A Space Force is worth the price

A Space Force is worth the price
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One of the most hotly debated proposals in the FY 2020 budget cycle is likely to be the creation of a military service for space. One of the main arguments being made against the creation of a Space Force is the cost. In September, an internal Air Force memo leaked to the media estimated that cost at $13 billion — an eye-popping figure, if true. But missed in this headline were some important caveats, namely that this was a five-year cost estimate and it included a lot more than just a Space Force, such as a billion-dollar new headquarters building for U.S. Space Command.

The true cost of a Space Force likely would be much less than the Air Force’s estimate. Deputy Secretary Patrick Shanahan recently noted that the five-year cost will be in the low single-digit billions, and my own estimate pegs the number at somewhere between $1.5 billion and $2.7 billion, much less than what the Department of Defense (DOD) will spend on audit readiness over the same five-year period. Cost, however, should not be a primary concern in this debate because there are three compelling reasons the United States needs a Space Force.


First, authority and responsibility for national security space is fragmented. A 2016 GAO study found there are more than 60 organizations across DOD and the intelligence community with responsibility for space acquisitions. While most of DOD’s unclassified space funding is in the Air Force, key components of the space architecture, such as user terminals, ground control systems, some satellites, and many of the personnel that operate these systems, reside in the Army and Navy.

This lack of centralized leadership leads to slow decision-making, disunity of effort in building space capabilities, and lack of accountability when space programs go over budget or fall far behind schedule. A Space Force would help correct this fragmented management structure by integrating these organizations under a single chain of command.

A second, but related, problem is that the space workforce (operators and acquisition personnel) is scattered across the services and intelligence agencies, with too few people in each organization to create a viable career path. Many people doing space-related work in the military are temporary — they get moved in and out of space jobs every few years, limiting their ability to develop deep domain expertise. One of the jobs of a military service is to organize personnel into domain-centric clusters to develop strategy, doctrine and policy.

This works well for the air, maritime and land domains because we have a cadre of professionals in each of the military services organized around their respective domains. With a Space Force, we would have a cadre of space-centric personnel large enough to offer an attractive career path and stable enough to develop space-centric strategy, doctrine and policy that can integrate effectively with the other domains.

A third core problem the Space Force would address is that the other military services have inherent conflicts of interest when it comes to space. Because the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps are organized around their respective domains of responsibility, space is viewed as a secondary or supporting function. When the services must choose between space and their native domain, one should expect that they will choose what they are organized to do. The Air Force, for example, should not be faulted when it chooses air over space — that’s what our domain-centric services are designed to do. As Carl Builder noted in “The Masks of War,” “The most powerful institutions in the American national security arena are the military services,” and without a Space Force, there will continue to be no military service that consistently advocates for national security space.


Many of the arguments against the creation of a Space Force echo a debate we had decades ago. In the summer of 1947, Congress debated the National Security Act of 1947, which included a provision to create a military service known as the Air Force. The arguments then against the Air Force are remarkably similar to those being made against the Space Force: It will be too disruptive; it will create more bureaucracy; it will cost too much; it will make forces less integrated across domains; and it will take focus away from improving capabilities.

The answers to these arguments are straightforward. Yes, it will be disruptive to status quo — that’s the point. And yes, it will create a headquarters staff and cost more, although not nearly as much as the Air Force’s estimate. But creating a service charged with organizing, training and equipping our space forces will not make space less operationally integrated with our land, air  and maritime forces. That argument did not prove true for the Air Force, and the re-establishment of U.S. Space Command as the combatant command charged with integrating space operations makes it even less likely such a dire prediction will come true this time.

Moreover, a Space Force would not divert attention from improving our space capabilities. To the contrary, a newly empowered space leadership — armed with a separate, protected space budget — would refocus intellectual effort on making national security space systems more resilient and capable.

If anything, the lesson we should learn from the Air Force’s creation is to not wait for failure in this domain of warfare before acting. Air power advocates, such as Billy Mitchell, began pushing the idea of an independent service for air in the 1920s. They were derided at first by military leaders, and Mitchell eventually was court-martialed for insubordination. But the value of air power and the justification for an independent service became all too clear when the United States was drawn into World War II by a surprise attack from the air.

This time around, we should not wait for a Pearl Harbor in space to realize we need to reorganize and elevate space as a co-equal branch of the military. Just as the Air Force was worth the disruption and additional costs more than 70 years ago, a Space Force is worth the price today.

Todd Harrison is director of Defense Budget Analysis, director of the Aerospace Security Project, and a senior fellow in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). He teaches classes on military space systems and the defense budget at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.