Home inFocus How We Fight (Winter 2019) Space Force: It’s Time to Act

Space Force: It’s Time to Act

Maj. Gen. Thomas Taverney Winter 2019
Vice President Mike Pence, speaking at the Pentagon on the Space Force, called for an assistant secretary of defense for space. (Photo: U.S. Department of Defense.)

“We are going to have the Air Force and we are going to have the Space Force.” –President Donald Trump, June 2018.

Space capabilities are a critical part of everything we do in the Defense Department. We could not effectively conduct military operations without space. Additionally, the commercial and civil world depends on capabilities from space; from navigation and timing to communications.

Today we do not have the focus, force structure, force posture, operating practices, or warfighting strategy to counter the current or emerging threats to our national interests in space. We do not have an organization with the authority, responsibility, budget, or even direction to assess solutions to these issues with the necessary singular focus.

Weaponizing Space?

Some of the rhetoric, often from non-space professionals, has been about space becoming a dangerous place in which to operate, not just for us, but for the commercial and civil markets across the entire world. The crux of some of these arguments is that a Space Force would militarize (use space for military purposes) and weaponize (put weapons in) space, thereby making space less safe and could result in wars in space.

The first time we armed a soldier or built a tank, did we militarize land? When we built and floated our first naval vessel, did we militarize the sea? When we built our first military aircraft, did we militarize air? I guess the answer is yes. We have always opted to provide the leadership of the country with the ability to defend ourselves in all domains, and to use those domains to the maximum advantage of our country, our international diplomacy, our allies, and our troops.

The reality is, as with other domains, space has already been militarized because we have used space to support our land, sea, and air forces. What we are doing in space is really no different. When we put a communications satellite in orbit and gave our soldiers, sailors, Marines, airmen, and Coast Guardsmen radios, space was militarized. When we got the GPS constellation on orbit and gave a soldier a GPS receiver, space was militarized.

So, the question is, did these actions cause space to become weaponized? And if it is weaponized, will it cause a war? We have proven over many years that the best way to avoid military conflict is to have a strong military with powerful capabilities. It is called “deterrence.” This makes staring a war not a good decision for our adversaries and therefore keeps the peace. As President Ronald Reagan said, “Peace through strength.”

While some may wish weaponizing space never occurred, the fact is that our adversaries get a vote, and have already voted to weaponize space. Russia and China both have demonstrated offensive space capabilities, along with the stated and demonstrated intent to use those capabilities. Additionally, they are both building hypersonic weapons systems to put our nation and our people at risk. Our adversaries now pose a clear and present threat to our national security. If anything, the case for a strong defensive posture in space has strengthened.

Arguments For and Against

Some non-space experts view creation of a Space Force through the lens of creation of the Air Force over 70 years ago: that is, we have no need for a space force until we deliver offensive effects from space. The problem with this view is that it looks at the value and utility of the space medium through the lens of the air medium. All four mediums in which we operate (air, sea, land, and space) have their own utility, strengths, weaknesses, and challenges. Viewing the value of any of them through the perspective of any of the others does not do a service to the medium regarding its advantages and challenges.

We wouldn’t want to assess the Air Force’s value against its ability to occupy ground or separate combatants from non-combatants. As a nation, the Defense Department has done very well when our services have looked at the medium in which they operate in a focused fashion and with world-class experts and leaders in that medium. Space is unique and brings capabilities none of the other domains can contribute. Thus, the use of space systems should be addressed by space professionals steeped in the missions accomplished through, to, and from space.

Another issue is that a different military service would complicate interaction and communication within the Air Force between space and air elements. The truth is that the majority of support from space is to the Army, Navy, Marines, and Special Operations; all are bigger users than the Air Force. We already ensure space is fully integrated into the operations of the other services as well as the Air Force. Space is a domain that transcends regions, and can provide global reach.

Why Now?

The United States has been the clear dominant player in space for more than 25 years. Space has remained a safe and protected place, with amazing growth of a commercial space industry worldwide. Today, space is an international domain with more than 60 nations using it in a peaceful, unthreatened fashion. Unfortunately, the guarantee of operating freely in space no longer exists.

Congressman Jim Cooper (D-TN) said, “Some have argued that the U.S. taking a more belligerent approach to space could encourage a new arms race. But this notion is uninformed. Space is already a war-fighting domain. Pretending our satellites are safe right now is foolish.”

While we have not been surprised at the types of systems Russia and China have been pursuing, we have been surprised by the speed at which they have developed sophisticated space and hypersonic threats. They are rapidly implementing new technologies and their technology-based demonstrations challenge the assured availability of our space capabilities and threaten people and facilities on the ground.

Peers, near-peers, regional powers, and even non-state actors can now hold all or some of our space assets at risk and deny the United States freedom of passage through and operations in space. They also have developed technologies that threaten American assets on the ground. Hypersonic systems threaten our troops and U.S. facilities and equipment as well as our civilian population.

Drivers for Acquisition

1. We need to ensure the safety ofcurrent systems we fly in space – to support military operations, limit collateral and infrastructure damage, and support for international disaster relief. We need to ensure they can continue to support their missions, even while those systems potentially could come under attack from kinetic, electromagnetic, cyber, or other threats. We are not in this game to only protect our satellites, but also to protect those men and women that need our space capabilities to successfully carry out their military and civilian missions.

