Center for Air and Space Law | Space Force – the DOD’s Proposal
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Space Force – the DOD’s Proposal

Space Force – the DOD’s Proposal

By Dradin Kreft

On March 1st the U.S. Department of Defense provided Congress with a legislative proposal detailing the establishment of a U.S. Space Force within the Department of the Air Force – creating the basis for a sixth branch of the Armed Forces. Visions of soldiers with lasers battling in space are misplaced. When we hear ‘Space Force’, we should be thinking about improved procurement processes, enhanced means for information sharing and space situational awareness and maintaining space as open for all to use, similarly to the high seas. Guaranteed free access to space for all countries should be a priority for future space organizations, Space Force included. Consolidating space activities into a single organization should lead to streamlined and increasingly efficient U.S. military space operations.

Vice President Mike Pence commented on the event stating, “Space is central to our way of life. U.S. leadership in space has pioneered groundbreaking new technologies; revolutionized how we communicate, travel, farm and trade; supported countless U.S. jobs; and above all made the strongest military in the history of the world stronger still.” The words and actions coming from the current administration point towards continued growth and investment in space.

The proposal provides how Space Force will be structured within the existing landscape of the USAF. Section 1701 of the proposal outlines the general responsibilities of Space Force which would include: (1) providing for freedom of operations in, from, and to the space domain for the United States; (2) providing independent military options for joint and national leadership; and (3) enabling the lethality and effectiveness of the joint force. Organizationally, Sections 1701 and 1702 of the proposal call for the creation of an Under Secretary for Space, Chief of Staff of the Space Force and a Vice Chief of Staff of the Space Force. Additionally, Section 1706 makes the Secretary of the Air Force responsible for procurement of commercial satellite communication, a duty transferred from the Defense Information Systems Agency to Space Command by the FY 2018 National Defense Authorization Act. Given that this is something for which commercial space actors lobbied, the proposed legislation appears to be in line with broader movements to foster stronger partnerships between commercial space and the defense community.

The proposed legislation would repeal provisions related to Air Force Space Command that are currently nested under the USAF. Space Force’s new mandate is not far off from Space Command’s mission to “provide resilient, defendable and affordable space capabilities for the Air Force, Joint Force and the Nation.” The priorities of Space Command currently include: (1) build combat readiness; (2) innovate and accelerate to win; (3) develop joint warfighters; and (4) organize for sustained success. Notwithstanding, the zeitgeist of the perceived increase of military activities in outer space and its characterization as a ‘warfighting domain,’ the proposed changes are less dramatic than the term ‘Space Force’ might imply.

Citing actions of China and Russia as factors leading to the proposed legislation, the DoD claims that those nations “are challenging U.S. power, influence, and interests, threatening our freedom of action in every domain including space.” While this indeed may be the impetus for the legislation, it should be noted that messaging is key for diffusing tensions at the international level. Descriptions of space as a ‘warfighting domain’ potentially heighten the risk of military escalation by the three superpowers. This is something that commercial and civil space actors simply cannot afford – another debris creating event such as the 2007 Chinese ASAT test would be bad for everyone. As described in this piece, there are many good reasons for consolidation of military space capabilities. With the right messaging, it may be possible to make clear the benefits of the proposed legislation – and in turn, the benefits of a ‘Space Force’ – without increasing tensions in international relations.

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Dradin Kreft is a 2L student editor for the Journal of Space Law pursuing his J.D. with a Concentration in Air and Space Law.