Space Force’s Second-in-Command Explains What the Hell It Actually Does

Hint: Think less ‘Star Wars,’ and more, well, the usual war stuff

Photo illustration; Source: U.S. Air Force

UUnless you’ve been living in a galaxy far, far away, you’ve probably heard of the newest branch of the U.S. military: the Space Force. President Trump created the new branch of the Air Force last year, declaring, “American superiority in space is absolutely vital and we’re leading, but we’re not leading by enough.”

The Space Force will be the smallest branch of the U.S. military — the Marine Corps is still more than 10 times its projected size — and will draw its personnel from current Air Force staff. The new branch will also absorb many of the Air Force’s existing responsibilities, including satellite operations and support for missile warning systems. Its first chief, General John Raymond, was sworn in last month.

So does signing up for the Space Force mean preparing to wage intergalactic battle? Not exactly. Instead, the Space Force is keeping its eyes on the stars but its feet on the ground, getting GPS information from satellites that helps the U.S. military operate in the field. We talked to Lt. Gen. David Thompson, the Space Force’s second-in-command, about the satellites his people will coordinate, avoiding space junk, and whether those new uniforms will include capes.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

GEN: What is the Space Force actually going to do?

David Thompson: It’s clear that a lot of the American public doesn’t understand what we already created.

Three quick examples of what Space Force has been doing as part of the Air Force for years. A couple weeks back you heard about the satellite colliding over Pittsburgh, PA. U.S. Space Force is the force that keeps track of all of those objects — 26,000-plus objects, some of them pieces of debris, old satellites — where they are, where they’re going, whether they pose a danger to anybody. That’s one of the things that we do today in the Space Force, and have been doing for years.

Second, in the missile attacks at [Ain] al-Asad base several weeks back, you’ll recall the Iranians fired several missiles, but our crew at Buckley Air Force Base outside of Denver, Colorado, detected missiles that launched and provided warning to those Americans and our friends and allies at al-Asad, which put them all in protective shelters. Had that not happened, we might be talking about folks that died in that attack as opposed to injury. That’s Space Force.

And then we don’t just do it for the military, but we do it for the civilian population as well. How many times have you followed the blue dot on your smartphone? Have you paid for gas at the pump or in a convenience store? Have you checked the internet via your cellphone? All of those positioning things, timing synchronization activities, occur through GPS which is a U.S. Space Force [satellite] constellation. We do that not just for the general public but for ships in the ocean, airplanes, forces in the desert. All navigate by GPS. And those are just a couple things that we do today and will continue as part of the Space Force

Briefly, what do you do as Space Force’s second-in-command?

I assist our commander and chief of space operations, Gen. Raymond, in making sure that all the people, all of the systems, and all of the forces are trained and equipped correctly and conduct operations on a daily basis from 134 locations worldwide. That includes missile warning satellites, GPS satellites, military communication satellites, the network that would track those objects around the Earth every day, a whole series of sensors on the ground, as well as the nation’s launch capability. Cape Canaveral and Vandenberg Air Force Base puts those systems into orbit.

We do all of those things every single day, have about a $12 billion annual budget, 26,000 people at 134 locations.

You mentioned Cape Canaveral. Are you also coordinating with NASA as well?

We do that every single day, but one of those things we haven’t communicated effectively over the years: Cape Canaveral is an Air Force station. It includes…I’m going to say eight to nine launch pads. Those launch pads launch Air Force rockets, commercial rockets, NASA rockets. But that’s a U.S. Space Force-owned and operated enterprise, that’s not a NASA enterprise. NASA has a space center next door where they used to launch the space shuttle from, where they launched the moon missions, but every interplanetary probe that NASA has launched since its birth except one flew on an Air Force or Space Force rocket.

Going forward, will you be working with Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos on the commercial side?

Absolutely. It is great to see the commercial investment in space. We already work pretty closely with Elon Musk and SpaceX. We’re working on some contract things with Jeff Bezos [the owner of Blue Origin aerospace]. It’s not just the launch companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin, but a lot of the large [satellite] constellations that are in development. We’re working with the owners and operators of those companies to see their capability and their technologies.

What would a typical deployment look like? What are the major threats? Why is Space Force relevant when it seems like the U.S. military is constantly being pulled into counterinsurgency operations in the Middle East?

Any of our joint forces, whether they’re involved in counterinsurgency operations, routine daily operations, large-scale conflict, which we hope we deter but have to be prepared for — they need those navigation, position, and timing services provided by GPS. They’ve got to be able to pass information and data and all sorts of command-and-control information at any point in time. Our satellites support that need.

