war on the rocks

Space Force’s Jupiter-Sized Culture Problem

July 11, 2019

Military culture matters a lot. Cultures are those positive and negative feedback loops that encourage certain thinking and behavior in a society, group, or organization and dissuade or make taboo other thinking and behavior. The U.S. military has thus far failed to create a unique military space culture that encourages the focus, thinking, and behaviors required to maximize comprehensive national space power.

Military culture varies widely across the five services, and for good reasons. Perhaps the strongest determinant of service culture is the “founder effect.” Author Howard Bloom explored in depth how the attitudes of founding leaders profoundly affected their organizations over centuries. Because of this strong effect, the attitudes that the first leaders of the Space Force display will resonate for generations to come. For America’s new space force to serve the needs of the United States well into the future, its culture must be defined by a “can-do” and not a not “compliance” orientation.

Some military cultures, such as that of the forces responsible for nuclear operations, require exceptionally tight control because even minor accidents can have massively negative — and potentially existential — consequences. As a result, they develop a compliance-oriented culture, where mistakes are not tolerated and behavior that strictly complies with the tried and true regulations is rewarded. Others operate on the other end of the spectrum. For example, U.S. special operations forces are expected to exercise exceptional autonomy to make decisions in highly fluid environments beyond the reach of reliable communications. In other words, they have a “can-do” culture. There is a large middle ground between those extremes, from the Air Force’s “centralized control, decentralized execution” to the Navy’s “command by negation” (i.e. “you are allowed to do it unless specifically prohibited”).

America’s space force is coming of age in a time defined by rapid technological innovation and experimentation. Moving forward will require risk-taking in systems and tactics development. That’s going to require a “can do” culture.

Are we up to it?

An honest appraisal would look not only at America’s military strengths — which are admittedly many — but also its weaknesses. The most worrisome handicap is the lingering effects of associating space professionals with compliance cultures for decades. If U.S. space professionals bring a “compliance hangover” with them to a new space force, this could cost the United States primacy in space.

I am not so pessimistic that I think the situation is irrecoverable, but I am also not optimistic given our current trajectory. America’s space professionals can break away from the restrictions of a compliance culture. They can rise to the challenge. But it’s not going to be easy. They are going to have to fight a lot of deeply dug-in habits and incentives in order to build the force America needs. It’s going to require exceptional levels of professionalism. It will be “against the grain.”

Of all the various cultures in the military, the nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) culture has a reputation of being the most compliance-oriented, providing the least room for operators to develop novel tactics and equipment on a rapid time cycle. Our formative years teach us habits of mind that can last for a generation, and many space officers have spent their formative years immersed in the ICBM culture. Moreover, for decades Air Force Space Command has been operationally subordinate to U.S. Strategic Command , which has always had nuclear forces as its primary concern.

Administratively, Air Force Space Command is under the U.S. Air Force which has responsibility for developing and fielding systems and associated organization, manning, and doctrine. Since the Vietnam War, the U.S. Air Force has dramatically reduced the speed of internal innovation by enslaving innovation to a capabilities-and-requirements system (versus a threat-based system). In a threat-based system, the measure is the adversary, and the enemy determines your speed of innovation. The capabilities system forces a multi-year paperwork drill to achieve up-front consensus on the nature of the problem in order to specify exacting requirements before any resources are spent. The system delays and constrains the diversity of possible approaches.

The Air Force has also chosen to organize around a theater-centric, centralized command and control system which is ill-suited for the global nature of space power. For a new space force, these will be serious handicaps. Such handicaps will only be overcome by uncommon professionalism of U.S. military space personnel to build something that they themselves were not lucky enough to inherit.

U.S. military space personnel can only overcome the challenges the Air Force has created if they have the latitude to construct their own vision of national spacepower. And associated organization and culture. The sooner these professionals can wrestle space away from the chains of its compliance culture, the better America’s chances are of competing.

All of us like to believe we are at or near the pinnacle of human achievement. Speaking for myself, being an Air Force Academy admissions liaison was exceptionally humbling. The credentials of today’s applicants would have left me far behind. We have to truly want what is best for our nation to constantly realize that those coming after us exceed our potential. This challenge for military space professionals is going to be especially acute. For decades, the U.S. Air Force has starved its space cadre of the highest talent, preferring to push its top recruits to other fields such as flying. But once a separate space force recruiting system starts up, the floodgates will open to the full possibilities of American talent. New recruits will not have come pre-trained for risk aversion and compliance and will have come of age in this new space age. The sooner a separate space force opens up, the sooner today’s space professionals can begin grooming talented young upstarts.

For decades, space professionals have struggled to justify their importance under an airpower narrative and to find individual value in the hero culture of the Air Force that prizes the “warfighter” fighter pilot. Freed of this artificial constraint, space professionals will have the opportunity to create their own culture. But such inherited values — some appropriate, some not — have their own momentum that is likely to stymie the expression of true space power. The sooner America can pry space away from the Air Force, the better its chances to understand and wield space power on its own merits.

Prisons are not just physical and organizational. They extend into the mind. There are animals that, after being freed from captivity, remain in the familiar territory of their cages even if the gates are opened. Airpower has likewise been a prison for true space-mindedness.



Airpower wants to see space as an extension of air — just a little higher, little faster — rather than the vast ocean of commerce and independent instrument of national power it is destined to become if America remains a great power. The airpower bias has incentivized American space professionals to think of space power in an extremely constrained manner. The effect is the same as if the Army had conditioned the Air Force to think primarily in terms of close air support, or if the Navy culturally could only think in terms of a coastal “brown water” navy versus a more expansive, sea-going “blue water” navy. Congress and the administration can give space professionals their freedom, but will they take it, and if so at what speed? Again, letting space power take flight will require exceptional professionalism on the part of U.S. space personnel to work against both human nature and decades of conditioning.

