These Major Questions About Space Force Still Need Answers

Former Apollo 17 astronaut Jack Schmitt hands a figurine to President Donald Trump after he signed a policy directive to send American astronauts back to the moon, and eventually Mars, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on Dec. 11, 2017, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Former Apollo 17 astronaut Jack Schmitt hands a figurine to President Donald Trump after he signed a policy directive to send American astronauts back to the moon, and eventually Mars, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on Dec. 11, 2017, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Will the U.S. call new service members in the Space Force 'spacemen' or 'space rangers'? Will there ever be a U.S. military base on the moon?

Social media jokes and speculation aside, there are real questions that remain about the Trump administration's proposed Space Force following Vice President Mike Pence's speech about next steps for the initiative Thursday at the Pentagon.

Little information has been made public regarding total cost of the effort, organizational structure and incremental timelines. It's not completely clear how existing space-focused military agencies would fit into the new service branch. Pence announced the Department of Space Force was intended to launch in the 2020 time frame, but experts believe it could take much longer.

"We're saying that the cost associated with standing up the additional structure, we'll probably know by the end of the year. We haven't done that cost estimation yet," Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan told reporters Thursday following Pence's speech.

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While Pence said there are plans in the works to allocate an additional $8 billion to investment in space, the funds would be spaced out over five years, and not solely designated for the creation of Space Force itself.

Shanahan said it will still likely cost "billions."

Aside from dollar amounts, there is still no concrete information on:

  • Whether the Air Force, the "leaders in space," as service officials have said, keeps its space mission
  • What the future holds for operational space bases such as Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado, and Los Angeles Air Force Base
  • How the proposed Space Force affects the Navy and Army, which also have independent space assets
  • How many service members and civilians will make up the new Space Force
  • How much more infrastructure and overhead for a potential sixth military branch will be needed
  • What happens to the Air Force's Space and Missile Systems Center
  • How exactly Space Force will deter or thwart threats from adversaries such as Russia, China, North Korea and Iran in the space domain

"The biggest unanswered question I have so far is, what is going to be included in the Space Force," Todd Harrison, director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Military.com Friday.

"It's clearly going to be more than just Air Force Space Command," Harrison said, "because a lot of our existing space forces are in the other services."

"What are all these specific organizations and units, do they intend to transfer into this?" he said. "And a really big question with that is, what about the [intelligence] agencies" such as the National Reconnaissance Office and National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.

Pence on Thursday rolled out the plan in three parts: Officials would create a U.S. combatant command for space, known as U.S. Space Command. The DoD would also create a "Space Operations Force" made up of military and civilian personnel from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps, similar to that of the military's U.S. Special Operations Command. And the Pentagon would build a Space Development Agency to oversee the contracting process and procurement of new satellites.

"Different parts of this will lead to the Space Force, but not all of this," Harrison said. "Space Command, that is separate … Space Command will not be a part of the Space Force, just like a combatant command is not a part of a service," he said.

It's not clear, Harrison added, whether the intent is to "put [the Space and Missile Systems Center] out of business eventually."

The acquisition organization oversees the procurement of satellites and rocket launches.

"There are a lot of unknowns about that one," Harrison said.

The analyst added that there was no way that these items could be decided so quickly, even if DoD officials had been working on an interim report for some months following the dissolution of a Space Corps idea.

Before Trump announced intentions to build a Space Force roughly seven weeks ago, there were months of deliberations between the Air Force and lawmakers on whether the service should stand up a "Space Corps" in hopes of taking adversarial threats in space more seriously. While lawmakers ultimately removed language in the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act requiring such an overhaul of the Air Force's mission in favor of a Space Corps, they still required a study of the idea and backed changes to the management of the space cadre.

A preliminary report was created in March; a second report was unveiled Thursday by Pence, Shanahan as well as Vice Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff Gen Paul Selva; and a third report, which will advise lawmakers on the appropriate legislative language need for the fiscal 2020 budget request, will be published sometime in December, Harrison said.

One thing is clear: Space Force isn't being completely made from scratch, Harrison said. The Pentagon already has units, people and organizations it can work with to funnel into the Space Force, however big the new organization may become.

"Most of it -- almost all of it -- is going to be a transfer of funding from one account to another" to do this, Harrison predicted. "When they go through ... and identify all the space operators, the idea is then you will just move over all these people, and the budget comes with them," he said.

While experts for weeks have speculated why such an overhaul is especially needed now, particularly if a new threat, not known by the public, has prompted this activity, Harrison instead wondered why the Pentagon hasn't taken action sooner.

"Why [has this taken] 20 years? The space commission that Congress created in the late 1990s looked at this issue of reorganizing military space," he said.

The U.S. Commission to Assess National Security Space Management and Organization then recommended in 2001 to create a separate service for space. Its chairman was Donald Rumsfeld.

"The answer, I think, is that the Air Force has always been resistant because it stands to lose the most personnel and budget [dollars] from this," he said.

That aside, the space threats are there. Often cited is the famous 2007 incident when China conducted an anti-satellite missile test, destroying one of its own weather satellites and creating more than 3,000 pieces of debris.

But there are other examples: The Chinese have continued testing their anti-satellite weapons, but without kinetic means. The Russians too have been testing their non-kinetic anti-satellite weapons, and "we've seen actual use of a lot of non-kinetic forms of counter space weapons," Harrison said.

Iran has used jamming and spoofing; North Korea has acquired global position system jammers.

"Russia has this aircraft with a laser mounted on the top of it and the insignia on the side of it has a picture of a falcon and a lightning bolt going up into what looks like a spy satellite," Harrison said. "It's clearly designed to dazzle and blind imaging satellites," he said. (Dazzling refers to interfering with a the satellite in order to stop it from obtaining images with a lower-powered laser).

"What's frustrating to people is that we're building our space system as if these threats did not exist," he said.

When asked whether or not the public's skepticism surrounding Space Force was hurtful to the overall message that space missions are serious, Harrison said it was.

"It seems to be becoming 'Trump's Space Force,' " he said.

It doesn't help, Harrison said, that in media coverage the concept of a military Space Force is being conflated with commercial space and civil space, which NASA is responsible for.

However, the president's team may have contributed to that confusion. After Pence's announcement Thursday, the Trump 2020 campaign debuted a range of 'Space Force' logos, including one depicting a space shuttle blasting off with the words, "Mars Awaits."

"The [media] keeps interviewing astronauts about this and protecting the moon. That's not helpful. That's not what this is about at all. And there is ... a serious situation going on in space. We have problems in protecting our space [capabilities], and if we don't protect them, we will not be able to fight effectively on Earth," Harrison said, referring to the thousands of weapons and communications systems troops on the ground use daily that are connected to military satellites.

Whether or not the Space Force will be the absolute solution to present threats remains unclear. But the Pentagon knows the journey it's about to begin is not a small one.

Speaking to audiences at an Air Force Association event in Washington, D.C. on Friday, Selva said the Pentagon is not "naive" regarding the size of the task it faces. Nor will the building of a Space Force be "cost neutral" by any means, he said.

"We will put all the building blocks in place, we will give the president the legislative proposal he's asked for and we'll advocate for it when the congressional debate starts," Selva said, as reported by Inside Defense. "But I think we need to be wide-eyed about what this really means. So I'm just trying to be as pragmatic as I can."

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @oriana0214.

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