President Trump has directed that the Department of Defense establish a new military branch, to be designated the Space Force. Much of the new service will be carved out of the Air Force, which traditionally has led military space efforts.
In a report issued August 9, the department described its early efforts to fashion the new service, which include creating an agency to develop new space equipment, an operations force to train space warriors, a joint command to oversee warfighting activities in space, and a support structure. The Pentagon’s budget request for fiscal 2020, to be released early next year, will contain additional details — including funding lines and legislative authorities.
Policymakers have not decided precisely what functions will transfer to the Space Force, but the August 9 report stated that space capabilities are “foundational” to nuclear forces, missile defense, global reconnaissance, cyber operations, communications and logistics. If even a fraction of these activities are absorbed into the new service, the Air Force will be considerably diminished.
In fact, all five of the “core missions” described at the beginning of the Air Force’s most recent posture statement depend in varying degrees on space assets for their successful execution. So it is no exaggeration to say that the creation of a Space Force presents an institutional crisis for the Air Force. Its identity and relevance in future conflicts is in doubt.
When the new service is stood up, warfighters on both sides of the divide will commit themselves to cooperating for the greater good of the nation. They will then commence an endless competition to see which service claims which missions — and the budget resources associated with those missions. The Air Force won’t just lose control of satellites and their ground stations — it will also probably lose responsibility for intercontinental ballistic missiles, warfighter networks and many cyberspace functions.
Over the longer term, even its logistics functions may come under threat from the new service. For instance, the Air Mobility Command has recently been talking with SpaceX about moving materiel overseas via rocket rather than aircraft. Sound unlikely? Leaders of the Space Force won’t think so.
Rather than praying that this nightmare goes away before becoming a reality, Air Force leaders need to think hard about what their service’s key functions will be if its role is confined mainly to operating air-breathing systems. They will now have to share, if not totally relinquish, activities their service recently described as core competencies.
The obvious place to start this sorting out process is by reviewing the service’s modernization efforts and asking which of the warfighting systems currently being funded deliver unique value to future warfighters — value that a Space Force would not be able to match. For example, continuing to invest in Cold War systems like the F-16 fighter would not deliver cutting edge capability, and would foster the impression that the Air Force is a backward-looking rather than forward-looking institution.
On the other hand, investing heavily in new unmanned aerial vehicles would tend to bolster the service’s image as an institution open to change and innovation. However, with space assets gone, it is clear the three most critical programs in the modernization plan of a downsized Air Force will be a new fighter, a new bomber and a new tanker.
The tanker is essential because it supports the warfighting efforts of the entire joint force and overseas allies. The bomber is essential because it is the only weapon that can successfully strike time-sensitive targets deep in the interior of heavily defended countries without resorting to nuclear weapons. And in the event nuclear weapons must be used, it is the only warfighting system that can be redirected or called back once launched.
And then there is the fighter. I’m not talking about some pie-in-the-sky idea like “penetrating counterair,” which has barely progressed beyond the PowerPoint stage and won’t be affordable in the straitened budget circumstances of the next decade. Nor am I talking about a “light attack” aircraft irrelevant to dealing with near-peer threats.
I’m talking about the F-35 fighter — the only highly survivable, highly versatile tactical aircraft the Air Force is currently operating.
The F-35 can perform a host of operations that no other air-breathing or orbital system can accomplish, and many of those operations are crucial to winning a war. For instance, it is the only plane in the NATO inventory that can safely penetrate Eastern European air space during the early days of a war to suppress Russian air defenses and surface fires. Without it, all of our satellites and last-generation tactical aircraft won’t be able to save the U.S. Army from devastating defeat.
It is also the only aircraft that can safely perform tactical reconnaissance and electronic warfare in close proximity to near-peer adversaries. Our satellites will be either too far away or passing overhead too quickly to provide such support. Our Cold War planes either lack the necessary equipment or are too hard to protect in the opening days of a future East-West war. The F-35 is equipped with advanced sensors, on-board data fusion, a secure network, and an EW system that generates ten times the radiated power of any legacy fighter.
I could go on. The Air Force’s F-35A fighter is eight times more effective than older fighters at surveillance, six times more effective than older fighters in air-to-air combat, five times more effective than older fighters at striking surface targets. It is the only aircraft the Air Force is currently building that is invisible to Russian or Chinese radar. These capabilities have all been demonstrated in joint exercises, and few of them can be replicated by overhead assets. Did I mention our satellites are highly vulnerable to preemption?
The Air Force has recently seemed as though, after investing for two decades in developing the F-35, it has become distracted by other ideas. But the advent of a Space Force should focus the thinking of Air Force leaders on what only their service can contribute to a fight once all those satellites, and maybe the ICBMs, migrate to another service. The F-35 fighter will, for decades to come, be the defining feature of U.S. air power, and the Air Force needs to embrace that reality.
I have business ties of one sort or another to companies engaged in building the Air Force’s new bomber, tanker and fighter. In particular, the prime contractors for the F-35 airframe and engine both contribute to my think tank, and Lockheed Martin — the airframe prime — is a consulting client.
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