The Space Force moved one step closer to reality as Congress passed the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act on Dec. 17. Not only did the term “Space Force” prevail over “Space Corps,” but more importantly the new service will gain substantial acquisition authorities.

While it has not reached Trump’s dream of a separate department, the Space Force will have more control underneath the Air Force than the Marines Corps currently does under the Navy. However, there remains one major barrier to the Space Force’s ability to shape its future.

Organization

The proposed Space Force will have a chief of space operations, or CSO, reporting directly to the secretary of the Air Force and sitting on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The CSO position will be equal in status to the Air Force chief of staff. The arrangement mirrors the relationship between the commandant of the Marines Corps and the chief of naval operations within the Department of the Navy.

As a transition period in the first year, the CSO may concurrently serve as commander of U.S. Space Command. As a war-fighting organization, Space Command is not run by the Space Force. Instead, the service will take the lead on training and equipping the combatant command.

The Space Force gains status in the creation of a new assistant secretary of the Air Force for space acquisition and integration, or ASAF/SP. The position will become the service acquisition executive, or SAE, by Oct. 1, 2022, and will chair the Space Force Acquisition Council.

This makes the Air Force — with two SAEs — unique among military departments. By contrast, the Navy only has one SAE to handle acquisition matters for both the Navy and the Marine Corps.

Acquisition authorities

While Space Force leadership still reports to the Secretary of the Air Force, having its own delegated SAE proves significant. Consider the process of defining and approving programs through the “Big A” acquisition system.

First, the Space Force military staff will develop requirements, most of which needs approval by the Joint Requirements Oversight Council. That puts the CSO on an equal footing with any other service chief of staff in defining force structure.

Then, validated requirements get fed into the 5000-series “little a” acquisition process controlled by the Milestone Decision Authority. The MDA takes charge of turning requirements into a materiel solution and authorizing the program through “milestones,” such as prototyping, full-scale development and production. The MDA also approves streamlined acquisition procedures.

The MDA for the largest service programs will be handled by the Space Force acquisition executive, ASAF/SP. Smaller programs can be delegated down to the program executive officer and even to the program officer. The bulk of these acquisition authorities will reside in the Space Force. It will not have to share an SAE with the larger Air Force, whose culture and prerogatives may override the nascent Space Force. Compare this to the Marine Corps, which has to share a single SAE with the larger Navy.

The program acquisition strategies developed under a dedicated Space Force SAE will then get fed into the planning, programming, budgeting and execution process, known as PPBE. Programs approved by the SAE do not automatically get funded. The Space Force military staff must line up funding through the PPBE. Here is where the Space Force’s acquisition authorities may break down.

Budget battles

Both military staffs in the Space Force and Air Force will present their program plans and funding requests to the deputy undersecretary for management, or SAF/MG. With limited funding available, trade-offs must be made between program plans before presenting a unified front to higher levels.

Often seen as a zero-sum game, Space Force budget growth may instigate disputes if it comes at the expense of the regular Air Force. At $14 billion in the 2020 request, the space portfolio represents less than 9 percent of the Air Force total. The figure can change based on who makes the stronger case.

For comparison, the Marine Corps’ share of Navy funding has fluctuated between 15 and 29 percent. This does not include another 6 percent in “BISOG” funds controlled by the Navy but in support of Marine Corps functions.

If authorities from SAF/MG up through the secretary of the Air Force align themselves with perspectives from the traditional Air Force, then Space Force acquisitions may languish. A lack of control over funds could in effect kill new developments until they meet the Air Force’s idea of capabilities, cost and schedule.

Unless the secretary of the Air Force takes a more active role than she has historically, nearly the whole of Space Force technology development may proceed as though it were a department equivalent to the Air Force itself. However, conflicts in the PPBE process may flair up between the Air Force and Space Force, with the larger Air Force perhaps able to dictate terms.

Eric Lofgren is an incoming research fellow at the Center for Government Contracting at George Mason University. He manages a blog and podcast on weapon systems acquisition. He previously served as a senior analyst at Technomics Inc., supporting the U.S. Defense Department’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation office.