The Creation of a U.S. Space Force: It’s Only the End of the Beginning
Mankind has had ten-thousand years of experience at fighting and if we must fight, we have no excuse for not fighting well.
A new U.S. Space Force has become a reality. On Dec. 20, the president signed the Fiscal Year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, which establishes a separate space branch of the military under the U.S. Air Force with Title 10, U.S. Code authorities. While some national security experts have hailed a Space Force as the cure for U.S. national security woes in space, the creation of a new space service is not the end-all solution. Far from it: Establishing the Space Force is only the end of the beginning. The U.S. Space Force will need to develop a service ethos and distinct operational styles of warfare more suited for considering conflict within the space domain.
Discussions on the need for a separate space service have been ongoing for decades. Even with the creation of a Space Force, challenges will remain. In noting the many long-term and systemic challenges faced by the U.S. national security space community, especially regarding potential reorganization and space strategy development, Peter Hays wrote in 2011:
It is unclear whether the United States will be able to find and follow the best path forward for space strategy, implement the best management and organizational structures for space activities, and sustain the political will needed to continue funding the nearly simultaneous modernizations currently planned.
Creating a Space Force is a dramatic step for addressing great-power competition in space. But while Space Force discussions commonly focus on the need to address today’s emerging global and counter-space threats, the true value of the Space Force will come later, as the understanding of space’s character and development of distinct culture and operational style unleash the full promise of military innovation.
Acknowledging Space Warfare’s Distinct Character
Future Space Force strategists will need to acknowledge that space warfare has a character differing from conflict on land, at sea, or in the air. Land warfare theorist Carl von Clausewitz emphasized the enduring nature of war — elements common to war and strategy independent of time, polity, geography, and technology. Yet, Clausewitz viewed the character of warfare as something that can change. It is how war as a phenomenon is manifested in the real world. Because war is a political act that takes place in and among societies, a war’s specific character is shaped by those politics and those societies, or what Clausewitz called the “spirit of the age.” Accordingly, he wrote, “Every age has its own kind of war, its own limiting conditions, and its own peculiar preconceptions.” The character of warfare within each domain of conflict is different because of these limiting conditions and the “kind of war” conducted therein.
This duality of nature and character extends beyond the land domain. Maritime strategist and sea power advocate Alfred Thayer Mahan similarly noted the enduring nature of war but also wrote about its ever-changing character: “From time to time the superstructure of tactics has to be altered or wholly torn down; but the old foundations of strategy so far remain, as though laid upon a rock.”
These observations also ring true for warfare in space. The current “spirit of the age” of space warfare holds that space is a warfighting domain. The character of space warfare will be distinct from conflict in the other domains, due to national interests, the space environment and associated physics, the current international legal regime, and advanced space technologies. Even though conflict initiated in or extending into space will be part of a war with an enduring nature, Space Force servicemembers should recognize that space warfare will have its own character.
Developing a Distinct Operational Style
Once space strategists and operators understand the character of space warfare, they can begin to develop a distinct operational style for considering conflict in space. Military institutions prepare to fight in the manner that they prefer, unless strategic circumstances or orders from above command otherwise. A service’s culture helps determine those operational styles considered most appropriate and feasible. As Thomas Mahnken has noted, particularly regarding transformation and revolutions in military affairs:
The culture of the U.S. armed services influenced the technologies that they chose to pursue. Technology does not dictate solutions. Rather, it provides a menu of options from which militaries choose. A service’s culture, in turn, helps determine which options are more or less attractive.
In writing about the differences in service culture and how they chose to fight, Carl Builder described the distinct styles of combat among the Army, Navy, and Air Force, based upon institutional preferences or organizational personalities. This thinking is in line with Morton Halperin’s premise that an organization’s essence influences an organization’s adopted position on any given issue. As such, the dominant group within an organization, such as a military service, largely determines the policies and strategies implemented, while influencing cultural development. In the future, a Space Force’s culture will shape directly which technologies are procured and how those technologies are employed operationally. Based upon strategic experience within the other domains of conflict, a Space Force is likely, in time, to develop its own culture and ethos, which will then be used in determining the operational style for considering space warfare and achieving strategic success.
Through the creation of a Space Force and its eventual unique service culture, Space Force professionals will unleash innovation. Stephen Rosen notes that military innovation and change is best done during peacetime, and peacetime innovation is a process that has successfully built U.S. military capabilities. Space Force innovation will include optimizing for effective and efficient operations and developing distinctive thinking. First, space-minded servicemembers will be able to focus on the employment of military means in, from, or through space. This will lead to a better understanding of the most effective and efficient methods to protect national security interests in space. Both the Air Force and Marine Corps provide aircraft supporting air domain operations, but each service has discerned differently how to employ its available capabilities in the best manner possible, given dissimilar mission requirements. Likewise, Space Force servicemembers will develop improved architectures and doctrine for conducting effective and efficient space operations. These servicemembers will learn to advocate for those necessary resources that enable success during a conflict initiated in or extending into space. Through this advocacy, improved space capabilities and services can be developed, procured, and optimized.
Second, a Space Force will eventually develop distinctive thinking from combat experience. Thucydides observed that “war is a violent teacher.” A U.S. Space Force will learn important lessons from successes and failures during conflicts initiated in or extending into space. Warfare can be unforgiving in the errors of strategy, operational art, and organizational constructs. From combat experience, Space Force professionals will eventually develop novel ways of thinking, including new frameworks for considering strategic space theory. Although it is unforeseeable how Space Force culture will eventually evolve, experience from the other services suggests that this culture will be foundational for understanding of how space operations fit within the larger joint warfighting construct.
Much More to Do
Establishment of a U.S. Space Force embraces the Clausewitzian concept of war’s ever-changing character. A Space Force will be part of this ongoing change and will eventually develop an operational style more suited for addressing military conflict in space, instead of relying on those operational styles associated with land warfare, sea control, or airpower theories. The Space Force will develop specialists focused on the changing character of space warfare, along with educating masters of its operational art. A Space Force culture will facilitate innovative thinking, including formulating more effective and efficient space approaches and architectures. Furthermore, a better understanding of space warfare’s ever-changing character will lead to profound insights into space as a domain of conflict. These insights include discerning space grand strategy, crafting practical space strategies to address great-power competition, and developing meaningful operational constructs.
A new U.S. Space Force is an important organizational change within the Defense Department, especially given that the last time a new service was created was the U.S. Air Force in 1947. The current excitement means that many policymakers expect change to be immediate, but the Space Force’s most essential benefits will not be realized until later. Actual experience with a conflict initiated in or extending into space will afford an additional understanding of the character of conflict in space and will shape future space service culture. Also, further development of the Space Force ethos and service culture may come once a Space Service Academy and Space War College are established, similar to those in the other U.S. military services. Even though the U.S. Space Force is established, its future roles and missions cannot be fully foreseen. As T. E. Lawrence’s epigraph at the beginning alludes, strategic experience provides a bounty of knowledge for considering future military operations, and strategists should heed his advice. If warfare does extend into the space domain and we must fight, the United States has no excuse for not fighting well.
John J. Klein is a Senior Fellow and Strategist at Falcon Research, Inc., and Adjunct Professor at George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute. He is the author of the books Understanding Space Strategy: The Art of War in Space (2019) and Space Warfare: Strategy, Principles and Policy (2006). The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Falcon Research, George Washington University, or the U.S. Government.