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The Next US Space Force Design: Missions and Units for the 2030s

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  • By Tyler D. Bates

If the United States is to remain competitive and maintain its leadership in the space domain, it must leverage the full spectrum of its civil, commercial, and military space sectors as soon as possible. With US civil and commercial space sectors already making tremendous strides, it is time for the US Space Force to evaluate its role in the evolving space ecosystem.

This article will examine four new potential mission areas that the Space Force should develop and field by the 2030s: (1) in-space logistics, (2) space-to-terrestrial energy distribution, (3) cislunar space operations, and (4) global point-to-point rocket logistics. These mission areas were derived from space capabilities already in varying stages of development and would enhance US and Ally military operational capacity.

US Space Force Organization

Most Guardians and the Space Force missions they support are organized under the three field commands: Space Operations Command, Space Systems Command, and Space Training and Readiness Command, which collectively provide all the functions the Space Force needs to be an effective military service. The primary areas of responsibility for each field command are summarized below:1

  • Space Operations Command (SpOC) is the primary provider of operational space forces and capabilities to the Joint and combined force.
  • Space Systems Command is responsible for developing, acquiring, and fielding space capabilities and sustaining and maintaining space systems.
  • Space Training and Readiness Command trains and educates space professionals and performs testing and evaluation of preliminary systems to develop combat-ready space forces.

Most space deltas, squadrons, detachments, and other units organized under each field command perform mission areas inherited from Air Force Space Command. Many mission areas, such as satellite communications and space launch operations, have existed for decades.2 Now that the Space Force has more latitude to grow than Air Force Space Command ever had, it should rapidly become as capable as possible by leveraging emerging space technologies to develop innovative mission areas for Space Operations Command and Space Systems Command. By achieving this in the 2030s, the Space Force could present new operational forces to keep the United States competitive in the space domain.

Space Operations Command’s Potential Future Mission Areas

The current force design provides combat power projection, information mobility, and space domain awareness to the Joint and combined force.3 The next force design will likely include an evolution of Space Operations Command’s existing mission areas and the establishment of new mission areas. By the 2030s, SpOC should create two new space deltas. The first would perform space sustainment functions, specifically in-space logistics and space-to-terrestrial energy distribution. The second new space delta would perform all functions related to cislunar space operations.

In-Space Logistics

In-space logistics will underpin future sustainable activity beyond Earth, allowing space forces to maneuver without regret via resupply and repair on-orbit. Companies such as Northrop Grumman, Maxar Technologies, Tethers Unlimited, Redwire, Orbit Fab, and Astroscale US Inc., are pioneering in-space servicing, assembly, and manufacturing capabilities.4 With the commercial sector leading the way for these capabilities and guidance from newly released national strategy, the Space Force will easily utilize commercial off-the-shelf technologies for its uses.5 SpaceWERX’s Orbital Prime provides a great start for this line of effort.6

Future in-space logistics infrastructure will likely comprise a mixture of privately and publicly owned systems, benefiting all space operators. Space Operations Command should eventually operate its in-space logistics capabilities, especially during wartime conditions. This will maintain the safety of civilian space operators and allow SpOC to maintain operational security for its most critical spacecraft.

By the early 2030s, SpOC should have a space sustainment space delta that would oversee its own space operations squadrons responsible for on-orbit refueling and on-orbit vehicle maintenance. This will provide US and Allied forces the ability to sustain space forces across multiple orbital regimes, from low-Earth orbit to cislunar space.

The on-orbit refueling squadron would operate propellant servicers and remote propellant depots. Propellant servicers would maneuver through and across orbital regimes to refuel propellant-depleted spacecraft on station. Propellant depots would be prepositioned at strategic orbital locations to provide fuel to propellant servicers and other spacecraft maneuvering themselves to be self-serviced. The on-orbit vehicle maintenance squadron would perform nonrefueling on-orbit services with space tugs and mobile maintainers. Space tugs would reposition active spacecraft and move nonmission-capable spacecraft to an orbital graveyard. Mobile maintainers would employ onboard sensors and robotic manipulators to inspect and repair damaged vehicle components.

