After two years of finding its sea — er, space — legs, the Space Force is starting to vie for more influence at home and on the battlefield.
In its first two years, the Space Force has focused on organizing, training and equipping its troops for U.S. Space Command, which directs those people and resources for daily missions. Military space assets are the backbone of communications across the joint force, track missile launches, catalog debris that could slam into satellites, take pictures of Earth from orbit and more.
But the service is looking at expanding its role in everyday ops through stronger partnerships with regional commands around the world.
“The next step of the discussion is a recognition that there are important space activities that are done in a regional context, whether it’s security cooperation activities, training with our coalition partners, or just the basic integration of space effects into plans,” Lt. Gen. Chance Saltzman, a deputy chief of space operations, recently told reporters.
The Space Force is working to create internal components — like a SPACECENT, for example — that would be the liaisons to the Pentagon’s larger combatant commands and give guardians more sway in military planning. A guardian would report to the more senior combatant commander to offer space capabilities as part of a mission’s force package.
U.S. Indo-Pacific Command is the first in line for a new space component, followed by U.S. Central Command and U.S. European Command. When each might come to fruition remains unclear; Saltzman said the timelines are fluid because of the myriad steps involved.
For instance, the service previously said CENTCOM would be the first to get that dedicated space support, but the order has shuffled around since then as priorities have shifted.
Each command has different needs and responsibilities when it comes to space, he added, and must consider the input of countries and alliances in their region. The State Department gets involved for any changes to force structure overseas as well. America’s foreign partners can now work with a growing group of senior U.S. space personnel who can better incorporate allies into training exercises and wargames.
“In the past, we couldn’t spread out amongst the service components where there wasn’t enough mass to really influence some of these decisions, Saltzman said. “It’s really raising the level of stakeholder concern up to [the] service level.”
Now, those involved are waiting for the Pentagon’s bureaucratic process to play out and for Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s approval.
“We’ve got to make sure we understand exactly what the implications are, second- and third-order effects,” Saltzman said. “Do we have the manpower to support? What’s the resourcing and budgeting? We have to line all that up, because we don’t want to go so fast that we hang this organization out and it can’t be effective when it’s put in place.”
Service officials are especially concerned about beefing up cyber defenses and intelligence collection to combat the growing threats posed by speeding space debris, potential anti-satellite weapon attacks and network hacks.
It’s only a matter of time before the Space Force needs a regular liaison to U.S. Cyber Command, Saltzman said.
“It’s too important. The service will have too many cyber responsibilities. We’re just not there yet,” he said.
Space operations have traditionally supported air, land and sea forces. Now the tables are starting to turn.
The Pentagon recently approved First Air Force, which handles the service’s homeland defense mission, as U.S. Space Command’s air component after more than a year of preparation. The organization now adds the moniker “Air Forces Space,” or AFSPACE. It advises Space Command on military air issues that relate to space ops, like needing more satellite coverage in a certain area so aircraft can pass information to each other, or air protection of critical missile-detection infrastructure on the ground.
AFSPACE also runs the human spaceflight support program based at Patrick Space Force Base, Florida. That detachment trains to rescue NASA astronauts and civilian rocket riders in emergencies, whether on the launch pad or after splashing down in the ocean.
“In this new role, First Air Force will be better able to identify and address gaps and seams when integrating space power into the support of the homeland defense mission,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles “CQ” Brown Jr. said in March 2021. “This will also inform efforts to better fuse space operations into air operations centers around the globe.”
The Space Force is further establishing itself among the newest guardians, too.
In another first for the service, it welcomed its own basic military training cohort of more than 70 enlistees, rather than combining prospective airmen and guardians in the same boot camp. Having a separate two-month course at Joint Base San Antonio, Texas, allows recruits to focus on learning the details of Space Force missions and culture, instead of being treated as one piece of a much larger Air Force curriculum.
The U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado on June 10 finished its first session of a new two-week summer program called “Azimuth,” which introduces cadets to the basics of space operations and acquisition before they decide which military branch to join. Col. Luke Sauter, head of the astronautics department at the academy, became the school’s first permanent Space Force professor in May when he formally transferred into the new service.
“It’s important that our cadets see guardians across our academy, and that they have the opportunity to speak with Col. Sauter and other leaders about the Space Force as they consider which branch of military service they would like to join,” faculty dean Brig. Gen. Linell Letendre said.
Nearly 300 USAFA cadets have commissioned into the Space Force upon graduating so far. The service aims to grow to about 8,600 uniformed personnel in 2023, plus nearly 5,000 civilian employees.
But don’t expect much fanfare as the Space Force beefs up, cementing its place in the Defense Department after several decades on the back burner.
“I don’t suspect that there’s going to be some big ground-breaking, ribbon-cutting thing, because this is normal operations,” Saltzman said. “We’re just the newest service, and we’re stepping up to those responsibilities.”
Rachel Cohen joined Air Force Times as senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in Air Force Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), the Washington Post, and others.