Trump’s proposed new space force must fly over many hurdles
Author: Tom Roeder, The Gazette - June 23, 2018 - Updated: June 23, 2018
President Donald Trump may have ordered the Pentagon to clear the way for a new space force last week, but experts tell The Gazette the military is a long way from reaching that final frontier.
Even if Congress, which has been resistant to similar proposals in the past, signs off on creating the new service, details as numerous as stars in the Milky Way must be worked out. And fundamental questions remain, including whether the new force is needed and whether a new military command for combat in space should come first.
In Colorado Springs, local leaders don’t know what to think of Trump’s plan, said former Air Force intelligence officer and El Paso County Commissioner Loginos Gonzalez.
“This is something that caught a lot of people by surprise,” he said. “It wasn’t anything I thought was on the fast track.”
But in a town that houses many of the nation’s top military space experts, there are plenty of opinions.
Retired Air Force Gen. Gene Renuart, former head of U.S. Northern Command, said the call for a space force seems like a budget-busting distraction to the military’s real needs in orbit.
“None of this adds capability and many will argue that, in fact, it decreases the dollars necessary to create real space war fighting capability and turns attention away from the many improvements we must have in both defensive and offensive space capabilities,” Renuart said in an email.
Worries expand in space
Most agree that there is a real problem that Trump is looking to solve with a space force.
During the past 17 years, moves boosting military efforts in space have been sacrificed on the altar of counterinsurgency as American troops battled in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. Insurgents and terror groups don’t have space programs, so money was spent elsewhere to deal with threats that followed the 9/11 attacks.
But as America battled through the longest wars, nations, including Russia and China, redoubled their efforts to counter America’s advantages in orbit. U.S. troops rely heavily on satellites for intelligence, navigation and communications, and enemies think taking out satellites could cause American forces to lose battles on the ground and in the sky.
“If we’re talking about fighting a near-peer, that requires a different kind of effort – protecting the assets that would support that kind of high-intensity conflict,” explained retired Air Force Gen. Lance Lord, who headed Air Force Space Command at Peterson Air Force Base.
Protecting those satellites got tougher a decade ago when China shocked the world with a successful test of an anti-satellite missile. While America has had similar technology since the 1980s, it became clear that America’s hulking, expensive and complex military satellites are easy targets for a determined enemy.
Jack Burns, a professor of astrophysics and planetary sciences at the University of Colorado at Boulder said the threats to America’s military space enterprise are only growing.
“The Chinese and the Russians are upgrading their potential weapons,” he said.
Congress jumps in
The real push for a new space service started over omelets in Colorado Springs last year. Alabama U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers, who oversees a House subcommittee that handles military space issues, told a morning gathering at The Broadmoor that the Air Force was too focused on spending money on fighter jets to show much love for space.
When it was time to cut budgets, he noted, satellites were first on the block,
“Space is not being given the priority it should be,” Rogers said. “That is because of the way it is organized in the services.”
Rogers got his plan for a “space corps” into the House version of a Pentagon policy bill. But it didn’t survive the Senate.
Rogers might have rung the bell that started the current race for space, but he was actually a little late to the party.
Discussions of a separate service for space date back to the 1960s, when the military was planning a future that included a space-based bomber, the Boeing X-20, which could nuke distant targets from orbit before its pilot glided it back to a safe landing.
Also in the 1960s, American and Soviet scientists planned space-based military platforms complete with armed troops. The orbiting stations would be used for spying. But the Russian version packed a 23 mm machine gun to hit targets in space.
A 1967 treaty that prevented offensive nuclear weapons in space slowed down the early space force talk, but it heated up again in the 1980s with Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” program, a system of armed satellites planned to destroy soviet missiles.
The idea of a space force continued to percolate, making a cameo appearance in a blue-ribbon report in 2001 that set Pentagon space policy.
“This idea definitely didn’t originate with Donald Trump,” said Dan Grazier who studies military issues for the Project on Government Oversight, a Washington think-tank. “It goes back a long way.”
But the new life given to the idea by America’s celebrity-turned-president has changed the profile of the space force idea.
“It is interesting seeing the wider public reaction to his announcement,” Grazier said.
Star Trek jokes abound
In the days after Trump’s announcement, Twitter and Facebook were loaded with space force jokes. From one-liners about light-saber pens to memes centered on Veterans Affairs claims from alien attacks, the wags of social media were on the offensive
“While training with the inaugural class of the recently announced U.S. Space Force, sources say Lt. j.g. Tyler Shoelaces got lost during a navigation exercise and wandered into a wormhole,” the satirical military humor site duffelblog.com crowed.
But for insiders in the space industry and Congress, there’s no laughter in the space force.
“If they create a separate service, I would assume that Air Force Space Command would be the central component of the new service and everything would be formed around that,” said Lord, who led Space Command from 2002 to 2006.
Creating a separate force means hammering out a universe of details. Some steps are logical. Most experts agree that any new service will start with absorbing Space Command in Colorado Springs and will grow from there.
But the headquarters of the space force is unlikely to land in the Rockies.
Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Irv Halter, who spent two years of his career working with the space-centric National Reconnaissance Office, said for the space force to be taken seriously at the Pentagon and Congress, it will need new digs in Washington D.C.
