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Evolving Space with Traditional Military Capabilities and Commercial Partners

Illustrations © James Vaughan, and used by permission. More of his work can be found here:

By Lt. Col Erik Bowman

“The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official guidance or position of the United States Government, the Department of Defense, the United States Space Force, or of the United States Air Force”.

A review of the last several decades reveals a significant contribution by space capabilities to joint warfighting efforts across multiple domains. For example, comments by Gen Howell M. Estes III, the commander-in-chief of the 1990’s era USSPACECOM wrote in Joint Force Quarterly about the contribution of space forces being that of “…everything from mission planning to execution” in his reflections upon Desert Shield/Desert Storm.[1] Since the 1990’s, the greater reliance upon space capabilities and the changing character of warfare are potentially important causes behind the re-establishment of U.S. Space Command (USSPACECOM) as the eleventh combatant command (CCMD), followed by the stand-up of the U.S. Space Force (USSF).[2] The more recent Defense Space Strategy published in 2020 attributes the changing character of the space domain to “the reemergence of great power competition and a rapid expansion of allied, partner, and commercial activities in space…”.[3] The USSPACECOM and USSF bring critical focus upon the ability to protect national interests in the space domain and significant advantage to joint warfighting, but also present new challenges for the nation as articulated by former Acting Secretary of Defense, Patrick Shanahan.

The threat posed by China and Russia in space demands department-level action. For years, careful observers of our processes – including Congress, independent commissions, and even our peer competitors – have pointed out the limitations of our current approach. We must not wait until we experience conflict in space to adapt our posture. As other great powers become more competent and capable in space, America burdens increased risk because we will not have sufficient time to “hammer out” what will be needed and how to do it if contingencies arise. Rather than react to their disruptive behavior, we should seize the initiative now to anticipate and influence changes in the character of warfare and deter potential adversaries’ aggression by establishing a Space Force that operates on doctrine created by fully trained space cadre members and equipped with resources and capability to defend the American way of life and U.S. national security.[4]

USSPACECOM must ensure it can serve as both a supporting command, as well as a supported command. The demands on the new CCMD are only going to increase as its value to the Joint Force and the nation become more apparent. USSPACECOM will require the support of other domain and geographic CCMDs to protect and defend the nation’s vital interests. Paraphrasing GEN James H. Dickinson, the U.S. must determine the best way to further integrate traditional military and commercial capabilities of the other domains into space warfighting operations, all of which is counter to the long running model.[5] The space community somewhat finds itself in the same predicament as logistics—it is not quite appreciated or understood until it is missing.

The inertia of national and global normative behaviors creates the first obstacle on the path of the necessary paradigm shift. The U.S. has an opportunity to further shape military standards of behavior for the domain through deliberate presence across key orbital regimes across cis-lunar space, which is defined as the area of space within the earth-moon system.[6] Historically or at least more broadly, the space domain is the place of peaceful endeavors with little to no employment of offensive military weapons, on-orbit or in domain intelligence surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assets organic to the Department of Defense (DoD). Further, the national sensing capabilities are purposely aimed at terrestrial locations to augment insights of adversary activity throughout the other contested domains.[7] The necessary deep thinking of what this means for the future and the tremendous amount of work ahead cannot keep up with the pace of change, predicated by threatening adversary intent, and the risk of the loss of U.S. prominence in space. While the new CCMD and Service bring critical focus, they also bring a whole new level of expectation bestowed by the nation. The military Services present trained personnel and lethal capabilities to the Joint Force, but the CCMDs must provide options for the nation in the face of any crisis from contingency to full-mobilization warfare, all while supporting and promoting a new institution of normative rule-based behavior for a military in the space domain. America leads the way in many facets around the world as a thought leader and exemplar of international engagement. The space domain is no different than any other with respect to a necessity for leadership and engagement, to establish and maintain acceptable behaviors in this ever increasingly congested and contested domain.[8] The concepts of congested and contested in context of the space domain as noted in the 2011 National Security Space Strategy, pertain to the “…22,000 man-made objects in orbit, of which 1,100 are active satellites”, with much of the rest being debris from increasing global activity in space.[9] More recent information estimates 27,000 objects actively “…tracked by the Department of Defense’s global Space Surveillance Network (SSN) sensors”.[10] The nation’s advantage in the space domain is at risk if it does not accelerate efforts to secure a commanding role. As an example, China is aggressively posturing to unseat the U.S. from its comfortable position and intends, for example “…to become the United States’ peer in space militarily, diplomatically, commercially, and economically”.[11] If China continues to implement actions in alignment with the aforementioned intent, and the U.S. does not proactively seek positions of presence throughout the domain to include cis-lunar space, the advantage of influence through position is lost.

