Vice President Mike Pence will preside over a ceremony on August 29 to officially stand up the new U.S. Space Command (USSPACECOM). On that day, 87 units will be reassigned to it and a new relationship will be established between DOD and the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) where NRO will take direction from USSPACECOM to defend its satellites if conflict extends into space.

Speaking at the sixth public meeting of the National Space Council yesterday, Acting Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Joseph Maguire and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr., explained these steps, which emerged from President Trump’s Space Policy Directive-4 (SPD-4).

NRO is one of the 17 agencies that comprise the Intelligence Community (IC), overseen by the DNI.  It designs, builds and operates the nation’s spy satellites and has a very close relationship with DOD, especially the Air Force, but is separate from it.

Maguire, whose tenure as Acting DNI began just last week, noted that “for years there have been debates about how NRO and military space organizations can be better integrated.”

One step taken in September 2015 to facilitate information sharing between DOD and NRO was creation of the Joint Interagency Combined Space Operations Center (JICSpOC) under U.S. Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM). JICSpOC was renamed the National Space Defense Center (NSDC) in 2017 to better describe its purpose.

In January 2018, NSDC transitioned into a round-the-clock “operations center focused on protecting and defending the space domain” according to an Air Force press release quoting Gen. John (Jay) Raymond at the time.  Raymond was Commander of Air Force Space Command and still is.

Much has happened since then.  The Trump Administration decided to reestablish a unified combatant command for space, USSPACECOM, and has proposed creation of a sixth military service, U.S. Space Force, as part of the Air Force.  Congress must approve creation of the Space Force and appears likely to do so although the House and Senate still must reconcile their different approaches in the final version of the FY2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

The military services “organize, train, and equip,” while combatant commands fight wars. Military officials insist there are no “space wars,” only terrestrial wars that could extend into space. They hope that does not happen, but need to be prepared.

This is actually the second iteration of U.S. Space Command.  The first was created in 1985, but abolished in 2002 after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks led to a restructuring of U.S. combatant commands.

That all changes on August 29 when the new USSPACECOM is officially established.  Raymond was confirmed by the Senate as Commander of USSPACECOM on June 27, and he will continue to lead Air Force Space Command as well.  Dunford said yesterday that Raymond’s mission will focus on “missile warning, satellite operations, space control and space support.”

Joseph Maguire, Acting Director of National Intelligence, speaking to the National Space Council, August 20, 2019. Screengrab.

The big news yesterday, though, was Maguire’s announcement that the IC and DOD “have agreed to align U.S. Space Command and the NRO into a new unified defense concept of operations” at NSDC, which will become “the center of gravity for defending our vital interest in space.”

For the first time, there will be a unified structure that fully integrates Intelligence Community and Department of Defense space defense plans, authorities and capabilities to ensure seamless execution of space defense systems.  Furthermore, should conflict extend to space, the NRO will take direction from the Commander of U.S. Space Command and execute defensive operations based on a jointly developed playbook and informed by a series of exercises and war games.”  Joseph Maguire, Acting DNI

That “jointly developed playbook” will spell out the details of the relationship.  The meaning of “defensive space operations” could be as narrow as USSPACECOM telling NRO to move a satellite that is under threat to broad authority over NRO’s operations.

In an interview, Martin Faga, Director of NRO during the 1990-1991 Persian Gulf War — often dubbed the “first space war” because of the critical contributions made by satellites — pointed out that USSPACECOM will have little time to react to space threats so needs this type of authority.

“The most likely threats are from lasers, cyber, and jamming, which are difficult to foresee. Even an antisatellite attack against a LEO target provides just 8 minutes of warning.  You have to take defensive action in a moment.  And that’s the moment when U.S. Space Command is in charge.”  Former NRO Director Martin Faga

Faga sees the yet-to-be written playbook as the critical piece to set the boundaries of the new authority.

Like Raymond, Chris Scolese was confirmed by the Senate on June 27 as the new Director of NRO.  Scolese and Raymond actually had a joint confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier that month.  (The Senate Intelligence Committee also held a confirmation hearing for Scolese.)

Maguire noted that this new concept of operations is just one of more than 50 recommendations from a DOD/IC working group established pursuant direction in SPD-4, so more changes may be in the works.

Note: This article has been updated with the Faga interview.

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