Fighting and Winning in Space - Today and Tomorrow

Lt. General Bruce Wright

August 14, 2019

By Lt. Gen. Bruce “Orville” Wright, USAF (Ret.)

In the coming weeks, a conference committee of House and Senate lawmakers will join together to hammer out a compromise on how best to defend the vital interests of the United States in space. Whether their solution is a “Space Corps” or “Space Force” matters little in the grand scheme; what’s important—essential, in fact—is that the US answer the rising threats posed by China and Russia against commercial, military and intelligence satellites with unparalleled military capability to deter and, if necessary, defeat enemy threats in space.

This is a national imperative.

With his 2020 budget proposal, President Donald Trump set the vector for greater focus on space, and with Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein on his wing, and now support from both houses of Congress, the nation is answering that call.

As far back as 75 years ago, Gen. Hap Arnold, the father of our US Air Force was already thinking about the daunting challenges of potential conflicts in space. He believed war in space would someday prove inevitable and set about preparing for that eventuality, working closely with America’s best civilian engineers and innovative thinkers. Arnold’s forethought helped lead to the creation of today’s RAND Corporation. In 1946 a study that Arnold inspired was titled “Preliminary Design of an Experimental World-Circling Spaceship.”

Space continued to loom large in the imaginations and actions of Air Force leaders in the decades to follow. In the 1950s and ’60s, USAF Gen. Bernard “Bennie” Schriever developed the first USAF intercontinental nuclear ballistic missile system, forming the foundation for the most powerful leg of our nuclear triad today. In the 1960s and ’70s, Air Force pilots, scientists and engineers played critical roles in winning the space race to put a man on the moon, and in developing satellites for weather, communications, navigation, and intelligence gathering. In 1982, Air Force leaders established the U.S. Air Force Space Command to lead the services’ efforts in launching and operating military satellites. Today, combat operations are unthinkable without the direct support and integration of space assets managed and coordinated by US Air Force Airmen.

Now the game is changing.

American superiority and dominance in space was an accepted fact of life for generations, largely taken for granted in recent decades as the nation’s primary military focus was violent extremism and counterinsurgency campaigns. Meanwhile, as America was distracted by those challenges, China’s military ambitions, fueled by a rapidly growing manufacturing and export economy, expanded. China invested heavily to combat U.S. advantages in air, land, sea, cyber and especially space, including developing anti-satellite weapons. China correctly observed that the common denominator in U.S. dominance in every other domain was ultimately its advantage in outer space.

Similarly, Russia sought to leverage its advanced space capabilities to challenge U.S. technological leadership.

As a result, space is no longer an international sanctuary and Gen. Arnold’s prescience is clear. Space would become a potential warfighting domain.

As chief of staff, Gen. Goldfein has aggressively responded to this imperative, recognizing that America’s and its allies’ current and future security depend on our freedom to operate in space. “We’re here at the creation of the transition from a benign environment to a more contested environment,” he said as he convened the first-ever international air chiefs space conference in Colorado Springs this past April. “And because we’re so early in the discussions, it presents us the opportunity to become more interoperable faster.”

Interoperability in space, both among the military services and among allies, is crucial. The ability to fight concurrently across multiple domains will advantage our defenses and confound adversaries should we ever need take the offensive.

US Air Force Space Command

With 28,000 experienced space-smart Airmen, today’s US Air Force Space Command (AFSPC) is perfectly positioned as the foundational element of a future US Space Force. Through it, America can ensure it has the space talent, expertise and systems to guarantee America’s vital interests in the space domain – now and in the future.

Air Force Gen. Jay Raymond will lead those forces, as well as U.S. Space Command (USSPACECOM), the new joint warfighting command that will be responsible for leading military operations in space. Gen. Raymond couldn’t be better prepared for this critical role: From command experience defending the US and allies against potential threats from North Korean missiles to operational command of space missions at the squadron, wing and component levels, his background provides the ideal mix of experience to answer the president’s call for a new national commitment to military space. And as the leader of both commands, he will be uniquely positioned to envision both future requirements of USSPACECOM and to shape the force that will provide its warfighters and combat capability. [TN3]

Organizing, Training, and Equipping for Space

This new cadre of space warriors will draw directly from the proven performance and experience of Airmen and the structure of AFSPC. Whether a Corps or a Force, its mission will mirror those of its sister services—the Air Force, Army, Navy and Marine Corps—with responsibility to organize, train, and equip forces in support of the nation’s joint warfighting commands. It will build upon its foundational Air Force heritage and grow up within the nurturing envelope of today’s Department of the Air Force. Hence, there may be a time in the future to rename our long-established and proven Department of the Air Force as the Department of the US Air and Space Forces or Aerospace Force, to underscore the importance of both domains. Together, this air and space team would operate from, through and in the air and space domains.

Acting Secretary of the Air Force Matt Donovan argues for going one step further. He’s called for Congress to explicitly include the U.S. Space Force in Title 10 of the U.S. Code, arguing for an entirely separate force in a recent article. “America needs a U.S. Space Force to dominate our adversaries,” he wrote. “It must be a new and separate service to realize its full potential.”

