The U.S. Air Force's 45th Space Wing successfully launched the third Mobile User Objective System (MUOS) satellite, built by Lockheed Martin, for the U.S. Navy at 8:04 p.m. Jan. 20, 2015, from Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. MUOS is the next generation narrowband military satellite communication system that supports a worldwide, multi-service population of users in the ultra-high frequency band. United Launch Alliance
Photo Caption & Credits

The Asset Transfer Fight

Aug. 27, 2021

There was an internal DOD struggle over which space capabilities and assets will leave the Army and Navy and become part of Space Force.

The transfer of space-related units and functions from the Army and Navy to the Space Force will begin by Oct. 1, but some space-related functions may never move over.

More than a dozen interviews with high-level Space Force officials and Pentagon insiders from the last administration indicate the Joint Chiefs struggled over space assets and personnel, with the Army and Navy resistant to giving up those forces. Spokesmen for the services declined to comment or to publicly reveal which units, functions, and missions will begin transferring to the Space Force at the start of fiscal 2022, but those most likely to remain behind are known.

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The transfer of Air Force space-related assets was directed by the National Defense Authorization Act of 2020, Subtitle D, “United States Space Force Act,” which redesignated the Air Force Space Command and gave the Secretary of the Air Force authority to transfer personnel to the Space Force.

That was the easy part.

But determining which personnel, units, and missions would be removed from the other services was left up to the services and the Secretary of Defense to hash out. 

“This has been a looming dispute for many, many years,” said 25-year Air Force veteran and Heritage Foundation defense analyst John Venable. “As soon as the Space Force … became part of the day-to-day conversation in the Trump administration, you could kind of see that each of the services had their own tepid response to that,” Venable added.

Long lists of functions, units, and missions across the services started to pass through the highest offices of national security space at the Pentagon.

In the Army, space-related units listed include Army Space and Missile Defense Headquarters at Redstone Arsenal, Ala., and its associated satellites, the 1st Space Brigade in Fort Carson, Colo., and a battery of some 500 Army SA-40 space specialists.

We’re just going to keep working on it. And some services may retain their own space capabilities. That may happen

Lt. Gen. Nina M. Armagno, director of staff, headquarters U.S. Space Force

For the Navy, space-related units include the Naval Information Warfare Systems Command in San Diego, Naval Satellite Operations Center in Point Mugu, Calif., and the space experts at the Naval Research Lab in Washington, D.C. The Navy operates about 13 satellites, including the five-satellite constellation known as the Mobile User Objective System (MUOS), an ultrahigh frequency communications satellite that only became fully operational in 2019.

“I’ve seen charts in the past, lots and lots of lists of either units or missions or different ways of cutting it,” a former high-level national security space official told Air Force Magazine recently.

“It depends on [what] you’re counting,” the former official said. “Ninety-plus percent were agreed [upon] to either stay or just don’t go. It was really these handful of mission areas … that were sticking points.”

The Air Force Was Clean

The Space Force’s “birth certificate,” as Chief of Space Operations Gen. John W. “Jay” Raymond often calls the 2020 NDAA, ordered the transfer of Air Force space assets to the Space Force. By the summer of 2021, that process was mostly complete.

“We transferred a bunch of U.S. Air Force organizations as well, some that were doing intel and cyber,” Lt. Gen. Nina M. Armagno, director of staff at headquarters U.S. Space Force, said at a July 1 Air Force Association event.

“They came over from the Air Force within 180 days. Why so quick? Because Secretary [Barbara] Barrett told us to do it in 180 days. And, of course, we said, ‘Yes, ma’am.’”

Armagno said the Space Force was only working on “a couple” of Air Force-related intelligence organizations that must still stand up, including a National Space Intelligence Center that will be co-located with the National Air and Space Intelligence Center at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.

The former Pentagon official said there is good reason for the transfer process to be deliberate.

“You’re moving people and you’re moving missions, you’re building units. You don’t want to mess that up,” the former official said. “Air Force was clean. Everything would come over.”

Raymond’s task as the first Chief of Space Operations is to build a lasting service, to consolidate the space components once, and get the organization set. 

“It’s not going to be something strategic, it’s going to be a thorn in their side, particularly for General Raymond because, I mean, he’s the first guy, right?” the former official said. “Part of the argument for Space Force was to consolidate and so, if the Pentagon can’t come to an agreement on what consolidation looks like, Congress certainly isn’t going to.”

