Who is really in charge of US space operations?

Who is really in charge of US space operations?
© JASON CONNOLLY/AFP/Getty Images

From 1957 to 1961, the United States turned its attention to space. The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics became the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The Army launched our first satellite, Explorer, with its Redstone rocket, and the Navy followed with its Vanguard system, then began developing the Polaris submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). The Air Force was building the Thor, Atlas and Titan missiles, initially as intermediate range or intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) for delivering nuclear warheads. Then, unknown to most of us, the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) was created to use the best missiles to put intelligence-gathering satellites into space.

As a 7th grade student learning about this, I wondered, who is really in charge of U.S. space operations?  

As it evolved, all of these organizations played a role. NASA explored space. The Air Force and NRO developed sensor systems for ICBMs, communications, attack warning, weather and navigation and timing systems. The Navy developed SLBMs and a few communications satellites, while the Army engaged in space communications and missile defense capabilities. In addition to these five organizations “doing” space, we had many other government entities — the CIA, Department of State, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA), National Security Agency (NSA), Commerce, Agriculture and Treasury departments, the Coast Guard, and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) — “using” space. Those organizations “using” space also had equal seats at the table for developing space system requirements.

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In 1985, we created the U.S. Space Command as a combatant command to better orchestrate use of the Department of Defense (DOD), including the unacknowledged NRO capabilities, to ensure that we maintained space superiority. During this period, President Reagan created the Strategic Defense Initiative, known as “Star Wars.” When a less-frightening name was needed, we called it the more palatable Ballistic Missile Defense Organization and as its charter expanded, it became the Missile Defense Agency (MDA). 

During these years, we also began to observe other nations employing systems in space in ways that could threaten U.S. satellites. Despite the fact that the space environment could no longer be considered a sanctuary, U.S. government policy over several administrations prohibited using the words “space,” “warfighting,” “combat,” or “weapons’ in the same sentences or paragraphs.

By the late 1990s, we had seven government organizations “doing” space (counting the NRO). Equally important, many commercial and private sector entities were developing and launching satellites that have revolutionized our existence. It was complex, but we made it work — even though national security policy failed to address space as a warfighting domain. 

When 9/11 occurred, our concern about protecting the U.S. from threats led to the creation of the Northern Command. However, for some reason, presumably statutory concerns regarding the allowable number of four-star combatant commands, we unwisely inactivated U.S. Space Command and shifted those responsibilities to the Strategic Command. As the current commander recently stated, the priority of space operations is “about number three, behind nuclear modernization and operations and nuclear command and control.”

As the U.S. became mired in combat operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere, the rest of the world continued to develop sophisticated technologies involving cyberspace, space, advanced computing and hypersonics while U.S. progress in those areas slowed significantly. Equally significant, violent extremist organizations grew, recruiting dissidents from around the world through sophisticated information operations; they used ungoverned spaces in otherwise sovereign nations to train these recruits.

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In response, the U.S. created its Africa Command as a separate combatant command from the European Command, and the Cyber Command whose responsibilities had been part of the Strategic Command. In retrospect, these organizational efforts were aimed at dealing with  threats to the U.S. and its vital interests in areas needing attention.

Appropriately, space operations were caught up in that effort and our national security policy was pragmatically changed to accept that “space is a warfighting domain.” Unfortunately, some mistakenly believed the Air Force had been “asleep at the switch,” while actually it was complying with space policy in place for decades. Concerned about U.S. space vulnerabilities, the Air Force has been developing capabilities to posture our systems to be more resilient in the face of a growing threat to our use of space, to include several extended orbital deployments of the X-37 spacecraft.

There are many things that must be done to ensure that we dedicate the appropriate resources to space. But without taking time to identify our space needs, capabilities and operations, and seriously understand root causes of the problem, the U.S. has launched a politically driven effort to “fix the U.S. military space enterprise.” We have chosen to recreate the U.S. Space Command and to create a National Defense Space Center, a Space Development Agency, and a U.S. Space Force. Under the Trump administration’s proposal, the Space Force would be about the size of one Army division and would not include Navy, Army or NRO space mission elements.   

If each of these new organizations is authorized and funded, each will have program and budget line items assigned; overhead elements and geographic locations in someone’s congressional district; assignment to various congressional subcommittees; and mission and vision statements from which goals and objectives will be derived to motivate their workforce to fight for resources to accomplish their missions.

So back to my question in 1961: Who is really in charge of U.S. space operations? If the answer is that we don’t know and must create new organizations, then the recent decisions are right on track. But a new question arises: Will this approach enhance our national security space enterprise or that of our adversaries?

Gregory S. Martin is a retired Air Force general. He was commander of United States Air Forces Europe and NATO Air North Command, and in his final assignment was commander of the Air Force Materiel Command.