2. Russia and China are developing anti-space capabilities. We need to ensure freedom of action in space (for peaceful purposes) for the United States, our allies, and the world so space commerce can continue unthreatened and unabated.

3. Additionally, Russia and China are developing hypersonic glide missile threats to the United States, our infrastructure, our people, and that of our allies and friends. We must defend ourselves against these threats. We need space-based systems to locate and track and counter these threats before they hit the United States or our allies.

4. We have been somewhat surprised at the progress Russia and China have made in these areas. We certainly knew they were pursuing hypersonic technology, but the speed at which they have done it has apparently been a surprise. We need to make it somebody’s job to not be surprised.

5. Russia and China are advancing space technology faster than we currently are. They seem to be turning over technology in three to four years, while we are turning technology in seven to 12 years. While we remain the preeminent nation in space, and the leader in space technologies, it is clear it will not take many of their advancement cycles before we begin falling behind.

Why Pursue a Space Force?

Establishing a Space Force is not only about providing effects from space, it is about focus.

If your raison d’être is space, you wake up in the morning and go to bed at night thinking of space and only space. You develope people with a career of experience in space, but also with a strong set of warfighter experiences. Space professionals need to understand the criticality of their systems to the warfighter and gain experience in how they are used. Implementing a Director of Space Forces in the area of responsibility is important, but we clearly need to build closer ties with all of the services and go forward with them to understand fully how space is being used, and be able to determine how it could be used. This will lead to better systems and support. Success in the terrestrial battlespace requires significant cross-domain employment of land, maritime, air and space in mutually supporting and supported relationships.

When the United States does this, instead of reacting to the problem of the day (and with the Air Force having three major missions there is always a problem, or two, of the day) you are able to think about the “what ifs.” What if our adversaries develop hypersonic and multi-burn weapons? What if our adversaries develop more robust antisatellite weapons? What do we do if a determined adversary takes out one of our satellites? What if our adversaries begin turning technology faster than we do? When you are busy solving an F-35 production issue there simply is not time for this type of thinking.

Creating the Right Force

We simply cannot lose sight of the ultimate goal, capturing superiority in space so we can guarantee that our space capabilities are always available, that we advance technology as fast or faster than our adversaries, and that we assure the free and unfettered use of space by all.

The best argument against forming a Space Force is the cost; that it is better to spend our Defense Department dollars on equipment, systems, and training. This is certainly a valid argument. However, using the only number that currently exists (provided by Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson), the cost would be on the order of one half of one percent of the Defense Department budget. And, indeed there may even be ways to lower this estimated cost with a more efficient organization. While some options may save money in the long run, every option would have a near-term cost; the question is how much is that near-term cost?

Creation of a completely separate service equivalent to the Air Force, Army, or Navy would create the greatest cost and bureaucratic disruption. A Corps or Guard may be less disruptive and costly, but still would come with a price tag. We should not create a big bureaucracy and the kind of footprint that would generate a new constellation of civilian leaders, under-secretaries, assistant secretaries, deputy assistant secretaries, their attendant staffs, and all the accompanying bureaucracy. We need to consider the value added of replicating things like basic training, service academies, recruiting, and so on, and what may be more cost-effective functions for the Defense Department to cross-utilize versus the value of a totally independent service.

The advantage of being able to take a fresh look is you can take advantage of modern information systems to do business in a more efficient and effective fashion and with fewer people. The proper alignment of authority and accountability will be critical. The Space Force does not have to be an onerously expensive organization. By exploiting instantaneous digital communications, we can design a much leaner organization with fewer levels of organization, shorter lines of communication, and more rapid, cleaner decision-making. We can create mission managers, combining operations and acquisitions within the same organization. In effect, we can disaggregate the organization and ensure that senior leadership gets and sees everything of use to it. No longer will decisions get staffed and manipulated by a cast of thousands.

However, we need to be vigilant: as Gen. Bernard Schriever observed, the procedures that the Western Development Division created to expedite acquisition and deployment of the first ICBMs and spacecraft devolved during the 1960s into a bureaucratic web that bogged down the acquisition process. How do we put in place safeguards against a similar devolution in the future, without affecting efficiency, speed, and effectiveness, and while including intelligent,  focused oversight? Commercial space and early space developments provide a clue by co-locating smart engineers with authority and responsibility onto the developers’ site.

Probably the key recommendation from Vice President Mike Pence’s speech in August was  a call to establish an Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space to drive and organize this transition – someone steeped in space and all of the elements of launch, on-orbit operations, command-and-control, and acquisition. This person also needs to have a predilection for out-of-the-box thinking and change; be committed to doing this with a very small staff; committed to total accessibility; and have the necessary authority and accountability.

Most importantly, this startup leader needs to commit to the first six months, then get off the stage and let the process pick a qualified secretary unburdened by the inevitable broken glass of setting up a new organization. The skills to start a new organization and the skills to be a secretary differ substantially. With a lean organization of similarly qualified people, this office must lead this transition, with some likely reluctant partners.


The commander-in-chief has spoken, and the time to debate is over. It is time to determine the best and most cost-effective organizational alignment to get the job done, present recommendations to the White House and Congress, and let them do their jobs.

Maj. Gen. Thomas Taverney, USAF (ret.) is a former vice commander of Air Force Space Command. A version of this article appeared in The Space Review.