Small Wars Journal

U.S. Space Force – It’s a Trap! – Think Bigger

Wed, 08/22/2018 - 11:27am

U.S. Space Force – It’s a Trap! – Think Bigger


Shawn Smith


“There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order, this lukewarmness arising partly from fear of their adversaries … and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who do not truly believe in anything new until they have had actual experience of it.”

-- Niccolo Machiavelli

It’s not too late to make a better choice about Department of Defense organization than creation of a separate space force to join the existing services.

Former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter’s perspective on creation of a separate military service for space was spot-on - creating a separate service for space operations would have the undesirable and unintended effect of creating more segregation in military planning and employment, rather than the integration we truly need to effectively organize, train, equip, plan for, and employ forces to serve U.S. national security needs.

Yet Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Congressman Mike Rogers, is also right to point out that the Air Force has neglected the development of space power and space forces, more than the other services, since the Air Force sought, won, and has held executive agency for space within the Department of Defense for decades, as a “first among equals.”

In control of the lion’s share of military space resources and responsibilities, the Air Force considered but did not begin preparing space forces for a contested environment until long after the proverbial warning sirens had sounded long enough to cause permanent hearing loss.  The Air Force unsurprisingly prioritized air power over space power, with myriad decisions that ranged from budget, to basing, to organization, to leader development.  What else could we expect from an institution whose beating heart is air power?  Nor should we want or settle for a second-rate military aviation capability. Yet, we established, enjoyed, and then squandered an asymmetric advantage in space. America can fight from behind, but doing so risks enormous losses and victory itself, when a fight is unavoidable.  We must either recognize how and why we squandered that asymmetric advantage and correct the root causes, or repeat the same mistake again, and again.


The Air Force is not alone in its neglect.  Our magnificent reversal in the cyber domain of military operations from vanguard to principal international target is a perfect example.  It required decades of equal parts neglect and internecine resource and authority plays by the services.  Each has vied for just enough cyber to both ensure that its true cultural core competencies and interest could be served, and that no other service could dictate terms and establish prejudicial command and control arrangements. Anyone still shocked that our military cyber capability is on its heels cannot possibly have been paying attention; it is the proverbial King Solomon’s baby, but all the plaintiffs insisted it be cut in four.  When the final costs of that failure of vision and leadership are tallied, they will defy comprehension.

That parochial neglect of capabilities and mission areas that threaten the primacy and autonomy of core service missions is a deeply rutted wagon wheel track through our modern military history.  The prestigious Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Missile Defense Agency would not even exist without the defiant unwillingness of our services to set aside their myopic priorities for the greater national good. Each of our services has, in turn and in time, gone beyond responsible advocacy and ventured into deliberate insubordination, for example, by lobbying foreign governments to subvert congressional intent, and by courting congressional constituencies to undermine the direction of the Secretary of Defense and even the President.


John Q. Wilson and Samuel P. Huntington explained decades ago why that has and would happen. Bureaucracies inevitably become focused on, more than any other objective, the preservation and advocacy of their own autonomy and agency.  Though nominally subordinate to the Secretary of Defense, the services are by far the strongest elements of the Department of Defense, allied with their respective congressional constituents, interest and advocacy groups, and industry partners. That power has allowed the services to blunt or outright resist every attempt at serious reform in the last 70 years. The myopic, parochial ‘servicism’ inherent in the structure of the Department of Defense’s weak federation of strong services has resulted in less effective, costlier national defense, unable to learn or adapt at the pace of our threat environment. General George C. Marshall and General, then President Dwight D. Eisenhower saw it happening in their time, saw it continuing, tried to suppress that parochialism by unifying the services, and were defeated in that quest, leaving us with a Frankenstein’s monster of suboptimal organization.

General David C. Jones, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, whose candor initiated in earnest what became the Goldwater-Nichols reforms in 1986, makes clear in his introduction to Archie Barrett’s 1983 book Reappraising Defense Organization, that the organizational defects, which Marshall and Eisenhower saw clearly but could not correct, persist.  The battle to reform our self-defeating defense organization was arguably the only military campaign that Marshall and Eisenhower lost.


