• William Toti

Who Needs the Space Command?

Updated: Apr 20, 2020

First published in April 1995, twenty-five years before creation of the Space Force, this article pointed towards the absurdity of the way the US military was dealing with space. The silliness of the US military's approach to space can be reflected by a real statement made in my presence by a "space officer," that things would be different if theStar Trek character James T. Kirk had been called a “Colonel Kirk” instead of a “Captain Kirk."

The Commission on Roles and Missions of the Armed Forces, commonly referred to as the White Commission, has been charged with identifying areas where the United States can afford to eliminate unnecessary aspects of its military organizational structure. As a member of the so-called military space community who has been dealing with U.S. Space Command for about ten years, I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that the U.S. Space Command should be subjected to considerable scrutiny by the White Commission.

U.S. Space Command was created in 1985 by President Ronald Reagan to manage the impressive arsenal of space systems, including space combat forces and national missile defenses, that the United States was planning to field. This new unified command was intended to tie a host of disparate elements together—one-stop shopping for anything that flew through space. At a time when the defense budget was on a steep upward slope and when Battlestar Galactica-type systems were being envisioned as a real, if distant, possibility, it made sense to launch a command that could develop a cohesive doctrine for systems and forces that historically had little to do with each other. But even though the goal to seek a unified command for space forces was right for its time, the concept may have outlived its usefulness.

The bottom line is that unified commands exist to command forces, not to control systems. Even a supporting commander, such as the Commander-in-Chief of U.S. Transportation Command, has forces under his control that he uses to support other commanders-in-chief. To explore this issue fully, it may be helpful to consider the events leading to the establishment of U.S. Space Command. Since the beginning of the space age, the Air Force considered itself to be the nation’s aerospace power. In fact, the term “aerospace” was created by the Air Force primarily to enhance the notion that space was its rightful domain. They were not hindered by the fact that “aerospace” doesn’t exist—any more than “aerosea” does.

Unfortunately, much of what the Air Force did to reinforce its image as the primary military space power involved pursuing arcane technologies. During the 1960s, for example, its space effort consisted mostly of a series of experimental programs yielding little practical value. The Air Force worked diligently to find better ways to get pilots into space, under the notion that simply sending pilots into space would one day have intrinsic military value. Most of this work led to technological dead ends.

Meanwhile, the Navy concentrated on the practical application of space power, in pursuit of military utility. The Navy’s history in space began when it built Vanguard, the country’s first satellite. It later dominated the military use of space by building the most successful military satellites ever flown: TRANSIT navigation satellites and FLEETSAT communications satellites. The Air Force did not neglect similar programs out of oversight; it simply did not have the Navy’s need for global access to accurate navigation and communications. The Air Force did later take on other successful satellite programs like NAVSTAR GPS, but often over its own objections, since these systems would use Air Force resources in support of other-service requirements.1

The problem was that during this time, Air Force was perceived as displaying a “Buck Rogers' attitude toward space missions in general, while the other services saw themselves as looking toward space to find practical military utility.

Sometimes, the Air Force enhanced this perception, to its own discredit. I once had an Air Force colonel involved in their space program tell me that the biggest mistake the Air Force ever made was letting Gene Roddenbury call the Star Trek character Captain Kirk instead of “Colonel” Kirk. As a result, despite its space-age focus, the Air Force was still struggling internally for an identity in space.

With these events as backdrop, the Air Force decided in the early 1980s to establish a series of programs that would serve to resolve their identity crisis, including the following core programs:

  • They planned to procure their own space shuttle, so they could become the undisputed space warrior force.

  • They began training their own astronaut corps—space flight engineers—separate from NASA s shuttle astronauts. These space flight engineers would be the Air Force’s special forces for space missions.

  • They built their own shuttle-launch facility at Vandenberg Air Force Base. However, when it became obvious that the shuttle would not be cost-effective, they canceled their plans for their own shuttle. Hence, the construction of the shuttle-launch complex at Vandenberg actually wasted billions of dollars.

If the Air Force’s plans had ever been completed, this would have been a true space combat force. Since these combat forces would not be geographically constrained, no single existing unified commander would be able to lay claim to them. It made sense, therefore, to create a new unified structure to provide combatant command of these forces: Enter U.S. Space Command.

