A Review of U.S. Space Force’s First Year
The newest branch of the U.S. military, the United States Space Force, was mandated by Congress and signed into law and existence by the President on December 19, 2019. The Space Force Professionals, now called Guardians, of the U.S. Air Force had been preparing for the moment. They recognized that the area outside earth’s atmosphere was a new warfighting domain.
As the Space Force passes its first birthday, it is heartening to see how rapidly it has developed from a theoretical concept to an operational service fully engaged in a broad spectrum of activities. Heartening, because, as the saying goes, history does not repeat, but it rhymes. And history has a thing or two to say about new warfighting domains and the speed at which warfare can evolve.
This post reflects on the main gains achieved by the Space Force in its first year of existence. Before highlighting some of the achievements, it is worth recalling how quickly change occurred following the advent of the last new domain of warfare—the air domain.
Historical Perspective: The Rapid Rise of the Air Domain
Before highlighting some of the Space Force’s first-year achievements, it is worth recalling how quickly change occurred following the advent of the last new domain of warfare—the air domain.
In 1908, the Wright Brothers earned the first military contract for a “heavier than air flying machine” when the Wright Flyer III passed numerous test flights over Fort Myer, Virginia. The Wright Brothers inked similar deals with the French Armée as Europe and the world awoke to the possibility of flight and its implications for warfare. Only a few years later—by 1911—various States were championing the adoption of international rules limiting the use of airplanes to primarily peaceful purposes. The “Madrid Agreement” proposed restricting the airplane’s wartime use to solely observation and artillery spotting, roles that had been performed by aerial balloons since the 1860s during the American Civil War.
However, those proposed restrictions too were short-lived. In 1914, opposing bi-plane pilots went from chivalric salutes to pot-shots by pistol. Pistol shots quickly evolved into mounted machine guns. The dogfight was born when machine guns were synchronized to fire through the blades of forward propellers. The first to effectively experiment with forward facing machine guns was Roland Garros, immortalized as the namesake of the French Open venue. Garros shot down five German aircraft through a crude device that fired through armor-plated propellers. He was killed as he scored his fifth victory, also setting the standard for what later became known as an “ace.”
On September 29, 1918, the second most prolific and most famous American Air Service Ace of WWI, Frank Luke, Jr., was shot down and perished after only ten days of dogfights. Luke was known as “The Arizona Balloon Buster” because fourteen of his eighteen confirmed kills were of manned, and heavily armed or guarded, German air balloons. Frank Luke’s record demonstrates the dizzying pace at which the new air domain evolved during the four years of the Great War.
Fighting in the air domain also had catastrophic consequences on civilians. For example, over 4,700 English civilians were killed by aerial bombardment, from bi-plane bombers and Zeppelins, in London alone. As a result of its experiences, the United Kingdom created the Royal Air Force in 1918, demonstrating foresight the United States lacked until 1947 when the U.S. Air Force was formed.
Thus, within the first decade of the first military aircraft, airplanes mixed with balloons or stationary sub-atmospheric “satellites,” offensive and defensive measures were adapted on the fly, and there was a horrendous toll on both pilots and civilians.
The Space Domain—Space-based Threats
With the creation of the Space Force, the United States has acted decisively to engage in the new domain of space and forestall the kind of calamity London experienced from the air in the early days of the airplane.
Today, American daily life relies on our exquisite satellites. The U.S. Global Positioning Service signal is a vital part of civilian life—from telecommunications, banking transactions, and agriculture to the daily navigation of first responders. Propagated by large, primarily immobile Space Force (formerly Air Force) satellites, our military capabilities also rely significantly on these vulnerable modern observation “balloons.” As former Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson was fond of saying of these enormously expensive and vital assets, “We built glass houses in a world without stones.”
But today there are plenty of stones. As early as 2007, China demonstrated its ability to shoot down a satellite. China used a missile to exit the atmosphere, target one of its own satellites, and destroy it—recklessly generating hazardous debris in an orbital path in the process. At the time, Russia had been working on and testing anti-satellite, or ASAT, missiles for decades. Earlier this year, India also demonstrated anti-satellite capability.
In addition to ground-based missile and laser anti-satellite threats, the Defense Intelligence Agency has identified the following potential space-based threats to satellites:
- High-power microwaves
- Radio frequency jammers
- Kinetic kill vehicles capable of ramming a satellite with a projectile or another satellite
- Chemical sprayers
- Robotic mechanisms or “grapplers” that damage, destroy, or to send a satellite off orbit
Just as war came to the air domain in 1914, war could come to the space domain in the future.
