for communication, navigation, weapon guidance, and more. At the same time, potential high-end opponents, such as Russia and China, have focused their energies on mitigating those advantages in any future conflict through anti-satellite weapons, electronic warfare systems, and other technologies and strategies.

Russia has already criticized the plans for the Space Force, accusing the United States of seeking to militarize space, and these broader issues won't be a purely military problem. At the same panel discussion at Brookings where former Secretary of the Air Force James spoke, Frank Rose, a Brookings senior fellow who previously worked on space security policy for President Barack Obama’s administration, called for a more thought out, whole-of-government approach that combined diplomatic efforts and input from civilian space stakeholders.

Whatever happens, there is a real need for the Pentagon to reassess how it operates in and with regards to space and it appears to be doing just that with the plans for SPACECOM and its associated entities. At the same time, it seems likely that the future military space organization will continue to evolve in the coming months and years and there’s still no guarantee that the end result will actually be a separate, independent Space Force.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com