The Myth of Space Warfare

If space combat or space transport ever become a real military mission, U.S. Space Command would be needed to command forces, but space combat is not likely to become a reality any time soon, and there is no need for space transport to be a military mission. This leaves U.S. Space Command with a role in which it largely manages systems, not forces. Any technocrat can manage systems; do we really need a four-star commander for such a task? The United States seems to have neither the inclination nor the budget to field true space forces. Therefore, we no longer need U.S. Space Command.

Even if the genesis for U.S. Space Command is no longer valid, it can be argued that if the command provides some benefit to the military community, it should be retained. Unfortunately, U.S. Space Command may actually hurt the military’s use of space, because it perpetuates some outdated and incorrect notions. For example, U.S. Space Command reinforces the Air Force’s claim that satellite launch should be a military mission. The Air Force employs tens of thousands of uniformed and civilian personnel for this task, but launching a satellite is identical in concept and function to launching a ship. All the launching does is place the militarily useful system into the medium in which it must operate. We do not use uniformed personnel to launch ships, and we should not use the Air Force to launch satellites.

Further, it has become vogue to refer to “space” as often as possible when describing modern combat. For example, Desert Storm is often referred to as the first “space war,” apparently because we used satellite during the conflict. The Navy has created a concept called Space and Electronic Warfare, and U.S. Space Command is establishing a Joint Space Warfare Center. With all these titles, one would think we had a good handle on exactly what constituted space warfare.

So what exactly is space warfare? Shooting weapons from or at things in space may constitute space warfare, but we don’t do any of that. We do surveillance from space using systems like DSP—is that space warfare? I think not. We do surveillance from hills, but we don’t call it “hill warfare”; we call it surveillance. We also communicate via satellite, and if that is space warfare then we should call UHF line-of-sight communications “tropospheric warfare.”

Here is the deal: We are spending a lot of money on this thing called “space warfare.” We should at least be able to figure out what it is. But we can’t—and for good reason. The fact is that we have a lot of force-enhancing systems in space, but none of this constitutes warfare. Unlike the other catch phrase, “information warfare,” there is no such thing as space warfare. Information warfare exists, because it constitutes a definable set of missions. Space warfare does not exist, because space is a place—not a mission.

Managing Space Systems

The creation of U.S. Space Command has had the unfortunate outcome of tying together all military satellites into a single organizational structure. Hence, communication satellites and surveillance satellites are owned by the same command—just because they both operate in space. To the layman, this makes sense, since most people think of all satellites as being essentially the same. In fact, they are not. The only thing communications satellites have in common with surveillance satellites or navigation satellites is that they all operate in space. Otherwise, their functions are different: their payloads are different; their satellite busses are different; their orbits are different; their users are different; and their concepts of operations are different.

It is important to keep in mind that a communications satellite is simply the space component of our overall military communications architecture. If communications satellites are to be attached to any single command, they should be attached to the command that controls the overarching communications architecture. Instead, we assign them to an organization that is supposed to control something that doesn’t exist: our space architecture. Having a “space architecture” makes no more sense than having an “air architecture.” We don’t have architectures for environments, we have architectures for functions. The same can be said with respect to surveillance and navigation satellites. Accordingly, the recent division by the Deputy Secretary of Defense to create a Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Space constitute a giant step backward in normalizing the way we procure space systems.

Military professionals must transcend the layman’s understanding of military systems and methods. We see no dichotomy in separating transport and strike aircraft into different commands, and neither should we have a problem with distributing space systems in a logical manner.

Military Requirements and Space Acquisition

If we continue to view space components as stand-alone systems, we inevitably will waste precious resources. For example, when a new military communications requirement arises, it is frequently viewed as a space issue. So instead of having a nondenominational communications engineer look at the problem in terms of optimizing the overall communications architecture, “space weenies” wind up looking exclusively to space systems to satisfy the new requirement. The problem is that space solutions are very expensive. They should be considered only when continuous global access is required and when other methods are not cost effective. If the dissolution of U.S. Space Command assists in defeating the notion that stovepipe space systems can satisfy all needs, then it would be a good thing.

