Unifying Department of Defense Transportation:
Normalizing Air and Spacelift

Major Scott Larrimore

Winner of the
1998 USSPACECOM Essay Contest

"Victory is the beautiful, bright-colored flower.
Transport is the stem without which it could never have blossomed."

- Winston Churchill, The River War, 1899

In its latest vision for the millennium, the Air Force reemphasized its goal of integrating air and space throughout the Service. "We are now transitioning from an air and space force on an evolutionary path to a space and air force" states Global Engagement: A Vision for the 21st Century Air Force.1 Air Force Chief of Staff General Michael Ryan further elaborated on this vision, advising that "We must move beyond stovepipes of separate space and air capabilities and operations to ones which are fully integrated and interwoven."2

Air Force space operations are currently organized under one command, the Air Force Space Command (AFSPC). If the Service is to normalize and integrate its space capabilities with those from air into a seamless force that exploits the vertical dimension, space forces must eventually migrate to other commands as those capabilities become mature. One of the first steps towards complete normalization could be to unify air and space transportation to fall under the auspices of the Unites States Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM).

Space Commands

Cold War competition between the United States and the Soviet Union drove both nations into space in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The vantage point of this highest frontier enabled both countries to see and hear into their adversary’s denied territories.3 From early experimental demonstrations, the nation developed operational intelligence, communications, missile warning, and weather satellites to support military forces throughout the world.4 However, these capabilities were dispersed among several military organizations.

The first attempt to consolidate space operations occurred in 1982. On September 1, the Air Force created a new major command, AFSPC, to combine a disparate collection of space operations, research, development, and support activities within the Service. According to Congressman Ken Kramer, sponsor of legislation that created the command, there were 26 organizations involved in space planning and policy making. "The nation can no longer afford the luxury of having so many groups and diversified interests sharing space responsibilities."5 In those early years, the command nurtured a bridge between development and operations. To better foster this relationship, a Space Technology Center was formed at Kirtland AFB. The AFSPC Vice Commander, Lt Gen Richard C. Henry, led the center, while retaining his command of Air Force Systems Command’s (AFSC) Space Division in Los Angeles.6

A few years later, a unified command was established to better coordinate and direct space activities among all the Services.7 This command, the United States Space Command (USSPACECOM) was to provide "an organizational structure that will centralize operational responsibilities for more effective use of military space systems."8 Prior to the command formation, Representative Kramer asserted:

our military space activities are fragmented and scattered among many uniformed-branch and Defense Department organizations with no central control or that could be eliminated through creation of a unified space command.9

Both Air Force and US Space Commands increased their responsibilities with the assumption of space launch operations in October 1990. Prior to this time, space launch was the charge of AFSC. The Air Force believed efficiencies could be gained by "operationalizing" space launch, standardizing procedures and increasing responsiveness. According to former AFSPC Commander, Lt Gen Thomas S. Moorman, "When you put a very bright, highly trained Systems Command engineer on a task, his first instinct is to innovate. In some cases, what you want is more standardization than innovation."10

Air Force Space Command assumed responsibilities for its first combat systems a few years later. The Air Force organizational split between "tactical" and "strategic" commands no longer seemed appropriate at the end of the Cold War. The result was a 1992 Service-wide reorganization that consolidated all of the Air Force’s "shooters" in a new command, the Air Combat Command (ACC). Intercontinental ballistic missiles, however, seemed out of place in the air-dominated organization. Within eight months, missile forces were transferred from the fledgling ACC to AFSC, thereby uniting similar missile and space technologies in a single major command.11

The move changed AFSPC’s character as well. The inclusion of ballistic missiles gave the command its first combat units. Previously, the command only supplied combat support to the National Command Authorities (NCA) and theater Commander-in-Chiefs. Now, AFSPC had operational control over prestigious combat forces. AFSPC was finally a fighting command.

This combat capability was formally recognized within the Air Force in 1995. In that year, AFSPC joined ACC, Pacific Air Force, United States Air Forces in Europe, Air Education and Training Command, the Air Force Guard, and the Reserve in the Combat Air Force (CAF). The CAF consists of those forces in the Service tasked with training and operating combat forces. However, AFSPC is the only member with its own strategic transportation capability, spacelift. The other CAF members must rely upon the United States Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM) to support force buildup in their respective theaters of operation. This disparity must be addressed before space forces can be fully normalized with their air siblings.

