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Space Force: A Historical Perspective

Adding Bureaucracy Without Adding Capability
(Illustration by POGO; Modified from "Too Many Generals", Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

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.

No one is suggesting the Space Force would be launching fleets of starships filled with Space Marines to go fight in distant solar systems. Its operations 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 each service is adequately organized and resourced to provide their own space support. 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 an attempt to unify the military, the United States went from having two separate services to three, with an extra layer of bureaucracy added on top.

President Trump’s announcement on June 18, 2018, directing the Department of Defense to establish the Space Force as the sixth branch of the military, caught many people outside of the defense community off-guard. But the idea is hardly unique to President Trump. In 2017, Representatives Mike Rogers (R-AL) and Jim Cooper (D-TN) proposed the creation of a semi-autonomous Space Corps within the Air Force preparatory to a fully independent Space Force.

In a speech at the 2017 Space Symposium—an event hosted by the non-profit Space Foundation—Representative Rogers criticized the services for their scattershot approach to space operations. “When we asked the Department [of Defense] for an organizational chart so that we could understand who was involved in making decisions in the national security space enterprise and who was in charge below the level of the Secretary and Deputy Secretary, the answer was ‘we don’t have one,’” he said. The Government Accountability Office had released a report the prior year 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. 

Representative Rogers framed his argument for a Space Force in historical terms, citing the Air Force’s path to service independence in 1947 after a 40-year struggle that began with the emergence of the Aeronautical Division within the Army’s Signal Corps in 1907. But a closer look at the history reveals that the evolution of an independent Air Force solved far fewer problems than it ultimately caused.

The Air Force Case Study

Underpinning the idea of an independent air force is the notion that air power, when centrally controlled by airmen and used to strike at vital targets deep within enemy territory, can decisively win wars without any assistance from ground or naval forces. Airmen have been promoting this idea since at least 1921, when the Italian naïf Giulio Douhet articulated his strategic bombing theories in his book The Command of the Air. Leaders of America’s precursor Air Force organizations studied Douhet’s ideas at the Air Corps Tactical School. American airmen convinced themselves that Douhet’s idea for unescorted formations of heavily armored, self-defending “battleplanes” could destroy an enemy’s war-making potential by targeting its industrial centers without the need for a land campaign.

By World War II, leading bomber advocates, including future Air Force generals, and the other airmen pushing strategic bombing theory were desperate to convince the decision-makers that nothing could stop their bombers, in order to gain Congressional approval for their acquisition projects, especially the B-17. The single-minded focus on strategic bombing and, by extension, securing service independence from the Army, led to significant capability gaps. The United States began the war without effective fighter aircraft, and, ultimately, thousands of American airmen died needlessly because their bomber formations lacked fighter escorts during the early phases of the war and were thus easy prey for the German Messerschmitt fighter pilots.

In the decades following the signing of the National Security Act of 1947, military and civilian leaders signed a series of service agreements meant to clarify roles and missions for air assets, efforts that could have been avoided had the services not been separated in the first place. The most famous of these, the 1948 Key West Agreement, assigned all strategic air assets as well as most tactical and logistic aviation roles to the new Air Force. This included the provision that the Air Force was to “furnish close combat and logistical air support to the Army.” The Navy and Marine Corps kept their own air arms “as necessary for the accomplishment of objectives in a naval campaign.”

The Defense Department followed this with the 1952 Pace-Finletter Memorandum of Understanding, which defined Army aircraft as fixed-wing aircraft less than 5,000 pounds empty weight and helicopters used for observation, command, battlefield transport, and casualty evacuations.

Then came the Johnson-McConnell Agreement of 1966. This came about after Army leaders began working on the air mobility concept with air assault divisions equipped with their own aviation units of fixed-wing transport aircraft and heavy-lift helicopters. Air Force leaders saw this as an Army attempt to steal a mission and the funding that goes along with it. The Army started acquiring CV-2 Caribou cargo aircraft capable of ferrying soldiers and supplies to and from austere airfields close to the front lines. Air Force leaders strongly objected to this plan, claiming it duplicated the capability of their larger, and more expensive, C-123 Provider.

