Space Force’s First Battle Is With the US Army

by Tara Copp via Defense One

The Army’s Kestrel Eye satellite provides imagery from low Earth orbit, where Space Force officials are looking to expand operations. (U.S. ARMY)

The fight for control of space is brewing — not the competition with China, but between the Space Force and the Army.

Over the last several months, Space Force officials have been negotiating with their Army and Navy counterparts over what missions and personnel will transfer into the newest branch, which is part of the Department of the Air Force. 

To date, no agreements have been signed on what satellites or units will transfer over, though handshake deals and draft plans indicate that some progress is being made. 

On the Navy’s end, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday announced in April that the service would transfer 13 satellites, including its five Mobile User Objective System comsats — not to Space Force, but to U.S. Space Command, a combatant command, which would allow the Navy to retain a role in their operation. 

On personnel transfers, Gilday said he and Chief of Space Operations Gen. Jay Raymond had agreed “on a handshake” but the service is still working on those details. 

“All of the services need to help grow the Space Force,” Gilday said. “There’s always a little bit of friction, but I just haven’t experienced much, as a service chief, with respect to that transformation.” 

Within the Army, the reaction has been a bit different.

The service’s official communications about space have largely been about its own capability growth, and the importance of retaining an organic space capability within the Army, including in an area that will likely become an important part of the Space Force’s portfolio as well: low Earth orbit. 

The small satellites that operate between 100 and 1,240 miles above ground are rapidly multiplying, taking on tasks that once belonged exclusively to bigger, more expensive spacecraft flying far higher. Their missions include ground communications, countering electronic warfare, and spotting missile launches. The Army is developing its own LEO imagery satellite dubbed Kestrel Eye.

Last week at the McAleese Defense Conference, the Space Force’s Raymond said LEO has his eye as well. 

“Smaller satellites are becoming more operationally relevant, and as launch costs go down, there’s a role here for the Space Force in tactical-level ISR,” he said. “I really believe this is an area that we’ll begin to migrate to, because we can do it.”