Space-to-Terrestrial Energy Distribution

The crisis in Ukraine and its global ripple effects have shown the importance of energy security and independence.7 An up-and-coming capability known as space-based solar power could upend the global energy industry and enhance the energy security of the United States and its Allies and partners.8 Space-based solar power collects the sun’s energy with large yet lightweight solar panels in orbit and retransmits the energy via microwaves to a receiver on Earth.9

Space-based solar power is desirable over terrestrial-based solar power because a solar panel in a geosynchronous orbit can generate more energy than a comparable solar panel on Earth. This solar power also benefits from 24-hour access to sunlight for 99 percent of the year. In contrast, terrestrial solar power systems only work during the day and are often subject to variable weather conditions.10

The United States, United Kingdom, European Space Agency nations, China, Japan, and Australia are already researching and developing space-based solar power technologies.11 Experts predict commercially viable systems that could compete with other forms of terrestrial energy production may not reach operational status until the 2040s.12 Fortunately, tactical space-based solar power systems that generate less power than full-scale commercial systems could benefit US and Allied military operations much sooner.

In 2021, the Air Force Research Laboratory and its partners successfully conducted a ground demonstration of novel components that converted solar energy to radio frequency energy, which is an essential technology needed for space-based solar power.13 As early as 2025, the lab plans to launch an on-orbit demonstration mission to further develop technologies that will eventually be used in future large-scale systems.14

Once these technologies are spaceflight-proven, the Space Force can pursue full-scale tactical systems that are extremely mass, energy, and heat efficient.15 These tactical systems will be rapidly deployable and will be able to provide energy services to forward operating bases, expeditionary forces, and mobile units.16 With near-continuous access to energy distributed from orbit, these terrestrial forces would not need to rely on local energy grids or bulky diesel generators, which would be vulnerable to terrestrial attacks.

Cislunar Space Operations

The United States and China are currently leading competing multination efforts to send robotics and humans to the Lunar South Pole. The US effort, the Artemis program, led by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), aims to send no less than 10 landings to the Lunar South Pole in conjunction with international partners over the next few years.17 The Chinese Lunar Exploration program has similar goals. According to the Deputy Director of the China National Space Administration, Wu Yanhua, China aims to establish an unmanned research station on the Lunar South Pole by 2027.18

The true benefit of exploring the Moon lies in locating its material and energy resources.19 The most important lunar resource is water, discovered in large, concentrated quantities in permanently shadowed craters near the lunar poles.20 Water is expensive to lift into space in bulk quantities. Therefore, the discovery of water reserves on the lunar resource for immediate use drastically reduces the cost of going to and operating on the Moon. Helium-3, iron, titanium, thorium, uranium, potassium, and rare earth elements also exist in significant concentrations across the lunar surface.21 Moreover, the lunar poles also contain terrain with access to near-continuous sunlight for power generation.22

These resources will prove essential for long-term lunar operations and the future industrialization of the Earth-Moon system.23 The United States should not cede access to this emerging economic zone of activity to nations notorious for claiming territory and resources by force or threat of force such as Russia or China.

Therefore, the United States should work with its Allies and partners to ensure mutual security and encourage movement into key areas in the space domain.24 This will require the Space Force to deploy mission-enabling capabilities that ensure flight safety for those operating in cislunar space or across the lunar surface.25 These capabilities include satellite communications (SATCOM), position, navigation, and timing, space domain awareness, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) space systems.26

Space Force’s cislunar SATCOM and position, navigation, and timing services would provide national security space users and mission partners with jam-resistant links and antispoofing solutions to ensure uninterrupted coverage. This will ensure that operations in cislunar space or on the Moon can continue despite attempts to interrupt communications and navigation signals.