We discussed the missile launches out of Iran. You know in the past that North Korea misbehaves in that regard. We see all those [missiles] and report them out every single day.

What has changed is: We have to prepare for all threats to the nation. Potential adversaries like Russia and China are flexing their muscles, and they’ve made it clear they intend to remove our ability to use space if it comes to conflict. That’s one of the biggest reasons for the creation of the U.S. Space Force: to prepare for and ensure they can’t do that in a crisis.

It seems a lot of people think Space Force was created to go up against Russia and China in some sort of intergalactic battle. How much truth is there in that?

So half of that is correct. One of the driving reasons for the creation of the Space Force is the threat we face with Russia and China in space. I know the vision out there is Star Wars or Star Trek or battling in the galaxy. But for us today in the U.S. Space Force, if it doesn’t matter to soldiers on the ground, sailors at sea, airmen in the air — if it doesn’t matter to them, then it doesn’t matter to us.

So yes, it’s in the space domain. But for us it remains focused on our commanders in the field. So that’s why we’ve gone there — not because we’re battling for control of the moon or Mars, but because we have to ensure space capabilities are there for the folks on the ground.

Space Force has been politicized and branded as a Trump initiative. Gen. Raymond also mentioned this was the president’s vision. When did the idea of Space Force first come into being? Does this trace back to the Gulf War?

The space age dawned in the 1950s and has grown up over the decades. In the early years it was used for strategic purposes: intelligence collection and some other things for our national leaders. But especially about the time of the first Gulf War and invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and then Desert Storm in 1991, we began to be able to take space systems and provide capabilities to troops on the ground. It was at that point that we began to work closely with the services in ensuring that all the way down to the tactical edge they had the capabilities they needed.

That continued over the years. Obviously after 9/11 the need to continue that related to Afghanistan, Iraq, and other places. We’ve been doing that for two decades.

Just to clarify, is it fair to say it’s a Trump initiative?

It was actually an initiative of all national leadership. The conversations about the need to address threats in space began in 2014 in the previous administration. The discussion increased in 2017 and 2018. But it was [Trump’s] announcement in June 2018 that really started to form the vision. [Space Force] had support in both houses of Congress. So yes, absolutely, President Trump had that vision, but he had a lot of participation from both parties.

When I talk to normal civilians about this, they think you’re going to have the opportunity to be an astronaut. Is there an opportunity to do what someone does at NASA or is this on-the-ground satellite coordination?

That opportunity to be an astronaut inside the Space Force today is almost zero. The best thing to do if you want to be an astronaut is go talk to NASA. But the rest of the world is going in the direction of the Space Force. We’re talking about remotely piloted aircraft, drones, artificial intelligence, vehicles that operate by remote control or autonomous control — that’s Space Force.

Several other reporters have asked about the uniforms and the official song. Do you have any ideas about what the culture of Space Force will look like?

First of all, we need our own culture and identity. Soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines are all different. We’re not starting from zero in terms of a culture. Guys like me, I’m in my 35th year, all in space-related activities. We have a little bit of a culture and an identity already but we do have an opportunity to refresh and update things like uniforms, mottos, and songs. But they’re important enough that we want to take a little bit of time to do them carefully. We want to ask the people going into the Space Force. We want to ask the young, enlisted members who are just joining for a career what they want the uniform to look like. We have uniforms under design already; obviously they’re going to look like military uniforms.

What does that mean? Can you give us some clues?

No clues, sorry! It will be cool. How’s that for a clue? Now, that’s a 57-year-old engineer telling you it will be cool. Take that with a grain of salt.

Okay, well, in ‘The Incredibles’ they say “no capes.” Are there any absolute nos for Space Force uniforms?

It needs to be classic. We’re not talking spandex and capes. We’re talking about a good, sharp-looking wardrobe that reflects who we are as members of the American military.

Okay, so the Marines have Chesty the bulldog, the Air Force has a falconwhat are you thinking for a mascot?

The Marines didn’t have Chesty when they were formed, so we’re like that — we’re going to let some of that develop naturally. So it has some meaning and heritage and tradition behind it.

Do you have a favorite sci-fi movie that inspired you?

The problem is picking between them. I’ve always loved Star Trek and I really loved the most recent reboot. I think they’ve captured the essence of those old characters in a new and fresh way. I was always a Star Trek fan, although I can’t tell you that’s why I joined the Air Force, to go into space. I didn’t.

Reporter covering culture, politics and news.

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