In a move designed to disrupt the military space establishment, President Donald Trump called for the creation of the Space Force as a “separate but equal” branch of the U.S. military. While Trump has mentioned the creation of a Space Force previously, the June 18, 2018, announcement came as a surprise. The Department of Defense and the White House both opposed earlier congressional plans to separate space operations from the rest of the Air Force.
In its FY18 National Defense Authorization Act, the House of Representatives called for the Pentagon to create a Space Corps, which as a part of the Air Force would have been similar in structure to the Navy’s Marine Corps. However, the Pentagon and White House opposed the idea due to what they called an increase in bureaucracy. Instead, the House compromised with the Senate, calling for the Air Force to study the issue and make some minor management changes.
Trump is now attempting to settle the debate by calling for the creation of the Space Force. However, separating U.S. military space operations into its own military branch may take longer than many think. Currently, most U.S. military space operations are housed within the Air Force, which manages programs like Advanced High Frequency (AEHF) and Wideband Global Satcom (WGS). However, other branches also have responsibilities in space. The National Reconnaissance Office manages classified satellites, the Defense Information Systems Agency manages contracts with commercial communications satellite operators, and the National Geospatial Information Agency manages contracts with commercial remote sensing companies. The Army and Navy also conduct some space operations.
Transitioning from the current management structure to a separate space force raises a number of questions. Among them: What would a Space Force do? Which space missions will the Space Force be responsible for? How much will it cost? How many people will be a part of the Space Force? How will the Space Force meet the diverse needs of the other military branches?
Nothing can be done until these questions are answered. And once they have been answered, congressional action will be required to create a new military branch. Some members of Congress have already expressed skepticism about creating a new Space Force. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) has said that he currently opposes an idea that will “rip the Air Force apart.” Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio) is more open to the idea, but wants to study the issue further before voting on it.
None of these challenges implies that the Pentagon should not change the way it manages space. The current structure was created at a time when there were few adversaries in space, as well as little economic activity. Space is now a multibillion industry, and countries around the world are sending military satellites into orbit. China and Russia have also tested anti-satellite weapons that must be countered.
In addition, U.S. military space processes were developed over time as needs arose, with little overall strategy. That has resulted in inefficient acquisition processes. For example, the Pentagon does not have a systematic way to acquire bandwidth from commercial satellite operators, leading to higher costs. Reorganizing space activities with the goal of improving efficiency and capability would benefit the U.S. security establishment.
That said, the next step in this process is unclear at this point. There were few details regarding implementation in President Trump’s announcement. Such details will need to be resolved before the move can proceed. In addition, the role of Congress in the creation of a new military branch was not taken into account, so that will need to be resolved.
With all these questions unsettled, there will likely be few changes within the military space market over the next few years. The DoD will continue to work toward completing current programs, such as WGS and Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS), and developing next-generation replacements for those programs. Launches will still occur at regular intervals, and the Pentagon will continue to study replacements for its current Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs). Any changes to such programs will not occur for many years.
Bill Ostrove is the author of Forecast International’s two Space Systems Market Intelligence Services, one covering launch vehicles and the other, satellites and spacecraft. The Launch Vehicles product features programs on reusable and expendable launch vehicles, and human spaceflight vehicles. The Satellites & Spacecraft service covers systems ranging from microsatellites to large COMSATs. Both volumes provide global coverage on the major players and market trends.