Ever since President Trump took office, he has been searching – largely in vain – for a military leader who not only looks the part and has served with distinction in uniform, but has the vision to perform the most challenging missions confronting our nation. In Air Force Lieutenant General Steven Kwast he has such an officer.
Unfortunately, unless President Trump acts quickly, Gen. Kwast will be unwillingly retired from his service because his vision for one of our most urgent national missions – the assured access to and use of outer space – aligned with the Commander-in-Chief’s, but not that of the Air Force. The recently departed Secretary of the Air Force, Heather Wilson, made it her personal mission to terminate this highly accomplished general officer’s career because he persuasively argued that America’s vital interests in space are too important to be subordinated to the priorities of an institution preoccupied with manned aircraft and aerial warfare.
This is not the first time that the Air Force has bucked a President. A highly pertinent – if little known – previous instance occurred in 1981. The service’s Chief of Staff, Gen. Lew Allen, testified before the House Armed Services Committee in opposition to a national program involving space. It had been included in President Reagan’s defense build-up, but was deemed by the Air Force leadership as consuming their resources at the expense of other, higher priorities.
Thankfully, there were officers in uniform – like Gen. Kwast today – who were willing to put their careers on the line to advance the country’s vital interests. They worked with members of the Senate Armed Services Committee to overcome House counterparts’ objections – and deployment of the Global Positioning System was authorized to proceed.
Try imagining what the world would be like without GPS and you’ll have a small sense of how shortsighted and reckless is the idea of entrusting to the Air Force the responsibility for the vastly broader array of military uses of space required today. How large that responsibility must be has been underscored by the defense strategy report issued by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) just last week.
The report declared that “Outer space is a critical domain in international strategic competition.” While it blamed the United States for compelling the People’s Republic of China to pursue space weaponry, the inception of such programs predated the Trump administration and its appropriate emphasis on securing the High Frontier. The Pentagon’s 2019 edition of China Military Power added additional texture, pointing to the writings of Chinese military officers depicting PLA space warfare as being aimed at “destroying, damaging, and interfering with the enemy’s… satellites” used for reconnaissance, communications, navigation and early warning so as to “blind and deafen the enemy.”
To these ends, China has created a Space Corps to control the “commanding heights” with an array of both ground- and space-based weapons capable of jamming, lasing or physically attacking the various satellites upon which our military and economy are critically dependent. Should the PLA succeed in negating our current advantages in space – let alone establishing dominance over what the PLA calls the “earth-moon system,” our national and economic security may be irreparably harmed.
Gen. Steve Kwast has long appreciated this reality. In addition to his record as a decorated combat pilot and his performance as a commander in various theaters and in successive roles training Air Force officers here at home, the general has demonstrated insightful leadership in two interrelated domains – space and the electromagnetic spectrum. He has not only forcefully warned about our vulnerabilities in both arenas. He has been at the forefront in recommending corrective measures.
With respect to space, Gen. Kwast has closely studied Chinese (and Russian) doctrines for treating it as a theater of operations likely to determine outcomes on the ground, in the air and perhaps under the seas of the earth below. He also is expert in the capabilities these nations, and even lesser powers, are increasingly capable of bringing to bear that can jeopardize our own, vital use of space.
Particularly notable is the general’s conviction that the nation first able to tap the ability to generate electricity in space and make it widely available around the globe will have a decisive advantage. He has sponsored work that can help ensure it’s the United States of America, not the Communist China.
In fact, Steve Kwast’s understanding of the armed forces’ and the country’s requirements for resilient energy has been the hallmark of his other, extraordinarily important focus of effort: the electromagnetic spectrum. In particular, the general utilized his last duty station as the Commander of the Air Force’s Air Education and Training Command to elevate awareness about the vulnerability of our bulk power distribution system – popularly known as “the grid” – and to initiate action required to protect it against enemy-induced and naturally occurring electromagnetic pulses, cyberwarfare and physical attacks. Arguably, he has done more than anyone else to put into practice the Executive Order President Trump issued last March directing such protection.
Notably, Gen. Kwast helped pull together the leadership of his command’s host community – including local government, the Chamber of Commerce and many business executives and the commanders of the other twelve military installations that comprise the largest base complex in the country – behind the idea of making San Antonio the first resilient city in America. He has also sponsored promising energy technology developments with the potential to enable the armed forces’ bases to remain operational even if the grid goes down, a necessity for the national security and a potential vehicle for standing up microgrids to meet the needs of dependents and others in the adjacent populations.
Gen. Kwast has been compared to another accomplished aviator and military strategist, Colonel Billy Mitchell, for his visionary understanding of emerging technological trends and their security implications. Unfortunately, in both men’s cases, their detractors inflicted considerable reputational harm before the insights these leaders advanced became conventional wisdom. At least to date, Gen. Kwast has not been subjected, as was Col. Mitchell, to the ignominy of a court-martial for his pioneering contributions to the art of war.
Far from being punished by being forced to retire, Steve Kwast should be tapped to put his ideas into practice as the commanding officer of President Trump’s Space Force. By so doing, the Commander-in-Chief would find the military leader he has long sought and the nation would be well on its way to having the space capability it urgently requires.
Frank J. Gaffney acted as an Assistant Secretary of Defense under President Ronald Reagan. He is currently the Executive Chairman of the Center for Security Policy and Vice Chairman of the Committee on the Present Danger: China.