Space Force is a bureaucratic mess in search of a problem

Earlier this week, Space Policy Directive – 4 was announced to start the process to create a new uniformed service of the armed forces to be designated as the U.S. Space Force. This will surely focus a lot of debate on space but doesn’t address the problem it’s designed to correct.

After considerable debate in Washington, the directive emerged as an organizational compromise to create Space Force as a subcomponent of the Department of the Air Force akin to the Marine Corps within the Department of the Navy. The effect of this bureaucratic victory avoids establishing a new civilian leadership chain to the secretary of Defense. The secretary of the Air Force is a direct report to DOD supported by the offices of an under secretary, assistant secretaries and general counsel, like the Army and Navy Departments. Enactment of the Space Force directive would also add another civilian under secretary for Space.

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But there’s more — potentially much more. Beneath the Air Force secretary will be a new military four star general as chief of staff for Space Force, who will be a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and all the associated military support structure that will mirror the Department of Defense structure today for each military service — the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, the National Guard Bureau and now Space Force. 

The modest upside is that the civilian chain of the command doesn’t get too much more complicated than it already is other than accommodating a new under secretary. But 95 percent of the indirect cost is wrapped up in all the functional process units to be built around the typical overhead structures to administer budgets, programs, personnel, contracts, logistics and the very complex acquisition support for this new military service.

The Marine Corps is comparatively lean and much smaller than the Army, Navy or Air Force. But each of these functional organizations dedicated to Marine Corps matters are within the Department of the Navy which has a parallel collection of units that support Navy matters. The secretary of the Navy presides over this dual set of stove pipe organizations, the same way the secretary of the Air Force will have two different military services reporting to “organize, train and equip” the armed services. This is the standard responsibility of all of the military departments today. 

If all this sounds like a swampy, bureaucratic exercise, that’s not an unfair conclusion to reach. If enacted, this directive will add an organizational overhead expense for this separation and will create countless bureaucratic fist fights over what goes into which part of this new Department of the Air Force enterprise.

The operational chain of command is unaffected by this structure. Not to worry. Separately, the Defense Department is recreating the unified U.S. Space Command to place all of the operational space related assets of the Defense Department under the operational control of another four star general. 

In the end, this is a lot of organizational box shuffling that will be subject to Article 1, Section 8 of our Constitution, to wit — it must be enacted by the Congress. That branch of government will surely have its own ideas of what goes into this new military service.

This solution is still searching for a problem — and along the way, creating new problems to be adjudicated.

Sean O’Keefe served as secretary of the Navy and NASA administrator in the George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush administrations. O’Keefe is currently a professor at the Syracuse University Maxwell School.