Armagno said the Space Force has the authority it needs to proceed. “We don’t lack congressional authority. The services are working together,’ she said.

“There are a few units … that we don’t completely, 100 percent agree on with other services. Well, we’re just going to keep talking. We’re just going to keep working on it. And some services may retain their own space capabilities. That may happen.”

Where to draw lines around ground-based space operations may be one point of contention in deciding which Army and Navy space assets and missions transfer to Space Force. Army network management technicians test a Ground Antenna Transmit and Receive satellite communication terminal at Fort Carson, Colo., on Dec. 9, 2020. First Sgt. Steve Segin/USA

The Navy

Heather Wilson, who was Air Force Secretary from 2017 to 2019, was the first to hash out the transfer of space assets from the other services, coming to an agreement with Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer.

“There are about 13 satellites that are operated by the Navy there, special communication satellites, and while Richard Spencer and I were both in the Pentagon, we actually signed an agreement that the follow-on to those 13 satellites, that mission would shift over to the [Space Force],” Wilson said. “There was no reason for the Navy to have such a small satellite operation.”

Wilson said the sizes of the satellites range from that of a refrigerator to a school bus, and add up to “less than 100 or so pieces of equipment.”

“It is not a large piece of the budget, not a large amount of equipment, but it does have a significant impact on all of the other forces and on the joint force,” she said.

“My guess is that is not in dispute,” Wilson said. “[The] more likely issue is where to draw lines around ground-based operations that relate to satellites or use the products from them in some way.”

The former Pentagon official said big-budget items like the MUOS constellation and follow-on will slide over to the Space Force, but “some gaps” remained in what will transfer over from the Navy.

“The Naval Research Lab had some space people,” the former official said. “So, the question was, ‘Do the space people at the Naval Research Lab go to Space Force?’ and in the end, basically, General Raymond and the CNO struck a deal, ‘just leave them there, because in the end, all the services need to be able to use space.’ So, the theory was the Navy needs to maintain some level of capability to be thinking about using space, researching the use of space.”

Wilson also suspects personnel issues are a factor in which Navy billets may change over to the Space Force in the future.

“It’s very hard to keep entire career fields developing in a small service,” she said. “It’s a lot easier if people can be assigned from a larger service than having to manage careers with small numbers. [It] makes retention and promotion and assignment a lot easier.”

Space Operations Command (SpOC) Commander Lt. Gen. Stephen N. Whiting told Air Force Magazine that the first units will start transferring into the Space Force at the beginning of fiscal 2022 in October.

“SpOC, because we’re the ‘fight-tonight force,’ we’re laser-focused on bringing over those Navy and Army satellite communications units at the beginning of FY22,” Whiting said in a telephone interview.

“Per a direction from the Secretary of Defense, those capabilities will be transferring into the Space Force and they will come to SpOC, into Space Delta 8,” he added.

The transfer of personnel is separate and voluntary.

“We will have personnel transferring from the Navy, the Army and the Marine Corps into the Space Force,” Whiting said. “Those processes are ongoing, and we’ve had really good teamwork with the Navy and the Army to make that happen.”

Associated personnel will continue doing their jobs in their home service and will be invited to join the Space Force, he said. Those who decline will rotate back to their parent service, while those who accept will continue a series of space assignments.

Whiting said the scheduled transfers of space-related functions and missions would constitute “the lion’s share” of what has been agreed upon.

“Then, there’ll be ongoing discussions in the Pentagon about any other missions as we move forward,” he noted.

The headquarters of Naval Information Warfare Systems Command (formerly Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command) in San Diego, is one Navy function that will move to Space Force. According to Gen. David Thompson, vice chief of space operations, more transfers will be announced soon. Kara McDermott/USN

Army Missile Defense Holds Out

The Army is a massive consumer of space intelligence; ground forces rely on it for navigation and targeting and missile defense forces rely on it for early warning. While the Air Force launches satellites, the Army manages many payload operations.

So it should not be surprising that, in the waning days of the Trump administration, the greatest resistance to giving up space assets came from the Army over missile warning.

“Space Force said that is literally a space mission,” the former Pentagon official said. “We fly those satellites, we operate those satellites. We provide the global warning for missiles. So, we should inherit that—move that mission over to us and we’ll just provide you with the service.”

