On June 18, US President Donald Trump directed the US Department of Defense （DoD）to immediately begin the process of establishing the Space Force and he used the term “separate but equal” to describe the relationship between the future Space Force and Air Force. If Trump’s idea works out, the status of the US space power will increase significantly and the speed to build the country’s space combat capability will be fully accelerated.
Why such a radical reform?
Space is an emerging field of the US military’s joint operations and also an important source of its asymmetrical advantages. Statistics of the US military show that 90% of its military communication, 100% of its navigation and positioning, 100% of its meteorological information, and almost 90% of its strategic intelligence come from the space system.
It is not exaggerated to suggest that without reliable space support, the US military will go back to armoured warfare, suffering from malfunctioning information-based weapons and equipment including its precision guided munitions, remote control spy drones, and global command and control systems.
In recent years, a number of emerging countries have made continuous achievements in exploring space, so the US military has become less confident about whether it can maintain its dominance in this field. The US reformists believed that the US military faces three major drawbacks when building its space power. This will cause the rapid loss of the military’s traditional advantages in space.
First, a decentralized command organization. Statistics show that nearly 60 institutions in the DoD have the right to command and control the space resources, among which 11 institutions are in charge of supervision, eight institutions take charge of procurement, six are responsible for putting forward demands for space system construction, and three are subordinates to the Air Force. Such an arrangement leads to a situation that commands can be issued from more than one source.
In terms of military services, instead of being commanded in a centralized manner, space warfare functions such as the space surveillance, space support, and satellite launch and control are jointly under the control of the US Air Force, Army and Navy.
Second, a slow pace of capacity development. Space equipment research, development, and procurement progress of the US military are extremely slow because many institutions participate in the decision-making process, everyone can simply object to it but no one is able to give a decisive decision.
The US Air Force, as the “big boss” of the US space military power, does not pay due attention to the building of space capacity. According to the current budget plan of the Air Force, compared to 10 years ago, the funds spent on R&D and procurement in the traditional air force field by 2021 will increase by 30% while such funds in the space field will be cut by 23%.
Furthermore, the budget the US Air Force having confirmed for space might not be entirely used in this field since such budget is often the first to be cut when aviation projects slip into financial deficits.
Third, without enough establishment scale. Although the US military formed the Air Force Space Command (AFSPC) as early as in 1982, this department today has only 2,000 active officers and soldiers, far from meeting operational requirements.
Limited promotion of officers is one key reason. For example, there were 37 colonels being promoted to brigadier generals in the US Air Force in 2017 but none of them is major in aerospace. On March 15 this year, Gen. Robert Kehler, a former commander of the US Strategic Command, said in the testimony before the House Armed Services Committee that “at present, the space field is still an emerging field and joining it may lead one’s career development to a dead end.”
What are the advantages of establishing an independent space force?
For the US military, the main problem in establishing an independent space force is to figure out “how to build this force” rather than “how to use this force to fight”. The purpose of establishing the Space Force is to increase the building efficiency and improve its competitive edge in space. Once the space combat force is set up independently, there will be at least three major advantages.
First, it will have the right to allocate a bigger budget. At present, the US military’s annual budget for space is estimated to be eight billion US dollars, accounting for less than 5% of the Air Force’s annual budget. After it is set up as an independent force, the commander of the Space Force will become a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who will be qualified to take part in the budget allocation discussion held on the highest US military level and act on the interests of the Space Force directly, which make it highly possible that the budget for space will increase substantially.
To say the least, even if the Space Force is set up within the Air Force as per the pattern of setting Marine Corps, the commander of the Space Force will be on an equal footing with the Air Force Chief of Staff, to ensure the budget for space will not be randomly spent in other fields.
Second, it will create greater coordination decision-making powers. In addition to the large number of command institutions, another major problem faced by the US military in building a space force is that no one takes the lead to coordinate and give the final word. The AFSPC is in charge of about 80% of the military space resources. but its commander ranks behind the Air Force Vice-Chief of Staff, he is on the same level of the Director of the National Reconnaissance Office and directors of other departments directly under the US Department of Defense, thus lacking the authority to lead the coordination.
Once the Space Force is set up as an independent force, its commander will become the chief of this military service, whose authority will be next only to chairman and vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Therefore, he will be authorized to lead the building of the US space combat power and decide on the demand integration, resource allocation and military training in this field.
Third, it will have the authority to assign staff independently. In the current US military system, aerospace is not a mainstream field in the US Air Force, thus it is difficult to attract and retain talents. If separated from the Air Force, the Space Force will have an independent staff assignment authority, which enables it to tailor its staff systems and policies according to the specific characteristics of this field. Officers and soldiers of this force will have a broader career path and greater promotion opportunities, hence to build and retain a stable expert team.
It is difficult to predict when the "Space Force" establishment will be completed.
In June last year, the US House of Representatives proposed to establish an independent space force in National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018. This proposal was strongly opposed by the DoD and the Air Force and received no support from the White House either, thus ending up as a failure.
Right now, President Trump has clearly directed the formation of the Space Force, reversed the situation of the game, and thus the resistance from the Air Force and the Department of Defense will be reduced significantly, which makes the formation of the Space Force a foregone conclusion apparently.
For the Space Force, however, the real problem may not be whether to be built or not to be built but when the building can be completed.
Legally, National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018 provides that the DoD shall submit a provisional report on whether setting up a space force is necessary or not by August 1 this year and the final report should be submitted by December 31 of this year. This schedule indicates that the US Congress will authorize the formation of the Space Force in 2020 at the earliest.
According to past experience, creation of a new service is a substantial establishment system reform, usually taking years or even longer to finish the argumentation. The famous Goldwater–Nichols Act in the US military’s history was passed with difficulties after four-year of argumentations. As early as in 2013, the US military began to prepare for the reform of theater command establishment and function, which has not made substantial progress yet.
From the prospective of the military capacity-building, it is a long process from recruitment, arrangement of combat training, to formation of combat power. At present, there are only 2,000 active aerospace service members in the US military. Whereas the US Marine Corps, the smallest scale among the US military services, is served by 186,000 active service members.
Todd Harrison, director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), estimated the establishment of the Space Force might require additional 15,000 to 20,000 officers and soldiers. Since the aerospace field requires strong expertise, the force with such a scale will take at least 15 years to build up its combat power.
Disclaimer: The authors are Chen Hanghui and Wang Hanhan from the PLA Nanjing Army Command College. The article was published on the PLA Daily on July 5. It is translated from Chinese into English and edited by the China Military online.