Space Commands of the USA, China, Russia, and Europe – New Defence Order. Strategy

The space domain is of increasing importance in the international environment that is becoming more contested and confrontational. Many states have recognised this as a challenge and formed unified space commands in recent years.

Space is a war-fighting domain, just like the land, air, and sea.

Donald Trump, Former US President

The United States is the only country in the world that has a designated, specific branch of the military that is concerned with the space domain of warfare. It was established as the sixth service branch, alongside the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard on December 20, 2019, according to the order of President Trump of the previous year. Prior to the Space Force becoming an independent service branch, the responsibilities it was now entrusted had been largely those of Air Force Space Command since 1982.

According to the memorandum for its establishment, the Space Force “will develop and integrate into the Joint Force the space doctrine, capabilities, and personnel [the US] needs to outpace future threats. […] It will remain mission-focused by leveraging infrastructure of the U.S. Air Force, except in performing those functions that are unique to space or central to the independence of the new Armed Force.” Similar to how the Marine Corps are inevitably tied to the Navy, and therefore comprise part of its department within the Department of Defence (DoD), the Space Force is part of the Department of the Air Force, upon which it heavily relies in administrative matters. The comprehensive plan outlining its organisational structures notes that the Space Force will receive more than 80% of its critical support functions from the Air Force. On the other hand, this also means that the Space Force can focus on its core capabilities, rather than having to build its own bureaucratic apparatus, a detail explicitly mentioned in DoD’s legislative proposal to the US Congress: “Where appropriate, [the Space Force] will leverage existing [U.S. Air Force] infrastructure, except in performing those functions that are unique to the space domain or that are central to the independence of the new Military Service.” [1]

However, this leveraging of existing capabilities goes beyond the organisational structure. While the Space Force will eventually build up its own career and training opportunities, it initially relies largely on transfers from other branches or Air Force personnel working within the Space Force’s organisation. These first transfers from other service branches have begun in the summer 2021, as has building of training capabilities, with the activation of the Space Training and Readiness Command past August. Even with these transfers, however, the Space Force will be the smallest service branch of the US military: The Space Force has a required strength of 8,400, but its actual strength is 6,434, while even the smallest service branch, the Coast Guard, has around 40,000 active personnel. Another peculiarity of the Space Force is its unusually high ratio of officers – 42% (see Table 1)[2].

On August 23, 2021, the Space Force activated its third and final field Command: The Space Training and Readiness Command (STARCOM) which is in charge of training, test, and evaluation as well as doctrine development. It joins the Space Operations Command (SPOC), in charge of space, cyber, intelligence operations, and combat support; and the Space Systems Command (SSC), which is tasked with acquisitions, engineering, research and development, and launch activities.

Each of these commands is subdivided into several ‘Deltas’, which are roughly equivalent to an Air Force wing or an Army Brigade. The SPOC (the former Air Force Space Command) comprises Space Delta 2 tasked with Space Domain Awareness; Space Delta 3 tasked with Space Electronic Warfare; Space Delta 4 tasked with Missile Warning; Space Delta 5 tasked with Command and Control; Space Delta 6 tasked with cyberspace operations; Space Delta 7 tasked with intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance; Space Delta 8 tasked with satellite communications and navigational warfare, and Space Delta 9 tasked with orbital warfare.

The SSC comprises Space Launch Deltas 30 and 45, as well as several other corps, including the Strategic Warning and Surveillance Systems Division, which oversees ground-based radars, missile warning, space domain awareness, missile defence and shared early-warning capabilities.

Finally, STARCOM comprises Space Delta 1 tasked with personnel space training; Space Delta 10 tasked with Space Doctrine and war gaming; Space Delta 11 tasked with space range and holding off an attack of hypothetical aggressor; Space Delta 12 tasked with holding space tests and evaluation, and Space Delta 13 tasked with education in the field of space exploration.

In May 2021, the Air Force released its Fiscal Year 2022 Budget proposal. The Air Force as a whole requested $173.7 billion, out of which the Space Force’s budget is $17.4 billion. This also includes a military personnel budget of $929.8 million, which remains at the Air Force disposal. While the total budget increase of the Air Force over the previous year’s budget is 2.3%, the Space Force’s budget was increased by a markedly higher 13.1%. The proposal explains this as being “due to additional investments in space sector and transfer of funding from the Air Force, Army, and Navy. […] First of all, the transfer of funds refers to space-related Air Force, Army, and Navy Elements, such as: Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance; Research, Development, Test and Evaluation; Equipment Maintenance, Restoration, and Modernization; Education and Training.”

The Operation and Maintenance budget increased by over 36%. But, the largest share of the Space Force’s Budget, at $11.2 Billion, is taken up by the Research Development Test & Evaluation (RDT&E) budget (Fig. 1). For such a small service, whose overall budget makes up a mere 2.5% of the DoD’s overall budget, this this a huge number, especially if contrasted with the DoD’s overall RDT&E budget of $112 billion or the Air Force’s RDT&E budget of $28.8 billion. Out of the Space Force’s RDT&E Budget, 50% are used for Operational Systems Development, 30% for Systems Development and Demonstration, and 14% for Advanced Component Development and Prototypes (Fig. 2).

