U.S. Space Command's Growing Pains
The newest U.S. Combatant Command examines how it should integrate with the other combatant commands, what kinds of capabilities it needs and how to conduct mission orders.
As the unified combatant command responsible for conducting operations in, from and to space, the U.S. Space Command works to deliver space combat power for joint and the combined force; defends U.S. interests in space with its allies and partners; and deters conflict—and if necessary, will defeat aggression. The Defense Department stood up the command’s functional aspects shortly after its establishment in August 2019 so that it could perform this mission right away. The Space Command is now considering how to effectively integrate its functional components with its service components to adroitly execute orders from its commander at the operational level of war.
“We're able to do what we need to do today through the existing functional components of CFSCC [Combined Force Space Component Command) at Vandenberg and the Joint Task Force Space Defense (JTF-SD) at Schriever, but we are looking at how do we do this in the long term,” explained Lt. Gen. John Shaw, USSF, deputy commander, U.S. Space Command, speaking during a December 10 virtual Mitchell Institute event.
At the command for over a year, Gen. Shaw has already witnessed “tremendous change” across the space enterprise as the command, the greater U.S. Space Force and the Defense Department combine with the other services and commands to provide military defense in space. However, he sees room to grow as the command expands its role.
“We are only now just tapping into the potential of both of those organizations [the U.S. Space Command and the U.S. Space Force] to assist in joint warfighting, protecting and defending the space domain, and providing and enabling space capabilities for all joint warfighters,” Gen. Shaw said.
As one of the 11 U.S. Combatant Commands, Space Command has a unique area of responsibility (AOR) to conduct its fighting operations: 100 kilometers above sea level on Earth and extending indefinitely—which makes it a so-called astrographic command. The command is grappling with how to exactly grow and coordinate its activities across this great AOR.
“That's a large AOR,” he exclaimed. “The relevant part of that to us is getting larger all the time as we look further and further out from the surface of the Earth. We are responsible for that AOR in which there are threats, where adversaries could be operating, and we have the responsibility to protect and defend capabilities that are becoming increasingly important to joint warfighters in the terrestrial spheres. And that really is the core of a problem statement for us, on what does this mean, how do we organize the command, what does it mean to be a supported and supportive combatant command within that AOR for those activities, and how do we grow the integration with other combat commands to make that happen. But at the same time, we cannot not lose focus on our primary function, which is to provide space capabilities down to the joint warfighters.”
To be successful, the Space Command must rely on all of the military branches, the deputy commander emphasized.
“Some might think of [us] as just the warfighting arm of U.S. Space Force,” he said. “U.S. Space Command is not that. We need the capabilities of all of the services. We need integration with all of the services to make sure that we are providing space capabilities to joint warfighters in the terrestrial domains, but also to leverage everything that all of the other services can bring to meet [Army] General [James] Dickinson's missions, which is my boss, the commander of Space Command.”
Gen. Shaw referenced the use of Navy and Army capabilities as an example. “The Navy may have some terrific radars on some of its vessels that are capable of reaching up into beyond the atmosphere and tracking objects in orbit,” he offered. “We can use that capability. The Army may have some sort of a similar capability to conduct electromagnetic warfare that could extend into the space domain. And Gen. Dickinson needs that capability. Does that mean now that U.S. Space Command has to have ownership of such capabilities? Absolutely not. This is how we're going to function as a globally integrated department.”
He noted that the command has its service components—such as the Army’s Space and Missile Defense Center in Huntsville, Alabama—and at its commanders’ conference a few weeks ago in Colorado Springs the command’s leaders brought all of those component commanders together to discuss what capabilities they are bringing in from their respective services. “We needed all of them,” Gen. Shaw noted, speaking about the capabilities offered. “[And we are thinking about] how do those service components actually operate in terms of being given orders as the functional components like we see in the other combatant commands. We are actually looking at exactly how we would kind of transition the service component structure to a joint functional component structure. We are looking at a way to make this look more like other combat commands, where we kind of normalize that and have service components.”
In addition, the Space Command is examining how it will operate in conjunction with the other U.S. combatant commands over the long term, especially when adversaries are moving against U.S. space-based assets.
“How do we ensure we can continue to deliver those space-based capabilities if they are under attack?” he asked. “[And if they are under attack], how they degrade gracefully rather than all at once. It's a huge responsibility. That is our role from a macro sense as a supportive role to other combat commands. But in order to do that, we may need other combat commands to be supporting the U.S. Space Command. For example, if there is an adversary vessel at sea that is jamming on our important C2 [command and control] links on one of our satellites, which is in our AOR, does Gen. Dickinson have the ability to do something about that ship? Probably not. Does the geographic combatant commander in whose AOR the enemy vessel is conducting activity have the capability? Probably. So, that becomes a supporting operation. And I can multiply that example by many, many others on how we need to work together in a mutually supportive way among the combatant commands.
“Our method of modern warfare today at the Department of Defense relies on space,” he added. “It's how we project power across the planet. It's how we do things, it's how we do precision targeting, and it is how we do things with very low latency across the globe. We rely on space to do it. That [activity] is not slowing down, in fact, that trajectory continues upward.” And so, we have to have built [that functionality] into our plans.”