The U.S. typically pursues influence through cooperative partnerships, which competes with a more coercive approach from China. Regardless, it appears no one nation is working alone to gain an advantage. As such a commanding presence in the domain goes far beyond on-orbit assets, but rather the lion’s share of critical maneuver-space is among the many industrial, commercial, military, and civil institutions from around the world. For instance, China’s multi-dimensional push into every facet of the traditional global and domestic institutions (like their influence in commerce, economics, technology, information, cyber activities, industrial and commercial bases, academia, civil institutions, and media) is aggressive and more often it is insidious.[12] The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) provides a big tent for other more specific efforts targeting access and influence in areas of interest; one key area certainly pertinent to the space community is the “Space Silk Road”.[13] The U.S. must be able to counter the “Space Silk Road” through continuance and greater focus of meaningful partnerships to mitigate China’s infiltration.

USSPACECOM is the nation’s warfighting answer to meet present and emerging international challenges. The CCMD aims to ensure there is “never a day without space”, by providing combat credible capabilities and forces when called upon.[14] With that said, the institutions representing space power have significant work ahead to earn prominence among the instruments of national power. Some of that work begins by addressing the following key dimensions necessary to integrate traditional military capabilities.

Three dimensions to these challenges include:

  • the next evolution of integration across the military services and CCMDs,
  • allies and partners,
  • and space industrial and commercial bases.[15]

Work can begin by integrating the sister services and CCMDs through a thoughtful reconsideration of the joint warfighting approach to achieve the next, best version of joint doctrine. The military profession of arms is adept at strategy and planning – preparing for the worst through the creation of options in case the nation and its allies call. The space warfighting community must now think through joint warfighting strategies and plans with space as a new key player on the field. A player that does more than just support, but also leads power projection options and provides a deterrent for potential adversaries. The nation’s space professionals together with their capabilities must be able to articulate the strengths and weaknesses to better integrate traditional warfighting capabilities into the space warfighting domain. Exercises and war games must be shaped to test how the CCMD might perform in a supported role, to go beyond parity to achieve extreme overmatch. For example, the capabilities of several adversaries that threaten the U.S. hold on space superiority are commanded and controlled from the ground. Their critical communication nodes are accessible by our traditional offensive military capabilities through maritime, air, land, and cyber providing an ability to help defend the U.S. space superiority advantage.

The U.S. must continue to create new warfighting concepts to take advantage of the synergy that space warfighting capabilities can provide the Joint Force, because adversaries like China are already working to secure a greater benefit from the space domain. For example, the nation does not go to war without U.S. Transportation Command’s (USTRANSCOM) ability to deliver an immediate force in times of crisis, and deliver a decisive force when necessary to compel an adversary.[16] If the evolution of Air power is any insight for the future of Space power, it must become more critical to the nation’s ability to mobilize a force, helping to secure long lines of contested communication, setting conditions of security for a vulnerable force on the move. Future USSPACECOM warfighting capabilities can and should be on the leading edge of a full-mobilization force deployment, in lockstep with USTRANSCOM anywhere around the globe, providing better ability to penetrate an adversary’s area denial capabilities—affording more rapid closure for terrestrial forces. For example, Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom are two conflicts that demonstrate the value of tying multiple actions together to achieve battlefield effects. The USAF created Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) Liaison Officer’s to integrate theater ISR assets with the ground scheme of maneuver, to avoid decoupled actions, and achieve combined arms effects. This new USSPACECOM and USTRANSCOM relationship will also mean that the DoD must rethink its well-established time-phased force deployment model. Under an updated model, space capabilities would be applied earlier in a force mobilization scenario and under greater reliance to provide security, warning, and perhaps protection for a vulnerable logistics force on the move, and on through force closure operations.

Further, the U.S. must continue to build and strengthen enduring relationships with existing allies and partners, and work to grow the number of new ones, while expanding information sharing ability. Information sharing places higher demand for trusted networks, without compromising timeliness and information relevance.