Similarly, Space Force’s cislunar space domain awareness and ISR space systems would monitor activities in cislunar space or on the Moon to attribute actions to actors and provide indications and warnings of potential threats or hazards. Space Operations Command should have a cislunar space operations space delta dedicated to performing satellite communications, position, navigation, and timing, space domain awareness, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, and other mission areas far beyond terrestrial orbit. This would centralize funding, training, and other resources necessary to consolidate support for cislunar space operations.

In early 2022, the first Chief of Space Operations General John W. “Jay” Raymond stated that operational cislunar space capabilities will be needed in the next 5-10 years.27 Fortunately, the Air Force Research Laboratory is already working with commercial partners to develop and demonstrate initial capabilities on and around the Moon. These prototype capabilities include a prototype position, navigation, and timing network set to launch to the Moon by 2023 and the Oracle spacecraft that will demonstrate in-space space domain awareness capabilities near the Moon by 2025.28

Space Systems Command Potential Future Mission Area

Space Systems Command’s mission is to rapidly develop and deploy innovative solutions to support the nation’s global and on-orbit objectives. The Space Force’s space launch capabilities are essential to this mission. Space Launch Delta 30 oversees western launch operations, and Space Launch Delta 45 oversees the eastern launch operations. While the Space Launch Deltas initially belonged to the Space Operations Command, they are now aligned under Space Systems Command.

Current launch capabilities overseen by these units are predominantly limited to putting space systems into orbit. Now that reusable rockets are flight proven to be reliable and cost effective, both space launch deltas will soon be able to support next-generation rocket capabilities and an overall expansion of Space Systems Command’s Assured Access to Space portfolio.29 By the 2030s, the command’s space launch deltas should use reusable rocket technologies to field global point-to-point rocket logistics systems.

Rocket Logistics

The arrival of reusable heavy launch vehicles has led several companies to develop global point-to-point rocket logistics. This is because rocket logistics, also known as rocket cargo, will be able to provide transportation of considerable amounts of cargo from nearly any point in the world to almost any other point in the world in about an hour’s worth of flight time, perhaps as early as the 2030s.30 US Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM) and the Air Force Research Lab are working with commercial partners to rapidly develop rocket logistics capabilities for use in military applications by the next decade.31

In October 2020, USTRANSCOM revealed it was working with SpaceX and XArc to investigate the viability of rocket logistics as a capability.32 Since then, USTRANSCOM has also signed research and development agreements with Blue Origin. Rocket Lab, and Sierra Space to develop rocket logistics capabilities.33 Publicly funded investments such as these will serve as a demand signal to incentivize further development of rocket logistics capabilities by the commercial sector. If these efforts are successful, the first commercially owned rocket logistics vehicles may soon routinely support US objectives and private customer needs across the globe, thereby establishing a new affordable mode of transportation.

The Air Force owns and operates cargo aircraft in support of its rapid global mobility mission. Therefore, the Space Force should own and operate its own rocket logistics vehicles. This would grant the service direct control over how, when, and where rocket logistics are employed to serve a diverse base of Department of Defense customers and partners. Service-owned rockets would also allow the Space Force to employ rapid-launch capabilities to reconstitute depleted space forces quickly.

Moreover, the Space Force could implement modifications and upgrades that may otherwise not be available in civilian-owned vehicles such as secure communications systems, robust position, navigation, and timing receivers, defensive countermeasures, cybersecurity capabilities, and integration into Joint all-domain command and control systems operated by US and Ally forces. This will ensure rocket logistics supporting DoD objectives are resilient and agile enough to transport time-critical supplies to flashpoints nearly anywhere in the world at a moment’s notice. Merging the service’s space-lift capabilities with the Air Force’s capabilities will increase the flexibility of the Joint and combined force and shift the rapid global mobility mission from a service function to a Department of the Air Force function.

