Space Force Skeptics Laud Unified Space Command

Space Force Skeptics Laud Unified Space Command

Former Bush and Obama Administration officials and a former commander of U.S. Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM) were united in their opposition to creation of a Department of the Space Force at a seminar today, but praised steps being taken to reinstate a unified combatant command for space, U.S. Space Command.  The United States had a unified U.S. Space Command from 1985-2002, but it was eliminated after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and many of its functions merged into USSTRATCOM. 

President Trump’s proposal to create a sixth military department, a Department of the Space Force, is receiving mixed reviews.  It must be  approved by Congress and Vice President Mike Pence said the formal proposal will be made in the FY2020 budget request next year.  He wants the new Department created by 2020.

The House Armed Services Committee (HASC) has been advocating for creation of a Space Corps within the Air Force similar to the Marine Corps within the Department of the Navy for several years.  An entirely new military department, however, is a very different level of effort that could carry significant costs.  Deputy Secretary of Defense (DepSecDef) Patrick Shahanan, who spearheaded a DOD report released by Pence last month, said it could cost “billions.”  That is leading others in Congress and elsewhere to ask what problem is being solved by creating a new department and whether it really is needed.

At the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) today, Robert Work, Gen. Robert Kehler (Ret.), Letitia Long, and Sean O’Keefe gave their takes. Despite the differences in their backgrounds and the Presidents they served, their views were remarkedly similar: define what the problem is before coming up with a solution and think it through or the situation may turn out worse than it is now.

L-R:  John Hamre; Letitia Long; Robert Work; Sean O’Keefe; Gen. Robert Kehler (Ret) at CSIS seminar, Sept. 10, 2018. Screengrab.

Work was DepSecDef for the last three years of the Obama Administration and the first six months of the Trump Administration.  In 2015, he created a new position of Principal DOD Space Adviser (PDSA), held by the Secretary of the Air Force, to better coordinate among the services to address national security space issues, but Congress eliminated the position last year.

Gen. Robert Kehler (Ret.) was commander of USSTRATCOM for two years of the Obama Administration (2011-2013) and of U.S. Air Force Space Command before that, all part a nearly 40 year career in the Air Force.  Letitia Long’s extensive career in the Intelligence Community (IC) led to her becoming Director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) for five years of the Obama Administration.  Sean O’Keefe’s résumé includes stints as DOD Comptroller and Secretary of the Navy under President George H.W. Bush and NASA Administrator during President George W. Bush’s first term, in addition to positions in industry and academia.  He is now a senior adviser to CSIS.  CSIS President John Hamre, who was DOD Comptroller in the Clinton Administration, was the moderator.

Kehler sees the problem facing the U.S. national security space program today as one of warfighting readiness, an organize-train-equip issue just like land, sea, or air, and a joint warfighting problem.  He provided a long list of what needs to be done to get ready, including policy that “enhances deterrence and enables warfighting effectiveness,” an acquisition system that delivers what warfighters need at the time it is needed, and space operators with combat experience.  “We have space operators today, we do not have combat space operators,” with both technical and tactical skills.  The first step is to recreate the U.S. Space Command as a unified combatant command.

The FY2019 National Defense Authorization Act requires DOD to create a U.S. Space Command as a subunit of USSTRATCOM, but the idea of reinstating the separate unified command is gathering steam.  Secretary of Defense James Mattis has come out strongly in favor of it and it is included as a recommendation in the Shanahan report.  All four CSIS panelists support the idea.

As for a Space Force, in Kehler’s view that is a matter of timing. “Not if, but when,” and now is premature.

O’Keefe agreed with Kehler.  Speaking as a former Secretary of the Navy, he said a Space Force is a “solution desperately searching for a problem.”

Work gave an impassioned defense of how DOD dealt with national security space when he was DepSecDef, seeking to dispel any notion that DOD has not been taking the threats increasingly posed by China and Russia seriously enough.  It did, but President Obama believed that openly talking about space warfighting would only hasten the militarization of space, so it was kept out of public discourse during his Administration. In June 2013, however, then-DepSecDef Ash Carter briefed the President and the National Security Council because the situation was becoming “more dire.”  From that point on “we were given a green light to start to pursue in earnest space superiority.”

Work did not mention what prompted the Carter briefing, but in May 2013, China conducted a launch that is widely viewed as demonstrating the ability to attack satellites in geostationary orbit, pushing kinetic-energy antisatellite (ASAT) weapons into a domain previously viewed as a sanctuary from such attacks.

Organizational changes were made in response, including creation of the Joint Interagency Combined Space Operations Center (JICSPOC), later renamed as the National Space Defense Center, to better coordinate between the military and the IC.

Work considers a Space Force to be an “open question” that “ultimately may be the right answer,” but not now. It is the unified U.S. Space Command that is needed now, he said, calling the 2002 decision to eliminate it a “mistake.”

Long also agreed on the need for a unified command and stressed the role of the IC in supporting it.  “We need to build on” the strong relationship that exists at the National Space Defense Center, she urged.  Having a unified command will give a “demand signal” to the IC to which it can respond.  As for a Space Force, she estimated that only 15,000 people across DOD are focused on space and that is not sufficient to warrant a new military department.

Potential downsides to creating a new department include competition for resources. Kehler thinks insufficient attention is being given to the complexities of setting up a new department and people think it is just a matter of changing a patch on a uniform.  What is needed is a “clear eyed assessment” of what it will take, and he worries that various “factions are trying to ground rule … themselves out of the discussion” already.  Work pointed out that an “intramural firefight” could break out over funding for the new department. Space is one of four high priority areas (the others are nuclear forces, electronic warfare forces, and cyber forces) where funding is intermixed among the existing departments. “How does one adjudicate how much to spend on those four,” he asked, noting that DOD has trouble with that already. “Will creating a separate Title X Space Department solve that issue or create other problems that actually are worse?”

Kehler criticized those who present the debate over a Space Force as being akin to the separation of the Army and Air Force in 1947.  After World War II, he argued, the concept for air power was fundamentally different from what the Army did.  He rhetorically asked if space power is incompatible with air power.  His answer is no, “I think they are complementary.”

The group also discussed other aspects of reorganization that are being proposed.  One is a Space Development Agency. Work said it might be a good idea, but he would take a “show me” attitude, that it does not become a “tinkerhouse” for space.  Long agreed.  Another is a Space Operations Force.  Work deems that “critical.”

Although it was not in the Shanahan report, when releasing the report on August 9, Vice President Mike Pence called for creating an Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space.  Asked today whether he thought it was a good idea, Work pointed out that it has been discussed since the 2001 Rumsfeld space commission report.  There has “never been a thing that Congress doesn’t feel can be solved by reorganizing,” he laughed (even though this idea came from the Vice President).  He would need to know what the person’s responsibilities would be before answering the question.



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