The precedent already exists, however, for two separate military services to coexist organizationally within a single military department, sharing resources and capabilities wherever that makes sense. This is how the US Navy and Marine Corps have operated for more than 240 years.

It will also be important for Congress to consider the appropriate organizational umbrella for the extensive space-based capabilities of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). Integrating Space Force Warfighter intelligence within the current NRO and tying that directly to the Space service can help ensure development and fielding of space intelligence systems that are inherently responsive to the needs of persistent joint Warfighter intelligence requirements.

Likewise, by honing the NRO’s current space intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) mission to further emphasize direct Warfighter support, a space force could make it easier to define future requirements and to rapidly develop affordable space ISR technology. An essential ingredient of the NRO success story over the years is the significant presence of US Air Force Airmen across the organization. Much can be learned, meanwhile, from the NRO’s flat organizational structure and its use of Title 50 intelligence authorities to speed space acquisition. NRO Director, Dr. Chris Scolese, will be invaluable in this process.

Space and the Unified Command Plan (UCP)

One factor that has received far less attention than it merits in discussions to date is the impact of creating a new military service on the Unified Command Plan. This will require extensive deliberations among the Joint Chiefs of Staff under the leadership of Gen. Mark Milley, who will ascend to the chairmanship this fall, along with Secretary of Defense Mark Esper. Although Gen. Milley and Secretary Esper are both outstanding military-experienced leaders, they have little direct space systems and operations leadership experience; the pending confirmation of Gen. John Hyten as Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs answers this need. Gen. Hyten, currently commander of US Strategic Command and a prior chief at U.S. Air Force Space Command, will bring valuable expertise and insight to these discussions, as will Gen. Raymond as head of USSPACECOM and Gen. Goldfein as Air Force chief of staff. A valuable and experienced leader and contributor to UCP deliberations, Gen. Tod Wolters, the current Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, has prior leadership responsibilities as director of operations for U.S. Air Force Space Command.


In addition to USSPACECOM, the Space Development Agency (SDA) now in the office of Secretary of Defense is meant to focus on compelling advocacy for space capabilities funding, development, acquisition and fielding. As the mission of the SDA evolves, it will be essential to ensure close Headquarters, USAF collaboration. The current Vice Commander for AFSPC is stationed in the Pentagon, and can also provide needed space domain experience. Lt. Gen. “DT” Thompson, has over thirty years of space operations and capabilities development experience and will be directly involved in USAF Service inputs to SDA objectives. For example, the SDA organization should reinforce the proven development and acquisition capabilities of the US Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles.


Over the next two decades, the American taxpayer should also know how their safety and dependence on space systems will be ensured and who will lead operations and systems development to deter and defeat our adversaries in the space domain. Our US Air Force has a great answer. Since 1997, the US Air Force Weapons School at Nellis AFB in Nevada has continued to produce the best space warriors in the world. The young men and women selected to attend the Weapons School space Warfighter curriculum are among the top 10 percent of USAF captains in the space career field. After an intensive six-month course, these space operators are the experts at the fighting edge of the space joint battlespace. Neither the Navy or the Army have such a demanding integrated space, air and cyber school.


Possibly most inspiring and encouraging in the development of America’s future Space Warriors, the U.S. Air Force Academy and its cadets have been actively building and launching satellites for more than a decade. Since the mid-2000s, the Air Force Research Lab has sponsored the FalconSAT program, providing funding and payloads to give USAFA cadets this unique opportunity. Each FalconSAT has included payloads intended to provide flight heritage and experimental data to researchers at AFRL, the Academy, NASA, Air Force Space Command and major contractors.


Our Space Force Airmen will also have the opportunity to fly the combat space plane force that must be a future leading-edge deterrent capability of the new Space Force. Our enemies cannot be allowed to field such capability before we do. While debates over manned or unmanned space planes will continue, one central fact remains. The human brain is not reliant on the electromagnetic spectrum to make life and death decisions and cannot be jammed. More important, neuroscientists tell us that only the human cerebrum can rapidly make the transition from ruthlessness to compassion within the demands of combat operations. With the power of space-based weapons and worldwide strategic consequences looming in our future, we must keep the reliability of manned, not just unmanned, combat space planes in our planning, research and development.

Then and Now: America’s Vital Interests in Space

At Gen. Hap Arnold’s funeral in Arlington Cemetery, his honorary pallbearers included Gen. George Marshall and President Dwight Eisenhower. The leadership experience of President Eisenhower, Gen. Marshall and Gen. Arnold were forged by the hard lessons of WWII, when the United States of America was called upon to save the world from tyranny.

We face no less daunting challenges today. China wants nothing more than to challenge American economic and political leadership around the globe; rivals like Russia and upstarts like Iran and North Korea seek to sew dissent and conflict wherever they can to undermine international unity and peace. As in World War II, American creativity, dynamism, and innovation will be called on again to answer the nation’s call and the emerging challenges we face around the world. Just as the US Air Force and the doctrines of airpower evolved out of that great conflict 75 years ago, we will someday look back at this moment in history as the time when the seeds were planted by our current Commander in Chief to provide our nation with a dominant and powerful US Space Force.