Opinion / Forces, Strategy

Bad Idea: Disestablishing the Space Force

This month marks the one-year anniversary of the United States Space Force’s creation as the sixth independent uniformed military branch of the Armed Forces.  The Space Force plays a critical role in national defense, as it performs the key functions of organizing, training, and equipping forces capable of protecting U.S. interests in space; deterring aggression in, from, and to space; and conducting space operations.  The Space Force remains within the Department of the Air Force — just as the U.S. Marine Corps falls under the Department of the Navy — and will continue to rely on the U.S. Air Force for some support functions.

However, the creation of the Space Force has been criticized by some, who describe the new service as wasteful, premature, and even irresponsible.  These criticisms have persisted, with some calling upon the incoming administration of President-elect Joseph Biden to disestablish the new service.  But rolling the Space Force back into the Air Force is counterproductive and would be a bad idea.

Simply, competition in the space domain is too important to be a secondary mission focus spread across multiple military services.  No one seriously questions the need for a strong Navy to protect access and freedom of navigation for maritime commerce.  Most Americans innately understood why the Air Force was created as a separate service to hone our nation’s air power.  Space should be no different.

We should judge the Space Force by what it can and will likely do as the service matures and the demand for military focus and presence in space increases — not merely for what it is and does today.  General Jay Raymond, the first chief of space operations, says that he is building a Space Force not just for today, but for the 22nd century.  The possibilities are significant. Silicon Valley brings in over $2 trillion to the world economy today: it is expected that commercial activity will generate two to three times that in the space economy in coming decades.  Commercial activity in low earth orbit, cislunar, and beyond will create a demand signal for a military presence to “patrol” that space to look out for and address potential threats.  The Space Force’s mission will evolve beyond today’s terrestrial focus — such as operating GPS and early warning missile detection satellites — to an emphasis on freedom of space navigation, exploration, and commerce.  That tomorrow will be here before we know it.

Yet we do not need to wait for tomorrow: threats exist today.  Even now, our lives are unquestionably dependent on our unfettered ability to use space.  General Raymond recently said that the Space Force was created due to “the compelling case our competitors have created for us.” Chinese and Russian space capabilities and counterspace threats are well-documented. China’s rapidly maturing space program is increasingly becoming the pace setter in this domain.  Dr. Mir Sadat, a former policy director for the U.S. National Security Council, has argued that we are in “a race for dominance over cislunar access, operations, and resources.” Stagnating the Space Force, or rolling it back into the Air Force, would send mixed signals to our partners and allies on the priority of space — especially those following our lead to bolster their own space forces.

Some argue that the solution is to mirror special operations by making United States Space Command “service-like” and retaining the actual capability within the traditional services.  However, Space Command is not like Special Operations Command, nor should it be.  There is an important difference between force generation and force employment.  Space Command is and should remain focused on force employment in coordination with other combatant commands.  Given the scope of their responsibilities, we should not burden Space Command with also serving as the primary advocate for disparate space capabilities spread across multiple services.  Additionally, having both Space Command and the Space Force expands our nation’s influence in establishing positive norms and standards for conduct in space.

The new service provides continuity and focus for developing and managing talented space professionals.  The Space Force has become a beacon for young people interested in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) world.  The Space Force also provides a more direct and certain pathway to a career in space for STEM personnel who otherwise might be less likely to pursue military service in another branch, and greatly expands the opportunity for a different population of citizens to serve while creating a deeper expertise and interest in space.  Likewise, an independent space military service unifies and elevates space capabilities to compete for resources on par with the other services.  A single service specifically focused on developing military space capabilities reduces duplication and costs, increases speed of acquisition, and creates overall unity of effort.  It also allows the other services to focus their organic space programs toward being better consumers of space.

Finally, the creation of the Space Force added a seat at the table of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  This ensures that space advocacy and military advice is included in every subject in which the Joint Chiefs are involved.  Absent the chief of space operations, space advocacy and advice are once again left to the chief of staff of the Air Force, who understandably might have competing interests and priorities.  Space requires an independent voice at the table.

The Defense Department has yet to finish realigning the remaining appropriate military space programs to the Space Force.  General Raymond is correctly taking a deliberate pace in establishing this new service.  It does not appear that new service “growing pains” have degraded current operations thus far, so we should give leadership the time they need to do this right.  At this point, premature plateauing of progress or reversal would hinder the positive momentum generated by centralizing military capability, competence, and advocacy in the space domain.  Returning space components to the Air Force, Army, and Navy would diminish advocacy and relegate space capabilities to lower priorities behind each service’s native domain(s).  

Fortunately, the Space Force’s existence remains secure for the foreseeable future, thanks to bipartisan support from Congress.  The Space Force is enshrined in law; it would require an act of Congress to disestablish it.  To borrow an old Chinese proverb, “the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, the second-best time is now.”  The Space Force tree has been planted.  Now is the time to invest the necessary focus and resources to nurture its growth into what we need it to be.  To do otherwise is a bad idea.

CSIS does not take specific policy positions; accordingly, all views expressed above should be understood to be solely those of the author. They similarly do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Marine Corps, the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

(Photo Credit: Tech. Sgt. Robert Barnett, U.S. Air Force)

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