Space Force: Adding bureaucracy without adding capability

President Trump’s announcement on June 18, 2018, directing the Department of Defense to establish a Space Force as the sixth branch of the military, caught many people outside of the defense community off-guard. Space might be the final frontier, but it is also now on the verge of becoming a well-worn bureaucratic path.

Military and civilian leaders are currently working through the details of proposals to create an independent service dedicated to space within the next two years. This would be the first new military branch since the Air Force spun off from the Army in 1947. Pentagon planners estimate it would cost upwards of $13 billion over the next five years to establish the Space Force as a separate service branch, although history suggests the real cost will be many times that.

The operations of a Space Force would be confined to supporting the missions of the existing services. Viewed in that context, Congress and the Department of Defense should carefully evaluate the desired outcomes of space operations and ensure that each service is adequately organized and resourced to provide its unique and peculiar needs for space support, instead of creating an entirely separate organization. History shows that an independent service devoted to space would add greatly to the Pentagon’s bureaucracy, creating more problems than it would potentially solve, without a corresponding capability increase. The American people would pay a premium for a less effective military force.

In 2016, the Government Accountability Office released a report identifying 60 government offices and entities with a stake in space operations, many of which answer to different people and departments. While this may be the case, creating a new branch of the military to handle all space matters is not the solution. It would open the door to compounding just the sort of problems that persist between the existing services, from competition for resources to lack of coordination.

Ever since splitting off the Air Force into a separate service, the Army has had to fight to get the Air Force to fulfill its federally mandated support role. Air Force leaders have repeatedly failed to adequately provide for missions assigned to them and instead used the money to fund their own projects while clamoring for more. Rather than increasing effectiveness and efficiency, the central-ization of military aviation resulted in even more duplication.

Human beings are likely a long way off from “Star Wars”-style battles in space. For the time being, the military applications in space serve to support pursuits here on Earth, whether that’s through communications or surveillance. To most effectively accomplish these support functions, there should be as few bureaucratic barriers as possible between them and the corres-ponding combat forces.

A bureaucracy is the center of every military service. All bureaucracies share several common behaviors. They all hold self-preservation as their first goal. This is followed closely by the intimately related self-justification. As a result, they are always on the lookout for opportunities to inflate their contributions which they can then use to fight threats to their existence.

Experience shows that an independent Space Force will work to first carve out its own unique identity. Its leaders will insist on having their own service schools, sources of supply, uniforms and bases — even as Pentagon leaders have repeatedly sought the freedom to close bases they believe are unnecessary. Experience also suggests they will claim that the rapid pace of technological development will necessitate special acquisition procedures and seek broad exemptions from the existing regulations, which would greatly hinder Congress’s ability to exercise its oversight func-tions. This has already begun: Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson signed a memo on September 14, 2018, with her proposal to establish the Space Force, touting the current Air Force Space Rapid Capabilities Office’s special authorities and exemptions granted by Congress, allowing it to work outside of the normal federal acquisition system. If anything, due to the anticipated cost and potential failure rate, acquisitions programs of this kind should receive more, not less, Congressional oversight.

The Pentagon’s response to the IED threat in Iraq and Afghanistan provides a useful case in point. Once soldiers and Marines began suffering more casualties from roadside bombs than they did from more sophisticated weapons, the Pentagon stood up the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organi-zation to find a solution. This office, in the model of other temporary government programs, quickly morphed and ballooned in size, going from an initial 12-person Army task force into a staff of 1,900 with a $21-billion budget. The services also continued to use their own efforts to devise solutions to defeat IEDs. This showed that even if the Department of Defense creates a new organization, it doesn’t necessarily mean the services will yield total control of their own programs. All of the offices working the counter-IED problem cranked out more than 1,300 different initiatives. In the end, nothing proved as effective as a good bomb- sniffing dog.

The real power in the military is in control of the budget. The way to create the kind of cohesiveness necessary to establish a force capable of conducting combined arms operations is to ensure that a single person ultimately has the ability to make policy decisions which can then be enforced through control over the budget. In theory, the secretary of defense has this authority, but when programs span separate services with their own budget lines, that power becomes diluted. As is true with all things related to war, the best policy is to keep things as simple as possible. Adding another service would add an entire new level of complexity and friction to an endeavor that already has too much.

So far, plenty of skepticism endures in Congress about the need for a new military branch. The officials calling for an independent Space Force will doubtless continue to claim this domain holds the key to victory in any future conflict. But, just like with aviation, space operations will not be decisive on their own. Their true potential can only be realized as supporting efforts of operations on the sea and especially on the ground. When viewed in that light, it only makes sense for the commanders of the sea or ground forces to also be in command of the supporting space forces.

The Space Force leaders will likely only work with the other services when forced to by an outside entity like the secretary of defense or Congress, and even then, as history shows, the resulting cooperation is likely to be half-hearted and will vanish as soon as the external pressure disappears.

Victory in war comes through the cooperation of all arms toward a singular goal. The United States should be taking steps to reduce barriers to this kind of cooperation, not creating more.

– edited from an article by Dan Grazier in The Defense Monitor, November/December
PeaceMeal, January/February 2019

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