December 23, 2019

Fighting and Winning in Space with Our New U.S. Space Force

by Bruce "Orville" Wright
AFA President

With the stroke of a pen, President Trump signed into law the creation of the new U.S Space Force on Dec. 20 at Andrews Air Force Base. Like President Truman’s move to create an independent Air Force 72 years before, this date will go down in history as the launching point for a new era in American military power. 

Air Force Airmen have been developing space capabilities for decades, providing critical advantages to our nation’s military. Now the new U.S. Space Force will be forged by the Airmen who make up Air Force Space Command and who share a heritage tracing back to the very roots of our Air Force. Congress must now ensure adequate, sustaining resources to ensure our U.S. Space Force is armed and ready for their new missions.

Already in 1946, Gen. Hap Arnold, the father of our US Air Force, foresaw conflict in space and began working with America’s best civilian engineers and innovative thinkers on a study for the “Preliminary Design of an Experimental World-Circling Spaceship.”

In the 1950s and ’60s, 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 provided crucial support to win the space race and put a man on the moon, and developed satellites for weather, communications, navigation, and intelligence. And in the ’80s, Air Force leaders established the U.S. Air Force Space Command to launch and operate military satellites. 

Now that command will become the central component of our new U.S. Space Force, a distinct military service branch residing within the Department of the Air Force. Its mission: to organize, train, equip, and operate forces to support joint warfighting requirements from space. 

Hence, leadership of our Air Force is wisely considering whether to rename the department to something inclusive, perhaps the Department of the U.S. Air and Space Forces or the Department of the Aerospace Forces. Either would underscore the importance of both the Air and Space domains – as well as the enduring connection between the two. Air and space will always be closely intertwined to best deter and defeat a wide spectrum of current and future enemy capabilities. 

Other changes are also in the offing. The Defense Department and Congress must still decide when and how to transition space assets and expertise in the other services to the fledgling Space Force, and they must tackle the issue of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), an intelligence agency with a budget embedded within the Air Force Department’s budget. Integrating Space Force warfighter intelligence into the new service is the right thing to do. It would help ensure space intelligence systems are inherently responsive to the needs of persistent joint Warfighter requirements and make it easier to define future requirements for space-based intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) systems. At the same time, the new U.S. Space Force could learn much from NRO’s flat organizational structure and its expertise in speeding up space acquisition. 

One factor that has not yet received the attention it merits is the impact this new military service will have on the Unified Command Plan. This is a matter for the Joint Chiefs of Staff to work through under the leadership of the Chairman, Gen. Mark Milley, along with Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, and Vice Chairman Gen. John Hyten, whose Air Force experience and expertise with space systems will be key, as will the voice of the first Chief of Space Operations, Gen. John Raymond, who will become the newest member of the JCS. 

Together, these leaders will also have to work through overlapping roles and responsibilities for numerous organizations, ranging from U.S. Space Command to the Space Development Agency (SDA). The evolving SDA can leverage proven development and acquisition capabilities at the U.S. Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles.

Training will also require focus. The new Space Force can draw on the Air Force Academy (and the other academies as well) for future leaders, and it can draw on the Air Force Weapons School space Warfighter curriculum, an intensive six-month course for the top 10 percent of captains and NCOs designed to advance their skills as experts in space; there is no such program in any of the other services. 

What those future leaders will do in space must also continue to evolve. While today’s space-focused Airmen operate from ground stations here on Earth, future space leaders may operate from orbit. There is little doubt combat space planes will be needed to defend and deter aggression in space in the coming decades, and the United States must maintain its international security advantage by not allowing others to field such capabilities before we do. 

The debate over whether these spacecraft should be manned or unmanned is far from over for a reason: The human brain is not reliant on the electromagnetic spectrum to make life and death decisions, but unmanned systems are, and can therefore 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. Autonomous systems are not yet good enough to preclude manned options in space. 

Our first Air Force leaders forged their mettle in the crucible of World War II. We face different challenges today, but they are no less daunting. China is challenging American economic and political leadership around the globe; Russia, Iran, and North Korea sow dissent and conflict, and seek to undermine international unity and peace. 

Just as in World War II, American creativity, dynamism, and innovation are essential to maintaining world order. Today’s Space Force and its Airmen, like the U.S. Air Force from which they spring, must rise to the occasion to protect our freedoms. I remain absolutely confident in America’s Airmen to fight and win!