Why Space Force Needs a War College Just Like Everyone Else — and Why It Should Be Different
The United States has been active in space since 1958 — does it really need a Space War College to teach its military leaders how to act in, and think about, space now? Yes, it does. Can’t the Air Force educate Space Force officers since Space Force is still part of Air Force? No, it can’t. Air Force professional military education is geared toward developing strategic leaders that focus on the conduct of war in the air. The Space Force works in a radically different domain in terms of physics, size, and legal regime — that is, in space. Additionally, the Space Force is and will remain a comparatively small service whose limited personnel are in high demand. The Space Force not only needs its own war college to teach its officers how to think differently about their role in future conflict, but that war college should itself be designed to educate those officers in a new way that doesn’t take too many officers out of operational assignments for too long.
The physical, operational, and legal differences of the space domain require that space officers be educated to think differently about the contributions of space systems to warfare than members of other services, including the Air Force. Although American air, land, and sea forces can deploy all over the surface of the planet, what we call “space” is contiguous with all of that familiar territory and also extends to altitudes equal or greater to 100 kilometers above sea level. Additionally, space systems routinely conduct global operations over remote areas which terrestrial forces cannot access, whether for physical or legal reasons, in peacetime. Furthermore, spacecraft are in perpetual motion and do not base themselves anywhere, with the very limited exception of experimental space planes. Finally, terrestrial service members think in terms of transit time, range, and endurance to describe the reach of military operations. The Space Force is required to think in terms of access windows, revisit rates, and the tradeoffs between time, position, and total energy.
Current experience with professional education at the National Security Space Institute has shown just how much material is needed to adequately prepare Space Force officers for their strategic role in supporting the joint forces while protecting and defending U.S. space capabilities. Students analyze major national security and space strategic guidance, including more than a dozen U.S. and international space policies; numerous volumes of joint doctrine and Department of Defense directives; and a broad range of textbook chapters, reports, and scholarly articles. Simply adding a few space-themed electives to an Air War College curriculum does not serve the needs of the Space Force any more than sending new Space Force members to pilot training before teaching them to operate satellites would help. Although the space domain is contiguous with the air domain, the Space Force, as the Marines have done, should recognize that space missions require a dedicated venue for professional military education.
Earlier, Shorter, and More Accessible Education
In addition to operating in a unique domain, the Space Force is comparatively small and will likely remain so. This fact has several implications for the way the Space War College is designed. An assignment as a Space War College student should occur at the appropriate time to enhance an individual officer’s professional development for service in positions of greater responsibility which require greater strategic thinking. However, while the Space War College curriculum should be tailored for maximum impact, it should also more efficiently balance the amount of time its officers spend in the program against the need for them to apply what they learn in operational assignments. In this regard, the Space War College should depart from the approach currently implemented by the other services in three key areas: Education there should take place earlier in an officer’s career, require less time in residence, and be a professional development requirement for every officer, not only a select few. These three elements are likely to draw resistance and criticism from those familiar with, and emotionally or bureaucratically invested in, existing war college paradigms, but they are particularly necessary for the Space Force.
First, Space Force personnel should attend their war college as they transition from company-grade to field-grade officers (that is, from lieutenant and captain to major and lieutenant colonel), rather than as mid-level field graders for two reasons. The Space Force is responsible for military operations in a domain that is different not only in terms of scope and physical characteristics, but is conditioned by sensitive policy and legal constraints in peacetime, as well as war. Space Force officers are likely to find themselves in circumstances requiring them to “punch above their weight” and think strategically earlier in their careers and, thus, should be prepared to meet those challenges through advanced professional education at their war college as they enter the field-grade ranks. As they transition from serving as technical and operational experts, Space War College grads will be better able to think and “speak space,” as well as think and “speak joint” in order to communicate the strategic implications of actions they take in the domain to a wide variety of audiences. To do this, Space Force officers need a dedicated Space War College where critical thinking, problem solving, and strategic-level decision-making lessons are taught in the context of space to help them better understand how to integrate the distinctiveness of space warfare with their joint force partners. In so doing, Space Force members will also learn to work together to advance and refine strategic and theoretical thought regarding war and national security in a space context. This benefits both the Space Force and the United States in the pursuit of U.S. national interests.
Second, the necessity of educating Space Force officers a few years earlier in their careers brings with it the opportunity to balance the time spent in professional education with the operational demands of a small service. The Space War College should draw on lessons learned from the recent pandemic about remote education to teach Space Force students more efficiently, through a hybrid program of study which prepares officers before they arrive for a shorter period of in-residence study — perhaps six months, rather than nine to ten for other services. Students, separated into cohorts for online and in-residence learning would have the opportunity to develop a network of peers and space subject matter experts.
