Failure To Launch? Pentagon's Space Force Plan Could Hamstring The New Service's Leadership

A draft proposal lays out a command structure that weakens the position of the potential sixth branch's top officer from the very start.

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After considering a number of possible options, the Pentagon is pushing to create an independent U.S. Space Force within the umbrella of the Department of the Air Force, similar to the relationship between the U.S. Marine Corps and the Department of the Navy. Unfortunately, the chain of command the present proposal outlines would put the service’s future top officer at an immediate disadvantage in deliberations over budget and policy, potentially exacerbating the exact issues that it’s supposed to solve.

DefenseNews’ Valerie Insinna was first to get the scoop on the latest Space Force plan, getting a chance to look at the draft proposal. On Dec. 13, 2018, Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, who is in charge of trying to make the new service a reality, said his office had settled on one option, but was not prepared to say which one. The formal announcement is supposed to come when the Pentagon publicly releases its next budget request, for the 2020 Fiscal Year, in February 2019.

“There is established a United States Space Force as an armed force within the Department of the Air Force,” the proposed legislation reads, according to DefenseNews. President Trump and his administration, who have been ardent supporters of an independent Space Force, will need Congress’ approval to create what would be the sixth military service branch.

This is an arrangement that is similar to one that Mike Rogers, a Republican Representative from Alabama, and Jim Cooper, a Democratic colleague from Tennessee, had pitched in 2017 as part of the defense budget deliberations for the 2018 Fiscal Year. That proposal, which called for a Space Corps, subsequently got nixed from the final annual defense policy bill, or National Defense Authorization Act.

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The US Air Force's experimental unmanned X-37B spacecraft, one of many assets that could be shifted to a new Space Force.

Space Corps was intended to reflect the fact that the new branch would exist as a separate entity under the Department of the Air Force, the same way the Marine Corps operates under the Department of the Navy. Trump, who has become an ardent supporter of creating a Space Force, described the future arrangement as “separate but equal” when he publicly directed the Pentagon to begin planning for the Space Force in June 2018.

Proponents of an independent Space Force argue that the U.S. military’s space-based activities do not get the attention they need under existing arrangements. At present, the Air Force is responsible for the vast majority of procurement and research and development related to space capabilities, with the other services playing far smaller roles.

It is definitely true that space has been an often neglected aspect of the U.S. military enterprise, even as it has become central to its everyday workings. It is only becoming more and more critical for the United States to be able to defend itself against rapidly emerging threats from jamming, spoofing, and physical attacks on satellites that handle vital communications, intelligence gathering, and early warning missions. At the same time, the U.S. military will have to ensure that its own space-based developments, including new satellites and other spacecraft, move ahead as smoothly as possible to ensure the United States retains its edge against potential adversaries.

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A modified Russian MiG-31, in the foreground, carries what appears to be an anti-satellite weapon during a test in September 2018. This is just one of many threats facing U.S. military assets in space.

Space Force, at least in theory, would give the “space domain” an equal seat at the various tables within the Pentagon and create a single manager who can better prioritize space policy and procurement decisions. Critics contend that it will simply create an additional layer of bureaucracy that will only make things worse.

At least based on the draft document DefenseNews reviewed, this criticism may well be justified and there should be serious concerns about how separate or equal the Space Force might actually be in the end. Most notably, while the service would have a uniformed Chief of Staff of the Space Force, its top civilian official would be an Undersecretary of the Air Force for the Space Force.

This is important, because, in the United States, civilian military leadership outranks uniformed leadership. The Chief of Staff of the Space Force would be subordinate to the service's civilian leader, who in this case, is subordinate to the Secretary of the Air Force.

This is not at all how the Marine Corps’ relationship with the Navy exists. There is no Undersecretary of the Navy for the Marine Corps and the Commandant of the Marine Corps reports directly to the Secretary of the Navy. Space Force' structure is significantly different, which may have budgeting and policy ramifications.

Joseph Trevithick

The basic command chain structure the Pentagon describes in its draft Space Force legislative proposal.

Joseph Trevithick

The basic command chain structure for the top leadership of the Navy and Marine Corps.

DefenseNews did not say how Space Force’s budget, already a serious point of contention between the Air Force and the Pentagon, might be structured. Previously proposals to put the new space-focused service under the Air Force featured a shared Air Force/Space Force budget.

If that is the case, the Secretary of the Air Force will get the final say in how much money would go to its sister service. So, what the Space Force proposal is describing is creating an intermediate level of bureaucracy between the service’s top uniformed officer, the primary advocate for its actual operational units and their needs, and the person in charge of their budget. It is not hard to see how this relationship could implicitly prioritize the Air Force’s requirements over those of the Space Force.

Furthermore, this Space Force chain of command would put the Chief of Staff of the Space Force in a differently awkward situation within the overall Joint Chiefs of Staff. The “separate but equal” Space Force chief would be sitting next to the Air Force chief and only one of them would have a direct line to the same civilian top boss.

Every other individual in the room would report to a civilian service secretary – Secretaries of the Army and the Navy. It’s hard to see how the Space Force commander’s policy opinions, which would rely on the agreement, at least to some degree, of an Undersecretary of the Air Force, could carry the same weight as any of their other service counterparts.

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Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson, at left, and Chief of Staff of the Air Force General David Goldfein.

It is entirely possible that this is simply the first phase of the proposed creation of Space Force. The Pentagon has outlined a number of steps building up to the formation of the independent service, including the re-establishment of U.S. Space Command, or SPACECOM, akin to U.S. Cyber Command. President Trump issued the order to stand up SPACECOM on Dec. 18, 2018.

Even if the plan is only transitional, it risks creating parochial animosity between the Air Force and the Space Force if and when the latter becomes truly independent. The Air Force is already often at odds with the Pentagon and Congress over the Space Force concept at its most basic level.

Deputy Defense Secretary Shanahan, who is now taking on increased duties after Defense Secretary James Mattis’ decision to resign in February 2019, has previously sought to dismiss concerns about the difficulties in rearranging the U.S. military’s organization charts. This draft proposal, unfortunately, only seems to serve to highlight the myriad pitfalls that exist when creating a new service branch.

If the Trump Administration is determined to push ahead with Space Force as a way to give military activities in space the increased attention they rightly deserve, it’s essential to ensure that the future service’s leadership isn’t hobbled from the very beginning.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com