The requirements for a brilliant Space Force

The requirements for a brilliant Space Force
© NASA

Threatening activities by potential adversaries and an ever-increasing reliance on undefended space systems have placed American national and economic security at risk. Both the president and members of Congress have been frustrated by the lack of progress by the Defense Department in addressing the defense of space. Now the Trump administration has promised the creation of a Space Force, a new branch of the military.

Vice President Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceTop Senate Democrat: Space Force is 'not the way to go' Why you should take Trump’s Space Force seriously Pence condemns 'racism and violence' ahead of Charlottesville anniversary MORE announced Thursday the Space Force will be established by 2020 noting, “It is not enough to have an American presence in space, we must have American dominance in space.”

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Not only is space vital to the way the nation defends itself, it is “critical infrastructure” for all of America, and indeed the world. Imagine, for instance, the global economic catastrophe that would descend from a loss of GPS, a satellite system operated by the U.S. Air Force.

 

The mission is clear: We want to deter conflict in space. In the event of conflict, we want to maintain continued flow of information from and through space. And in peace or conflict, we want to maintain freedom of space, just as the U.S. Navy maintains freedom of the seas. 

A dedicated space service must provide a stabilizing, deterrent effect. Deterrence will not come from systems alone. We must have the people who can not only operate the systems, but respond to unforeseen threats and leverage emerging technologies.

No unified, highly educated, stable cadre of space operators has been established within the Air Force.

The Air Force has begun a focused effort on warfighting excellence in the space domain. But what is needed goes beyond tactics, techniques, and procedures. Mere procedures and checklists do not suffice. Just as no plan stands contact with the enemy, no checklist can deal with surprise.   Space warfighters must have true expertise in the physics, engineering, and operational challenges unique to space. Any new space warfighting cadre must be deeply educated, not just trained. It must be brilliant. Just as the Navy provides a demanding curriculum to its nuclear submariners, the Space Force needs to demand that its operators are highly technical as well.

The pace of change today is relatively faster in the space domain than in other physical domains. A small satellite, quickly developed and launched, can have outsized combat effects. Robotic satellites and autonomous systems will be on orbit soon. Only in the cyber world do things change faster. Our cyber forces respond to “zero-day attacks” with tremendous agility. America needs its space force to have this level of agility, because we do not have the luxury of time. Deep knowledge is needed. But cyber personnel are familiar with computer technology from their youth. Space is not familiar to anyone; astrodynamics is not instinctive.  This literally is rocket science. Educational rigor is essential, and a future space cadre must be up to the learning challenge.

Potential adversaries are moving faster than we are. We will need new ideas in order to catch up. These will not come from some collection of space geniuses or contractors. The definition of new systems and tactics must emerge from the operators themselves, who must be expert engineers as well as tacticians. The culture that emerges must respond on the fly, with technical insight, to new threats, technologies, and behaviors, as our cyber warriors do. There must be rewards for creativity, not caution. We ask whether such a radical cultural change can occur within an existing organization, or requires the creation of a new one.

With brilliance, adaptability, and audacity, our Space Force would stand a chance of catching up to potential adversaries, discouraging their attempts to intimidate America, and maintaining freedom of space. Without brilliance, adaptability and audacity, we stand little chance at all.

The new space force must include the military space leadership that grasps the problems, stability of assignments to capture the benefits of experience, and specialized schools to build a highly educated corps. This front-line cadre must then lead the development of new systems based on deep knowledge and experience, and strategy and doctrine based on technical accuracy. Only these measures will provide the edge that will keep the peace in space, no matter what the future brings. 

Owen Brown, Ph.D., is a vice president of Scientific Systems Company, Inc.

Gordon Roesler, Ph.D., is president of Robots in Space LLC. Both have led space programs for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), working closely with military space leaders. Both are former U.S. Navy nuclear submarine officers.