In an effort to avoid a larger interservice fight, Army Chief of Staff General Harold Johnson and Air Force Chief of Staff John McConnell were told to work out their differences. Under the terms of the resulting agreement, the Army handed over most of its fixed-wing aircraft to the Air Force. In return, the Air Force surrendered most claims to the development and operation of helicopters. In true bureaucratic fashion, partisans on either side found little to celebrate and neither the troops nor the taxpayers were well served.

The pattern is clear. None of these efforts would have been necessary had the services not been separated in the first place. The Army chief of staff could have simply ordered the necessary changes. If Congress creates an independent Space Force, the American people can expect even more interservice bickering. There would be years of debates and arguments over roles and missions for the various services. Congress would create a new bureaucracy that will then require even more bureaucracy to get it to work with the others.

Leading airmen viewed World War II as a perfect opportunity to prove their pet theories. As the historian and veteran Air Force officer Perry McCoy Smith showed in The Air Force Plans for Peace, among the Army Air Force’s leaders’ primary concerns during the war was creating the justification for service independence. Air leaders in the United States and Britain argued they could win the war through strategic bombing alone, by crippling Germany’s war-making potential and forcing it to surrender. The American and British Air Forces conducted massive raids over Germany during the European campaign, bombing both military and civilian targets in the Combined Bomber Offensive beginning in 1943. But two years of relentless bombing resulted in the Allies suffering massive aircraft and aircrew losses. This effort hardly crippled the enemy’s morale or will to fight; German armaments production actually increased during the war. Allied armies still had to storm the beaches of Normandy and then fight a grinding campaign across Europe that lasted more than 11 months and ended only after the Germans were physically crushed between the invading armies along the Elbe River.

President Harry S. Truman, General George C. Marshall, and General Dwight D. Eisenhower resisted service separation during the postwar military reorganization debates. But they were eventually convinced by early Air Force leaders’ claims that they would not neglect their responsibilities to support ground troops. On September 18, 1947, President Truman signed the National Security Act of 1947 into law, formally splitting off the Air Force into a separate service. Air Force leaders had promised to create a Tactical Air Command focusing entirely on integrated operations with the Army, but just two years later, the new Air Force “stripped” resources from Tactical Air Command until it became a hollow force.

Ever since, 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 centralization of military aviation resulted in even more duplication.

The Challenge of Jointness

When Congress passed the National Security Act of 1947, it was with the ostensible purpose of “unifying” the services by placing them all within a single department of defense. Previously, the Army and Navy had been completely separate, with their own civilian service secretaries, both of whom were Cabinet-level appointees who answered directly to the president. Even this bifurcated Army/Navy structure presented challenges that military leaders during World War II found difficult to overcome. President Truman and Generals Marshall and Eisenhower had all favored a plan to erase the service differences by creating a single military establishment. (In 1944, then-Senator Truman even published an article in Collier’s Weekly making the case for service unification.) They believed that erasing service differences would eliminate inefficiencies caused by duplication and make it easier to conduct the combined arms campaigns, like the Normandy invasion, that would be necessary to prevail in future wars.

The unification efforts of the immediate post-war years met stiff resistance from those who benefited from the status quo. Navy leaders and their partisans in Congress who feared their interests would not receive sufficient attention and funding in a unified military dominated by soldiers fought fiercely against Army leaders who advocated for service unification. The Air Force leaders believed they could decisively win wars from the air and that the country did not need large ground or naval forces at all, but would settle for service independence and co-equal status with the Army and Navy.

Again, in the manner of so many bureaucratic fights, the leaders of the day worked out a compromise that on paper gave the appearance of solving the problem, but really only worsened long-standing problems. In an attempt to unify the military, the United States went from having two separate services to three, with an extra layer of bureaucracy added on top. The new organization proved so unwieldy that the first secretary of defense, James Forrestal, quickly exhausted himself. In less than two years, he suffered a nervous breakdown, was diagnosed with “severe depression of the type seen in operational fatigue during the war,” and committed suicide in 1949, raising “serious questions concerning the tensions associated with high office.” Psychiatrists who treated Forrestal prior to his death would later connect the onset of his mental illnesses with his time in office.