Transportation Command

USTRANSCOM was created in 1987 in response to a recommendation by the Blue Ribbon Commission on Defense Management, also referred to as the Packard Commission. That recommendation came as a result of a 1978 transportation exercise called Nifty Nugget. This exercise demonstrated the enormous inefficiency and confusion likely to be experienced in a major United States defense force movement. The purpose of the new unified command, as stated by Defense Department spokeswoman Donna Miles, was to "consolidate the control of all of these (transportation) forces during times of crisis under one leader" who "will know what transportation assets are available. Where they are deployed, and how they are being used."12

While USTRANSCOM proved its mettle during the Persian Gulf War, the command only had mission authority over its components when the NCA issued deployment orders.13 This limited the command’s ability to respond to some of the new regional assistance challenges emergent after the Cold War. Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney eliminated this deficiency and simultaneously broadened the command’s role in a 1992 Department of Defense Directive.14

The February 14, 1992 implementing directive assigned USSTRANSCOM a new mission: "To provide air, land and sea transportation for the Department of Defense (DoD) in time of peace and time of war."15 The directive assigned Commander-in-Chief, USTRANSCOM (CINCTRANS) combatant command over its three Service components and transferred all DoD transportation capabilities to the new command. "CINCTRANS shall have combatant command of all transportation assets of the Military Department, except for Service-unique or theater-assigned transportation assets."16 Furthermore, the document directed that "CINCTRANS shall be the Department of Defense singled manager for transportation, other than Service-unique or theater-assigned transportation assets."17 Finally, the new directive allowed USTRANSCOM to develop a strong relationship with the civilian transportation industry and "procure commercial transportation services (including lease of transportation assets) in accordance with applicable law as necessary to carry out the mission of CINCTRANS."18

Transfer Spacelift to USTRANSCOM

The space launch industry matured significantly since AFSPC took over the reins of military launch in 1990. Driven by the explosion in the commercial satellite communications industry, market analysts expect a worldwide launch rate of about 85 launches per year supplied by more than 20 different launch vehicles.19 Some of these boosters will be based upon new reusable launch technologies, some will be based upon worldwide partnerships unimaginable during the Cold War, and others will be completely financed through venture capitalists. In fact, some agencies are so confident of the industry maturity that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) will offer small launch vehicles through a catalog while the Navy is procuring satellites commercially delivered in orbit.20

It’s time for the Air Force to recognize the maturity of this industry and normalize space and air transportation under one major command. Spacelift is the functional equivalent to strategic air or sealift. Former USSPACECOM Commander-in-Chief General John L. Piotrowski concurred, stating "Launch vehicles are basically military transportation systems for satellites."21 Spacelift delivers a cargo to the space area of operation where satellite operators assume responsibility and control of the payload. Oversight by the Air Force’s airlift command, Air Mobility Command (AMC), with heritage of over 56 years of transportation experience in both peace and war, is bound to increase launch responsiveness and operational flexibility by applying lessons learned to the space lift mission.22 Finally, normalizing Air Force strategic transportation would be the one of the first steps towards fully integrating air and space capabilities under a single command’s leadership. Eventually, air and space functional capabilities must be integrated if the Air Force is to fulfill its long-term evolution proclaimed in Global Engagement.

Transferring spacelift to AMC achieves USTRANSCOM obligations as well. In accordance with Secretary of Defense Cheney’s directive, the military services consolidated strategic air, land, and sea transportation under USSPACECOM, but neglected to transfer spacelift at that time. Assigning spacelift to AMC would finally fulfill the USTRANSCOM’s tasking to be the single manager for non-service-unique transportation regardless of the implementing media.

The Air Force has never been the only spacelift customer. Several agencies, including the Army, Navy, NASA, the National Reconnaissance Organization (NRO), the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have used Air Force supplied spacelift capabilities for decades. With so many government agencies operating in space, spacelift resembles traditional common user transportation even though current expendable launch vehicles are used only once. When reusable launch vehicles enter the military inventory, they should be managed by USTRANSCOM the same way the command currently manages common user air, land and sea transportation. Transferring spacelift to USTRANSCOM now establishes the precedent and eases integrating robust reusable launch vehicles capabilities later in the 21st Century.

Furthermore, USTRANSCOM has been given a unique responsibility to establish relationships with the commercial transportation industry. This relationship allows the command to purchase or lease commercial capabilities to meet US transportation unique concerns by both military and commercial transportation leaders. A similar relationship is needed with the space launch industry. Commercial launches will continue to use military infrastructure while the government may increasingly decide to procure more commercial launch services. In fact, the 1996 National Space Policy supports this commercialization, directing all agencies to "encourage, to the fullest extent feasible, the cost-effective use of commercially provided US products and services to meet mission requirements."23 Furthermore, extending USTRANSCOM’s relationship to commercial space launch could provide augmented spacelift capability in times of crisis, similar to the Civil Reserve Air Fleet today.

Changes Required or Implied

In order to normalize spacelift with transportation in the other three media, military space launch capabilities currently provided by AFSPC and assigned to USSPACECOM should be transferred to USTRANSCOM. This transfer would reassign the 30th and 45th Space Wings, currently located at Vandenberg and Patrick AFBs, respectively, to Air Mobility Command (AMC), the USTRANSCOM Air Force component. To reflect its increased breadth of responsibility, AMC should change its name and charter to embody its new spacelift duties. Air Mobility Command would evolve into the Air and Space Mobility Command (ASMC). In addition to the new wings, ASMC should establish an intermediate organization between itself and the spacelift wings to organize and establish consistent policy, training, and operational procedures between the launch bases. Currently, AMC has two subordinate numbered air forces, the 21st located at McGuire AFB and responsible for airlift East of the Mississippi, and the 15th at Travis AFB to support airlift requirements in the West. Similarly, a comparable numbered air force should be created to manage the two newly transferred spacelift wings.