Trust broke down. Arguments ensued. “That turned into all the Joint Chiefs fighting over whether they’re going to pick the Army or the Space Force,” the former official said. “That was the biggest single open festering wound … between regional and national missile warning stuff.”

The Army argued it needed to keep the assets to ensure mission success.

“There’s a … perception that sometimes the Army doesn’t get the support it needs from the Air Force,” the former official said. “They’re concerned about the same thing [with] the Space Force, [that it] won’t provide tactically relevant space capabilities that the Army actually needs, and wants to just focus on the sexy stuff that the space guys, the space nerds want to go focus on.”

Gen. James H. Dickinson, head of U.S. Space Command and former commander of the Army’s Space and Missile Defense Command, told Air Force Magazine in a statement that he has all the Army satellites he needs.

“USSPACECOM is able to meet our mission by employing capabilities delivered to the combatant command by all of our functional and service components,” he said. “Transferring the Army SATCOM assets to the Space Force will continue to provide me the capability to provide global communications to the Joint force.”

U.S. Army Sgt. Maj.Donnel Cabanos (seated center) teaches troops how to conduct operational exercises at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., in April. The 32nd Army Air and Missile Defense Command is one of the Army’s space-oriented units. Spc. Amber Cobena/USA

A National Security Concern?

The problem with refusing to integrate the Army’s space units, explained the Heritage Foundation’s Venable, is duplication and the risk that the Space Force fails to achieve its overarching objective: to consolidate the military’s space functions into one well-managed military service.

“This is a political football inside of DOD, and it’s going to take an act of the Secretary and likely the President to come in and weigh in and say, ‘Yes, you will transfer these assets,’” Venable said. “If you understand the parochial nature of this, you’ll understand why they want to do it. It’s power. It’s money. But it’s also feeding their respective teams the information and the collection needs that they need on a day-to-day basis.”

In the end, Venable said, a failure to consolidate America’s military space functions into one service is a national security concern. More than 60 federal agencies and organizations have a role that touches military space acquisition, he said. Consolidation  was the main argument for creating a Space Force. 

“The Chinese and the Russians will still be able to exploit the seams within that command and control matrix,” Venable said. Disparate command and control systems could put U.S. space assets in danger.

“When you say, ‘I have a threat, I need to move it,’ how many different chains on how many different sequences do you have to go through in order to make that move happen, in order to either collect or to defend, or in an offensive sense, to take action on another entity?” he asked. And the answer is inside of the [Office of the Secretary of Defense]. … As long as the services continue to hold onto their individual assets, that’s going to continue to be a problem.”

The Army’s Space and Missile Defense Command at Redstone Arsenal, Ala., is a high-priority center of expertise that should transfer to the Space Force, Venable argued.

“There’s just a significant number of very talented folks, key organizations, and the assets are also very important,” he said. “The Army is going to do everything they can, including rename their organizations” to prevent anyone from assessing their functions and “pull … out, lock, stock, and barrel,” the service’s space functions.

Venable calls for congressionally mandating all space experts in other services become part of the Space Force, “In order to make this truly a central hub for the Department of Defense, where they do it all, they know it all, and they can defend it all in space,” he stated. “To take action when action is due, then those assets need to move over.”

At a July event held by AFA’s think tank, the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, Space Force Vice Chief of Space Operations, Gen. David D. Thompson, said some Army missile defense functions will transfer, but he did not provide a timeline.

“We’re finalizing our transfer plans with the Army and the Navy for the transfer of missions and functions, some specific transfer of satellite communications missions and functions,” he said. “And we’ve begun early planning with the Army for some follow-on transfer of some missile warning functions.”

“When I left the Army,” the service’s position was, ‘No, we’re not going to transfer any” SA-40 space specialists, the former official said. But strategy hasn’t been the top priority at the highest levels of the Pentagon. “I see the flip side, the Army has got some legitimate points … it’s not just the Army being obstinate,” he insisted. The Army  legitimately needs to retain its ability to directly downlink missile warnings in theater to defend ground forces.

“I don’t think the Space Force is going to fail,” if 10 percent of space operators don’t transfer from the Army, he offered, but admitted, “It may not be optimal, it may produce a little more duplication or inefficiency.”