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The U.S. Air Force began a new era of space defense Friday during a restructuring and change of command ceremony at Vandenberg Air Force Base.

During the event, the Joint Functional Component Command for Space, an arm of the U.S. Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM), was deactivated and replaced by the Joint Force Space Component Command, which was activated during the ceremony. Although the names sound similar, the move was significant in that the new Joint Force Space Component Command will now give defense of space the same level of influence as defense on Earth, in addition to helping streamline operations, according to the Air Force.

Also at the busy ceremony, Maj. Gen. Stephen N. Whiting assumed command of the 14th Air Force from retiring Lt. Gen. David Buck and became the Deputy Joint Force Space Component commander, while Gen. John W. Raymond took over as Joint Force Space Component commander.

The moves are separate from the 30th Space Wing and Western Range, which oversees launches on the base and is still under the command of Col. Michael Hough.

Raymond acknowledged during Friday’s ceremony — which was attended by several local civic leaders in addition to the military personnel — that the restructuring might seem like a simple title shift and not that big of a deal to a layperson. He said that couldn’t be further from the truth, however.

“I’ll tell you it is a big deal,” he said. “It’s an extremely important deal and I can’t overstate the strategic importance of this transition for our nation, for United States Strategic Command and for space.”

He added that the transition was part of the “next evolutionary step in normalizing space as a war-fighting domain, just like air, land and sea.”

Gen. John E. Hyten, the commander of STRATCOM, opened the ceremony by going over some of the history of the U.S. military’s involvement in space enterprises, which started in the 1950s and surged in the early 1980s. The Joint Functional Component Command for Space, which was deactivated on Friday, was started in 2006 and did “amazing things,” said Hyten, who called Friday’s transition a “new chapter” in STRATCOM’s story.

“When you study the history of this command, you’re going to see a pattern, and that pattern is we adapt, we adjust, and we evolve,” Hyten said. “That’s all we’re doing here today.”

Raymond said Friday’s ceremony was “bittersweet” as he reflected on the accomplishments of Buck, whose retirement came after more than 30 years in the Air Force. But Raymond said the Air Force “won the lottery” with Whiting, who was last stationed at VAFB in 2006 when the Joint Functional Component Command for Space was first activated.

“He helped lay the foundation of that great command and now, coming full circle, I cannot think of a better person to lead the flying Tigers into the future at such a critical time,” he said.

With the moves made Friday, two four-star generals now lead the U.S. space forces.

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Whiting, one of the final speakers during the ceremony, said the importance of strong space defense could not be emphasized enough.

“That’s why we are here and that’s why we do what we do in space,” he said. “Not because it’s cool, although it is; not because it’s cutting edge, (and) it’s that as well; and not because those of us in the space community think it’s important, though we certainly do. The reason our military continues to invest in space capabilities is because they are absolutely foundational and indelible to the American way of war.”

He noted that the advances made in space allow the U.S. military to survey the planet at all times through any weather to see what’s going on, “whether that’s enemy forces, the plume of a North Korean missile launch, refugees in need of assistance or a weather front moving into the area.”

“Let’s be clear: If we had a cheaper and equally effective alternative to our space capabilities we would invest in those, but we don’t,” he said. “So we have to protect what we have.”

Whiting closed by stressing the importance of the human element in the military and, specifically, now under his watch in the 14th Air Force. He said the organization will continue to be intelligence driven and that he’s looking forward to the challenges ahead.

“Good ideas know no rank and I solicit all of your input as we move forward together,” he said.

Willis Jacobson covers the city of Lompoc for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @WJacobsonLR.