While many in the media and pundits fixated on superficial aspects of the Space Force—things like uniforms, logos, and flags—the United States’ newest service quickly got down to the business of preparing for conflict in space. In its first year of existence, the Space Force has achieved operational gains in five main areas.
1. Inter-Service cooperation
The creation of the Space Force increased awareness of the military’s space capabilities and promoted greater interservice cooperation. Initial planning for the Space Force drove the Army, Navy, Marines Corps, and Air Force to consider the space assets they might forfeit and how reliant they were on their own space capabilities. Eventually, interservice parochialism gave way to greater cooperation among the services.
The Iranian missile attack on Al Asad Air Base in January 2020 provides one example of how interservice cooperation improved as a result of the Space Force. After the American strike on Qasem Soleimani, Iran launched missiles that struck and damaged U.S. facilities at Al Asad Air Base in Iraq. Fortunately, no lives were lost in the attack. The lack of fatalities, however, was not a stroke of luck. It can largely be attributed to a young Space Force officer who observed an anomaly in the missile warning feed and immediately sent notice to U.S. forces at Al Asad.
In another interservice success, during the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Space Force reallocated wideband global satellite communications (SATCOM) resources to double the data bandwidth aboard the hospital ship USNS Mercy. This expanded telemedicine capabilities and emergency medical services aboard the ship.
Additionally, following the worst fire season in California’s history, Guardians warned the California Air National Guard of uncontrolled fires threating Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton. This real-time response and warning by Guardians allowed the base to take proactive measures which likely saved lives and resources.
Other Services have long underappreciated their dependence on space. But, with the creation of the Space Force, they are increasingly cognizant of Space Force capabilities and their need to purposefully plan for space capability integration. In 2019, the U.S. Space Operations Center received 764 requests for space support from U.S. forces overseas—a 400 percent increase over the previous year. Increased awareness of space capabilities will only further accelerate the awareness of and effectiveness of on-the-ground competency.
2. In-space accomplishments
a. Threats and the need for safe space-flight operations. Monitoring space objects and competitors’ military space activities is an enduring responsibility of the Space Force. This year, the Space Force made public previously classified information that will lead to a greater awareness of threats in space and safer space operations.
In February, for example, General John W. “Jay” Raymond, Chief of Space Operations, announced that Russia’s nefarious inspector-satellite had assumed an orbit threateningly close to a sensitive U.S. satellite. Months later, China launched and recovered a reusable space plane, seemingly reverse engineered from the United States’ X-37B space plane. The Chinese space plane released a suspected military satellite before returning to Earth.
This type of activity has highlighted the need for greater international agreement on standards for professional and safe flight, operations and orbits of space, and satellite bodies. Accordingly, the Space Force is now leading the conversation with our allies and adversaries about safe space-flight standards in much the same way the Air Force discusses professional and safe air intercepts after international air-flight close calls.
b. Collision risks and space domain awareness. Guardians actively and precisely track over 22,000 space objects in orbit that pose a collision threat to private and government space-based assets operated by allies and rivals alike. This year, after detecting a possible collision risk with a decommissioned Russian rocket body, Guardians coordinated with NASA to maneuver the International Space Station away from the threat.
To meet the future demands of this mission, General Raymond has urged the team to focus on agile software development. In an era when the number of commercial satellites is expanding exponentially, the Space Force’s role as an observer and tracker of malicious, mysterious, and benign objects is a daily imperative.
3. Increasing coalition and partnering capabilities
This year, General Raymond inked new satellite payload partnering deals with Norway and Japan. Other Space Force strategic defense partnerships include an agreement with several nations including Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom, to operate the Combined Space Operations Center (or CSpOC) in Colorado. The Space Force also collaborates on space operations with Germany, France, and New Zealand at the Combined Space Operations Center and is considering new ties and partnerships with South Korea, Italy, and Japan.
Additionally, France formed a Space Force while the U.S. Congress debated the creation of the Space Force, and the United Kingdom is now standing up a Space Command. The creation of the U.S. Space Force shows that the United States is leading in space, and our partners want to be on our wing.
4. Innovating and accelerating acquisition of space systems
Accelerating innovation in space system acquisitions does not seem like it would have an operational impact, but let me explain why it does.