Global point-to-point rocket logistics will also provide the Space Force with further opportunities to work alongside new and existing commercial and international partners. These partner nations will be essential for this mission area because the service will need overseas locations to host launch facilities, equipment, and personnel to make rocket logistics a truly global capability. In exchange, partner nations should be granted access to Space Force global rocket logistics and encouraged to develop comparable systems for multinational integration into the service’s rocket logistics architecture.

Conclusion

The United States of America has no intention of finishing second in space. This effort is expensive, but it pays its way for freedom and for America.

— President John F. Kennedy, November 22, 1963

Space is a source of American leadership and strength.34 With unprecedented access to space and space technologies, humanity is at a critical point in history where dozens of nation-state and nonstate actors can begin to freely operate in and beyond Earth’s orbit in the pursuit of prosperity. But not all actors have good intentions, as recent events in Ukraine and the South China Sea have shown.35 Russia and China use aggression, force, and other coercive techniques to accomplish strategic objectives. The United States cannot afford to leave space capabilities off the table when planning against these and other strategic challenges.

In-space logistics, space-to-terrestrial energy distribution, cislunar space operations, and global point-to-point rocket logistics will provide the United States and its Allies with essential strategic and tactical advantages. These mission areas will grant the Joint and combined force increased agility, resiliency, responsiveness, and lethality and support broader efforts to expand safely into cislunar space and beyond. Now is the time to invest in new advanced space capabilities and work closely with Allies, partners, and like-minded nations to ensure the United States will be ready to meet any challenges.

Captain Tyler D. Bates, USSF, is a planner at Headquarters, Space Operations Command.​

1 Lynn Kirby, “USSF Field Command Structure Reduces Command Layers, Focuses on Space Warfighter Needs,” US Space Force (USSF) Public Affairs, June 30, 2020, https://www.spaceforce.mil/.

2 “United States Space Force History,” USSF (website), n.d., accessed September 30, 2022, https://www.spaceforce.mil/.

3 “Space Operations Command (SpOC),” SpOC, accessed September 30, 2022, https://www.spoc.spaceforce.mil/.

4 “Astroscale U.S. and Orbit Fab Sign First On-Orbit Satellite Fuel Sale Agreement,” SpaceQuip Journal, January 11, 2022, https://www-spacequip-eu.cdn.ampproject.org/; and Jill McGuire, “Introducing On-Orbit Servicing, Assembly, and Manufacturing (OSAM),” NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

5 In-Space Servicing, Assembly, and Manufacturing Interagency Working Group of the National Science and Technology Council, In-Space Servicing, Assembly, and Manufacturing National Strategy (Washington, DC: The White House, April 2022), https://www.whitehouse.gov/.

6 “Space Prime,” SpaceWERX (website), n.d., accessed November 10, 2022, https://spacewerx.us/.

7 Sam Ori, “The Ukraine Crisis Is a Wake-Up Call for Energy Security,” Forbes, March 1, 2022, https://www.forbes.com/.

8 Space-Based Solar Power as an Opportunity for Strategic Security,” National Security Space Office, Report to the Director, National Security Space Office, Interim Assessment, Release 0.1, October 10, 2007, 13–14, https://space.nss.org/.

9 “Baseload Space Solar Power,” Solar Space Technologies, n.d., accessed September 30, 2022, https://www.solarspacetechnologies.com.au/.

10 Esther Katete, “Space-Based Solar Power: The Future Source of Energy?” Green Match, March 23, 2022, https://www.greenmatch.co.uk/.

11 Esther Katete, “Space-Based Solar Power”; and “Baseload Space Solar Power,” Solar Space Technologies.

12 “Space Based Solar Power, De-Risking the Pathway to Net Zero,” Frazer-Nash Consultancy, FNC 004456-52265R Issue 1B, September 2021, 16, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/.

13 Rachel Delaney, “AFRL, Northrop Grumman Demonstrate Solar to Radio Frequency Conversion,” Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), December 21, 2021, https://www.afrl.af.mil/.

14 “Arachne,” AFRL, 2022, https://afresearchlab.com/.

