The 2020 National Defense Authorization Act released Monday night by a House-Senate conference committee authorizes the creation of a U.S. Space Force, the first new service created since 1947. Think of what that means: a Space Force would be the first service established in the post-McNamara, post-Cold War, Great Power Competition, hyperconnected 21st century. This is a HUGE opportunity to build a service that not only supports our national security space activities, but also sets an example as the leading edge of a modern defense organization.
Some have argued that a Space Force will be bureaucratically top-heavy, that its personnel structure will not be viable, that it will cost too much. These concerns all describe a future that certainly could come to pass. But it’s not a certainty if the Department of Defense and Congress are willing to break the mold of the 20th Century in creating a Space Force.
Last year, CNA conducted a congressionally mandated study to design a Department of the Space Force. This effort provided valuable insights into critical aspects of a successful Space Force, the things a Space Force must do — and do differently than the existing services. The most critical of these are in three areas: staffing, acquisitions and organization.
First, a successful Space Force will need to deliberately advocate for and develop space and technical expertise. The challenges of providing deliberate career paths for space professionals within the existing system are well documented, and the unique characteristics of Space Force personnel argue for a new approach. For instance, personnel policies will need to address the role of the expanding space private sector as competition for personnel, but also as a potential source of staff. While the private sector role is particularly salient for space, it’s not unique. So new personnel policies designed for a Space Force could benefit other services as well.
Personnel policies should also adapt to the highly technical demands of space operations. Many Space Force positions will benefit both from a depth of experience and from maintaining currency in space science, technology and engineering. So a Space Force might want to eliminate up-or-out rules and time-based promotions to retain technically talented and experienced military personnel. It might also consider career-incentive programs for internships with civilian employers and — perhaps most heretically — consider mid-career, lateral entry from the private sector and part-time employment options, even for active-duty military.
Second, the Space Force will have to do acquisitions differently, for three principal reasons: one, to account for the growing New Space sector, largely non-traditional contractors; two, to accommodate development-heavy, small volume programs; and three, to consider alternative types of acquisitions such as large volume, single-mission small satellites or commercial off-the-shelf products and services. Doing acquisition differently will require process and requirement flexibility to improve access to non-traditional contractors, accommodate different types of acquisitions and support spiral development-- allowing for incremental improvements in capability over program lifespans, rather than expecting all requirements to be satisfied before the first satellite launch. It will also require smart export control rules that allow the domestic industrial base to stabilize and flourish.
To implement these new processes and requirements, Space Force acquisition will need what the business world calls “organizational ambidexterity.” It will need to be able to support legacy and traditional acquisitions along standard paths and policies, while simultaneously engaging in novel acquisition pathways with new partners. This kind of ambidexterity requires separate acquisition pathways, each with its own separate budgets, staffs and processes. As the Department of Defense seeks to innovate more quickly while also supporting major legacy programs, Space Force acquisition could serve as a model for the other services.
Finally, the Space Force will need to be organized differently at headquarters. While many efforts in recent decades have sought to cut back on growing Pentagon overhead, the Space Force has the opportunity to start small. In fact, given public statements from legislators, we argued that it will only be viable as an independent service if it aims to be lean. To be clear, lean does not mean anemic. In certain areas, the Space Force will need service parity in rank and stature to be an effective advocate in interservice jockeying. But its headquarters organization can be purpose-built, including only those offices and leadership positions for which it has distinct responsibilities, rather than building it from other services’ molds. Given its small size, the Space Force could also provide service representation to combatant commands differently than its sister services, such as via embedded detachments or component elements, as opposed to fully staffed commands.
To be sure, there are certain institutional constraints within which a Space Force would need to operate. However, the fact that it will be a new organizational construct under new legislation provides an unprecedented opportunity to create the United States’ first modern military service. A Space Force can and should be staffed differently, make acquisitions differently, and organize itself differently. If this endeavor is executed thoughtfully and analytically, the end result will be not just better service support to the space domain. It could also lead the way to a better Department of Defense back here on the ground.