Prompted by the challenges of getting three services with very different institutional cultures to work together, Congress passed the Goldwater-Nichols Act in 1986 to correct many of the problems created by the National Security Act of 1947. Goldwater-Nichols increased the powers of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and created a more direct civilian control of combat operations by establishing the combatant command system. It also mandated the services to take more care when assigning officers for duty assignments with other services by establishing a “joint specialty.”

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.

Department of Defense leaders apparently did not think this solved the problem. Thirteen years later, Department officials established the United States Joint Forces Command to develop joint operating concepts, increase interoperability, and conduct joint training exercises. This only lasted until 2011, when the secretary of defense directed its closure since over time it had “created an unneeded extra layer and step in the force management process.”

Yet the fundamental problems persist.

The A-10 Example

Take, for example, the Air Force’s repeated efforts to cancel the A-10 Thunderbolt. It may appear to be a straightforward matter about an airplane, but the real issue is one of service differences. The A-10 is a tangible representation of a fault line between the Air Force and the Army. At the core of the fight is the close air support mission the A-10 pilots perform. This mission spans the gap between the land and air domains. Army leaders say airplanes help them achieve their objectives on the ground, while Air Force leaders say this is a highly inefficient use of precious aviation assets.

Douglas Campbell, a former A-10 pilot and historian of the program, calls it the “Plane in the Middle” because it fills a void created by service separation. The owners of the program, the Air Force, suffer all the costs (manpower, acquisition, maintenance, etc.) associated with it. For their efforts, at least in the minds of most Air Force leaders, they receive second billing in this show since the Army reaps the benefits in combat.

Almost from the moment the Air Force won the ultimate bureaucratic victory of service independence, it began a nearly five-decade fight to rid itself of a platform, and attendant mission, which runs counter to its own interests. Air Force leaders have repeatedly tried to retire the A-10 fleet during its lifetime. These efforts have so far failed because Congress appears to recognize that the A-10’s absence would create a key capability gap for the close air support mission.

Compounding Interservice Friction

This process will be repeated on an even larger scale should an independent Space Force be created, and will result in even more bureaucratic friction without compensating benefit.

At the center of every military service is a bureaucracy. All bureaucracies share several common behaviors. They all hold as their first goal self-preservation. 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 battle threats to their existence.

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 corresponding combat forces.

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 functions. 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 Missile Defense Agency provides a convenient example of this point. While it is not an independent military branch, officials deemed its mission of creating a ballistic missile shield sufficiently important to grant the agency broad exemptions from the laws and regulations governing acquisition programs. This resulted in several significant program failures including the Sea-Based X-Band Radar, a massive floating radar dome designed to detect incoming missiles scattered across the sky. Its field of view proved to be so narrow that it rendered the system essentially useless. Taxpayers spent $2.2 billion on it. In all, the Missile Defense Agency spent nearly $10 billion on failed programs due in no small part to lax oversight of the sort that often accompanies emerging technologies.

The Pentagon’s response to the IED threat in Iraq and Afghanistan provides another 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 Organization 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.

As it matures, Space Force’s doctrine and operations are likely to become increasingly disconnected from the other services. While attempting to assert their independence, Space Force leaders will likely start acquiring equipment that is not compatible with the other services. The Army and Air Force have repeatedly had difficulty working together because their radio sets operated on different frequencies. This even occurred during World War II before the Air Force became independent. It is not much of a stretch to imagine a new satellite network under the control of an independent Space Force not working smoothly with equipment purchased separately by the Army and Navy.

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 on Capitol Hill 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, and requires the most independence and largest budget share possible. 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.

Leaders in each of the services should carefully assess their true space domain needs and tailor an appropriate organization to meet them effectively and efficiently. Should there be Department-wide requirements, the secretary of defense should determine which service has the greatest stake then assign it as the lead agency while the other interested parties contribute accordingly. Budget pressure is generally useful in defense spending, as it adds a strong dose of discipline into a process that so often lacks it in the beginning. Constrained budgets force service leaders to pursue more practical and simpler designs that usually perform better than the overly complicated systems born when money flows more freely.

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 source of external pressure moves on. 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.