Insight - Making Sense of Trump's Space Force

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

By Brian Weeden, Director of Program Planning

On June 18, 2018, President Trump directed the creation of a “Space Force” as the United State’s sixth military service. Though the announcement was a surprise to nearly everyone, including most of the leadership in the Department of Defense, the underlying issues and concerns were not. The U.S. national security space community has been grappling with how best to organize itself for nearly two decades. The debate began in earnest with the Rumsfeld Commission Report in January 2001, but was sidelined with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In the last few years, growing counterspace threats from Russia, China, and others have increased the urgency for accelerating the development of new capabilities and improving the resilience of its space systems. In late 2016, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL) reignited the space reorganization debate in Congress and began a legislative push for creating a Space Corps within the Department of the Air Force.

As is often the case with a policy ad lib by President Trump, the announcement kicked off a surge of media and public interest. It was the first time most people had heard of these issues and the aggressive rhetoric President Trump used to describe the Space Force led many to believe it was made up on the spot or involved a Hollywood-version of space warfare with starships and Buck Rogers. This created opportunities for SWF and other experts to weigh in and explain that it was a real issue, but also quite different than what most presumed: more robots and radio frequency jamming than soldiers and explosions in space.

After the announcement, there was much speculation about what the Space Force would look like, but few hard details. At the time, then Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan was in the midst of a study of options for reorganizing the national security space sector that was mandated by Congress several months before President Trump’s announcement. After the President’s announcement, Shanahan re-oriented his study, published in August 2018, towards recommending five steps that would meet the President’s vision. The Department of Defense spent the fall of 2018 and early 2019 hard at work refining those options to include in the President’s Budget Request for Fiscal Year 2020 and also taking part in a broader interagency discussion to draft a presidential directive for its implementation. A separate report by the Center for Naval Analyses, also mandated by Congress before President Trump’s announcement, urged caution on moving too fast to create a new military department.

The official Trump Administration Space Force proposal that emerged from these discussions was released in late February and was much less ambitious than President Trump’s original direction. On February 19, 2019, President Trump signed Space Policy Directive-4, directing the DOD to develop a plan for establishing the Space Force as a Space Corps within the Department of the Air Force as a step towards a completely separate department in the future. The actual strategic plan, along with a formal legislative proposal, was released publicly on March 1.  Although the Administration continues to call it the “Space Force,” it is actually a Marine Corps-like organization within the Department of the Air Force. The plan also calls for a “lean” start-up phase that forgoes a new headquarters building and significant increases in personnel, but still is expected to cost around a billion dollars (a number that doesn’t include any new space capabilities, just a reorganization of existing personnel and offices).

In a related but separate step, President Trump also issued a directive to re-establish United States Space Command (USSPACECOM) as the combatant command for space. U.S. law largely divides the military into two separate organizational structures, one for the operate, train, and equip (OT&E) function and the other for warfighting functions. The services traditionally perform the OT&E functions to acquire capabilities and recruit and train people to operate them, which are then provided to the combatant commands, such as Central Command (CENTCOM), to use in operations in their area of responsibility. USSPACECOM had previously existed from 1985 until 2002, when its duties were absorbed by United States Strategic Command. Bringing back USSPACECOM is not a controversial move and was already authorized by Congressional legislation passed in 2018.

However, a few key questions remain undecided. From a bureaucratic perspective, there’s a big unanswered question of how space acquisitions will be coordinated. A study done by then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Shanahan proposed the creation of a Space Development Agency (SDA), which would take over creation of new space capabilities but recommended leaving the Space and Missile Center (SMC), currently part of Air Force Space Command, intact. The Pentagon has also created the new Space Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO) (formerly known as the Operationally Responsive Space Office) to handle development of new capabilities, including space.The Space Force legislative proposal gives it full responsibilities for all “major military space acquisitions programs,” which presumably excludes the intelligence programs managed by the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), but otherwise does not provide much direction on how acquisitions will be coordinated between SMC, SDA, and the Space RCO and when each will transition into the Space Force. This could lead to confusion, duplication of effort, and even counterproductive programs.

More broadly, there’s an important unanswered question about what the overall mission of the Space Force will be and how much it will focus on in-space activities versus supporting terrestrial military activities. Historically, the primary mission for military space has been force enhancement - to provide capabilities that enhance and improve other national security activities on earth such as intelligence, precision munitions, and communications. Some of the biggest proponents of the Space Force feel this should change, and the primary mission should be supporting activities in space, such as attacking or defending satellites and providing security for commercial mining and other speculative space activities. The proposed mission for the Space Force as outlined in the legislative proposal includes “projecting military power in, from, and to space in support of our Nation’s interests” and “ensuring that needed space capabilities are integrated and available to all U.S. Combatant Commands,” which could be interpreted either way.

A closely related question is whether the Space Force will spend more of its budget on developing new offensive counterspace capabilities. The United States has had such capabilities in the past, ranging from the nuclear-tipped Program 437 in the early 1960s to the conventional ASM-135 carried by F-15 fighters in the mid-1980s, both direct-ascent anti-satellite weapons. Since the ASM-135 program was canceled by the Reagan Administration, the U.S. has relied mainly on non-kinetic counterspace capabilities, such as jamming and cyber attacks, to deal with adversarial space threats. Some proponents of the Space Force see it as a way to push past the bureaucratic and political obstacles to developing new offensive capabilities to deal with ballistic missile threats or Russian and Chinese space capabilities in a future conflict. How such capabilities will complement, and not undermine, the broader U.S. national security space strategy of resilience and deterrence is unclear and an important question to answer before they are developed.

Finally, there is the question of how the Trump Administration’s more aggressive rhetoric on potential conflict in space that often accompanies the Space Force discussions will impact the security and stability of the space domain. The U.S. military has considered space a warfighting domain for decades, but until recently, the United States has refrained from declaring so as a matter of public policy. Some commentators have welcomed this shift in public rhetoric from the Trump Administration, which are often coupled with proclamations about American dominance in space, and believe that a more aggressive rhetoric and military posture will deter future attacks. But as has happened in other domains and many other times across human history, preparing for war can sometimes help lead to war. Normalizing space as “just another domain of warfare” and legitimizing attacks on satellites may lower the political and normative cost of adversary attacks on U.S. satellites and could also have negative impacts on the future commercial and civil development of space.

As always, SWF will remain an active player in these debates and discussions. In early April 2019, our staff published an update to last year’s inaugural report on Global Counterspace Capabilities, which provided much-needed open source details and realistic assessment of the threats facing satellites. We hope the updated report will encourage more public dialogue and debate about these issues and help inform future U.S. policy. We are also developing additional projects to increase the transparency of space activities and continuing our work with CONFERS on developing norms of behavior for commercial satellite servicing and rendezvous and proximity operations. Our staff are also involved as legal and technical experts in the Woomera Manual and MILAMOS Project to help clarify the international law on military space activities. Finally, we are working on partnerships to develop and run more tabletop exercises that show what effects space capabilities might have on future crises, escalation, and conflict.

Last updated on April 2, 2019