A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the third Mobile User Objective System satellite for the U.S. Navy creates a light trail as it lifts off on Jan. 20, 2015.

A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the third Mobile User Objective System satellite for the U.S. Navy creates a light trail as it lifts off on Jan. 20, 2015. U.S. Navy

EXCLUSIVE: Pentagon To Start Creating Space Force — Even Before Congress Approves It

Within months, DoD will start standing up a new combatant command, a new space-procurement agency, and a new Space Operations Force.

The U.S. Defense Department this week will take the first steps to create the Space Force, a new branch of the military ordered up by President Trump but not yet fully backed by Congress.

In coming months, Defense Department leaders plan to stand up three of the four components of the new Space Force: a new combatant command for space, a new joint agency to buy satellites for the military, and a new warfighting community that draws space operators from all service branches. These sweeping changes — on par with the past decade’s establishment of cyber forces — are the part the Pentagon can do without lawmakers’ approval.

Creating the fourth component — an entirely new branch of the military with services and support functions such as financial management and facilities construction — will require congressional action. Defense officials plan to spend the rest of 2018 building a “legislative proposal for the authorities necessary to fully establish the Space Force.” That would go to Congress early next year as part of the Trump administration’s 2020 budget proposal.

This plan, developed for execution by Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, the Pentagon’s No. 2 civilian, is laid out in a 14-page draft report slated to go to lawmakers on Wednesday. Defense One reviewed a draft of the report dated July 30.

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“The Department of Defense is establishing a Space Force to protect our economy through deterrence of malicious activities, ensure our space systems meet national security requirements and provide vital capabilities to joint and coalition forces across the spectrum of conflict,” says the draft report. “DoD will usher in a new age of space technology and field new systems in order to deter, and if necessary degrade, deny, disrupt, destroy and manipulate adversary capabilities to protect U.S. interests, assets and way of life...This new age will unlock growth in the U.S. industrial base, expand the commercial space economy and strengthen partnerships with our allies.”

The Pentagon declined to comment on the report in advance of its formal release later this week.

New Forces

The draft report says the Pentagon will, by year’s end, establish an eleventh unified combatant command: U.S. Space Command. Like U.S. Special Operations Command, which oversees special forces composed of servicemembers and organizations drawn from various service branches, the four-star Space Command will oversee space forces from across the military. The proposal goes even further than lawmakers demanded in the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, which orders the Pentagon to create a space command under U.S. Strategic Command.

“The Department will recommend that the President revise the Unified Campaign Plan to create the new U.S. Space Command by the end of 2018 and evaluate the need for any additional personnel, responsibilities and authorities,” the draft report says. Initially, the Pentagon will recommend that the head of Air Force Space Command also serve as the commander of U.S. Space Command. Space liaisons will be installed in the geographic combatant commands, starting with U.S. European Command.

The draft report says the Pentagon will also stand up a Space Operations Force, made up of uniformed and civilian space personnel from the four military services and the National Guard and Reserve.

“Similar to Special Forces personnel provided by all military services, the Space Operations Force will be composed of the space personnel from all Military Services, but developed and managed as one community,” it says.

This force would come together quickly: the goal is to deploy “teams of space experts” to U.S. European Command and U.S. Indo-Pacific Command by next summer.

New Ways to Procure Satellites

The draft report heralds seismic changes in how the Pentagon buys, launches, and develops new technology for its satellites, including organizational and cultural shifts to emphasize speed and experimentation. It also plans a bigger role for private-sector space companies “as commercial and government entities ‘move toward the center’ on requirements, regulation and compliance.”

The centerpiece of this effort is a new joint office, dubbed the Space Development Agency, to oversee new satellite-development and space-launch contracts.

“Major existing space acquisition programs will remain in current service organizations, and aggressively pursue improved performance, while the Space Development Agency develops and fields the capabilities outlined in the DoD Space Vision,” the draft report says. “Over time, as current programs complete, resources will shift from service space acquisition organizations to the Space Development Agency.”

The biggest impact will be on the Air Force. The move clouds the future of the service’s Space and Missile Systems Center, the 6,000-person organization in Los Angeles that currently oversees about 85 percent of DoD’s space procurement budget — and which was recently restructured to speed the purchase and launch of satellites. The report calls this overhaul “the start.”

Like the Missile Defense Agency, the Space Development Agency would oversee acquisition projects across the various military services. Its size will be determined by a “DoD governance committee in partnership with the intelligence community,” the report said. Its location will be determined through “an accelerated process that considers locations that best enable the Agency to attract talent, leverage commercial expertise and develop new capabilities at speed and scale.”

Currently, the Air Force has hubs for space in Colorado, California, and Florida. The Army and Missile Defense Agency have a large presence in Huntsville, Alabama, an area nicknamed “Rocket City” for its large role in NASA and military space projects. The city is also known as “Pentagon South” due to the high concentration of Defense Department civilians there.

The report, which responds to a congressional mandate in the 2018 Defense Authorization Act, was largely written by Shanahan’s office and by Stephen Kitay, deputy assistant defense secretary for space policy, according to a senior defense official. Air Force officials were largely cut out of the review process several weeks ago, the official — and another source with knowledge of the decision — said on the condition of anonymity to speak about the yet-to-be-released report.

From Idea to Plan

The idea of creating a new service-level organization to handle the military’s space operations has been contentious since lawmakers last year proposed to attach a space corps to the Air Force, along the lines of the Marine Corps and the Navy. Pentagon leaders, including Trump’s own Air Force Secretary, largely opposed that move. But in recent months, the president has mulled, and then stated his desire for, a Space Force. If it becomes reality, it would be the first new branch of the military since the Air Force was born out of the Army Air Corps in 1947.

“Both the chief of staff and I are actually very glad that … people are becoming more aware and having a debate about what we do about this as a nation. That just wasn’t really there before,” Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said during a Washington Post event on July 25.

“I think the most important thing is to say focused on the warfighter and maintaining the lethality of the service, no matter how the org-chart boxes go,” Wilson said. “It’s all about the ability to fight. If we keep focused on that and not on which boxes move around which place in the Pentagon, then we’ll do the right thing for the nation.”

Wilson’s predecessor, Deborah Lee James — who served as Air Force secretary during the Obama administration — said Monday that she opposes a Space Force, but supports the creation of a combatant command, like the one discussed in Shanahan’s report. She made her  comments at a Brookings Institution event in Washington.

In recent years, the Air Force made numerous changes within its space arm to defend against Russian and Chinese interference. This week, the Pentagon is poised to announce a shift from “few independent” satellite constellations to a “a proliferated low-Earth orbit architecture enabled by lower-cost commercial pace technology and access.” Air Force officials hinted at these changes earlier this year when Shanahan visited Air Force Space Command in Colorado.

The Air Force operates 77 satellites in orbit while the Navy has 12 communications satellites, Wilson said.

“Satellites are really pretty fragile things and so we have to think now about how do we defend a constellation. It not always just direct defense,” she said. “It may be that we distribute a network. If you have multiple nodes it’s inherently more resilient than if you’re relying on one thing. Some it may be maneuverability. Some of it may be deception. There’s a lot of ways to make sure the United States can take a punch and keep on operating.”