US Air Force Space Policy Developments: A Mixed Bag of Hope and Disappointment (So Far)

(As corrected 10 June to the correct draft)

Recently the new Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson joined Commander, Air Force Space Command General Jay Raymond, Space and Missile Systems Center Commander Lt Gen Samuel Greaves and Air Force Chief of Staff General David Goldfein at a hearing of the Strategic Forces Subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC). The reported exchange between these witnesses and the Senators of the committee, highlight what this analyst would call a mixed bag of hope and disappointment with respect to what might lay ahead in the Air Force when it comes to space policy, strategy, and defense posture.

First, the positive, hopeful signs of things to come. Despite being only on the job as Secretary only 24 hours, Secretary Wilson appears to have a good grasp on something that has alluded many civilian leaders of the Department of Defense for years: the role of the Air Force as an institution operating in space. When asked by Senator Martin Heinrich (D-NM) whether the United States “should engage in an “international conversation about an international code of conduct”, Secretary Wilson replied that “the Air Force’s role is to be sure the United States can prevail “irrespective of consensus on international norms because there will be players who do not abide by those norms.”[i] This was an outstanding answer. For the first time in years, a DoD service secretary understand that the role of the Department of the Air Force (and by extention Defense Department as a whole) is not to be focused on matters best left to the diplomatic instrument of power, it is to be prepared as the military instrument of power to defend the nation and its interests in whatever operating domain an adversary would attack. She appears to understand also the reality that just because a group of “government experts” or group of think tank advisors believes that norms of behavior will serve as a deterrent, does not mean that that will be the case and that it behooves the United States to be prepared to “prevail” if attacked.

For too many years, the DoD has operated (and still does) under a National Security Space Strategy that believes that deterrence comes through “norms” and not war-winning capability or active defenses. It also believes, as her predecessors in DoD and USAF have stated, that the definition of protection and defense included such things as “consensus” and an acceptance of an “contested, degraded and operationally limited” space capability that we would simply “fight through.” I am hoping that this comment portends a shift from this failed policy and strategy within the Department of the Air Force and the Department of Defense as a whole.

A question that this comment raises, relating to this hopeful future, is when and how Secretary Wilson will direct Air Force Space Policy documents to change their tune regarding such items as the code of conduct mentioned by Senator Heinrich. Currently in Air Force Policy Directive 13-6 Space Policy, it states that the Air Force will approach “protection” by conducting space activities in a manner consistent with international law, treaties, and non-legally binding agreements such as norms, codes of conduct or other such instruments in which the US participates. “[ii] I am curious if and when this policy directive is updated, if this language will remain? It should be noted that this Air Force space policy directive was designed to connect to and aid in execution of both the NSSS and DoD Space Policy as developed from the Space Posture Review of 2009. Given a change in policy perspectives of a new Administration and Congress, it will be interesting to see if such broad language will remain regarding non-legally binding agreements such as codes of conduct.

Second, in the middle category of “nice to see again” is the apparent agreement between the new Secretary and the Chief of Staff regarding space as a current warfighting domain. According to their joint testimony submitted for the record, they stated, “Clearly, freedom to operate in space is not guaranteed. In fact, space is now a warfighting domain, similar to the more familiar air, land and maritime domains our men and women are fighting in today.”[iii] This is nice to see again, because several years ago senior Air Force and DoD officials had said that space was a contested environment currently but then backtracked a year later in speeches saying that space could be a contested environment.[iv] In fact, former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter stated at Secretary Wilson’s predecessor’s farewell ceremony just this past January that Secretary James and Secretary Carter viewed space as a “potential warfighting domain” not a current warfighting domain.[v] So seeing all four USAF senior space leaders apparently on the same page is refreshing. With this shift in viewpoint within the senior Air Force leadership, it would be wonderful to see updates to policy and see the development of a credible strategy for spacepower articulated by Secretary Wilson as the Principal DoD Space Advisor as well as Secretary of the Air Force. Capablities for active defense, that Deputy Secretary Work mentioned in passing at the 2016 Space Symposium are necessary across the counterspace spectrum if real deterrence, and real protection is to be achieved. This will be interesting to watch how the new Secretary will guide the institution forward.

Finally, the disappointment. Air Force Chief of Staff General Goldfein was asked if it was the time to create a Space Corps or space service as mentioned earlier by Rep. Rogers (R-AL) at his speech at the 2017 Space Symposium? His response was “no—the timing is not right precisely because of this transition in thinking about space from a benign environment to a warfighting domain. “Anything that leads to separating space instead of integrating it” into the overall military framework would “slow us down” though it might be considered in the future.”[vi] This answer was disappointing because of a few things. First, space has been viewed by the Air Force as a warfighting domain since the 1950s. Then Air Force Chief of Staff Thomas D. White stated “”Ninety-nine percent of the earth’s atmosphere lies within 20 miles of the surface of the earth.  it is quite obvious that we cannot control the air up to 20 miles above the earth’s surface and relinquish control of space above that altitude…and still survive.” In other words, space is not a support function to airpower as the current Air Force doctrine portrays, but rather, spacepower, independent or integrated from airpower, is what assures air superiority, when needed-as well as national survival from attack.

Given the end of the Cold War and the apparent removal of credible threats in space with the fall of the Soviet Union, some took it to mean that space was a sanctuary and “benign” and therefore spacecraft could continue to be designed for such an operating environment. Instead, space became ever more integrated into USAF and DoD operating doctrine and practice and by extension-became part of the nation’s critical defense infrastructure. Currently in 2017, reports have shown that spacepower has become intertwined beyond defense into the agriculture, banking, energy and communications sectors of American society, thus creating a vulnerability ripe for exploitation by our nation’s potential adversaries such as China and Russia. I find it hard to understand what more integration is needed before it is seen that spacepower has grown beyond a “core USAF mission” to something required for national prosperity and security broadly. Regardless if one is a proponent of a separate space corps under the Department of the Air Force or not, this answer seems a bit hollow. If the United States is to address gaps in space capabilities, strategy and policy and ever have a chance of reversing the first strike instability created by the presence of Chinese and Russian kinetic Anti-Satellite weapons (ASAT) holding our critical space infrastructure at risk, and regain space superiority (something they believe we have because of presence alone it seems), the leadership of the Air Force under Heather Wilson will need to address these issues and if Congress believes a separate service with its own funding lines not competing against other Air Force priorities is the best way to achieve those defense objectives, than it should at least be explored.

The change in Air Force leadership toward one that appears to see spacepower and space defense as a warfighting domain, one that is “no longer just an enabler and force enhancer” is promising and one that should be supported and encouraged. Many in Congress and the Administration are watching how the USAF tackles this and other concerns in national security space. If the comments of Secretary Wilson are any indication of the direction the Air Force may take with regards to the defense of the critical space infrastructure of this nation, there may be hope for the future.

[i] Marcia Smith, “Top Air Force Officials: Space is Now a Warfighting Domain,

[ii] AFPD 16-6 Space Policy, Department of the Air Force, 13 August 2013, 6

[iii] Marcia Smith, “Top Air Force Officials: Space is Now a Warfighting Domain,

[iv] Deborah Lee James, Remarks at the 32nd Space Symposium, 12 April 2016

[v] Remarks at Secretary of the Air Force Farewell Ceremony As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, Joint Base Andrews, January 11, 2017

[vi] Marcia Smith, “Top Air Force Officials: Space is Now a Warfighting Domain,


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