The Space Force would also need to create a curriculum that balances a necessary grounding in classical principles of war and leadership with specific space material. Since the principles of warfare apply to both terrestrial and space domains, the Space Force should teach those common principles in a space context, as well as teach officers about strategic leadership and the profession of arms found in their Air Force legacy and other domains. Students would study the works of influential theorists in other domains such as Carl von Clausewitz, Alfred Thayer Mahan, Billy Mitchell, and Thomas Schelling even as they study space-centric theory from John Klein and Bleddyn Bowen. Finally, they would learn about U.S., allied, and adversary strategic guidance, as well as commercial space actors and interests and international space-related organizations. The Space War College curriculum would incorporate lessons from all domains to prepare officers to effectively support the joint forces, but it would do so in a space-centric curriculum.
Third, all Space Force officers should be expected to attend their war college as they transition from company to field-grade responsibilities. This “democratic model” represents a significant change from the traditional “aristocratic model” employed by the other services, where only a select few attend war colleges. It is justified because the Space Force’s organization is so flat that virtually all field-grade officers will be in positions requiring them to demonstrate higher levels of critical and strategic thinking. Fortunately, the extremely small size of the Space Force that necessitates a democratic model also makes the democratic model possible. Air Force Col. Jason Lamb (writing as Col. Ned Stark) argues that the prevailing model in which war college attendance is reserved for a limited number of officers reinforces a system that stratifies an officer for advancement well before that officer has had a chance to perform at more than the tactical level. Sending every officer to Space War College would prepare all officers for their transition from being tactical experts to critical thinkers about warfare in the space domain capable of providing strategic recommendations about military space activities and working with international and commercial partners.
The Space Force has an opportunity to rethink professional military education. Unfortunately, it faces tradition-bound constraints.
Likely Criticism and Opposition
Resistance to the creation of a dedicated Space War College will no doubt come from many sources. The most likely points of contention with the above proposals are that the Air Force’s existing war college is sufficient to meet the Space Force’s needs and that war college education should be reserved in general for a smaller group of officers later in their careers. With regard to the first claim, the call for a separate Space War College is based on the need for advanced professional education specifically dedicated to the unique requirements of space as a military domain described above. The Air War College cannot be expected to sacrifice the time it dedicates to educating officers about the requirements of aerial warfare and strategy, nor should it. To do so diminishes the quality of education for Air Force officers and would not be in the interest of the United States and joint forces. The creation of a Space War College should not be seen as an unfair criticism of the Air War College. On the contrary, as Dr. Heather Venable recently pointed out, the Space Force should leverage its Air Force history rather than completely discard it. The Air Force itself took an important first step when it created a concentration dedicated to teaching space strategy at the intermediate level. Now that the Space Force has emerged as an independent service, it needs a mandatory, full-time space curriculum for all its officers. The Air Force is focused on educating its airmen. It is not focused on providing a space-centric education to the entire Space Force, nor is it resourced to do so.
As for the second criticism, that Space Force officers should wait a few years before attending a war college, some might argue that majors are taught staffing, not strategizing, in the other services and that space should be no different. However, due to the Space Force’s flatter, leaner organization, majors should be able to do both. There are simply not enough people in the Space Force to support field-grade officers who are staffers only. Some might also think that majors are not ready to think strategically. However, at the National Security Space Institute, we have taught majors to do just that in our space capstone course. We are responsible for the professional continuing education of all Department of Defense space professionals and we provide the highest level of space education a space professional receives today. As part of their coursework, students recommend changes to national space policy, develop a strategic estimate for United States Space Command, and determine resources necessary to implement a Space Command strategy. Due to the outstanding quality of the students’ work, we routinely forward those recommendations to Space Force and Space Command. Over time, the student population has shifted from O-5/6s to senior O-3/O-4s, with occasional O-5/6s in attendance. This was done because Air Force Space Command (before it became Space Force) determined that officers need the strategic and critical thinking skills learned at the National Security Space Institute to apply to their O-4 assignments.
New School, New Model
The newness of the Space Force, its small size, and its flat organization necessitate a hard look at its military education. This article focused on the Space War College since Space Force officers especially need to be strategic thinkers. However, all phases of professional military education should be reevaluated. Like the other services, the Space Force should have a war college to educate its personnel so they can excel at the conduct of warfare in the space domain and advance national security and space thought. Furthermore, the Space Force should leverage the available wealth of technology and lessons learned during the pandemic to make online learning a key element of the curriculum. Space Force officers who need to be able to think strategically should be given the opportunity to learn to do so at the midpoint of their careers rather than at the end. The Space Force has the opportunity to be agile, innovative, and bold as it designs its professional military education. It should seize this opportunity.
Jonty Kasku-Jackson is the head of the Space Mastery Department at the National Security Space Institute, where she is responsible for synchronizing space professional continuing education curriculum for space professionals across the Department of Defense. She has published in a number of venues, including Strategic Studies Quarterly, the Eisenhower Center’s Space and Defense Journal, and SpaceNews magazine. She is a graduate of Oregon State University and New England Law and holds a Juris Doctorate degree.
The views expressed in this paper represent the personal views of the author and are not necessarily the views of the Department of Defense or of the Department of the Air Force.