15 W. Neil Johnson et al., “Space-Based Solar Power: Possible Defense Applications and Opportunities for NRL Contributions,” Naval Research Laboratory, NRL/FR/7650—09-10, 179, October 23, 2009, 58–69, http://large.stanford.edu/.

16 Peter Garretson and Cody Retherford, “The Promise of Space-Based Solar Power,” American Foreign Policy Council, Space Policy Initiative, no. 1, September 2022, 5–6, https://www.afpc.org/.

17 Brian Dunbar, “NASA Outlines Challenges, Progress for Artemis Moon Missions,” NASA, Release 21-151, November 9, 2021, https://www.nasa.gov/.

18 Can Emir, “China’s Unmanned Lunar Station Will Be Ready in 2027 Amid Space Race with the US,” Interesting Engineering, December 29, 2021, https://interestingengineering.com/.

19 Paul Spudis, “Lunar Resources: Unlocking the Space Frontier,” National Space Society, from Ad Astra 23, no. 2 (Summer 2011), https://space.nss.org/.

20 Ian A. Crawford, “Lunar Resources: A Review,” The SAO/NASA Astrophysics Data System, in Progress in Physical Geography 39, 137—67, https://ui.adsabs.harvard.edu/.

21 Crawford, “Lunar Resources.”

22 Charles Wood, “Peaks of ‘Eternal’ Light,” Sky & Telescope, June 24, 2017, https://skyandtelescope.org/.

23 Crawford, “Lunar Resources”; and Wood, “Peaks.”

24 Joshua Carlson, “Spacepower Ascendant: Space Development Theory and a New Space Strategy” (Amazon Digital Services, ASIN: B08By52LFN, June 26, 2020), 79.

25 Tyler Bates, “Cislunar Mission Concepts for the Department of Defense,” Dauntless, June 2021, https://dauntlessspace.org/.

26 Tyler Bates, “SDA Industry Day—Cislunar Space SDA,” Space Systems Command Front Door, July 28, 2022, https://www.ssc.spaceforce.mil/.

27 Amanda Miller, “Space Force Foresees Need for Cislunar Space Domain Awareness within Decade,” Air Force Magazine, January 19, 2022, https://www.airforcemag.com/.

28 Risa Schnautz, “Masten Awarded Contract to Develop Positioning and Navigation Network for the Moon,” Space Ref, July 13, 2021, http://www.spaceref.com/; and Jeanne Dailey, “AFRL Awards Contract for Pioneering Spacecraft in Region of Moon,” Air Force Research Laboratory (website), November 10, 2022, https://www.afrl.af.mil/.

29 Tom Patton, “Space Mobility, a Public-Private Space Nexus, to Debut at SpaceCom 2023,” Journal of Space Commerce, August 25, 2022, https://exterrajsc.com/.

30 Brett Tingley, “The Military’s Puzzling Plan to Have SpaceX Deliver a C-17’s Worth of Cargo Anywhere in an Hour (Updated),” The Warzone, October 13, 2020, https://www.thedrive.com/.

31 Inder Singh Bisht, “Sierra Space Signs Pentagon Initiative to Develop Rocket-Based Cargo Delivery,” TheDefensePost, September 13, 2022, https://www.thedefensepost.com/.

32 “TRANSCOM Announces Next Frontier for Logistics—Space,” US Transportation Command Public Affairs, October 8, 2020, https://www.amc.af.mil/.

33 Sandra Erwin, “Rocket Lab Signs on to U.S. Military’s ‘Rocket Cargo’ Program,” Space News, September 6, 2022, https://spacenews.com/; and Bisht, “Sierra Space.”

34 Joseph R. Biden, United States Space Priorities Framework (Washington, DC: The White House, December 2021), https://www.whitehouse.gov/.

35 Steven Lee Myers and Amy Qin, “Both Sides of Taiwan Strait Are Closely Watching Ukraine’s Crisis, New York Times, February 7, 2022, http://www.nytimes.com/.