Questions and Answers on the Space Force

Jan. 28, 2020
By Lt. Gen. Bruce “Orville” Wright, USAF (Ret.)

Since becoming President of the Air Force Association, I’ve had the privilege to visit many of our Chapters around the country and to meet with many dedicated individuals and thought leaders. One of those is Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Tom “Tav” Taverney, Chairman of the Board of AFA’s Schriever Chapter in Los Angeles, and a lifelong space expert and advocate. 

Tav helps lead one of our strongest AFA Chapters, where he is ably supported by Chapter President Arnie Streland and Vice President Bill Harding. Tav spent his entire career in the Space business in systems acquisition, satellite operations, space launch, and space doctrine and development planning. In his final assignment, he was Vice Commander of Air Force Space Command. 

I caught up with Tav and captured his take on the new Space Force and what it means for our country and our Air Force and wanted to share his wisdom and insight with you now.  

Orville: Most people seem to be celebrating the creation of a Space Force. Me too! The Air Force has led the Armed Forces to establish America’s space capability and make it unrivaled in the world.  Why is a separate Space Force needed now?

Tav:  The Air Force has been an excellent steward of the space mission. Airmen have led, supported, and embraced the missions of space such that for decades the U.S. has been the uncontested dominant player in space. For many years, space has been a safe haven in which to operate. However, our adversaries have been developing offensive counter-space capabilities, along with space-based systems that threaten our nation’s safety. Therefore, we now have to react to these threats. We are no longer in control of the pace of what is happening in space. 

 Since the end of the Cold War, our adversaries have seen us field and employ space capabilities, such as GPS, which dramatically enable warfighting at the tactical level. They’ve seen how we employ space-enabled precision warfare to create an asymmetric advantage.  They are motivated to offset any military disadvantages by both fielding new space technologies in very short timelines, and by potentially tampering with our orbiting capabilities. We are confronted with a threat profile that cannot be managed using the tools and organizations of the past. 

Deployment of weapons in space is a fact of life, and hypersonic and hyper glide weapons are a clear and present danger to our tactical and strategic posture. A new approach is needed to ensure our future space capabilities and deter attacks against them.

Today, the potential of a space attack is as dangerous to our nation as the threat of a nuclear attack was in the 20th century. Our adversaries have the demonstrated capabilities to threaten our space assets, such as kidnapping, direct ascent intercepts, jamming, dazzling, and spoofing satellites.  

Space today and tomorrow is a combat zone. It requires singular attention and focus. Finally, we are more reliant than ever on the use of space resources in our everyday lives. Communications, television, the internet, energy, trade, financial networks, agriculture, navigation, and even driving our cars are all space dependent. 

There are many reasons for a Space Force, but I think the top three are: 

  1. Space itself has become contested, congested, and commercialized. There will be a day when our critical adversaries use the space superiority assets that they have developed and demonstrated, and we need to be sure, at that time, that space professionals will be making critical decisions during a space conflict.
  2. We have been surprised by advances that the Russians and Chinese have made in militarized space capabilities and in their ability to put at risk U.S. and allied forces with hypersonic and advanced missile threats. We simply need organizations and leaders who will go to sleep at night and wake up in the morning thinking ONLY about space and how to deal with the challenges of today and the future.
  3. I think the big message is that the Space Force will create a unity of effort, and through that unity of effort will create a real, functioning deterrent to conflict in space. The Space Force will meet this need with an organization that is completely focused on space and ONLY space.

Orville:  Are there any analogies in the formation of the Air Force that could be useful or educational in the formation of the Space Force?

Tav: When the Air Force became a separate service in 1947, many felt that the Army could effectively retain the mission. Certainly, the Army led the U.S. Armed Services in establishing America’s military air capabilities as unrivaled anywhere in the world at the close of World War II.   

Additionally, the Army already performed the air mission, and after winning a truly global war, it could be argued that they did so effectively. What additional value did an Air Force create? Did creating an Air Force improve air operations? Of course, it did because we had air professionals focusing on air-related issues and problems.  Creating the Air Force allowed the development of an air culture, with air professionals developing systems, tactics, techniques, and procedures that have led the air component of our military to become unquestioned as the dominant Air Force in the world.  

Orville: Some critics and the Chinese are saying that creating a Space Force will spur an arms race in space. Do you agree?

Tav: Too late – space has been “militarized” since the Russians flew Sputnik in 1957. In other words, we have been providing military capabilities in space. In the early days of space in the ’60s space became “weaponized” as Russia and the U.S. experimented with anti-satellite capabilities. The Russians have been organizing and reorganizing Space Force variants since the 1990s. China already has a Space Force of their own, called the PLA Strategic Support Force, responsible for space, cyber, electronic, and psychological warfare. The PLA believes that they need to control space and they have staffed this organization with high-tech specialists and scientists whose expertise in deep tech will define China’s space warfare capabilities.

Both the Russians and Chinese already are actively pursuing offensive and defensive counter-space capabilities. Our adversaries have realized the huge advantages that space provides, and they are investing mightily in their own space missions and capabilities. These investments have led to space becoming a far more contested environment. 

