The Space Force and necessary reform

To protect America from foreign adversaries, assure America's military and civilian access to space, and keep faith with our proud past in space, President Trump last month announced he is directing the Defense Department to "immediately begin the process" of creating a "Space Force," which would become a sixth branch of military service.

The idea is intriguing but susceptible to problems we encountered when our state and non-state adversaries evolved from fighting in formation to asymmetric warfare, fomenting insurgencies, seeding terrorism, and embracing modalities like cyber-attacks on infrastructure.

Imagine that we continued on our current path, forming new organizations – civilian and military – to tackle space-related deployments, contingencies, reconnaissance, operations, and intelligence-gathering.  What would that look like?

Along present lines, we would essentially keep developing new technologies, testing them, and deploying them, but using present federal acquisition, procurement, contracting, and oversight practices.  What does that mean?

It means we would have shiny new agencies with shiny new capabilities but suffer potentially fatal process lapses and problems, chokepoints, back-ups, delays, dysfunction, and foreign penetration of our back-office functions.

Put differently, we would miss the forest for the trees, miss the national security mission for process back-up, eroding efficiencies, or worse – outright malfunction and theft of technology – all tied to making it all work. 

What is the use of having widely deployable and highly capable, big and small, long- and short-duration satellites if they cannot be efficiently produced; cannot be reliably launched from sovereign American launch locations, by a range of trusted American companies; or cannot be made secure from foreign access, copying, reverse-engineering, or sabotage?  The answer is zero.

So what should be done to make the president's vision a reality – and protect the country from unintended consequences, the creeping dysfunction within federal acquisition, procurement, contracting, and oversight processes? 

What can be done to protect our burgeoning private space-related industries, upon which federal military and civilian launch will depend, from foreign influence, penetration, manipulation, and unnecessary risk? 

Three basic things. 

First, congressional leaders should consider, in tandem with other space initiatives, a comprehensive General Accounting Office study of federal space-based procurement processes to improve efficiency, widen launch options, reconsider risk tolerances, eliminate bureaucracy, and trim oversight costs.  Results should drive space-related procurement reform legislation.

Second, the administration should undertake independently a similar study, staying clear of conflicts of interest created by the influence of big launch companies and foreign-owned or dominated interests, as well as the inexorable vortex of federal bureaucrats.  Leaning on outside experts, smaller companies, and proven leaders, this study should guide ramped up regulatory reform tied to space.

Third and finally, a redoubled effort should be undertaken to protect national security and the U.S. economy by anticipating and eliminating possible foreign-dominated companies from a sector that is necessarily vulnerable, increasingly important, and inherently tied to future American advances in space. 

Such a review could be conducted by some combination of the Pentagon, the Intelligence Community, NASA, the FAA, and the White House.  Sometimes national security and economic advantage are tightly linked, as most in Congress and this White House recognize.  This is especially so in the space-related sector, manufacture to launch, since so much depends on this sector's success.

So, net-net, there is new hope in America's rising emphasis on military and civilian space, but beware the obvious bureaucratic and asymmetric threats that sneak up behind a shiny new organizational and even technological advances.  Legislative and regulatory reform can be the pivot point – toward major success or accidental failure.

Robert Bunn, former senior law enforcement attorney in Fla. and commentator on national issues, has special interests in rocketry, intelligence, international affairs, and national security.  He holds multiple degrees from Harvard University and is author of two books, one of which is The Panama Canal Treaty: Its Illegality and Consequential Impacts.

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