With Creation of Space Force Just a Signature Away, What Happens Next?

With Creation of Space Force Just a Signature Away, What Happens Next?

The Senate passed the final version of the FY2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) today, clearing the last legislative hurdle for creating a Space Force as a sixth military service. All that remains is for President Trump to sign the bill into law.  Then what?

Two years after the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) first approved creation of a Space Corps within the Air Force to separate space activities from the rest of the Air Force’s responsibilities, it is finally becoming a reality.  The name has changed from Space Corps to Space Force, but the intent is the same — to organizationally focus attention on space activities as they become increasingly critical to U.S. warfighting capabilities.

It has been a tumultuous journey, shaped in part by the intense interest of President Trump who forced a reluctant DOD to acquiesce.  Despite the nomenclature, the end result is much closer to the HASC’s Space Corps (an entity within the Air Force) than Trump’s Space Force (a “separate but equal” department), but for the moment the various stakeholders seem satisfied with the compromise contained in the NDAA.

Once the President signs the bill into law, what happens?

Congress and Secretary of Defense (SecDef) Mark Esper seem to be taking a cautious approach. The NDAA requires that the Secretary of the Air Force establish Space Force within 18 months of the bill’s enactment — which means not until summer 2021.  The final version of the FY2020 Defense Appropriations bill, which passed the House today and is expected to clear the Senate this week, provides only $40 million for Space Force. That is about half the $72.4 million requested.

The reduction reflects congressional concern that Space Force not become just another bloated bureaucracy.  In fact, the appropriations bill requires the Secretary of the Air Force to provide Congress a spending plan within 30 days detailing how much money will be spent on what, per month, for the rest of FY2020.  If there are any deviations from the plan within a quarter, she must inform Congress within 10 days of the end of that quarter.

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper

For his part, Esper seems in no hurry.  During an in-flight press availability yesterday while returning from a commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge, Esper was asked about his plans to set it up.  According to a DOD transcript, the short answer was “these things take time.”

SEC. ESPER: I don’t have a solid answer for you right now. I need to sit down with the chairman of the Joint Staff, the Air Force, and work through next steps.

These things take some time. We were talking about setting up a service, if you will. And so we have to think through all the manning, training, equipment, all the Title X functions that go with that.

But it’s an exciting time. I think it’s — you know, it’s an epic moment in terms of another big change for America’s armed forces, akin to the Army Air Corps being pulled out of the Army in 1947. So I think it’s an historic moment.

Q: Do you think you could have a functional service of some kind, in some small capacity, this coming year?

SEC. ESPER: Well, yes. But we have a functional service now. We still have space capabilities, all of that. So we’re not going to lose any readiness there or anything like that. But it will take time to — to set up, you know, all the key parts, the staff, everything that goes with it, and have a — have a smooth transition. These things take time.

The “functional service” he refers to is Air Force Space Command (AFSPC).  In some respects, Space Force is just a rebranding of AFSPC, which will cease to exist when Space Force stands up.

Created in 1982, AFSPC  is headquartered at Peterson Air Force Base (AFB), CO.  It also has major operational installations at two other Colorado Air Force Bases, Schriever and Buckley.  Its Space and Missile Systems Center at Los Angeles AFB, CA, is in charge of designing and acquiring Air Force and most DOD space systems including GPS positioning, navigation and timing satellites, military weather and communications satellites, early warning satellites and most other military satellites with which the public is familiar.  (An exception is the highly classified spy satellites designed and operated for the Intelligence Community by the National Reconnaissance Office, not AFSPC.)

AFSPC also operates the Air Force launch ranges on the East Coast (Patrick Air Force Base and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL), West Coast (Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA), and elsewhere.

All of those activities will continue, they will just move under Space Force.  In fact, the four-star General in charge of AFSPC, General Jay Raymond, will become the first Chief of  Space Operations commanding Space Force.  Raymond also is Commander of U.S. Space Command (USSPACECOM), a unified combatant command that has different responsibilities from Space Force.  The 11 unified combatant commands are in charge of warfighting, drawing resources from across the military services, which have the “organize, train, and equip” (OTE) function to ensure those resources are ready when needed.  Space Force will execute the OTE role, while USSPACECOM is at the ready to fight wars that extend into space.

The NDAA sets limits on Space Force.  Despite previous more grandiose proposals, only Air Force personnel may be assigned to Space Force and no new billets may be created. A total force management plan must be submitted within 90 days of enactment.

The NDAA contains several other provisions related to Space Force, such as creation of an Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy and an Air Force Assistant Secretary for Space Acquisition.  Accelerating and streamlining acquisition, in fact, is a major feature of what advocates hope to achieve by creating a Space Force.

Apart from what is required in the appropriations bill, the NDAA has its own deadlines for action.

  • By February 1, 2020, a report and briefing on a “comprehensive plan” for the Space Force’s organizational structure and anticipated funding requirements through FY2025;
  • Within 180 days of enactment, a plan to ensure the quality of the military and civilian personnel of the Space Force including a professional career path, pay and incentive structures, and training;
  • Within 180 days of enactment, a report from the SecDef in coordination with the Director of National Intelligence on how to effectively integrate capabilities among the NRO,  National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, and USSPACECOM for space operations.

In short, although Space Force may exist in law by the end of this week, it may take a while before changes are evident in the conduct of military space activities.

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