In considering strong relationships, special consideration for the U.S. space industrial and commercial bases should be included, and for the sake of this argument includes the national security space sector. The commercial space community is increasing its presence and use of space systems.[17] This type of industrial and commercial base is just as much a national treasure and vital national security interest as the nation’s manufacturing, agricultural, cyber, aircraft, communications, energy, and transportation industries. As space becomes even more vital to the American way of life, and critical to the nation’s ability to project combat power, the U.S. needs to rethink its partnerships with the commercial sector. America must be able to safeguard its way of life, and set conditions for the Joint Force to win an all-domain fight, and that cannot be easily accomplished without allies, partners, and the space industrial and commercial bases.

The professionals of USTRANSCOM rely on commercial partnerships and the integration of commercial capabilities into national security roles, defined through legislative policy. USSPACECOM should consider the government and commercial relationship model that exists with the maritime and air carrier transportation industry, to see what can be applied to space as a new warfighting domain to achieve rapid capability access and cost efficiency. For example, the transportation industry with its several modalities that move materiel and personnel, are just as critical as the infrastructure the trains, trucks, aircraft, and ships require to transit the globe. The commercial transportation industry shoulders a remarkable amount of the responsibility of the nation’s ability to project a decisive force. The government and commercial model of the transportation industry traces to key legislative policy dating back to the 1950’s from conclusions “…following the Berlin airlift, of the need for supplemental airlift to support a major national defense emergency…” which enables the Civil Reserve Air Fleet (CRAF), an essential program enabling global rapid global mobility.[18] A separate but similarly related program, the Voluntary Intermodal Sealift Agreement (VISA), underwrites 90% of the nation’s ability to project decisive power via maritime commercial assets.[19] These policy arrangements create incentivized opportunities that mutually benefit commercial industry and the government in times of national security crisis, which on the whole creates cost efficiency and national security support for the government and business revenue for the commercial shipping industry.

The CRAF and VISA arrangements create a special relationship of trust and provide critical capability when necessary for national security. This relationship supports the nation’s transportation industrial base with a level of indirect protection from foreign commercial competition through preferential access to shipping contracts, which create cash flow and contribute to the sustainment of the company. For example, “the VISA program operates on a straightforward model: a variety of qualified U.S.-flag merchant vessels agree to volunteer their time and intermodal capacity during wartime in exchange for priority access to DoD cargoes during peacetime”.[20] The space warfighting domain needs a similar style of trust relationship investment with the private sector space community, to generate resource efficiencies, opportunities for emerging providers, and security for a very expensive and critical industrial and commercial base. One aspect of the propositional value for a similar relationship is that the USSPACECOM and USSF require ISR capabilities to maintain domain awareness, to protect and defend on-orbit assets, create freedom of action and access, and to enable overmatch. The other military services built their ISR capabilities out of the necessity to meet challenges through investment over many decades, but the DoD space community does not have the luxury of time to grow its ISR capabilities to mitigate adversary advancements. Another area of potential value for a CRAF or VISA style program is with commercial communications networks. As the DoD’s demand for access to the space domain increases for data and information transport, commercial communications infrastructures and systems may need to be utilized for supplemental support. The CRAF or VISA model, coupled with a robust vendor and foreign entity vetting program for space capabilities, could facilitate rapid and secure access to commercial capability augmentation while avoiding inadvertent contracts with adversaries.[21] There is an urgency to catch-up to the rest of the Joint Force, to ensure that real value is gained on a time scale that matches the adversary threat. To that end, a space domain version of the CRAF or VISA programs to leverage the benefits of a nimble industrial and commercial sector can rapidly enhance U.S. space superiority.

In the face of adversaries like China and their push to cement global access with the BRI, it is critical to develop the many U.S. government, industrial, and commercial partnerships that bolster national security.[22] To outpace China’s ambitions “…to be a major global space power by around 2030…” the DoD should pursue and incentivize tightly-coupled and policy-driven relationships with the private space sector. The DoD should approach these relationships carefully, as public-private partnerships do not come without the risk of government overreach or undue influence in the private sector.[23] The allure of expediency portrayed by the Chinese communist authoritarian model should not cause America to shed its free market fundamentals, placing private property, individual liberty, and ingenuity at risk. The Chinese government’s direct involvement in steering the economy, business investment, and activities of China’s industrial and commercial sector is incompatible with the American system, and public-private partnerships are ostensibly a slippery slope down the path of the Chinese model. However, when considering the dilemmas posed by China’s global advance and affront to the established international institutions, the DoD must consider the best practices of the existing policy frameworks that can help safeguard U.S. national interests.