Once space launch is transferred to USTRANSCOM, AFSPC would be left with combat space force and satellite control responsibilities. The command could now devote more attention to space control and space force application capabilities as a member of the CAF. With this revitalized focus, AFSPC would essentially become Space Combat Command (SCC), the space equivalent and parallel to ACC. Where ACC is the primary air advocate and force provider to geographic unified commands, SCC would be the premier combat space force advocate and provide forces for USSPACECOM and US Strategic Command. SCC would still be involved with space launch, but only for space control or force application missions.

Finally, the USCINCTRANS should assume the responsibilities for space shuttle contingencies from USCINCSPACE. The DoD Manned Space Flight Support Office was chartered in 1958 to support the initial manned space programs. In the current space shuttle program, the office provides astronaut rescue and recovery, contingency landing support, payload security, medical support, and coordination of air and sealift for emergency operations.24 USTRANSCOM’S command over air and sealift, as well as AMC’s responsibilities for aeromedical support, would complement the office’s missions. Transferring the mission to USTRANSCOM would provide better synergy and effectiveness to astronauts in dire need of time critical transportation support.


Air Force Chief of Staff General Ryan recently said "we are evolving into more of an integrated Air and Space Force every day. But the true revolution to create a Space and Air Force is still some time away."25 While a revolution may be years away, initial steps toward evolution could occur today. The Air Force and US Space Commands have performed a remarkable job consolidating and operationalizing military space capabilities in the last 15 years. However, the time has come to transfer mature capabilities out of Space Command where possible and doctrinally sound. One of the first steps towards this integration could be to transfer Air Force spacelift capabilities to AMC, thereby completing the Secretary of Defense direction to unify all transportation assets under USTRANSCOM, and setting the precedence for the integration of air and space force under functional commands in the future.


1Department of Defense, Global Engagement: A Vision for the 21st Century Air Force, 7.

2General Michael E. Ryan, "Evolution to a Space and Air Force", chief of staff, US Air Force, address to the Air Force Association Convention, Los Angeles, CA, 14 November 1997, on-line, Internet, 1 March 1998, available from http://www.af.mil/news/speech/current/Evolution_to_a_Space_and_Ai.html

3 Walter A. McDougall, ...the Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age, (New York, NY: Basic Books, Inc. 1985) 132-134.

4Major Michael J. Muolo, Space Handbook: A War Fighters Guide to Space, Vol 1, (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press 1993), 84-96.

5 Leonard Famiglietti "Kramer Pushers Space Command", Air Force Times, May 31, 1982, 1.


7"Air Force to Head Unified Space Command", Defense Daily, November 27, 1984, 12.

8"President Authorizes US Space Command - II", Defense Daily, December 4, 1984, 167.

9"Weinberger Said to Recommend Unified Space Command", Defense Daily, January 12, 1984, 51.

10Casey Anderson, "Command to Standardize", Air Force Times, September 24, 1990, 30.

11Neff Hudson, "Missile Wings Shifting to Space Command", Air Force Times, February 15, 1993, 6.

12"New Transportation Command Activated at Scott", Air Force Times, October 19, 1987, 34.

13"1993 Almanac", Defense Transportation Journal, February, 1993, 13.

14 Barbara Opall, "Transportation Command enhances Peacetime Role" Air Force Times, February 15, 1993, 6.

15 "USTRANSCOM Fact File", December, 1997, n.p.; on-line, Internet, 1 March 1997, available from http://usctweb.safb.af.mil/factsheet.html

16Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, "DODD 5158.4: United States Transportation Command", January 8, 1993, n.p.; on-line, Internet 1 March 1997, available from http://web7.whs.osd.mil/text/d5184p.txt



19Forecast International/DMS, DMS Market Intelligence Reports: Space Systems (Jane’s Information Group), 1997, n.p., Appendix B.

20"NASA Now Plans to Buy Rockets From a Catalog", Space News, Feb 23 March 1, 1998, 2.

21General John L. Piotrowski, "Military Space Launch: the Path to a More Responsive System (Part III), Aerospace and Defense Science 9, no. 9 (September-October 1990): 39-42.

22Air Mobility Command’s heritage derives back to the Army Air Force (AAF) Air Transport Command formed in 1942.

23 National Science and Technology Council, "National Policy Fact Sheet", September 19, 1996, n.p.; on-line, Internet, 25 March 1998, available from http://www.whitehouse.gov/WH/EOP/OSTP/NSTC/html/PDD8.html

24DDMS Public Affairs, "DoD Manned Space Flight Support Office", July, 1995, n.p.; on-line, Internet, 1 March 1997, available from http://www.spacecom.af.mil/usspace/ddms.htm