You’re reading a sample that I provided to some folks who asked what I thought was the biggest challenge facing the USSF. I figured my response might be interesting to others, which is why it’s all below.
Also, not quite four years ago, I wrote, "Examining the U.S. Space Force’s Missions." In it, I went into detail about the USSF support missions I mention in this piece. I believe it says something that the results of that examination are relevant nearly four years later. It looks like I should do an update of that piece that includes the SDA’s contribution. At the time, I didn’t have a positive opinion of the SDA.
The United States Space Force’s (USSF) transition towards an effective combat service requires political wrangling, money, and expertise to conduct its support mission, even as it works to gain other capabilities to, in, and from space. Despite implementing much-needed cultural, organizational, and technological changes, the service has not expanded beyond its support role. It can’t defend itself, the joint force, or other U.S. interests. How does the USSF remove itself from being the Department of Defense’s Achilles heel?
Part of the solution must be external: clear policies that guide the service to expand beyond its support mission. However, the USSF is also dealing with internal challenges, as its missions and culture are a continuation of United States Air Force (USAF) missions and the ways in which it conducted space operations. The USAF’s space history, culture, missions, and processes, which are foundational to the USSF were steeped in the concept of supporting warfighters.
Since its founding, the USSF has conducted uninterrupted space operations even as it gained USAF and other space systems. The service’s space operations are intrinsically designed for support—augmenting/enabling the U.S. warfighting capability of other military services. The USSF’s space systems provide rapid and secure communications among various forces and networks. They help warfighters navigate battlefields and accurately target adversaries. A combination of space support makes a small force lethal (ask the Ukrainians).
Undersupport of U.S. Space Interests?
The USSF’s systems are small in number and expensive, especially when compared with commercial counterparts (this is not a new fact). Its satellites and services have been surpassed by commercial spacecraft deployments, if not in quality, then in quantity. Since the service’s December 2019 founding, about 6,500 U.S. satellites (civil, commercial, and military) have been deployed into orbit. USSF missions accounted for slightly over 50 of those deployments—less than 1%. One commercial company, SpaceX, deployed thousands of satellites in less time than the USSF’s short history.
Those massive deployments potentially increase U.S. in-space interests the USSF must protect. U.S. commercial interests will grow as more companies field hundreds of planned satellites with synthetic aperture radar, hyperspectral imaging, navigation, and more. A military service unable to defend its own assets cannot realistically defend an ever-increasing number of U.S. satellites. With the current imbalance and the USSF’s support focus, there will be no space version of the USSF subduing Barbary pirates soon.
First Step: Admit There is a Problem
In fairness, the USSF’s leaders have attempted to change things the service can control: the culture, mission, and organization of its “Guardians.” They brought forward concepts such as “competitive endurance,” “full spectrum operations,” and “suppression of space capabilities,” indicating an awareness of its lack of offensive space capabilities and a desire to be more than a space support provider. That awareness and desire are seen in the USSF’s willingness to try something different and new, whether through changing culture, organization, or technology.
In an attempt to change culture, the USSF transformed its mission paragraph to a single-line statement: secure our Nation’s interests in, from, and to space. Admittedly, the new statement is a little meh, because (at least to me) it doesn’t get the blood pumping. But it’s better than what it was.
While focusing troops more on combat and less on corporation is worthwhile, the USSF’s cultural shifts went further. It consulted Space Force members of all ranks to capture a cultural bias to action. Time will tell whether a shorter, more memorable mission statement receives servicemember buy-in and shapes the USSF’s culture. While it may not be enough to push the service further away from its support-shaped hole, it’s still a step away.
Some steps to be taken remain, however. The service might also have done well to reconsider the name it calls its people—Guardians. That appellation suggests some kind of passive vigilance (standing watch), an important activity to be sure, but one that is very much a support role.
The USSF’s testing of Integrated Mission Deltas (IMDs), units focused on areas like positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT=GPS), exemplifies some of its organizational changes. The service separated the Global Positioning System (GPS) and its operators from a larger unit. The larger unit (Delta 8) had many mission responsibilities, operating at least eight communications satellite constellations, such as MILSTAR, WGS, and AEHF. Creating a PNT IMD increases the system’s space operator performance and readiness.
However, whether the IMD is formed for PNT or communications, space operator readiness and performance for them will be focused on supporting warfighters. That does not diminish their importance but demonstrates the technological and policy-driven limitations the USSF is dealing with if it truly wants to expand beyond its support role.
The USSF’s space technology changes appear in how it uses the Space Development Agency (SDA). The agency is buying updated technology and deploying U.S. military satellites at unprecedented levels and speeds. Its constant flurry of contracts for launch and satellites demonstrates SDA’s understanding of the urgent need for that technology to become operational while cycling through updated revisions.
However, even though new satellites provide resilience and technology updates, their missions reinforce the USSF’s support role. Keep in mind that the missions in the Proliferated Warfighter Space Architecture (PWSA) provide services that fit in traditional categories: satellites that stare at the Earth (Earth observation), sensors that stare into space (space surveillance), and global communications networks.
Continuing Support through New Technology
Those are all support-oriented missions, albeit updated from the living history of spacecraft the USSF inherited from the USAF (which is good). The service will add those new PWSA satellites to the motley collection of legacy space systems and missions. Worryingly, the USAF operated most of the USSF’s systems and missions (AEHF, DMSP, SBIRS, etc.) over 16 years ago, based on technologies and doctrines from earlier than that. Those systems were already old and focused on support.
The result is that none of the USSF's space systems, old or new, give it the capability to defend itself. By extension, it can’t protect the joint force or the seemingly ever-increasing U.S. interests in space. Its organizational and cultural changes do not help protect the service’s assets, either.
The examples of change demonstrate the USSF’s willingness to evolve and its flexibility to implement changes. However, clear policies guiding those changes would help the USSF expand its capabilities and defend U.S. interests, its partners, people, and space systems.
Providing policy clarity so a space service can expand beyond support won’t be easy. Despite political considerations, the possibility of weapons systems in orbit or other solutions to protect USSF assets and U.S. interests must be thoughtfully discussed. Other nations see some U.S. commercial constellations as targets for their militaries. A combat service whose only action is to witness the decimation of commercial infrastructure is not an option. To be clear, I’m not sure how possible it is to protect such numerous and expansive orbital systems.
Implementing other technologies and strategies based on thoughtful discussions will also not be simple. The USSF, with its support-focused space systems, would be heading into terra incognita. The space technologies and strategies it must create and use will also be new. But to get there, the USSF must break out of the support role mindset. Some of the cultural, organizational, and procedural changes appear aimed at doing some of that, but more needs to be done.
Excellent reasons compel the USSF to expand beyond its support role: it must protect what it brings to the fight, its partners in the joint force, and U.S. interests. It just needs the technology, culture, and policy changes to do so.
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