Each spring, the military space community becomes enamored with three events: the release of the president’s budget request in order to track spending priorities; the Satellite trade show in Washington, D.C.; and the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, which serves as an annual reset on the direction the Air Force is headed.
Amid this flurry of activity is a period of self-reflection, and this year that reflection is especially needed.
Last fall, Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., head of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces and a leading member of Congress on the intersection of the military and space, suggested starting a Space Corps.
The idea was largely scoffed at in the Pentagon.
Rogers — correctly — identified two major problems Department of Defense faces with space. The first is operations, as China, Russia and others become more aggressive in their action on orbit. The second is acquisition.
How much work does the Pentagon need in those areas? Well, the Air Force has likely improved its operations in recent years, but it’s impossible to know for sure because so much of the threat to space assets is classified.
But the acquisition data is more transparent. And while major satellite programs appear largely on track, serious problems still plague the Pentagon.
FAB-T, the satellite terminal for protected communications and used on Air Force One, is woefully behind. The ground station for next-gen GPS satellites has been described as one of the Air Force’s worst acquisition programs. Terminals for the Navy’s MUOS satellites are barely being used while the first satellite has been in orbit for years. Inefficiencies in buying commercial satellite communications remain after years of study. And the intelligence community lost its Zuma satellite, thought to be worth more than $3 billion.
Oh, and in the meantime, the Air Force has a $500 million weather satellite, which it never launched, on display at its space acquisition headquarters.
No doubt there are questions as to how a Space Corps might solve any of these problems. After all, space is hard, the cliché goes.
But renewed conversation about a Space Corps and the role of military space should emphasize the need for a more holistic, inclusive view of space, from satellites to terminals to networks. It’s hard to imagine the much-discussed, multidomain force being as effective as possible without nailing down these trouble spots.
This spring, the specter of a Space Corps will loom. During this time of reflection, the milspace community should measure how far it has come but also how far it must go.