This summer, while the Congress is debating the wisdom and organizational structure of the Administration’s proposed Space Force, the Air Force will be deciding a more operationally relevant issue — the permanent home for the new United States Space Command. The temporary location for USSPACECOM is Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, and it is commanded by General Jay Raymond, who is dual-hatted as Commander, Air Force Space Command, also located at Peterson AFB.
A quick clarification of the responsibilities of a Space Force versus USSPACECOM is in order. Should a Space Force be formed, it will organize military units, provide the requisite training, and procure the equipment for space forces. As currently envisioned, it will report to the Secretary of the Air Force. USSPACECOM, as designated in the recent Unified Command Plan signed by the President, is a combatant command, such as U.S. Central Command and U.S. European Command. Its mission is to employ space forces to support all military operations, and it will defend U.S. interests in space. Like all combatant commands, it will report to the Secretary of Defense.
There are six sites being considered by the Air Force as the permanent location of USSPACECOM, including Redstone Arsenal in Alabama, Vandenberg AFB in California, Peterson AFB and Schriever AFB, both in the Colorado Springs area, and Buckley AFB, located in a suburb of Denver. The sixth site, Cheyenne Mountain AFS, Colorado, already is fully occupied and additional construction there would be challenging and expensive.
As both the Congress and the Pentagon desire to create a lean, efficient organization, key factors to consider should include proximity to the expertise and leadership of key space units, collocation with the recently developed National Space Defense Center, and availability of an experienced space technical workforce. The Air Force will use a standardized and very structured process to make this decision; however, I would assert only the bases in Colorado satisfy key objectives for the permanent location of this new command.
As mentioned, Peterson AFB is home to Air Force Space Command, which is by far the largest component command of USSPACECOM. Also at Peterson is the Air Force’s wing for providing space surveillance and space control, which is the foundation for defense of U.S. interests in space. The Air Force’s primary satellite controlling wing is at Schriever AFB, located nine miles east of Peterson AFB. A third space wing, responsible for controlling missile warning satellites, is located at Buckley AFB. Also, several Army space units are headquartered at Peterson AFB and Fort Carson, CO. The collocation of so many space units in the Colorado Springs area provides the USSPACECOM Commander and his/her staff regular face-to-face contact opportunities with the leadership of the vast majority of Air Force and Army space units. In my experience as a former commander of space units at five levels of command, I see this as a huge advantage.
Additionally, the National Space Defense Center, the hub for protection of national security space assets, is located at Schriever AFB. Should war extend into space, the current intent is the National Space Defense Center would be the command center for the USSPACECOM Commander.
In terms of available technical space expertise in Colorado, here are a few pertinent facts. Per capita, Colorado has the #1 private aerospace workforce in the nation with nearly 500 companies providing over 27,000 jobs. All told, the private and government space-related employment in Colorado is 190,000 workers. Colorado Springs alone has over 250 aerospace and defense-related companies.
To summarize, a critical mass of the Air Force and Army space units are located in Colorado, and the operations center for USSPACECOM already exists just east of Colorado Springs. Finally, USSPACECOM will need the technical support Colorado is well-postured to provide. Combined with the fact that the USSPACECOM Commander is already stationed at Peterson AFB, it seems quite logical that the Colorado Springs area is the right choice for USSPACECOM’s permanent home. The final fact: North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command also are headquartered at Peterson AFB. A close relationship is necessary between the commanders and staffs of USSPACECOM and NORAD/NORTHCOM to ensure a continuous defense of North America and the homeland.
There are other factors the Air Force will consider as it makes this important decision. Here’s hoping they see the factors mentioned here as the compelling ones in the decision process.
William L. Shelton is a former United States Air Force four-star general who last served as the commander of Air Force Space Command from January 5, 2011 to August 15, 2014. He had also been the Assistant Vice Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force and Air Staff Director.