There are also cases where U.S. Space Command has unintentionally worked in conflict with its own stated goals. Consider the example of the Follow-on Early Warning System (FEWS)—intended to be a replacement for the highly successful Defense Support Program (DSP) ballistic missile detection satellites. In 1991, FEWS was approaching a much-delayed milestone decision before the Defense Acquisition Board. At the time, the system was receiving lukewarm support from the Army and Navy, since U.S. Space Command and the Air Force had been slow to modify FEWS operational requirements to reflect the fact that the ballistic-missile threat had become more regional. But with U.S. Space Command’s position aligned so closely with the Air Force’s, the two primary space “managers” carried the day, and the FEWS requirements were left unchanged as the program proceeded toward its milestone decision meeting.

Then in December 1991, the Air Force’s Space Systems Division unexpectedly provided evidence that the cost estimates provided previously by the Air Force were too low—by several billion dollars. Both the Air Force Staff and U.S. Space Command disputed these higher numbers, but since the information had originated with the Air Force’s own experts on FEWS, it could not be ignored.2However, the revised system would break the bank, hence, the milestone decision was in jeopardy.

Hearing this, CinCSpace flew immediately to Washington to argue in favor on milestone approval. He was articulate and precise in his defense of the requirement for a better missile-warning system, but the immediate problem was not with the requirement but rather with the system intended to satisfy that requirement. Because the space commander-in-chief was arguing for that particular system—one he said he absolutely needed—the milestone was approved, and the Air Force was directed to fund the program at the updated level—something they could not afford to do. The program became anemic and was finally canceled after languishing for two more years, and a more affordable follow-on system was then initiated.

Normalizing Space

It is interesting to note that strategic offensive systems like intercontinental ballistic missiles belong to the commander-in-chief of Strategic Command, while the systems that would warn us of a nuclear attack—the strategic-warning systems such as DSP—belong to CinCSpace. Does this make military sense? Why would we create such an arrangement? It is because strategic warning is viewed as a space issue since it uses satellites. In the previous example, the fact that FEWS was considered to be a space system instead of an attack-warning system drove the decision makers to rely on CinCSpace instead of any other CinCs for advice on systems such as FEWS. If the theater CinCs had been consulted instead, the final outcome may have been different, because by design, CinCSpace focuses on the stovepipe—space—while the other theater CinCs must focus on the strategic objective—defense of the United States and its interests. Until space becomes a theater of operations in any real sense, space will remain just a stove pipe, and there is no compelling reason to have a CinC to command this region.

Finally, there is the cost issue. U.S. Space Command employs about 900 people, representing another overhead layer over and above the Air Force Space Command, which employs another 28,000 military and civilian people (compared to 494 for Navy Space Command). Considering that the Air Force operates only four major satellite systems—none of which are manned—there must be a cheaper way.

This is not to say that U.S. Space Command provides no value. But increasingly, it is becoming nothing more than a joint imprimatur to a space community dominated by the Air Force. We should break up space systems into the functional areas they support, and then give the communications and navigation mission responsibilities to the service that depends on them the most: the Navy. The Air Force can have tactical warning and attack assessment, and theater missile defense can go to the service that can field the most capable system.

Combatant command issues are also easily solved. The NORAD mission of defending the United States could be given to CinCUSA; this fits his mission of commanding continental U.S. forces. In addition, strategic-warning missions can be given to U.S. Strategic Command. These solutions make sense not only in terms of military requirements but also in fiscal terms—because breaking up the space mafia will enable us to resist the inclination to field space systems where cost-effective alternatives will do.

We need to begin to view space in proper terms—as a place that provides significant force enhancement but where no military operations are conducted (as we define it now). Breaking up Space Command would be the first step in the process of shifting the focus from the stovepipe to the warfighter.

1 Great debates still rage in the Air Force between the space enthusiasts, who think the Air Force’s primacy in space is worth investing Air Force resources to support other-service requirements, and the fighter mafia, who stifles at the thought of spending money that could otherwise be spent on airplanes.

2 At the time, I was the Joint Staff action officer in the middle of all this, collecting the data and advising the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.