The Space Force’s stand-out project is the Next Gen Overhead Persistent Infrared (OPIR) missile warning system, which is expected to have its initial launch in 2028. Other projects include growth in the Space Command and Control (C2) mission system, like the Military Global Positioning Station (GPS) User Equipment (MGUE) program to develop receiver circuit cards, for secure and accurate positioning, navigation and timing data in a contested environment. On the procurement side, the next budget also funds two GPS III Follow-on, which will provide new capabilities including a spot beam that maintains a 100x anti-jam improvement over current encrypted military P(Y) code[3].

As of 2019, the Space Force operated 73 spacecraft in orbit. The main part of them were the Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites with 31 currently in orbit. Other satellites include communications satellites, such as the Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) system; environmental data collection by the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP); strategic and tactical launch detection by the Defense Support Program (DSP); and Orbital surveillance by the Space Based Space Surveillance (SBSS).


The Space Force also operates two X-37B Orbital test vehicles. These are aimed at development and maturing a reusable space-launch capability and conducting classified, extended, on-orbit missions or launching small satellites. Originally a NASA program, Space Force took over these capabilities and launched its inaugural mission OTV-6 (USSF-7) in May 2020[4].

Space and cyberspace are becoming increasingly involved in military confrontation.

Sergei Shoigu, Defense Minister of the Russian Federation

The year 1992 saw formation of the Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS) as a separate combat arm – formerly the Directorate of the Chief of Space Assets of the Ministry of Defence. Since then, the Space Forces, much like the rest of the Russian Air Forces, have gone through various mergers and splits, culminating in the 2015 merger with the Air Force, thus forming the modern Space Forces within the Air and Space Forces.

As part of these, the Space Forces comprise the 15th Aerospace Forces Army (Special Purpose), the 1st State Test Cosmodrome Plesetsk of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation, as well as the A.F. Mozhaysky Military-Space Academy.

The 15th Aerospace Forces Army in its turn consists of the Titov Main Test and Space Systems Control Centre, which serves as a mission control for Russian military and civilian satellites; Main Centre for Missile Attack Warning which controls the network of early warning radar stations and satellites, and Main Centre for Reconnaissance in Space, which registers and catalogues satellites.

While there is no official budget information on Russia’s military Space program, using governmental open sources and financial information from the State Space Corporation ROSCOSMOS it can be estimated that the annual spending on development of military satellite constellations is around $1 billion, including satellites, vehicles, and launchers.

Spending on GLONASS 27 satellites amounted to $437 million while the Plesetzk launch site costs at least $100 million per year. Also factoring in other expenditures, such as the ground-based infrastructure and personnel, the overall budget for Russia’s military space program amounts to $1.6 billion. The Russian Space Forces control 51 communications satellites and 16 earth-looking surveillance satellites[5].

Outer space is a critical domain in international strategic competition.

From China’s National Defense in the New Era by the PRC’s State Council

Similar to Russia, China has also established its modern Space Force in 2015, with formation of the Strategic Support Force (SSF). This became the consequence of the growing realisation in academic circles that the structure of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was not adequate to the demands of modern warfare. This also roughly coincides with the ongoing shift of the military posture from land-based territorial defence to extended power projection. While the Strategic Support Force as a whole is tasked with warfare in outer-, cyber- and information space, space proper is covered by the Space Systems Department (SSD).

The SSD has consolidated nearly every aspect of China’s military space operations, including space launch, telemetry, tracking, and control (TT&C), satellite communications, space intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), the astronaut program and space-related Research and Development (R&D) and support. Its launch sites are situated in the Jiuquan, Taiyuan, Xichang, and Wenchang satellite launch centres. Smaller control centre is located in Beijing – Aerospace Flight Control Centre, the Xi’an Satellite Control Centre deals with China’s land-based Telemetry Tracking and Control network for space operations, and the China Satellite Maritime Tracking and Control Department is occupied with space tracking ships. The Satellite Communications Main Station is responsible for managing the PLA’s military satellite communication network and the Aerospace Reconnaissance Bureau is responsible for space-based intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance.

The Aerospace Engineering University is the PLA’s primary education and training institution for space command, management and engineering. The China Astronauts Group manages China’s astronaut corps, while the Beijing Institute of Tracking and Communication Technology provides R&D on space information and communication, and navigation and control. Other R&D is provided by the Aerodynamics Research and Development Center, Aerospace Research Development Center, Engineering Design Institute and the China Nuclear Test Base[6].

China’s military budget is famously opaque and no specifics on how that budget is spent is currently openly available. The Chinese operate 105 military satellites including the Yaogan Weisin optical reconnaissance satellites, and the Chinese GPS equivalent, BeiDou, which consists of 35 satellites.

