The House Armed Services Committee (HASC) and the United States Air Force (USAF) are warring over what to do with space. Congressman Mike Rogers, the chairman of HASC’s strategic forces subcommittee, has argued that space capabilities have become important enough to merit its own military branch. His proposal would create a “Space Corps”. The new organization would report to the secretary of the Air Force, and would also have a seat on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson has pushed back on the proposal, saying that it would overcomplicate a mission that is supportive in nature, rather than independent. Who is correct: the Chairman, or the Secretary? Well, the answer depends on what you think space is for.
Congressman Rogers sees space as a combat domain of its own—along with land, sea, air, and cyberspace. When he spoke about his idea in April, he argued that space capabilities cannot be properly managed by people who, “get up each morning thinking about fighters and bombers…you cannot organize, train, and equip in space the way you do a fighter squad.” He also slammed the USAF for not putting forward any officers experienced in space operations for one-star nominations: “Are we telling the men and women of national security space that they are important when the generals’ stars overwhelmingly go to pilots?”
The USAF has also recently highlighted the increased importance of space as an area of operations. Secretary Wilson argued that it is only a matter of time before combat extends into space. The idea that some form of war in space is drawing close has become vogue in defense and policy circles.
Space in general has become a more active environment for both military and non-military actors. For most of mankind’s use of space, activity in orbit meant deploying passive satellites into orbit. However, near-earth space is poised to become a much more active place. Private companies are building launch vehicles that are reusable and can re-enter the atmosphere. If the satellite mega-constellations that companies have proposed for low-earth orbit come to fruition, satellite operators will have to undertake significantly more maneuvering to avoid other satellites and space junk. International rivals of the United States are pursuing anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons to hold the U.S. military’s essential space-based assets at risk in case of a future conflict.
There may also be increased non-satellite activity in orbit. If the United States authorized private space stations—like those built by Bigelow Aerospace—other countries may follow suit. That could increase manned activity in orbit. If plans for mining space resources from asteroids and the moon come to fruition, there will be increase activity moving through Earth’s orbit into deep space. On-orbit servicing of satellites, an industry with a growing level of interest, will also complicate the space environment with more moving parts in orbit to monitor.
All of these industries, and the innovations they bring that may also be used for military purposes, may merit an independent perspective to manage. The environment may become complex enough that, even if space capabilities are inherently providing backup to terrestrial conflict, it will require experts specifically trained to carry out those missions. If space is seen as progressing towards a domain in which conflict independent of other domains occurs, an independent organization may also make sense. After all, that was part of the logic in the initial spinning off of the USAF from the U.S. Army in 1947.
However, it is unclear space assets provide an independent capability and are instead force-enhancement tools for the existing military branches. This is, after all, how space capabilities have been used traditionally. Reconnaissance satellites provide information to war planners and warfighters; GPS provides information to forces about their locations; communications satellites connect everyone together. On the strategic side, satellites watch for launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that could herald an enemy’s nuclear strike.
If space remains primarily a force-enhancement tool, supporting the military branches as they undertake their primary missions, then a separate space corps will cause problems. If space is truly a supportive tool, then Air Force Chief of Staff General Goldfein aptly summarizes how it should be handled: “Now is not the time to build seams and segregate or separate. Now’s the time to further integrate.”
However, space as a supportive function does not mean that no changes need be made. In fact, the role of space as a supporting capability may actually require deep changes, such as setting up an independent space corps.
Changes Need to Be Made Either Way
For the “space is an independent arena” side of the debate, the changes that need to be made are pretty self-evident: something akin to Rogers’ proposed idea of a Space Corps. On the “space is a supportive tool” side of the debate, the required changes are more nuanced.
Instead of greater segregation, as would happen with a space corps, a truly supportive mission would require greater flexibility on the part of the existing military branches to handle their space requirements, tools, and capabilities. At the moment, the authority is centralized in the Air Force—which has perhaps not offered the space domain as much attention as it now requires. But the Air Force alone will likely not be able to fully understand, and support, the space mission needs of the Army, Navy, and Marine. As space only grows more important, the gaps between what the other branches need and what the Air Force can provide will continue to widen.
The military has previously seen what has happened when supportive missions are disconnected from the branches undertaking the primary missions. Close air support (CAS) is one of these areas. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Army was dissatisfied with the USAF’s provision of CAS. Because an interservice agreement prevented the Army from pursuing its preferred solution, the service began developing attack helicopters. Douglas Campbell, a former CAS pilot with a Ph.D. in military and technology history, has argued that the Army’s pursuit of close air support through attack helicopters finally spurred USAF to develop a dedicated CAS platform: the A-10 Thunderbolt II (affectionately known as the “Warthog”). However, this did not solve the longer term problem, as the USAF struggles to decide on a follow-on CAS program. While F-35 variants have been slated to replace the A-10 for CAS and future CAS systems have been discussed, there are still significant questions about whether A-10 replacements will provide the same level of support.
The point is that the USAF has never truly considered CAS a priority, partly because it was not part of what the USAF considered its core mission: independent air power. This lack of focus shows in terms of investment over time. While it’s not necessarily true that the Army would jump at having to cover close air support in its own budget, CAS as a support mission remains an essential program. The debate over CAS demonstrates in part the issues that can arise from having supportive missions separate from the organizations that undertake the primary missions.
If space capabilities are a similar supportive mission, it should follow that the different branches will have different requirements for their space support. While the historically high costs of manufacturing and launching satellites ensured the necessity of joint ventures into space, recent trends and technological developments provide greater flexibility for the individual branches. New launch companies are reducing costs, and smallsats have grown in capabilities. So, while each branch will have overlapping needs (such as in coordination, communication, and reconnaissance space capabilities), they may also have specific, and separate, requirements that they specifically could, and should, focus on developing and deploying.
Picking a Path?
What’s the path to pick; further independence or more devolution to the services? It’s a complex question, and one that cannot be answered here. Both sides of the debate raise good points which seems to indicate that the status quo is untenable. It all cycles back to the original long-term question: what is space for?