Standing Up Space Force, Book Review
Whoever said “space is hard” should try government bureaucracy.
Like the universe, the government is always expanding.
Because this is the natural state of affairs, it’s understandable why libertarians often adopt extreme positions as a counterweight, like eliminating government agencies entirely.1 I’m sympathetic to their arguments, but the creation of the U.S. Space Force is one of the rare times when expansion was essential. Like the formation of the U.S. Air Force in 1947, we will one day look back and view the Space Force’s existence as axiomatic, when in fact it was anything but.
Standing Up Space Force (2023) by Forrest Marion provides a cohesive – albeit vanilla – narrative of the historical context and decades-long momentum for the creation of the sixth armed service, signed into existence by President Trump on December 20, 2019. Those looking for an insider’s account will be disappointed. Marion, a historian employed by the Air Force, largely cites facts already in the public domain and steers clear of the most controversial aspects of the forging of the Space Force, namely, friction with the Intelligence Community.
At the heart of the Space Force’s formation lies a paradox: it required decades of advocacy but was ultimately created on a Trumpian whim. There had been agitations for an independent Space Force since a 1981 article by two U.S. Air Force officers, and both the Gulf War and the U.S./NATO air campaign against Serbia underscored the integral role of space in the reconnaissance-strike complex. However, it was not until the publication of the 2001 Rumsfeld Commission Report on National Security Space Management and Organization that the policy debate began in earnest.
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Over the next two decades, external events provided supporting evidence for the pro-space faction. Both China and Russia reorganized their militaries in 2015 to promote the importance of space.2 Beyond mere organizational musical chairs, the Chinese conducted anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon tests in 2007 and 2013, and the Russians conducted three ASAT tests of their PL-19 Nudol missile between 2015 and 2016.
And yet, none of these events were significant enough to overcome political inertia. The tipping point required an individual – Trump – willing to elevate content over process in the Department of Defense (DoD), no small feat in the most process-obsessed organization on the planet. Trump’s big reveal in March 2018 announcing his intention to create the Space Force was characteristically informal: “My new national strategy for space recognizes that space is a war-fighting domain just like the land, air, and sea… We may even have a Space Force… Maybe we’ll have to do that.”
This announcement was so informal that Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson was almost certainly caught off guard, although Marion is unable to confirm this: “While others in attendance may have been taken aback – reportedly among them were Secretary Wilson and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr (pg 101).” Marion is also unable to confirm precisely what triggered Trump to make the announcement. He identifies that Vice President Pence, former speaker Gingrich, and Rep. Mike Rogers all had Trump’s ear, but he concedes, “the degree to which the whisperers had influenced Trump’s thinking was unknown at the time (and has remained largely opaque to this study) (pg 99).”
It’s disappointing Marion was unable to get on-the-record accounts from key leadership involved in creation of the Space Force. Maybe we are simply too close to the founding events, and we’ll have to wait a few more years for an intrepid reporter to come along before the right people start talking.
In U.S. government bureaucracy, precise language matters, oftentimes to the point of comedy. Marion recounts that a pivotal moment in the Space Force debate was in 2001 when General Jumper, Chief of Staff of the Air Force, changed the Air Force’s approach to the relationship between air and space when he emphasized “air and space” as two separate domains rather than simply saying “aerospace (pg 52).” Similarly, Air Force Secretary Wilson fought (and won) to have “space” and “warfighting” in the same sentence of the opening statement at her confirmation hearing (pg 109). Prior to that, publicly discussing space as a warfighting domain was verboten.
These subtle changes mirror an additional subtle force that I hypothesize had a hand in the creation of the Space Force: the gradual declassification of space. It would be difficult to launch a new armed service if you couldn’t talk about the missions at all. But for a long time, military or intelligence activity in space was not publicly discussed in any meaningful detail. The National Reconnaissance Office’s (NRO) existence, after all, remained classified for over 30 years.
Recently, I was at a space conference with a friend from a defense prime who works on all manner of spooky programs. There was an unclassified threat briefing scheduled, and he was dismissive that it could possibly be informative. But after the briefing, he remarked “that was actually really good.” His feelings echo those of Chief of Space Operations (CSO) General Saltzman who said “he would have been fired seven years ago had he discussed Chinese counterspace capabilities, such as jammers, directed energy weapons, and on-orbit grappling arms, as openly as he did.”
While science fiction conjures images of squadrons of space marines, the reality is that the Space Force mission to date is almost entirely centered around controlling and defending unmanned satellites. In a world without bureaucracy, this means the Space Force would remain a small service. Here’s Brian Weeden writing optimistically for Cato in 2021:
For the first time, we have a military service that is not people heavy. Look at the Army, the Navy, and even the Air Force: you need a lot of people to support the things that they’re doing. Space is very, very different. It’s all robots, and the robots are largely controlled by a handful of computers.
But the swamp has a different set of rules. In an interview last year, General Saltzman said the quiet part out loud (emphasis mine):
“We get out-staffed” in key Pentagon meetings and committees, he said, with other services sometimes overmatching Space Force 10 to 1 in staff preparation. “Quantity is its own kind of quality,” he said. “If that means we’ve got to get bigger, I’m okay with that.”
