Turning 4, the Space Force’s favorite word is ‘more’: 2024 Preview

By Theresa Hirchens,
Published by Breaking Defense, 29 December 2023

“And so I think, as you see new missions come on, you can presume that that means more Guardians to perform those missions, and we’ll have to adjust the strength going up,” said CSO Gen. Chance Saltzman.

WASHINGTON — Over the last six months, there has been no mistaking a louder and louder drumbeat in favor of growing the Space Force — from its mission set to its budget to its end strength. So, perhaps the key the question for the service as it enters its fourth year will be: how much growth?

With the concerns of lawmakers about costs firmly in mind, the Air Force’s original planning document for standing up the newest military service provided to Congress in February 2020 [PDF] promised: “The Space Force will be lean, agile, and mission-focused.”

And since then, those words have been the mantra for service leaders, both civilian and those in uniform. But lately, a slight reinterpretation seems to be underway that opens the door to a bigger Space Force — one with more money and more people to take on what many in the service hope to be a greatly expanded set of missions, including operations in cislunar space around the Moon.

While noting that he wasn’t “at the head of the table” when the Defense Department, the Air Force and Congress were negotiating on the creation of the Space Force, Chief of Space Operations Gen. Chance Saltzman told reporters on Dec. 13 that the key issue was minimizing administrative bureaucracy.

“The idea was lean, agile headquarters. They didn’t want a lot of bureaucracy. They didn’t want a lot of support. They wanted us to be very mission-focused. And so they didn’t want us to have cops, they wanted the Air Force to do it. They didn’t want us to have our own big [HQ] staff. They wanted us to rely on other staffs,” he told reporters in Orlando at the Space Force Association’s inaugural conference.

“But being mission-focused, as new missions are coming on, there’s growth in the missions. And there is wide support that says, ‘Hey, where the missions are going to grow, we understand you’re going to need to grow.’ And so as long as it’s focused on operations, there is an appetite for the kind of growth that we would expect,” Saltzman said.

“And so I think, as you see new missions come on, you can presume that that means more Guardians to perform those missions, and we’ll have to adjust the strength going up,” he added.

Saltzman did not specify what new missions he had in mind; nor did he quantify the increase of personnel, or the budget necessary to support them.

Commercial firm Orbit Fab in 2022 won a small Space Force contract to support its planned satellite refueling tanker to geosynchronous Earth orbit. (Graphic: Orbit Fab)

More Missions?

There are a couple areas where the Space Force’s ambitions to grow are clear.

The first is intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) — an arena where the service has spent much of the past year negotiating with the Intelligence Community about who is supposed to be doing what. To that end, the Space Force has come up with a new term of art to define what it considers its basket of those operations: “tactical surveillance, reconnaissance and tracking.” (Note that the word ‘intelligence’ has been stricken.)

“The new missionary we’re excited about is tactical surveillance, reconnaissance and tracking,” Col. Robert Davis, program executive officer for space sensing at Space Systems Command, told the Orlando conference on Dec. 13. “We’re very excited about how we leverage commercial analytics, overhead data and capabilities to get after provide information to combatant commanders and take care of their business out there in the field.”

Davis said that the command soon will issue its first solicitations for commercial imagery and/or data sources, as well as commercial data analytics to support to launch a pilot project to “help out to figure out how we can contribute to the fight.”

The Space Force already is working with the National Reconnaissance Office on new ISR satellites optimized to track moving targets on the ground in close to real-time, and the service is considering [PDF] whether space-based sensors should be developed for doing the same for airborne targets.

The other future mission area on the lips of Space Force brass over the past year is dynamic space operations — that is, operations requiring highly mobile spacecraft such as closely following adversary satellites to watch out for threatening behavior, jinking out of the path of anti-satellite weapons or potentially even chasing down adversary birds to disable them with jamming or lasing.

Such missions would require improved satellite maneuvering, as methods for extending their lifetimes on-orbit such as in-space refueling. Those same sorts of operations and technologies would be needed even more if the Space Force begins to orbit systems near the Moon to keep an eye on China’s activities there.

The service’s first request for industry input in this arena focuses on “Combat Space Mobility,” seeking “to identify potential capabilities/technologies/services,” including “rapid delivery to space,” the development of spacecraft that can “routinely” maneuver, and in-space refueling. The goal of is to generate budgetary requirements by March 2024 to insert into for the fiscal 2026 budget process. Companies have until Jan. 30 to respond.

More Self-Support?

For his part, despite the “lean” messaging, Saltzman did not even rule out some growth within the Space Force for it to take over more of its own support functions — especially given that the just-passed fiscal 2024 National Defense Authorization Act approved a separate Space Force legislative liaison, and that there is a push for the service to get its own public affairs officers. Separating some functions from the Air Force would bring the benefit of “focus and attention,” he said.

“I think it’s going to be an evolution and it’s hard to figure out exactly when you hit that tipping point of saying now we need a separate capability. I’m extremely happy with the level of support we’re getting. But, imagine as we grow in complexity, there will come a time we have to start talking about [growth] not just in the headquarter staff, but out in the field,” Saltzman elaborated.

He noted that airmen currently are undertaking a number of tasks that are critical, involving the day-to-day running of weapon systems. The question is whether that still will be feasible as the Air Force starts “optimizing for great power competition” and is “under stress.”

“Those are the kinds of things that that [Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall] is asking us to ask. Let’s ask now and make some decisions before we’re actually put into in extremis environment and we have to sort it out then,” Saltzman said.

More Money?

Of course, growth in missions and personnel will require growth in dollars to support them. The Space Force’s budget requests have been climbing at a steep angle since its inception, with Congress seemingly happy to indulge up until now — but there are signs the days of open checkbooks may be waning.

Space Force FY-24-28 funding plan by mission area.

The service asked for a whopping $30 billion in FY24, focused primarily on research and development but also for increasing its launch tempo. However, Senate appropriators in their July-passed funding bill cut about $1 billion from the request, as did their counterparts in the House. In fact, the House Appropriations Committee for the second year in a row chided the service for not budgeting realistically over DoD’s five-year planning cycle.

Further, the service’s new(ish) Comprehensive Plan shows a downward trend through FY26, but a big jump back up to above the FY24 top line in FY27 and FY28.

So it may be that any real growth is yet a ways away.

See: Original Article