We need to become more agile to better respond to these rapidly emerging threats from our adversaries and deter them from taking actions that could impact our space capabilities. Deterrence in space requires an organization trained, equipped, and focused on space every day, just like Strategic Air Command was focused on the nuclear deterrent during the Cold War. 

Orville: Are we simply adding a huge bureaucracy that will cost taxpayers a lot of money, and will that money improve the space missions?

Tav: Obviously that is a valid concern, and something that the Air Force and DoD leadership and Congress will keep an eye on, making sure we do not grow a huge bureaucracy. We surely do not have to replicate the size of the other services that grew in a different time. Given the opportunity of a new Space Force organization, coupled with real Silicon Valley style IT advancements, we have an opportunity to radically reinvent ourselves, particularly our business processes. Additionally, the Space Force has no intention of recreating infrastructure that can be ably and adequately provided by the Air Force. 

The Space Force will focus on developing and operating both systems and personnel to meet the security challenges of the new environment, which will, in fact, improve space missions. The Space Force is still within the Department of the Air Force but will provide laser focus on the culture and capabilities necessary to fully realize the effectiveness of space for national security interests.

Orville: Some suggest that, like in Star Trek, the Space Force is more like the Navy than the Air Force. What is your perspective?

Tav: First there is no doubt that Space shares key attributes with the Air Force. The vast majority of space capability has been developed and operated by Airmen. Also, both Air and Space require a strategic perspective and enable speed of maneuver that provides global reach and global power. While Bernoulli and Kepler differ enough to necessitate separate Branches within the Department of the Air Force, the common threads and heritage will always keep us close.

That said, there is certainly something to be said for the naval analogy. It is definitely true that maybe the most important part of the Space Force mission will be to ensure freedom of the use of space, like the Navy assures freedom of the seas. For over two centuries the Navy has helped to mature and enforce acceptable norms of behavior for the peaceful use of the maritime environment. Like space, the oceans are vast, and the Navy cannot be everywhere, but they have the mobility and the capability to project power where and when needed to enhance security.

Orville: I’m with ya’! However, most U.S Air Force and Space Force Airmen know they can get to the fight, from further distances, much more quickly than our Navy or Army and Marines brothers and sisters with incredible precision, lethal weapons and firepower. Bottom line is our Warfighters can never have enough friends in the joint fight!

Tav: Also, like the Navy, the Space Force will likely have to defend the free use of space for commercial ventures. And, also like the Navy, in times of conflict, they will have the right to deny the use of space to our adversaries who would use it to threaten our troops and infrastructure. In space, like at sea beyond the immediate coastal areas, there are no national boundaries. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty declared that space would be free for use by all nations, and it that space is not to be “subject to national appropriation or claim of sovereignty.”  

Today, while no nation has actually claimed sovereignty over space, there are small areas where satellites of specific nations orbit that could be viewed as a portion of that nation’s sovereign property. At some point, as threats increase in the future, these assets likely will need to be defended from both intentional and unintentional threats in an ever-more contested, congested, and competitive environment. Much like the 12-mile limit at sea, nations may declare a keep out zone around their satellites where they may take what they feel are necessary actions to protect and defend their national assets.

Orville: Some have also said that not including ALL of the space missions (those done by the Army, Navy, NASA, and especially the NRO) makes this an ineffective exercise. What do you think?

Tav: NASA was specifically set up to separate civil uses of space from military uses of space. For many good reasons, this separation and imperative should remain. The Air Force today still does not include commercial air travel, or commercial air shipping; while Naval, Marine, or Army Aviation have evolved separately.

The Army and Navy elements of space will likely become part of the Space Force in the near term and there certainly is something to be said for including the NRO. What is and what is not in the Space Force will evolve over time. 

Orville:  It has been said that a prerequisite to creating a new armed service are arms—the ability to achieve kinetic military effects in space. Is that reasonable?

Tav: Looking back at the Air Force’s own history, when the Air Force was formed the Army stated that if you could not capture and hold land/territory that you should not be a military service. The Army also stated that air was merely an extension of artillery support for land and sea operations and certainly didn’t justify its own service. The problem with both of these points of view is that looking at the value and use of a domain through the lens of another domain is sure to accomplish no change in the status quo. Space is fundamental to military success on the modern battlefield. When the US systems that provide for that combat multiplier are under kinetic and non-kinetic attacks by peer adversaries, we need a military service that is trained and ready to ‘fight through’ those attacks to achieve military and strategic objectives in an all-domain conflict.

Space has been a zone of conflict since the launch of Sputnik in 1957. You don’t need to employ kinetic weapons in space to deny that freedom of operations to your adversary. Our space capabilities today could be held at risk. Responding to this threat requires unique space-minded leadership to provide unity of command and effort for development and employment of space strategy, tactics, techniques, and procedures.  