Of course, he’s correct. It’s unfortunate this is the state of affairs, and it’s the opposite of Kelly Johnson’s Skunk Works, which promoted the engineering leaders who managed the fewest people. The Space Force today has 8,400 active-duty Guardians and is set to receive most of its $30 billion FY24 request. These numbers will inevitably go up and to the right. The Space Force needs to grow so it can contend with its adversaries head-on. And I’m not just talking about Russia and China.
Enter the Intelligence Community
At the end of 2023, the Defense Business Board published an extensive report with recommendations for improving space acquisition. One of the recommendations was that the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) remain separate from the Space Force. That NRO consolidation into the Space Force was even on the table had me in stitches (yes, this is the type of thing you find funny if you work in defense tech). The NRO isn’t going anywhere, but the Space Force does legitimately threaten some of its missions.
Since Marion only focuses on how the Air Force would lose its rice bowls if the Space Force were created while ignoring the (arguably more important) tension with the Intelligence Community, I’m going to add some honorary paragraphs:
The source of the tension is the Title 10 – Title 50 debate. “Title 10” refers to military operations and “Title 50” refers to intelligence activities. By and large, the DoD has Title 10 authorities and the Intelligence Community, naturally, has Title 50 authorities. However, technology does not always cleanly fit into bureaucratic boxes. Nowhere has this debate manifested more publicly than with Earth observation data from commercial satellites, although it’s only one of many examples.
First, some quick history. In 1960, the CIA became the first organization in the world to successfully launch a spy satellite and recover reconnaissance photos from it. This technology innovation led to the creation of the NRO in 1961, and it took over the mission from the CIA. For decades thereafter, NRO had a monopoly providing satellite-based Earth observation data to the U.S. government. They built and operated spy satellites to provide strategic intelligence, answering big picture questions like “does the U.S. actually have a missile gap with the Soviets?” This activity was Title 50.
But data about stuff on the ground was not exclusively desired by the Intelligence Community. The DoD wanted pictures too. What’s over that hill? Did I blow up the thing I thought I blew up? This precipitated DoD – Intelligence Community conflict. The tasking of satellites is controlled by the Director of National Intelligence, not the Secretary of Defense, and NRO and NGA reigned supreme, prioritizing tasking requests as they saw fit. DoD customers of Earth observation data, like the Combatant Commands, often felt ignored and underserved, but there was nothing they could do about it.
Then the balance of power started to change, all thanks to commercial space companies. Starting with Planet Labs in 2013, commercial companies successfully launched and operated Earth observation satellites. Gradually, and then all at once, an opportunity presented itself to disrupt the Intelligence Community’s monopoly on satellite tasking.
Now the newly formed Space Force could serve the Combatant Commands operationally-relevant information via Title 10 by directly buying the data it needed from BlackSky, Capella, etc. They didn’t have to enter the Intelligence Community queue and hope their order was fulfilled on a timeline that mattered. Right? Not so fast.
The NRO “maintained acquisition authority for commercial remote sensing imagery since 2018, when the office took it over from NGA.” NRO subsequently launched contract vehicles to buy billions of dollars of commercial satellite data.
With the formation of the Space Force, the Title 10 – Title 50 debate around commercial overhead became very public. Was the Space Force really going to sit back and let the NRO be the only agency that could purchase commercial satellite data despite the Space Force having “space” in its name? Of course not. So while the NRO led commercial data purchases, the Space Force stood up a Commercial Space Office.
At first, the Space Force argued it needed tactical intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) data to serve the Combatant Commands, and this represented a Title 10 authority. But NRO disagreed that tactical ISR was a relevant distinction, and it really didn’t like the Space Force using the word “intelligence.” So Space Force had to get creative, and it redefined one of its mission as tactical surveillance, reconnaissance, and tracking (SRT).
Just like there is no “I” in team, there is definitely no “I” in SRT, the Space Force made sure to say. Multiple times. By banishing the word “intelligence” from their vocabulary, it’s impossible for the Space Force to be doing intelligence. Intelligent.
If all this sounds horribly petty and bureaucratic, it is. But it’s also really important. The Space Force and NRO missions will continue to collide, as we’re seeing play out with who will control future Ground Moving Target Indication (GMTI) satellites with the retirement of the aging Air Force JSTARS.
We need to have an honest conversation about what happened to an agency that used to be able to launch spy satellites and analyze imagery in the analog era but is now bickering about who gets to buy commercial images.
The U.S. government can do better. One team, one dream! 🇺🇸
I hate to link to TikTok, but this video of Argentina’s President Javier Milei deleting agencies is just too entertaining, and I can’t find the video anywhere else.
Russia created the Aerospace Forces, a unified command structure that merged the Russian Air Force and Aerospace Defense Forces. China’s PLA established the Strategic Support Force (PLASSF), which integrated the PLA’s space, cyber, and electronic warfare capabilities and was formally treated as a service.