Rogers was right.  Every argument once made, and presumably still valid, for the creation of a separate Air Force can now be convincingly applied to the need for creation of separate space and cyber forces.  And we have yet to even notice, let alone react, to the elephant in the space domain room; nation states and commercial entities are preparing to explore and exploit deep space, and we are not prepared to ensure defense of U.S. access and interests beyond the littorals of Earth’s orbit.  We may lose the future while we are sleeping. We aren’t even talking about it. Nor have we established effective whole-of-government organizations and structures to ensure the coordinated employment of U.S. national instruments of power in regional, international, and binational affairs, preferring instead the federated pick-up game wherein each instrument’s dominant agency asserts control where they can, for as long as they can, and U.S. interests fall through the gaps.

But Carter and innumerable others have correctly seen and indicated that we cannot afford the inefficiency and ineffectiveness of an even larger federation of powerful, parochial services which jealously guard myopic interests and neglect the greater national security obligation as an unintended byproduct of that myopia.  Nor can we afford the current massive cost, let alone an expansion, of redundancy among the services and in the quasi-effective oversight and integration levels represented by the Joint Staff and the staff of the Secretary of Defense.  The original sin of our organizational compromise is not the creation of the Joint Staff and Office and staff of the Secretary of Defense, but in the dilution of their authority and effectiveness by making them frequently only the integrators and deconflictors of malformed, inadequate, competing, and poorly integrated service capabilities and plans.

Today, the services retain separate budgeting, finance, medical, research, engineering, procurement, acquisition, personnel, training, education, logistics, transportation, doctrine, and even congressional liaison functions, personnel, and guidance, all forced to interact but not to integrate with one another. These separate, redundant functional organizations and force structures are overlaid with epochal strata of legislative and regulatory prescriptions, oversight and coordinating offices that occasionally achieve their objectives, but always impose costs that make the shaft of the defense spear ever more unwieldy.  Minor and moderate reform initiatives arrive seasonally, and their remains are scattered at the foot of the organizational rock faces they have crashed against.  If our current defense organization is not more perfect than our Constitution, it must be more sacrosanct, since the Constitution has been amended five times since the late 1950s, and the Department of Defense only once.


The answer to these thorny, Gordian knots is obvious, but not simple, and has never been viewed as politically viable or palatable.  Both James R. Locher’s Victory On The Potomac, and Barrett’s book make clear that what might plausibly, politically be accomplished, and what has been attempted in Defense reform falls far short of what should be done. What should be done is a dramatic organizational reform of our Department of Defense, to truly unify the services, establish clear, effective chains of command, eliminate administrative and bureaucratic redundancy, and enable an adaptive, innovative, efficient, blindingly fast American arsenal.  And if that is the case, that we know, but lack the will and courage to challenge entrenched bureaucratic interests and parochial enmities, to overcome our own myopia, then we must deserve what we now and ever will have. At least until it costs us something more unforgivable and irretrievable than the men, women, and treasure we have laid at its altar until now.


Following decades of consideration and advocacy by our elected officials, defense leaders, and interested citizens and organizations, our President has directed the establishment of a separate military space force, in order to ensure U.S. freedom of action in and access to space, and to serve the U.S. national interest.  It is a bold move.  But it is not the right move, though marginally better than the status quo.  We need to think bigger.

Instead of planning for the creation of another service, we should dedicate ourselves to the unfinished work that Eisenhower and Marshall began, by unifying our defense establishment and creating an organization that best serves American interests rather than our existing bureaucracies.  With the threats we face and a President seemingly willing to challenge every calcified orthodoxy of ineffective government, there cannot have been a greater need or better time in modern U.S. history to think bigger for defense.

About the Author(s)

Shawn Smith is a retired U.S. Air Force officer with education and training in political science and national security affairs, extensive space and missile operations experience, including crew, small unit command, and contingency planning, international engagement, and command and control for the numbered air force, combatant command-levels, and Office of the Secretary of Defense staff levels.