Congress must put the Space Force on the right trajectory

Congress must put the Space Force on the right trajectory
© Greg Nash

Two months ago, a bipartisan group of 40 former senior officials from across the spectrum of U.S. national security space came together to urge action to authorize the establishment of the United States Space Force, within the Air Force, as an independent branch of the armed forces. Such action was necessary, the letter stated, to ensure continued U.S. leadership in this critical domain and to serve as the most effective means to deter conflict in space.

Today, thanks to the important ongoing work of key congressional committees, America is nearing the day when this bold vision becomes reality. The fulfillment of that vision, however, will require careful planning and effort.

The most critical and fragile period in the establishment of any new organization comes at the foundational stage, when the mortar is fresh and the structure easily adjusted. Once it hardens, adjustments become more difficult, and often happen only after the most serious failures. Such was the case for the U.S. Air Force when it was created in 1947. It was birthed around a notion that its mission should be focused on strategic bombing. Only after significant air losses in back-to-back wars in Korea and Vietnam did the U.S. realize that Air Force doctrine also should emphasize air superiority as a primary concern — a doctrine that has well served our warfighters ever since.


We are also reminded that, 101 years ago, the world’s first air force, the Royal Air Force (RAF), was established by the United Kingdom. It would be almost three decades later until the U.S. followed suit. This time, the U.S. is in the lead — and that means the need to get this right is that much greater. Allies around the world will look to the U.S. example of what makes sense for them and for the alliances our space forces will form. We can already see those discussions and actions taking place in France, the U.K. and Japan, among many others. They are taking our lead and, by doing so, will create an even stronger bulwark against threats to space.

In that spirit, as lawmakers consider how to address differences in the House and Senate versions of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2020, we urge adoption of the following key principles:

First, follow through on this true moment of bipartisan agreement to design a lasting legal structure that will stand the test of time. We agree with Secretary of Defense Mark EsperMark EsperOvernight Defense & National Security — Presented by Boeing — Major Russia weapons test stokes tensions Three key behind-the-scenes figures in Jan. 6 probe Trump Defense chief blocked idea to send 250,000 troops to border: report MORE that we need more than a Space Force in name; we need one in law. The U.S. Space Force should be established as a separate force, a sixth branch, within the Department of the Air Force, with all the necessary statutory authorities to steer their own course.

Second, we have always believed that the fundamental issue to address is culture. The RAF was born from the best of the Army’s Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service. Its joint underpinnings were essential to the culture they created and the forces they served. For this new service, that same need for a joint warfighting culture and ethos is even greater. As the U.S. Space Force is established, the secretary of Defense needs the authority to transfer appropriate personnel from the other branches. This joint force perspective is the critical bedrock upon which to build an effective and lethal Space Force.

Finally, leadership is critical. Without full-time committed, competent and credible senior-level support, bureaucratic inertia can and will cause progress to falter. This effort will require leaders willing to push back against deeply entrenched notions of the path a new service should follow, reflecting more of what came before, rather than what lies ahead. It will require leaders who understand the full breadth of the nation’s role in space — not solely from a military perspective, but also as an integrated element of civil, commercial and diplomatic U.S. national power. From the very beginning, the U.S. must allow for the right level of military and civilian leadership that can independently guide the nascent service through its formative stages.

The historic and crucial nature of the undertaking the U.S. is about to commence cannot be overstated. The formation of this new service reflects the grave threats our nation faces and the hard work we must undertake. There will be no second chances. We urge that Congress adopt these key precepts to give our space forces, from the beginning, all the tools they will need to succeed.

Retired Adm. James Ellis is the Annenberg Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Hoover Institution. 

Retired Gen. Lester Lyles is former vice chief of staff for the United States Air Force.

Douglas Loverro served as the deputy assistant secretary of Defense for space policy under President Obama.

Retired Lt. Gen. James “Kevin” McLaughlin was the deputy commander of U.S. Cyber Command.