It’s easy to make jokes about the proposal to create a new military department for the Space Force, but the truth is that space has been crucial to national security since the 1950s. Satellites provide a significant portion of the intelligence the military uses for its operations. Likewise, communications also rely heavily on space capabilities. That’s why even serious critics of the proposal agree something needs to be done about how the military handles space.
“As people look to the future, if future conflicts are going to involve space, and if those future conflicts involve what is called a great power competitor, like Russia, or China, that is developing anti-satellite and counter-space capabilities, then the US is going to have to figure out how to deal with those threats to its space capabilities, and how to maintain its own access to space in those future conflicts,” said Brian Weeden, former Air Force space officer and director of program planning at the Secure World Foundation, said on Agency in Focus: Air Force.
Weeden said it’s less about the organizational structure, and more about the culture of the organization. Currently, the Air Force handles most of the military’s space operations, but its culture isn’t designed to prioritize space in any major way.
“One of the big criticisms of the current arrangement is that the U.S. Air Force has a culture built around aircraft and airplanes, and air dominance,” Weeden said. “And that is not well suited to creating space professionals that know and understand the space domain, which is very different from the air domain.”
He said getting the culture right of any new organization will be the key to success. One suggestion he had along those lines is that any new Space Force should shy away from more traditional warfighting culture.
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“The space force that we create should have a service oriented culture that is more akin to an Air Mobility Command than a strict warfighting culture that an air combatant command would have,” Weeden said. “And why is that? Well, you know, we’re certainly going to have to deal with threats to US satellites, and also be able to take steps to deal with other countries like Russia and China’s use of their own space capabilities. But the primary focus is still going to be how those space capabilities enable and benefit US military activities on Earth. And so that is more of a service oriented mission, like tankers, and airlift, and other sorts of things that is absolutely critical to mission operations. But it’s a different mindset than going out and looking to blow things up or break things.”
Backing that up is the fact that most of the advances in space technology are coming out of the private sector. That means the acquisition side of any new space force will have to be geared toward services and capabilities. The days of standing up a new program with a lifecycle measured in decades and hundreds or thousands of personnel just to launch a few critical satellites are gone.
“That’s sort of the old way that military does space activities, and space acquisitions. And that just doesn’t cut it,” Weeden said. “Today, the pace of change is moving so much faster. There’s so many more options, instead of the Air Force owning and operating its own hardware, they could purchase commercial services, they can work with allies and partners to get access to capabilities. There are many other options out there. So that is a big part of this is fixing that acquisitions culture to allow the US military to move faster to stay ahead of potential competitors.”
Daisy Thornton is Federal News Network’s digital managing editor. In addition to her editing responsibilities, she covers federal management, workforce and technology issues. She is also the commentary editor; email her your letters to the editor and pitches for contributed bylines.