The limits of the current paradigm are already apparent. We can see how constrained and subservient the current space power narrative is when compared to the seapower narrative.

The Navy does not exist to support the joint warfighter, and it does not need to assert that the sea is a warfighting domain. It exists to protect commerce, to be an independent instrument of national power, and to play its part in joint operations. The Navy never asserts that there is “no such thing as war in space” ,” and that — at best — there is war that extends into the sea, as Gen. John E. Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command and former commander of Air Force Space Command, said of space last year. Naval professionals know that there is certainly naval warfare and that wars can start and end on the seas. So it should be with space power: It exists to protect commerce, to be an independent instrument of national power in and through the space domain, and when called upon to be part of a joint team. Space is most obviously its own route for conflict escalation. It is certainly the case that a war could start in space, be fought entirely in space, and be decisive in space. Those who assert the contrary have been overly constrained in their thinking.

Current thinking about warfighting is at once both too bellicose and insufficiently war-like.  It is too bellicose because current thinking understates the risk of major escalation and long-term environmental effects of even a limited engagement in space Unlike flak in the air, debris can stay in space for decades, impeding air travel, and unlike a dogfight, conflict in space can threaten nuclear command and control links. Space warfare is nothing to be taken lightly. On the other hand, concepts of space warfare seem constrained to notions of crisis or limited war, with insufficient plans and readiness for a single integrated operational plan for space denial in a prolonged major war. Space power should be much more like the Strategic Air Command — they spoke softly with the motto “peace is our profession” and carried a very big stick with a practiced capability for maximum war. It would be preferable for a democracy with a space force to have an arsenal of terrifying space weapons yet talk only of “ensuring stability” and “protecting commerce” than to for it to remain toothless yet assert its space force is for “warfighting.”

Even the assertion of “warfighting” is a cage. “Warfighting” is less than half the problem. The United States faces a much greater strategic threat: the peacetime military offensive of the People’s Republic of China for space dominance. China aims to create a position of industrial and logistical advantage on the moon and its environs, termed cis-lunar space. China is attempting to gain a strategic position to control the key terrain and centers of value in what will be a vast, multi-trillion-dollar space economy, and to usurp America’s rule-making authority. China’s aim is not to come to blows with America, but to win without fighting by occupying a superior strategic position where it would be too costly for the United States to do anything but accept a second-class status. That is a strategic and military threat, perhaps even an existential threat, but it is not a “warfighting” threat. It will not be met with “lethality.” It requires a peacetime military strategy to check every advance and secure America’s own logistical and industrial advantage. Asserting “warfighting” and “multi-domain operations” is not going to bring America victory in its 21st century challenge. To do so is to mistake a multi-decade strategic, positional and technological competition for episodic airpower warfare. The stakes are so high that a myopic focus on tactical or even operational warfighting is potentially a fatal mistake for American strategy.

Again, designing an integrated strategic campaign to secure continued logistical and industrial advantage in cis-lunar space is at odds with the “warfighting” culture that airpower thinkers  still seeks to push on space professionals. Space professionals have not been trained for such a campaign; they have been trained for support, and are now being trained for warfighting. It will require courage and daring on the part of today’s space cadre to go against the grain and build the planning and integration functions to meet the actual threat.

Warfighting culture is often associated with physical courage. But making the hard changes to put oneself in a position to attain victory requires the moral courage to risk one’s career for the benefit of the nation when leaders may not enjoy a challenge to their worldview and to endure the snickers of peers who lack imagination yet are willing to ridicule new ideas to sustain the status quo and ensure their own upward mobility. To speak the truth when it is unwelcome by superiors and bosses requires great courage.

One day, as America and its allies have communities of citizens living and working in space, it will be natural and expected for America’s space force to have a manned presence alongside those citizens. At that point in time, space forces may also call upon the need for physical courage. But long before there is a requirement for physical courage there will be, and there already is, a requirement for moral courage.

One day, the natural expression of space power will be obvious and a part of the service’s narrative. This vision is likely already obvious to the younger volunteers who will join the U.S. Space Force in the age of Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk’s reusable rockets, and in the “Age of Chang-e.” But it will be hardest for those mid-career officers who today are in the midst of a paradigm transition between the “brown-water thinkers” and the “blue-water thinkers.” It will be hardest for those who share the bigger vision but are daily imprisoned by the forces of the status quo and the lack of vision and imagination that surrounds them. They already see the peril. They already see the need for bold action. Those who have eyes to see the future and its promise and peril bear a special burden to exercise the moral courage it will require to assert the hard truths that a broader vision of American space power requires. Those who succeed will leave behind a cultural legacy that can sustain long-term innovation and adaptation. It will be a fundamental part of liberating and creating a unique space culture.

America deserves a Space Force that is free of the cultural shackles of the compliance culture, that is liberated from the limiting airpower bias, that is not starved of talent, and which has the best chance to develop a unique space-mindedness to unlock the full expression of American space power. The sooner America can liberate both the organization and the mind of space, the better its chances are upon the high frontier.



Peter Garretson is an independent strategy consultant who focuses on space and defense. He was previously the director of Air University’s Space Horizons Task Force, America’s think tank for space, and was deputy director of America’s premier space strategy program, the Schriever Scholars. All views are his own.


Image: NASA