An Atlas V rocket lifts off from launch complex 41 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., Thursday, Sept. 8, 2016.

An Atlas V rocket lifts off from launch complex 41 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., Thursday, Sept. 8, 2016. Joel Kowsky/NASA via AP

Why I'm Directing The Air Force to Focus on Space

In the coming months, the US Air Force will grow the space force in numbers and capabilities.

For the service that I once served and now lead, one of the most important tasks ahead is getting space operations right.

In many respects, the Air Force and the nation are at a critical crossroads. We realize, as do our potential adversaries, that space is interconnected to American life and to U.S. military success. The time is now to integrate, elevate, and normalize space in the Air Force and thus assure continued American dominance in this most critical domain.  

We will do this systematically and doggedly, drawing lessons from earlier periods in which airmen created the resources, tools, and tradecraft to assure freedom of access and freedom of operation for the U.S. military writ large. Today, we begin the process of standing up a new organization at the Pentagon that will be responsible for recruiting, training and equipping airmen involved in the space mission. The establishment of the deputy chief of staff for space operations is the next step toward ensuring that we maintain space superiority.

This move will allow us to focus our attention on many critical areas as we make the policy and budget decisions necessary to train and equip airmen for the challenges in space, an essential but sometimes overlooked area of military operations. In the months ahead, you will hear much more about how we are transforming a mission that for some time has been designed around a relatively benign environment to one that has grown crowded and contested.

In short, we must develop space airmen who have the tools, training, and resources to fight when – not if – war extends into space. Just as the Air Force built the training ranges, schools, and programs to ensure air dominance after the Vietnam War, we now must determine how best to do this in space. We are currently investing in the hardware to ensure space superiority; in the near future we will need to grow the number of space airmen and the accompanying infrastructure much like we did for the combat Air Force 40 years ago.

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The extent to which space is vital to the military cannot be overstated. From intelligence gleaned by satellites to technology that guides remotely piloted aircraft and runs our global intelligence network, space allows us to fight smarter, faster, and with much greater understanding of the battlefield. More than ever, potential adversaries seek to diminish that advantage.

Recently, Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work reaffirmed the secretary of the Air Force as the principal advisor to Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis on space over the next year, giving Air Force and DOD leadership time to revalidate the current approach. Right now, I have the responsibility to oversee and advocate for space-related programs across military services and government agencies. I believe it is a no-fail mission.    

There may be no greater visual sign of the growing importance of space than the events that are occurring weekly at Patrick Air Force Base on the Atlantic coast of Florida. This year, Patrick will be the busiest space port in the world, launching military and commercial payloads at the rate of about one per week. The number of space launches there dwarfs the number of launches at other facilities around the world, signaling the nation’s commitment to maintaining technological leadership above the Earth. This renaissance in commercial and military space launch – harkening back to the 1960s – will be accompanied by a parallel effort to develop forces that are trained and equipped for 21st Century conflict.

As many have noted, warfare is becoming increasingly complex and can be fought in many places at once. In the future, this “multi-domain” warfare – occurring rapidly on land and sea, in the air, and in space – will require new thinking and, perhaps, training that is not yet imagined. With space airmen helping to lead the way, I am confident we are up to this challenge.  

Dr. Heather Wilson is the secretary of the United States Air Force.