The Secret to Space Force Success Isn’t Complicated
The Washington chattering class has apparently decided that the Space Force has a public relations problem. Recent headlines about the new service include “The Space Force’s PR Problem,” “Can’t Hug a Satellite: General Addresses Space Force’s PR Problem,” and “Can Biden solve the Space Force’s public relations crisis?” And Gen. Jay Raymond, the head of the Space Force, and Neil deGrasse Tyson publicly talked about going on Saturday Night Live to better explain the Space Force to the American people.
But here’s the thing — the Space Force doesn’t have a real public relations problem. While it’s getting bad press in Washington, it’s supported by President Joe Biden and his administration and, according to polls, most Americans. Instead of responding to Beltway critics, the Space Force should continue to focus on delivering results to protect American interests in space. This year, the Space Force should focus on standing out from its sister services, articulating responsible behavior in space, and strengthening relationships with allies and partners. In addition, the service should articulate a 20-year strategic vision, embrace the U.S. commercial space renaissance, and focus on developing and buying capabilities affordably and quickly.
Views of the Space Force
The Space Force is in a strong position due to support from the American people and their representatives in Congress. First, the Space Force is viewed favorably outside of Washington. A recent Morning Consult poll showed that 61 percent of American adults support the recent Biden White House statement that the Space Force has the “full support of the Biden administration.” Perhaps more notably, more adults (23 percent) had no opinion about the Space Force than those who oppose it (15 percent). This is likely due to the simple fact that the Space Force is brand new. The Air Force has been around for over 70 years, while the Space Force was formally established in December 2019.
Second, the Space Force was established by an act of Congress with bipartisan majorities in both chambers. This is how Congress is supposed to work — study a difficult issue (e.g., security threats in space) and provide laws, policies, and funding for the executive branch to address the challenge. And while President Donald Trump was the loudest advocate for the Space Force, it originated from a bipartisan duo in Congress, Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) and Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), and was ultimately passed with strong bipartisan support. Biden supports the Space Force, as do the Democratic chairmen and ranking Republican members of the Armed Services Committees.
Third, the best measure of the Space Force’s real standing is recruiting, and here the numbers seem clear. According to Raymond, they have more people applying than they can take. In 2020, over 8,500 active duty Air Force airmen applied to transfer into 6,000 spots in the Space Force. And the number of Air Force Academy cadets graduating and joining the Space Force has quadrupled over the last two years.
To be clear, it is important for the Space Force, like the other military services, to explain their role and mission to the American people. Among other things, doing so attracts the young women and men who will be the future of the Space Force. The average American may not fully understand what exactly the Space Force is supposed to do. The Space Force has an opportunity and a responsibility to help Americans understand why space is important for security as well as exploration.
Results, Not Public Relations
The Space Force should be worrying about delivering results, not just improving public relations. The service was created to defend American interests in space and the clock is ticking. Our competitors, China and Russia, have developed sophisticated weapons aimed at American and allied space systems. China and Russia understand that space is critical to the U.S. military and economy. China famously destroyed one of its own satellites with an anti-satellite missile in 2007 (something the United States did in 1985) and has continued to rapidly develop and test new military tools to threaten space systems. Meanwhile, Russia is pursuing similar capabilities and conducted at least three tests of anti-satellites systems in 2020 alone. These threats are a key part of what drove the Trump administration and bipartisan leaders in Congress to create the Space Force. Now it’s the Space Force’s job to stay ahead of the threats and to protect American interests in space.
What does delivering results look like? The Space Force has generally outlined a good vision for the future. In addition, the Space Force should focus on standing out from the other services, defining responsible behavior in space, growing partnerships with allies and partners, laying out a 20-year vision, championing the U.S. commercial space renaissance, and achieving acquisition excellence.
First, the Space Force should be unafraid to distinguish itself from its sister services. The Space Force is the first new branch of the military created in almost a century, and it will likely remain an order of magnitude smaller in personnel than the next smallest military branch, the Marine Corps. The Space Force should be a 21st-century military service, not just a copy and paste of older military branches. It should move at speed, be flatter, embrace innovation, and try new ways of doing business. It should embrace the “natural inclusivity of space nerds” and think about recruiting standards differently. The Space Force should embrace being different from its bigger sister services (i.e., the Army, Navy, and Air Force) and should fight the natural urge to model itself after the other players in the Defense Department. Gen. Raymond is saying the right things, in his planning guidance and elsewhere, but the challenge is at the individual level. Will the mid-career officer who spent decades in the big Air Force bureaucracy be able to join the Space Force and behave differently? If the Space Force doesn’t aggressively embrace being different, it will accrete all the red tape, layers, and bureaucracy for which the Pentagon is famous. Gen. Raymond has set the right tone, such as focusing on being a digital service, but being different should be a permanent part of the Space Force’s DNA.
