With a speech by Vice President Mike Pence, along with an interim report issued by the Pentagon, the U.S. government has begun laying out its plan to create a Space Force as a branch of the U.S. military. The plans will shake up an organization that has managed the launch of 116 satellites over the past eight years.
In his speech on August 9, Pence said, “The time has come to establish the United States Space Force.” However, he was quick to point out that the branch would not be built from scratch. Instead, it would centralize the men and women who run the nation’s military space programs today. For example, the United States Space and Missile Command (SMC), based in Los Angeles, already consists of about 6,000 personnel.
According to Pence, the U.S. is not initiating the militarization of space. Instead, he argued, it is responding to developments in other countries, such as a 2007 shoot-down of a test satellite by China. Pence also highlighted the development of hypersonic weapons in China and Russia. Many experts believe that reconnaissance satellites are the optimal way to detect the surface-skimming missiles.
Pence’s speech corresponded with the release of an interim report by the Department of Defense laying out its plan to create a Space Force. The report calls for the DoD to take four steps that will ultimately lead to the creation of the Space Force. Throughout 2018, the DoD will create structures within the current DoD hierarchy to manage space acquisitions and operations. Under the first step, the DoD will establish a Space Development Agency to develop and field space capabilities. Second, the Pentagon will develop a Space Operations Force to provide expertise to combatant commanders and the Space Development Agency. By the end of 2018, the DoD will create a Space Command, led by a four star general or flag officer, to lead space assets during warfighting and integrate space capabilities into other warfighting areas. Finally, by 2019, the department, along with Congress, will establish the governance, services, and support functions of the Space Force.
Under the plan laid out by the Pentagon, the first step will be to create a Space Development Agency, which will concentrate technical competence, leadership, and resources in order to identify opportunities to leverage commercial space technology, shift from a culture of acquisition to one of development, and move from a matrix organization structure to a more focused structure. The system will be modeled on the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office (AFRCO). The Space Development Agency will be based on changes already taking place in the SMC known as SMC 2.0.
At the same time, the Pentagon will begin to stand up a Space Operations Force. The Space Operations Force will utilize space personnel from all military services to create a clear career track for the space community and to support other combatant commands.
By the end of 2018, the Pentagon will establish a Space Command. U.S. Space Command will be responsible for preparing for and deterring conflict in space and leading U.S. forces in that fight if it should happen.
Even as the Pentagon creates operational structures to manage space acquisition and operations, the department will begin to work with Congress to create a civilian leadership structure for the new branch. The DoD plans to submit a legislative proposal to Congress by early 2019 to establish service and support functions and Space Force leadership authorities.
Three of the four steps can be completed by the Pentagon without congressional support, since they are simply changes to the management structure of the department. However, the creation of a new military branch will require a successful vote in Congress.
Congress, which actually started debating the issue last year, called for the creation of the Space Force report in the Fiscal Year 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Although the report was due to be completed in March, it was delayed to late July, and was not issued to the public until August.
The House of Representatives in particular has taken a lead in the debate over the future of military operations in space. The U.S. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Mike Rogers and the top Democrat, Rep. Jim Cooper, both supported the creation of a Space Corps. However, faced with opposition from the Air Force and Senate, the House relented. In a compromise, the House and the Senate voted in conference to support the creation of a subunified command for space under the U.S. Strategic Command.
With this history, the issue of creating a space force ultimately pits the White House and the House of Representatives against the Pentagon bureaucracy and the Senate. The House and the president now favor similar moves, while the Senate and DoD oppose the new command.
Going forward, the bill will likely be passed. Although the House has supported less ambitious legislation, it will likely support the new plan. Much of the opposition in the Senate came from a lack of information from the Air Force. The Pentagon has now issued the interim report that the NDAA called for. With that report, along with the president’s support for a Space Force, the Senate will likely fall into line. The Pentagon bureaucracy may be the hardest to convince. However, as commander in chief, President Donald Trump will likely be able to overcome objections in the department.
The biggest question from a legislative perspective is the timeline. Completing everything in time for the FY20 NDAA could be difficult in the current political environment.
Effect on Business
These plans will combine to have an effect on the space industry. In particular, the new plan will eventually lead to the establishment of a long-term vision that will benefit private companies doing business with the Pentagon.
Right now the DoD does not have any set plans for the future of its space assets, including the replacement of its communications networks (e.g., AEHF, WGS, and MUOS) and missile defense satellites (e.g., SBIRS). With a new structure in place – including a combatant command, civilian leadership, a space development agency, and a space operations force – the DoD may be in a better position to develop a strategy and start working with industry to develop the systems. In addition, the interim report specifically refers to supporting the space industrial base and leveraging advancements in the commercial space sector to benefit the military.
There will likely be winners and losers. For example, if the DoD ends up leasing more capacity from commercial communications satellite operators, that could hurt manufacturers (and vice versa). However, the move will generally be supported by industry.
The Pentagon still has a long way to go before the Space Force can be established. It must make difficult changes to its bureaucracy, while many current and former leaders are opposed to the idea. At the same time, it must work with Congress in order to enact necessary legislative changes to the law. Still, the release of the report, along with the continued support from the Trump administration, means the move is much closer to becoming a reality than it was only a year ago.
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.