Old School Air Force Can't Handle 'Space Corps' Challenge?


What's wrong with the U.S. military's approach to space that has lawmakers believing a "Space Corps" could be the solution?

A lot, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee said Thursday.

"I think there's absolutely no disagreement with anybody, including the Air Force, that space is -- I don't want to say 'disaster' -- not going well right now," Rep. William "Mac" Thornberry told reporters and experts during a briefing at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

"So the only conversation to have is, 'What's the right answer?' " he said.

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To everyone's surprise, the House Armed Services Committee voted 60-1 in June to move forward with a separate Space Corps branch within the fiscal 2018 National Defense Authorization Act even after Air Force officials and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis attempted to put the kibosh on it.

Since then, "We have not started discussing the space reorganization issues between [Congress and the Defense Department]," Thornberry said.

He added that while there have been a handful of small conversations between the Air Force and lawmakers in recent weeks, he held "two full committee events this week bringing in folks to talk about it."

Culturally, there needs to be separation from a "one service" mentality, the chairman said, given that the domain belongs to the joint force. The Air Force has been headlining space missions since the mid-1950s.

"It's just a different domain than the Air Force. There came a natural evolution where the Air Force had to evolve out of the Army Air Corps," Thornberry said. "We are at or past the point where space has to evolve past the air domain into a domain on its own."

Organizational changes don't solve everything, the lawmaker said. But they do help with the acquisition process, and "how we develop the warfighting techniques and practices in space," he said.

'Significant Challenges'

Speaking to audiences at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson echoed part of Thornberry's comments made earlier in the day.

"We have some significant challenges there," Wilson said at the Washington, D.C.-based think tank.  

"Ever since we've been involved in space, it was a benign domain," she said. "But in 2007, that all changed when China launched an anti-satellite weapon" taking out one of its own weather satellites and sending thousands of debris particles into orbit, she said.

"It became very clear it was going to become a contested domain. Our adversaries know how much the U.S. depends on its space system. When it comes to communications, indications and warning, intelligence and being able to watch the world -- position, navigation and timing," Wilson said.

The secretary added that GPS is provided by the Air Force to 1 billion people everyday, and is overseen by only 40 airmen working in a center outside of Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Space is now "at a turning point" not just in the offensive versus defensive operational discussion, but also in how many players are entering the space domain, she said.

"There are two things happening at the same time: a significant reduction in the cost of launch. At the same time, payloads are getting much, much smaller -- the miniaturization of payloads. So you put those two things together, and you will see a lot more companies, countries and even individuals in space," Wilson said.

Wilson said some individuals will enter space for peaceful purposes -- some will not. The United States "has to assume" there will be "both kinds of actors" in space.

Yet the service has already taken steps to elevate the importance of space, she argued.

In June, the Air Force officially created a senior military role to directly oversee space missions, giving the position an equal footing on the Air Staff at the Pentagon. They have yet to name the three star general for the position.

Furthermore, Gen. John W. "Jay" Raymond, the commander of Air Force Space Command, also holds a joint title under U.S. Strategic Command, which oversees the nuclear command and control mission with responsibility for space operations as well as global strike and missile defense.

But more is needed. The secretary called for a near real-time, more complex system that goes beyond just cataloging what goes on in space. And through the National Space Defense Center -- which is being orchestrated in Colorado -- the Air Force for the first time, "will [be able to] link to the downlink and control systems for our satellite systems that we operate," Wilson said.

The NSDC is an example of Army, Navy, Air Force and the National Reconnaissance Office working altogether, she said.

"As we update satellites, that's going to be an open-architecture system," the secretary said, so that everything "plugs into the common system" for battle management and command and control.  

With respect to normalizing space operations, "We have to be able to defend ourselves, we also have to be able -- if we're going to deter the malevolent actions of others -- to take offensive action if needed, Wilson said.

"So we're going to have to develop those capabilities," she said.

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