While it is prudent for the DoD to consider new industrial and commercial sector relationships to secure space superiority for the nation, the U.S. must also take into account the consequence of not committing to this next level of cooperation and integration. The need for an evolution in the relationship is predicated on more than just cost efficiencies, it is also in the nation’s interests to ensure free use of the space domain for commercial partners. U.S. DoD can gain strategic advantage through leadership in defining how militaries should behave in the space domain through better integration of traditional military capabilities with those of the space community, increasing close partnerships with allies, and formulating a formal public policy framework similar to that of CRAF or VISA for a public-private partnership with the space industrial and commercial bases. Much in the way the U.S. Navy protects and defends sea lines of communication from adversary disruption or piracy, the USSPACECOM and USSF also may evolve to fulfill a similar role as commercial activity continues to increase throughout the space domain.

Lt Col Erik Bowman is a career Air Force and now Space Force intelligence officer with 18 years of assignments and multiple deployments with experience in airborne ISR operations, space intelligence, and a joint tour with USTRANSCOM. Erik is currently assigned to Space Operations Command in Colorado Springs, CO.

  1. Estes, Howell M. III. “Space and Joint Space Doctrine.” Joint Force Quarterly (Winter 1996-97). Accessed October 5, 2021.
  2. U.S. Department of Defense. “Defense Space Strategy Summary”. June 2020. Accessed December 13, 2021.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Shanahan, Patrick M, and Joseph F Dunford. “Proposal to Establish a United States Space Force.” United States Senate Committee on Armed Services. Last modified April 11, 2019. Accessed October 26, 2021.
  5. Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. “Aerospace Nation: Gen James H. Dickinson.” January 26, 2021.
  6. “Cis-lunar” space is defined as: lying between the earth and the moon or the moon’s orbit. Dictionary, Merriam-Webster. Accessed December 13, 2021.
  7. Byrne, J.P.B., R.D. Dickey, and M.P.G. Gleason. “A Space Policy Primer: Key Concepts, Issues, and Actors | Second Edition.” Aerospace Corporation – Center for Space Policy and Strategy. January 18, 2021.
  8. U.S. Department of Defense, and Office of the Director for National Intelligence. “National Security Space Strategy: Unclassified Summary.” January 2011.
  9. Ibid.
  10. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, U.S. Government. “Space Debris and Human Space Flight”. May 26, 2021. Accessed December 13, 2021.
  11. Bowe, A. “Homepage Economic and Security Review Commission: U.S.- China.” U.S. China Economic and Security Review Commission. April 11, 2019.
  12. Cordesman, A.H.C. “From Competition to Confrontation with China: The Major Shift in u.s. Policy.” Center for Strategic and International Studies. August 3, 2020.
  13. Aluf, D.A. “China’s Space Silk Road Reaches Mars and Beyond.” Asia Times. July 31, 2020.
  14. U.S. Space Command, Department of Defense. “Commander’s Strategic Vision.” Accessed January 1, 2021.
  15. Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. “Aerospace Nation: Gen James H. Dickinson.” January 26, 2021.
  16. U.S. Transportation Command, Department of Defense. “USTRANSCOM, United States Transportation Command.” Accessed August 20, 2021.
  17. Byrne, J.P.B., R.D. Dickey, and M.P.G. Gleason. “A Space Policy Primer: Key Concepts, Issues, and Actors | Second Edition.” Aerospace Corporation – Center for Space Policy and Strategy. January 18, 2021.
  18. U.S. Department of Transportation. “U.S. Department of Transportation – Civil Reserve Air Fleet.” November 20, 2020.
  19. U.S. Department of Transportation. “U.S. Department of Transportation – Voluntary Intermodal Sealift Agreement.” October 20, 2020.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Department of Defense, 2019. Joint Publication 4-10. U.S. Government, pp. III-19.
  22. Chatzky, A.C., and J.M. McBride. “China’s Massive Belt and Road Initiative.” Council on Foreign Relations. January 28, 2020.
  23. Bowe, A., 2019. U.S. – China Economic and Security Review Commission. Staff Research Report. [online] U.S. Government, pp.1-2.


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