Space Force’s First Battle Is With the US Army
The newest force is relying on Army and Navy transfers to grow. But giving up missions is not in the military’s DNA.
The fight for control of space is brewing — not the competition with China, but between the Space Force and the Army.
Over the last several months, Space Force officials have been negotiating with their Army and Navy counterparts over what missions and personnel will transfer into the newest branch, which is part of the Department of the Air Force.
To date, no agreements have been signed on what satellites or units will transfer over, though handshake deals and draft plans indicate that some progress is being made.
On the Navy’s end, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday announced in April that the service would transfer 13 satellites, including its five Mobile User Objective System comsats — not to Space Force, but to U.S. Space Command, a combatant command, which would allow the Navy to retain a role in their operation.
On personnel transfers, Gilday said he and Chief of Space Operations Gen. Jay Raymond had agreed “on a handshake” but the service is still working on those details.
“All of the services need to help grow the Space Force,” Gilday said. “There’s always a little bit of friction, but I just haven’t experienced much, as a service chief, with respect to that transformation.”
Within the Army, the reaction has been a bit different.
The service’s official communications about space have largely been about its own capability growth, and the importance of retaining an organic space capability within the Army, including in an area that will likely become an important part of the Space Force’s portfolio as well: low Earth orbit.
The small satellites that operate between 100 and 1,240 miles above ground are rapidly multiplying, taking on tasks that once belonged exclusively to bigger, more expensive spacecraft flying far higher. Their missions include ground communications, countering electronic warfare, and spotting missile launches. The Army is developing its own LEO imagery satellite dubbed Kestrel Eye.
Last week at the McAleese Defense Conference, the Space Force’s Raymond said LEO has his eye as well.
“Smaller satellites are becoming more operationally relevant, and as launch costs go down, there's a role here for the Space Force in tactical-level ISR,” he said. “I really believe this is an area that we'll begin to migrate to, because we can do it.”
And LEO is just one area in which his service has catalyzed a push toward a “unity of effort” across all the branches to consolidate space acquisition and force-structure decisions, Raymond said.
“The Space Force is leading a once in-a-generation overhaul of how multi-domain capabilities are generated, connected, and presented,” he said.
To wit, Raymond said, his service has come to an agreement with both the Army and Navy on what will transfer in.
“Those decisions have all been made,” he said. “We're now working with those services to put a plan in place.”
But in a statement to Defense One, the Army in a statement said the service and Space Force “largely agree” on what should transfer, but “planning and analysis continues and no final decisions have been made."
Not everyone is on board with Raymond’s vision, said John Ferrari, a retired Army two-star who spent eight years working on requirements and resource integration for the service and is now a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Ferrari said Army leaders fear that if Space Force gets exclusive control of orbital assets, the land service won’t get the capabilities it needs. Moreover, he said, the arrival of relatively cheap satellites makes it easier for individual services to tailor space assets to their needs.
“So what the Army is saying is:, ‘Let’s not go down the F-35 route’,” Ferrari said. “Let’s not build satellites that do everything for everybody. Let’s come up with a space architecture, and then let the Army pop up its little cube satellites.”
The new space race
The competition for influence and ownership of space missions heated up quickly after the Space Force was established, said Center for Strategic and International Studies Aerospace Security director Todd Harrison.
For example, last summer, Space Force had just announced it had graduated its first class of service members trained in orbital warfare when the Army expanded the role of its Space and Missile Defense Command to serve as the Army component command to not only U.S. Strategic Command, but also U.S. Space Command.
“Whether it’s from the Satellite Operations Brigade to 1st Space Brigade, we are the owner of those Army forces,” commanding general Lt. Gen. Daniel Karbler said at the August 2020 ceremony. “Today we formalized our relationship by unfurling our colors and recognizing the Army’s contributions to U.S. Space Command.”
“The Army is the largest user of space-enabled systems in the Department of Defense,” then-Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said at the time. “Naming USASMDC as a component command to both combatant commands strengthens command and control, unity of effort, and synchronization of Army space and missile defense operations.”
A role in space means control over one’s satellite overhead watch. Just as important, it means control of the billions of dollars in acquisition, budgetary, personnel and contracting authority tied to those missions. When money gets tight, as it often does when Congress passes a continuing resolution instead of a budget, the loss of a space mission set means fewer options for a service to tap when it needs to shift funds.
Location could matter too in the future shaping of Space Force and Space Command culture, in terms of whether it continues to be a natural extension of the Air Force, or retains more of an Army flavor. When Space Command was initially re-established, the Air Force assigned its temporary headquarters to Colorado Springs.
That was Space Command’s previous home before closing in 2002, and locating it in an Air Force-dominated area made transitions easy for the personnel transferring over to it for Space Force.
When a list of six finalist candidate cities was announced, five were at Air Force bases, including four in Colorado. Then there was the Army’s Redstone Arsenal in Alabama, home to its Space and Missile Defense. The Air Force’s decision to ultimately award Space Command to Redstone was immediately challenged in Congress and is under review by the Department of Defense Inspector General and the GAO.
“I think the creation of the Space Force is what is driving each of the services to better define their roles and missions in space because they are afraid of losing missions (and the associated funding and personnel) to the Space Force,” Harrison said.
It’s not unlike what happened during the creation of the U.S. Air Force in 1947, Harrison said.
“When the Air Force broke off from the Army 70-plus years ago, the Army maintained its own air capabilities that are in some cases redundant with the Air Force’s capabilities,” he said.
“DoD should absolutely make sure that the same thing does not happen in space.”
In a year where each of the services is pushing for increased spending to help them prepare for future high-end warfare, Raymond has been careful to frame the transfers as mutually beneficial.
“We are not into breaking the other services,” Raymond said at McAleese. “This has to be value added, not subtracting.”