Second, the Space Force should articulate and model responsible military behavior in space. While the U.S. military has had capabilities in space for decades, space has only recently been recognized as a warfighting domain. The capabilities being developed by China and Russia mean that the first shot in a future conflict could very well occur in space. In order to avoid accidentally tripping into war in space, spacefaring militaries need to understand what responsible, professional behavior looks like in space. The United States knows what it doesn’t look like — the Russian defense ministry, for example, “tailed” a U.S. spacecraft and then later launched a weapon. Reckless behavior like this could easily result in unintended escalation or conflict, and articulating and modeling responsible behavior in space will help spacefaring militaries know what not to do. Gen. Raymond, and Gen. Jim Dickinson, commander of U.S. Space Command, have both publicly recognized the importance of articulating responsible behavior in space. And, on the civilian side, the assistant secretary of defense for space policy is working to consolidate a Department of Defense position on responsible behavior. Later this spring, the Departments of State and Defense have a unique opportunity to articulate this vision when they submit to the United Nations a proposal for principles for responsible behavior, in support of a United Kingdom-led resolution on space security.
Third, the service should continue strengthening relationships with allies and partners, particularly those with spacefaring militaries like Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom. The Space Force, U.S. Space Command, and the civilian leadership from the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy already have some strong relationships, particularly with the nations that are a part of the Combined Space Operations initiative. Allies and partners are essential to everything we do in space and are a vital strategic advantage in our long-term competition with China. The Space Force says the right things about the importance of allies and partners, but the challenge is turning those slogans into reality. How are America’s most capable partners integrated into designing, building, and training for space? And how can aspiring space nations take concrete steps to deepen their partnerships with the U.S. Space Force?
Fourth, the Space Force should develop and articulate a 10- or 20-year vision. What should the Space Force look like in 2030 or 2040? What missions and what capabilities does the Space Force need, in what orbits, and how many? This is not a science fiction “boots on the moon” exercise, but rather a core function of a military service — articulating a vision for the future and building a plan to get there. Gen. Raymond’s Chief of Space Operations Planning Guidance was a start, but now we need a detailed vision and plan. The Space Force needs something closer to Gen. David Berger’s guidance on force design or the Navy’s shipbuilding plan. This vision and plan is an important part of how Congress and the American people will understand what the Space Force is really about. And the vision will also enable allies and industry to better understand how they can partner with the Space Force.
Fifth, the new service should embrace and accelerate the U.S. commercial space renaissance. The private sector is leading America’s future in space. According to analysis by Morgan Stanley, the global space economy will likely grow from a $350 billion industry in 2018 to a $1 trillion industry by 2040. From the big names like SpaceX to the scores of smaller space startups, U.S. companies are leading the world in developing new and exciting technologies for space. Once again, the Space Force says the right things but needs to deliver results. This requires hard and careful thinking about how they enable the commercial space industry, both on a daily basis, and on a long-term structural basis. For example, the U.S. government’s decision to buy space launch as a service (instead of building its own rockets) has been key to unlocking the commercial innovation that we are seeing from American launch companies. In what other areas should the Space Force buy a service, instead of a satellite? And would this help encourage innovation, rather than just continuing to support the legacy space industry? The United States may not outspend China in space, but it can out-innovate China, and the Space Force’s relationship with the commercial space industry will be the key.
Sixth, the Space Force needs to buy things better. Being different, leveraging commercial space, and executing on a long-term vision requires that the service excel at acquisition. Improving acquisition is like motherhood and apple pie — the Space Force and everyone else supports it. But the Space Force has both inherited a legacy of poor performance and been given a unique moment to make improvements. This will require consolidating and streamlining the large number of space acquisition organizations that are scattered across the Department of Defense, which can be done through the establishment of a Space Systems Command. That command will then require the right tools, which may be described in an overdue report to Congress soon. But, realistically, the Space Force should execute with the acquisition tools it has today, while advocating for improved tools in the future. Ultimately, what matters is results — can the Space Force field the right capabilities, at the right time, at the right price?
The Space Force is only 15 months old, and is still establishing itself. It is surrounded by legacy business processes, in both the executive and legislative branches, that make it hard to move quickly and leverage commercial innovation while a flat budget will prevent progress in some areas. And building a new culture of speed and innovation, on top of legacy organizations, is difficult. At the same time, China and Russia are moving fast to bolster their military space capabilities.
The Space Force has a good vision, and now it needs to implement that vision. If the Space Force can deliver a 20-year vision that incorporates allies and leverages commercial space, publicly describe responsible behavior, and deliver capabilities rapidly and affordably all while building a unique service culture, the results will speak louder than any public relations campaigns, and American interests will be protected. So, for those in the Space Force, and those of us watching the Space Force, let’s stop arguing about public relations and focus instead on results.
Justin T. Johnson previously performed the duties of the assistant secretary of defense for space policy in the U.S. Department of Defense. Prior to that, he worked directly for the secretary of defense and played a key role in establishing the U.S. Space Force. You can follow him on Twitter at @jus10j.