The next frontier: Time to create a new military branch for space?

The next frontier: Time to create a new military branch for space?

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A SpaceX Dragon capsule departed the International Space Station Saturday to return 4,100 pounds of science gear to Earth, concluding a month-long delivery mission. The capsule splashed down the same day in the Pacific Ocean, off the coast of Baja, Calif. (NASA)

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon should develop a new branch of military service — or at least a robust stand-alone corps within the Air Force — to boost space warfare and protections, a growing number of military analysts and members of Congress are saying.

Some say the change could occur within five years, as momentum is growing in Congress for such a major change.

“I think you can make a transition to a space corps within the Department of the Air Force probably, you know, in five years or so,” Todd Harrison, director of Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Wednesday at the organization’s Washington, D.C., headquarters. “That would be a reasonable timeline in which you could accomplish that. You know, maybe a little more, little less depending on how aggressive you want to be.”

The scope of space warfare includes ground-to-space warfare  such as attacking satellites from the Earth  as well as space-to-space warfare such as satellites attacking satellites.

Harrison said that even short of creating a new corps or service branch, there are steps the Air Force can take now to better address the new theater of warfare, such as “creating a separate acquisition workforce within the Air Force” for space acquisitions.

Todd Harrison, director,  Aerospace Security Project (CSIS)

“You know, it’s not plausible to think that you can take any acquisition professional who’s worked on other types of systems and plop them into a space program and expect them to perform to the level that we need them to perform,” Harrison said. “You know, building a satellite is not – does not have that much in common with building a fighter jet … no more than building a tank has a lot in common with building a fighter jet. You wouldn’t take an acquisition professional from the Army – you know, from tracked vehicles, and put them in charge of the F-35 program.”

There is historical precedence for creating a military branch from an existing service — and most recently that is the Air Force itself. Initially part of the U.S. Army and called the “Army Air Corps,” the USAF was formed as a separate branch of the U.S. Armed Forces on Sept. 18, 1947, under the National Security Act of 1947. Previously, the Marine Corps, which was part of the Navy, became a separate branch on July 11, 1798.

On Tuesday, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson notified the two congressional armed services committees of a new plan to create a three-star position that would directly support U.S. Space Command.

The post would be “vice commander of Air Force Space Command,” and would be based in Washington — not in Colorado Springs, Colo., where Air Force Space Command (AFSPC) is headquartered. The AFSPC vice commander has traditionally been a two-star general based at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado.

The new position is part of a broader effort by the Air Force to comply with a legislative mandate to increase focus on space and make it a higher priority on the Air Force’s agenda.

Also on Tuesday, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) told defense reporters that it is “too early to say” whether changes to military space organization included in the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act are making a difference. A key question is whether the Air Force can “culturally handle space as a separate, but just as important, domain of warfare as it does air operations,” he said.

“You can move boxes around, you can spend more money — and clearly we need to — but you still have to give it the priority that is required, not only for war fighting but for our national day-to-day life,” Thornberry said.

He pointed to rising concerns by “those of us who have received the classified briefings” over the United States’ “ability to continue to depend on space for our daily life.

“A lot of people are going to be watching very carefully to see whether, under what we have passed, space receives the priority that it should,” he said. “If not, we can go back to some other options.”

The House voted for the creation of a stand-alone space corps within the Department of the Air Force but the proposal was rejected by the Senate.

“What we came up with in last year’s NDAA [National Defense Authorization Act] was a compromise that did not set up a separate space corps but did try to improve accountability for space,” Thornberry said. “It’s too early to say how well that’s worked. We’re just in the early days.”

The House Strategic Forces Subcommitteeled by Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), “has done great work raising the issue and coming up with what it seemed to me was a very sensible answer,” Thornberry said. Rogers and other members of the Armed Services Committee have said they will continue to pursue the issue.

“Chairman Rogers in the House and others have picked up this up,'” Harrison said. “And I don’t think they’re going to let it die. I think they’re going to keep pushing it forward, inch by inch.”

The strongest recommendation for a separate department comes from the 2001 Space Commission Report (formally called The Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organization). The commission concluded the U.S. needs to get on a path to transition to an independent service for space if not an independent department for space.

“Our growing dependence on space, our vulnerabilities in space and the burgeoning opportunities from space are simply not reflected in the present institutional arrangements,” the report said.

The chair of that commission was Donald Rumsfeld, who shortly after the report was issued began his second stint as secretary of defense.

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