WASHINGTON General David Thompson spent his last moments in uniform as he had spent the last four years: explaining what the US Space Force does.
After leaving the Pentagon for the last time on December 14, the retired vice chief of space operations, went to Indiana to deliver the winter commencement address at Purdue University, his alma mater. Before offering the standard well-wishes and career advice, Thompson gave what has become a stump speech for Space Force officials who speak publicly.
I know there’s a question running through some of your minds here right now, and that question goes something like this: The Space Force? Is that a thing? I thought it was just a Netflix series, he said in a speech on December 17.
He went on to explain that the service operates the GPS satellites that underpin the mapping applications and cell phone networks and banking systems they rely on every day. He then discussed how Space Forces and weather satellites communicate and their role in tracking objects orbiting the Earth to warn of possible collisions.
For most of Thompson’s 38-year career, these missions formed the core of US military operations in space. But as threats increase in orbit and on Earth and as commercial innovation introduces new capabilities and ways of operating, he said the role of the Space Forces will grow in the coming years.
Thompson recently sat down with C4ISRNET to discuss how the Space Force is laying a foundation for that growth and what resources are needed to support it. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
When you think back to the early days of Space Force, what were some of the most difficult aspects of setting up a new service and what went more smoothly than you expected?
Let me say first and foremost, the Air Force Space Command already conducts many operational missions every day. So, the first thing we do is try to figure out how to continue the missions, continue the programs, continue the processes, make sure that none of the missions or activities fail.
We came up with this wonderful plan, this is a wonderful plan, how to build this Space Force. And essentially, the plan says, after the law is signed, we will be given one year to plan and prepare to build the US Space Force and on the first day of the two-year anniversary of the year after the law is signed we will build a Space. Force. Well, the law says, No, you’re a Space Force on day one.
The second thing the law says, you will be established in 18 months. Now, that’s all the law says, so we have to explain the rest of what that means. But what we’re saying is, OK, we need an approved organizational structure for the entire Space Force over that 18-month period. And it has to be resourced resourced means all the people and support and other things have to be part of the plan. So probably the first big thing we did was to do that.
I think the second big success is, we got a lot of energy to change our architectural approach to space systems, moving away from a relatively small number of very capable and very expensive satellites. in the growing number of constellations where you have ten, hundreds, maybe one day. thousands of satellites, each of them cheaper and less capable, but as a whole, the constellation is just as capable, maybe even more capable. And the more durable, because it is difficult to damage under attack.
So if you think about the design that we’ve done, it’s already in the middle for missile warning and missile tracking. We do the design for the space data networks that are going on today. And also looking for other ways to do it. I think that can be done under the Air Force Space Command, but I don’t think it’s going to be easy without a Space Force and a service chief there saying we need to move in this direction.
And then the third is to bring in organizations and people from other services. Now, that wouldn’t be without lumps and bumps. We have a process for inter-service transfers, as it’s called within the Department of Defense. But really, it’s designed for one or two people here, a couple of people there. For a while we were doing 700 people a year. And so we need to figure out how to do it. Like I said, it’s not without bumps in the road. But I think another success is how we’ve done this big process to bring in more people from other services.
There was a big push from Congress when the Space Force was created to improve the space acquisition system. What progress has the service made in this area?
We moved exceptionally well in some areas and not enough in others. On the one hand, people criticize us for not acting enough and on the other hand, the laws and the policies and regulations that we do not control do not allow us to act. We have some responsibility for that, but I will say, I think you’ve seen an amazing job today.
Maybe you’ve been following some of the work of the Space Development Agency and how fast they’re turning. They still have a lot of work to do to show that they will continue to do it and do it again. I would say, so far, they have shown that very clearly. But they must continue to build a track record of success.
The Space Rapid Capabilities Office in Albuquerque is the same. If you look at how quickly they’ve moved, the things they’ve delivered, they’ve done well. And then the Space Systems Command is also working on speeding up their processes. And I think they have the furthest to go because they’ve been doing this for years and many of the processes that are specifically dictated by law and policy that slow us down are programs that they’ve created. But they are trying hard to speed up too.
In what ways has the commercial sector helped drive change in how the service thinks about buying new satellites and other space capabilities?
For many years especially in the national security space we have been building satellites the way car manufacturers built conventional coaches 100 years ago. They are unique, they are beautiful, they are expensive, they are excellent, but you build them individually. Many of these companies now have production lines for the satellites they build by the hundreds and thousands.
This does three things. It shows how to make satellites on a production line without kidding. The second thing is to lower the cost of technology. And then the speed at which it was driven.
The Space Forces budget has more than doubled since it was created. Do you expect the fund to continue to grow?
The space budget must increase because there are more missions that have migrated into space. Connectivity through space is more than traditional satellite communication and we need to put it in place. We have already talked publicly about the need for tracking and targeting systems, target movement indicator above, and target movement indicator in the air will come next. Some of the missions that are done in a bad environment or in environments where we have air superiority, they have to move to space. And so do the work to help protect our use of space and deny it to an adversary.
All of that is the growth of the mission. So the budget needs to grow. The challenge is in this environment, defense budgets are unlikely to grow as significantly in the near future as they have in the recent past. And so exactly how much progress we see will be a factor in what the nation can and will spend on defense and how much it is prepared to allocate to the Space Force.
As the service looks to improve and modernize its current architecture, officials say they want to pivot to more robust systems by 2027. What progress made by the Space Force?
I will say  perhaps an inflection point. In some places, it’s a good long way to pivot. For some, it is good to be strong in the middle and for others it is good to start. Some of that is a function of simply setting up the resources and the work to be done.
We can’t finish everything, but a missile warning, global missile tracking architecture, which can track emerging threats such as hyperglide vehicles and maneuvering at long stages and other things that are close will be completed in that timeframe. Our space data network, which will include some Space Development Agency, some commercial capabilities, and some of our own that I would say will be mid-range then, means a lot more capability there, a lot more connectivity there , but not yet the full connectivity and capacity we need. Some missions, like ground moving target indication, we need to be in good shape and maintain well, but this is still a new capability.
There is a long way to go. Many opportunities to continue doing well or many opportunities with challenges. But the first signs in terms of the way we designed these systems both in terms of cost and performance, especially performance under attack in early deliveries and early aspects of the programs to get results.
Courtney Albon is C4ISRNETs space and emerging technology reporter. He has covered the US military since 2012, focusing on the Air Force and Space Force. He reports on some of the Defense Department’s most important acquisition, budget and policy challenges.
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