It is axiomatic that the Army equips its men and women, but the Navy and Air Force man their equipment. In a dogfight or naval battle, the technology of the weapon system, rather than the morale of the warrior, generally determines the outcome. The best equipment, with the longest range (or stand-off range) or stealth invisibility, is sure to dominate. The proof is easy to see—the F-15, for example, is 104-0 in dogfights. For the Space Force, the need for technological superiority and the absence of difference that can be made by a person’s stamina, willpower or courage is even more pronounced—all of the service’s equipment today is manned remotely.
The Space Force began its first year by pursuing new heights of innovation in leveraging non-traditional vendors, start-ups, and cutting-edge solutions to accelerate systems modernization and procure next-generation technologies. While much of space acquisition is classified, one visible marker of achievement in the first year was the landing of the X-37B Space Plane after a record-setting 780-day space flight and its official transfer to the Space Force.
The Space Force has also demonstrated a willingness to partner with cutting-edge businesses. For example, in August, Boeing’s United Launch Alliance and Elon Musk’s SpaceX split an award of future Space Force space launches.
Even more importantly, traditional military contractors are not the dominant or leading R&D investors in software, hardware, or artificial intelligence. All three are keys to the Space Force’s mission. In this way, the Space Force has redeveloped software designed to track space objects and monitor space activity. The new cloud-based software package replaced 40-year-old legacy software systems and enhanced data-sharing capabilities with our “Five Eyes” intelligence alliances. This software package is particularly impressive given it was fielded 83% more quickly than its predecessor. The Space Force is increasing space domain awareness by accelerating tech development to match operationally‑relevant speeds through uploading new data code on a weekly basis.
The Space Force is also building on the innovative “Pitch Days” originally pioneered by Air Force Secretary Wilson. In 2019, the Department of the Air Force awarded over $131 million through Pitch Day events with an average of 15 minutes from award to contractor payment. The Space Force is further building on the idea by announcing an International Space Pitch Day in conjunction with the United Kingdom to award $1 million to startups at the Defence Space Conference in London in November 2020. Advancing best practices from the Department of the Air Force and private sector while shunning the rigidity of more established branches, the Space Force is taking the steps necessary to expand the scope of private enterprise companies, remain at the forefront of technology, and maintain freedom of operations in space.
5. Operating efficiently in the Pentagon bureaucracy to achieve operational gains
a. Reducing overhead. From its inception, the Space Force has sought to reduce bureaucracy to achieve greater operational effectiveness. To achieve a “flat” organization, the Space Force eliminated two bureaucratic layers. This would be the equivalent in the Army of a straight-line from Brigade to Forces Command (FORSCOM), cutting away Division and Corps Headquarters.
b. Achieving a larger share of the DOD budget. Recognizing there can be no operational impact without funding, the Space Force was successful in submitting its first-ever initial service-specific budget. Some have criticized decades of Air Force budgeting decisions that seem to favor fighter jets over vital space assets. Having a new space staff and a new four-star general, the Chief of Space Operations, in the Pentagon to advocate for appropriate levels of funding has proven impactful. Even more importantly, by law (10 U.S. Code §222a), Congress requires each Service Chief to submit a prioritized list of weapons and systems not funded by the Pentagon bureaucracy. For the first time, Congress received a list solely of space and now Space Force priorities, while the Chief of Staff of the Air Force submitted a separate USAF-specific list. This bifurcation of warfighting domain budgets represents a monumental inflection point for funding in space.
c. Space warfighting culture. Establishing a unique Service warfighting culture is vital to operating in an entirely new domain. Ground warfare is not like naval warfare. And space warfare—if it occurs—will not be like air warfare. To this end, the Space Force took the first vital step—far more critical than picking uniforms or rank designations—when it released the nation’s first-ever authoritative space doctrine. The doctrine keys in on space power and space warfighting disciplines, such as electromagnetic warfare and orbital warfare. These new disciplines, for a new domain, require new thinking and novel tactical and operational approaches.
These initial, operational accomplishments demonstrate the Space Force’s resolve to push the limits of military innovation and responsiveness. The Air Force’s space professionals were always at the forefront of technology and innovation. Now they are also organizationally configured to achieve better operational impacts—impacts that will affect the increasingly relevant domain of Space—and to ensure that Guardians are best organized, trained, and equipped to support legacy services in all warfighting domains.
Maj Gen (Ret) Thomas E. Ayres is the General Counsel of the U.S. Department of the Air Force.