We will reinforce our knowledge of the situation in space, we will better protect our satellites.

Emmanuel Macron, President of France

France, Germany, and the United Kingdom have by now all established Space Commands. While both the German and French Space Command are part of their respective Air Forces (the latter actually being called Air and Space Forces since 2020), the UK Space Command is a joint command of its service branches, as well as the Civil Service and commercial sector.

Established in April 2021, the UK Space Command brings together space operations, space workforce training and growth, and space capability, meaning development and supplies of space equipment and programs. Formation of the UK Space Command is not entirely completed, but it has already established its Operations Centre and operates the Skynet system of military communication satellites (maintained by Airbus), and RAF Fylingdales military base is engaged, which provides a continuous ballistic missile early warning service to the UK and US Governments. UK Space Command will also have responsibilities over all space-based capability development[7].

The German Air and Space Operations Centre was established in September 2020. It is also still in a formation phase and will build up its capability for mission control over the Bundeswehr’s satellite operations and for satellite flight operations and incorporate these tasks into the planning and command of space operations. Technically, some prerequisites still have to be created for this. Operationally usable sensors for space surveillance, reconnaissance, and identification will only be available for German military in a few years[8].

The French Space Command is older than both Britain’s and Germany’s, if only by a year, as it was established in 2019. It is meant to be organised around four pillars, in close coordination with the CNES, the French space agency: Space service support, Space situational awareness, Operations support, Active space defense.

In March 2021, they conducted their first military exercises in space: AsterX 2021. The French operate five Earth observation, four radio signals intelligence and four communications satellites[9].

The French Space Command has a projected budget reach €4.3 billion ($4.9 billion) over the next six years. Its personnel amounted to 220 in 2019, but should reach full operational capacity in 2025 with a staff of almost 500. The German Air and Space Operations Centre consists of 50 personnel, with a budget that is part of the German Air Force but likely negligible. The UK is spending an additional $1.92 billion on space capabilities over the next 10 years.

Generalised data on space budgets by country are presented in Fig. 3. Space units budget shares as of total defense budgets are shown in Fig. 4.

Regarding the history of the Space Units, it looks like as if the NATO powers were playing catch-up with China and Russia. Of course, many of these states have had some sort of military unit tasked with the space domain, even before the transformations into the current state. Russia is a clear out stander in this field, having had a unified space command since at least the 1990’s. However, the changes going on now indicate that status and functions of space commands remained rather unclear the entire time.

The formation of the US Space Force is largely seen as an answer to the increasing competencies in this field by China and Russia. The Europeans seem to copy the US movement, although it must be said that the formation of the French Space Command in its current form predates the formation of the US Space Force by several months. In any case, the space domain is well accepted to be its own contestable space, rather than a domain which merely supports operations on land, the sea or the air.

As far as organisation and mission are concerned, while there are obviously huge differences in size, they all seem broadly similar. Capabilities are what differs. For instance, the French do not seem to have their (ballistic missile) early warning capabilities integrated, with the Germans not even having such capabilities. The Europeans all lack integrated launch units and while this seems understandable, given the general unsuitability of Europe for space launches, it should be noted that France would have such a facility in Kourou in French Guiana, which is operated by the European Space Agency (ESA) and the French National Centre for Space Studies (CNES).

Besides these differences, all space units monitor their domains and are building capabilities to defend them. They also control their respective nations’ military satellites, be they for communication or surveillance.

The most striking difference between the space units is their funding. While the US Space Force has by and large the highest funding, its disproportional RDT&E budget also shows an ambition to further innovate. Given how its main competitor, China, has had a unified space command for longer time and has recently shown its prowess for anti-satellite capabilities, it is not unlikely that the US feels insecure about its own capabilities or, at the very least, wants to secure a technological advantage over other players.


Author: Kevin Klemann
©New Defence Order. Strategy  №1 (72) 2022

[1] Esper, Mark. Memorandum: Establishment of the United States Space Force, Washington DC, 2019.

[2] Defense Manpower Center: Military Personnel by Service by Rank/Grade. June 2021, Washington DC, 2021.

[3] Department of the Air Force; Fiscal Year 2022 Budget Overview. Washington, 2021.

[4][4] Air Force Magazine (Vol. 104, No. 6, 7): USAF & USSF Almanac 2021. Arlington, 2021.

[5] Ходаренок Михаил: Звездные войны: создаст ли Россия космические войска. Газета.ru 03.04.2020. URL:

[6] Ni, Adam; Gill, Bates. The People’s Liberation Army Strategic Support Force. Update 2019, in: China Brief 19, Issue 10.

[7] Ministry of Defence: UK Space Command. URL:

[8] Müller, Sascha: Fähigkeitsaufbau Weltraumoperationen durch die Luftwaffe, 21.9.2020, URL:

[9] Deutsche Welle: France conducts first military exercises in space, 10.03.2021, URL: Space Commands of the USA, China, Russia, and Europe – New Defence Order. Strategy

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