Kinetic weapons in space create a unique problem with orbital debris that can threaten all systems in the domain. And with the U.S. fighting mostly away games, space capabilities are arguably more important to us than our adversaries. While space professionals understand the capabilities and consequences of kinetic weapons, they also understand the benefits of creating reversible, non-kinetic effects, using things like directed energy to provide tactical effects without putting ourselves at a strategic disadvantage in the long run.   

Orville: Air and space are now fully integrated. Is there a risk that in creating the Space Force this integration will suffer?

Tav: There is no doubt that space needs to be integrated into the air mission, and honestly this remains a work in progress. Air and space definitely need to be tightly integrated, but this could be logically extended to say that air, space, land, and sea, like air and space, are also less effective when divided by a line and separated into four distinct categories. They are in truth a single indivisible, joint field of operations, yet we have separate services. Why is that?  There is a really good reason: It is so we grow professionals steeped in each medium. These experts then can grow through their careers within that medium and be prepared to exploit that medium to its maximum extent as part of a joint fight. Today air, land, and sea all have the capability to grow experts who are ready to contribute to the joint fight.  With the Space Force we can now support and enable joint operations in all mediums, not just air.   

The truth is that space contributes much more to the land missions of the Army and Marines, by enabling over-the-horizon communications and precision navigation, than it does to air missions, and it contributes at least as much to naval missions as it does to air missions. So, yes, space needs to be integrated with air, but it also needs to be integrated into the land and sea forces. It is simply time to recognize that space is critical in the fight today, and that we need to focus a professional organization – a military service – that is 100 percent dedicated to space.

Orville: So, to follow up that question, what are the changes you think we need to make, especially in the area of acquisition?

Tav: We have realized that determined adversaries now hold our space capabilities at risk in a variety of ways, so we must move to more proliferated, resilient space systems that can absorb losses, operate through the threat, and continue providing capabilities. We also must address these threats to our space systems with offensive and defensive counter-space capabilities. Combining these two actions will deter adversaries from taking actions that will be both ineffective, and actively responded to.

The reality is we have significantly moved the ball on changing acquisition. However, this is a bigger challenge than just acquisition, it is really more broadly, the “capability development” process. The existing processes of bringing on new space capabilities have served us very well for our first 60 years. But our adversaries are changing both in what systems they are deploying and how quickly they are deploying them. And we must respond to this by changing both what we buy and how we buy it. We need to do more than just change the acquisition processes (though there is still some work to be done here) but the entire capability development business and modify the requirements and funding processes, as well.

Orville: Are there other changes needed to get the right space systems as rapidly as needed?

Tav: We simply must move from a system approach to a mission approach. We need this entire cycle to be more agile, to allow for systems-of-systems to solve requirements.  We cannot confine change to just the acquisition systems, we must focus on the other elements of the capability processes from the development of requirements to the funding of the programs. Pure acquisition itself is on the back end of a larger “capability development” challenge, bringing in the strategic/operational concepts and requirements largely under JCIDS that determines what we need. Currently, all of the requirements need to be included in the very first system we buy. As we develop larger constellations, this must change, so the first system need not look like the 10th or 20th platform, as long as the constellation provides effective mission capability. Additionally, with our adversaries in a continuous state of change, we must be prepared to be agile enough to accommodate a continuous response.  

Orville: Many have talked about the changes that are in the works and also changes to come. This includes having a Service Acquisition Executive directly responsible for space. Where do you think this is all going?

Tav: A space SAE who is subject to the same oversight and DoD-level processes is no different than what we have now, and so this position has to come with a mandate of leading change. Current threats to our space dominance may influence the new SAE to help lead these changes in not just the acquisition processes, but also in both the requirements processes and the funding processes as I have discussed above. 

And while programs do not officially transfer from SAF/AQ until 2022 there is a lot for the SAE to do before then. The SAE needs to develop new processes, build relationships with key players, and have an oar in the water on the architectures we plan to build.  While the new SAE will report to the SecAF, they need to understand that they also work for the new Chief of Space Operations and will have to forge a frequent and open dialogue with Congress. 

Additionally, while it may only be a hope, I would like to see the new Chief of Space Operations (General Raymond), as the expert in the domain and as a Joint Chief, have a stronger role in determining ‘what’ we need to go buy – the interoperable operational level architecture (proliferation, diversification, Allied partnerships, commercial integration) for the range of assigned missions – and then challenge the acquisition executive to find ways to acquire that will achieve mission focus, speed to orbit, continuous improvement, agility, and affordability.

Orville: What do you think are the biggest challenges for the Space Force?   

Tav: The biggest challenge is for the entire command to shift into a joint Warfighter mindset, to focus precious resources on speed, catching up, taking risk, fighting wars. The second biggest challenge is budget. If we maintain a Department of the Air Force budget that can only recapitalize the weapons systems our Airmen must have to fight and win in the space and air domains, then nothing will change. So, budgets must increase, or Warfighter requirements must decrease. You would never ask our Soldiers, Sailors and Marines to go to war with fewer and ever older guns and ships, and we should never put our Airmen in such a position either.