“Do you think we will take a new force and not have them at the Pentagon?” Halter said. “I don’t thinks so. It’s about proximity. That’s why most of the generals are there.”
As much as he would like to house the new space enterprise entirely in Colorado, Aurora’s Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman agrees.
For the infant space force to survive its youth, it will need to be rooted in the national capital, “just as all the other branches,” he said.
But what will that headquarters look like? Opponents of the space force plan envision a massive space bureaucracy growing around the new service.
Halter said overhead costs will pile up with a formal secretariat loaded with civilian leaders in a red-tape laden structure that could rival the Army in size.
“I just think about the staff,” Halter said. “There’s an operations staff, a planning staff, the folks who do the budgeting, a chief of staff, a separate secretary. There’s lots of questions – you can sort those things out but there’s no way it’s going to be less expensive.”
The few, the proud, the Space Marines
Coffman foresees a more nimble and diminutive space force. It goes back to one of his mantras: When you face trouble, call the Marines.
A Marine veteran, Coffman wants a distinct force for space that doesn’t divorce the new service from the Air Force. He wants it structured like the Corps, which still falls under the Department of the Navy, while functioning as a standalone service branch.
“Just like the Marine Corps, we’re not creating a separate department but we are creating a separate branch of the military service,” Coffman said.
That move would slash overhead for the new force, while giving it the four-starred chief of staff to fight Pentagon budget battles.
It would also allow the new space corps to lean on existing Air Force schools for training troops and it would share the Air Force Academy with its service in the same way Marines draw new officers from the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.
While Coffman will have plenty of opportunity to push the space marines idea from his seat on the House Armed Services Committee, what plan will take shape is far from clear.
It’s also unclear whether a space corps would meet President Trump’s Monday directive.
“We are going to have the Air Force and we are going to have the Space Force – separate but equal. It is going to be something. So important,” Trump said before turning to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford. “General Dunford, if you would carry that assignment out, I would be very greatly honored, also. Where’s General Dunford? General? Got it?”
Following Trump’s statement, which stunned many at the Pentagon, the military went to work on creating a space force.
But early indications are the Pentagon isn’t approaching the order at warp speed.
In brief remarks last week, Defense Secretary James Mattis, a critic of creating a separate space force as recently as last fall, appeared to warn that any move will take a lot of time.
“It’s going to require legislation and a lot of detailed planning and we’ve not yet begun,” Mattis said. “I mean, we’ve clearly got to start the process.”
In a letter to airmen, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson also described a process that could take years.
“This work directed by the president will be a thorough, inclusive and deliberate process,” she wrote.
Failure to launch
So, what’s the big hold-up?
Anthony Cordesman, a strategy expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, explained that carving a new service out of the Pentagon will take time for the same reason that contentious divorces can spend years in court.
The bills and the family assets will be divided.
“Speed is not the issue, efficiency is,” he said. Budgets have to be separated. Legally, you are talking about a major reorganization in the budget, talking about different areas of committee jurisdiction in the Congress. There will have to be some legal issues.”
They’ll also have to divide up the furniture, and other property, some of which has environmental cleanup trouble.
“Environmental responsibility for facilities is one of these areas where there may or may not be issue,” Cordesman said.
Then there’s the sticky issue of who gets the kids.
“A separate command and supply chain and separate facilities is not that dramatic of a shift,” Cordesman said. “There will have to be a very clear separation in terms of career paths, which is one of the most difficult things to manage. ”
Retired Army Brig. Gen. Norm Andersson, who served as a senior planner at U.S. Space Command, said the services will also have to divide up roles and missions. Who gets to keep the Army’s missile defense enterprise? Will Navy satellite communications experts remain sailors?
At the heart of all the questions, Andersson said, is an important one that remains unclear.
“What is the real mission going to be?” Andersson asked.
Lost in space?
As lawmakers and generals figure out the details of a new space force, no city in America will have as much to lose as Colorado Springs.
Colorado already has the nation’s No. 2 aerospace economy. In Colorado Springs, home to five military bases that each have some space-related mission, cash from the Pentagon makes up 40 percent of the economy.
A deal to create a space force will give the parties involved wide authority on where big pieces of the new service will be located. It will be a giant prize, with 50 states fighting for pieces of the space force.
The origins of the latest space force push give the Pikes Peak region plenty of reason for paranoia. Mike Rogers, who spurred the latest push, is from Alabama, home to Huntsville – “Rocket City” – which will be an eager participant in the race for space force bounty.
“In order to get this done, you would pull some people out of Peterson,” Halter predicted. “The Pentagon headquarters would draw bodies away and you are going to lose them.”
Coffman and Colorado Springs Republican U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn say the military has far too much invested in Colorado to pull its space enterprise away from the Rockies.
They’re betting that a separate space force will mean more jobs in Colorado.
“I think we are very dominant in space, and as the emphasis on space grows within the Department of Defense and space corps grows I think you will see a greater emphasis on Colorado,” Coffman said.
But Colorado’s federal lawmakers are girding for a battle beyond the stars. If there’s going to be a space force, we want the Death Star.
Colorado Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner put it less bluntly, saying he’s “working with the defense leadership in Colorado Springs and across the state on ensuring we take the approach that’s best for Colorado and best for our national security.”