Can a Space Corps sustain actual personnel?

The Space Corps has gotten a rough go in the last year. The proposed military branch conjures up imagines of astronauts in camouflage or soldiers with ray guns and was the butt of more than one late night talk show joke.

The provision creating a Space Corps was taken out of the 2018 defense authorization bill after the White House, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and some senators thought the idea was premature. But the Corps has found new life after President Trump made a comment about how the military might need a branch dealing specifically with space, even though his administration opposed the idea last year.

But is the space domain mature enough to handle an actual body of service members and truly sustain a career path for a whole service’s worth of men and women?

Former U.S. Strategic Command chief Robert Kehler told the House Armed Services Committee on March 15 that it’s probably not.

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“I think that developing the uniformed piece of this is an important question as we go forward. I think that the services across the board have said they need to be bigger for lots of reasons. I think space falls into that category,” Kehler said.

Kehler said there is no doubt the military needs uniformed people working the space domain, but at this point the Space Corps might be a dead end career path considering how nascent and small the space domain is.

“There’s a lot that has been done inside the Air Force, but what has not happened, I think, is that [space] has not gotten the consistent priority treatment that it needs to include a management of personnel that makes non-aviators warfighters through the processes that the warfighters go through,” Kehler said. “I think it’s doable. I think it requires a deliberate action on the part of the Air Force. And I think it involves helping this hybrid command called Air Force space command that has the pieces that it needs to grow up some more too, with some acquisition of authorities and other things.”

Basically, Kehler thinks a Space Corps needs to think hard about how it will manage personnel, where they will be placed, how they will be ordered, if there are enough jobs for people to do and enough for higher level leaders to manage.

While it would be nice to free people working in space from Air Force requirements and training that have nothing to do with their jobs, those details just haven’t been worked out.

It’s not that Kehler is saying no to a Space Corps, but rather that there needs to be much more foresight into how personnel will be managed.

Doug Loverro, former deputy assistant defense secretary for space policy, backed Kehler up on that point.

“The career path for a submariner is different than the career path for a surface warrior, is different than the career path for a naval aviator. As it should be. Those domains are different. They require different skills, different training, different experience. The same is true for space. Space is a different kind of domain than air. We don’t need to move it out of the Air Force in order to go ahead and create the space-smart civilian and military force that we need,” he said.

Loverro said the personnel needed for the space domain isn’t likely to grow and therefore opposes a Space Corps.

“Today, the Air Force Space Corps is made up of 2,000 individuals who are called space operators. They have a specific identification code. There are 2,000 of them, that’s all there ever will be. You can’t build a corps out of that. There are another 3,000 who do space acquisition who are not identified as space warriors, who should be because they have the skills there, they’re distributed between the National Reconnaissance Office and the [Air Force Space Corps] and Missile Systems Center,” Loverro said.

In comparison the smallest service, the Marine Corps, has 186,000 active duty troops.

So for now, the experts think the space domain should stay with the Air Force until more kinks are worked out.

But that leaves the Air Force with two top priorities, air and space.

The Air Force is trying to reflect that in its 2019 budget. The 2018 budget request has a 19 percent increase in spending for space.

However, when asked about Trump’s comments on creating a Space Corps during a House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee hearing March 15, the Air Force secretary and chief of staff were tight lipped.

“As the president said yesterday, the new National Defense Strategy for space recognizes that space is a warfighting domain. We appreciate the president and the vice president’s leadership on space. Nowhere is that leadership more clear than the president’s budget,” Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said. “This budget accelerates our efforts to deter, defend and protect our ability to operate and win in space. There are a number of different elements of this with respect to the space portfolio.”

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfien said he looks forward to the dialogue on the issue.