Op-ed | Only a separate service can create a space culture
Today, a distinct space warfighting culture is nonexistent inside the Department of Defense. Without this foundation, there stands no single organization that consolidates space expertise to field, develop, and operate the world’s most sophisticated space capabilities. There is no single author of space-specific warfighting doctrine, and most importantly, no ecosystem to foster growth of the space professional cadre and provide space the proper voice in the most senior ranks of the military. Absent these cornerstones, the U.S. will not preserve its superiority in space.
Congress has the power to alter this inadequate status quo and is beginning to reveal its plans to reorganize national security space. Lawmakers must take bold action and create a separate branch of the armed forces dedicated to space.
Three more visible issues have garnered the most attention and have so far been the focus for reform. First, the strategic environment is rapidly changing and Russian and Chinese military threats are offsetting U.S. advantages in space. Next, the acquisition process for new, resilient space capabilities is too slow, too costly and inflexible. Finally, military space programs, the majority of which reside in the Air Force, have not been appropriately prioritized for funding against other service priorities.
Both Congress and the DoD should be commended for their recognition of these challenges. There have and will continue to be incremental improvements made in the near-term. However, minor bureaucratic successes, promises, and the lack of a catastrophic event in space continues to lull senior leaders and lawmakers into complacency.
Efforts so far are nothing more than symptomatic triage rather than long-term solutions. The real problem has festered for decades and is continually downplayed in the debate precisely because it requires visionary and controversial action: how to reform a marginalized military space culture that is stifling the advancement and cultivation of civilian and uniformed military space talent.
If the culture issue is not addressed, the current organization will fail to develop the human capital required to preserve U.S. dominance in space against competitors. Instead a second-class space cadre will find its most visionary members driven out through exasperation, greener pastures in commercial space, or forced to compromise themselves to promote within the dominant service culture of the other military branches.
America’s military triumphs because of its outstanding service members cultivated in mission-focused services charged with mastery of their domain. The members and culture are inextricably linked. There is no debate that the U.S. Army creates the world’s best warriors for movement and maneuver on land, that the U.S. Navy is the very best at dominating the seas, or that the U.S. Air Force is the same in the air. Human talent, coupled with a distinct and credible warrior culture, is what fuels not just the world’s greatest military, but a broader spirit of American ingenuity and perseverance that allies seek and enemies fear.
Expecting a single service to dominate in two domains is a dangerous proposition.
The Air Force’s culture has never shifted from flying and supporting air operations even with an increasing military reliance on space. Air dominance remains the core of the Air Force’s existence and the service must stay laser-focused on developing the warriors and systems necessary to maintain it. This weighty responsibility comes at a cost; and when resources and manpower are constrained, the choice of competencies to defer is obvious — space. But rather than advance from repeated calls for reorganization over the past two decades, space-mindedness has continued to suffocate in an air-centric culture that has stifled growth of national security space leaders.
The cruelty of this reality for Air Force space professionals begins early in a member’s career. To appease promotion boards made up primarily of officers from aviation or aviation support specialties, space officers must mimic aviation cultural behaviors in their duties, performance reports and even dialect, adopting jargon as needed. “Write your accomplishment so a pilot can get it” is genuinely mentored to new lieutenants in space operations to help them succeed. This tacitly dilutes space domain-specific accomplishments and subsumes the fledgling space culture into the broader air-dominated service culture.
It is difficult to build a culture or manage talent when the space mission’s makeup, deliberate development and education are random and loosely managed. The career field called Space Operations, the pipeline for most senior space military leaders, is not a selectively manned officer career field, rather it is filled with both volunteers and non-volunteers. Routinely, officers bypassed for pilot duties or unable to complete flying training are placed in the field mostly on a non-volunteer basis. It is difficult to understate just how damaging this is to accessing the precise foundation of space cadre from day one.
In addition, space engineering and acquisition careers are managed separately, not deliberately integrated with those of space operators, with many engineers and program managers forced to work years outside of space-related programs. Other career fields critical to space superiority, such as intelligence and cyber, lack space specialization and deliberate personnel development starting early in their careers. When it comes to workforce education, rather than create or utilize existing, domain-specific education, space personnel are largely sent to service schools focused on air, ground, or sea power.
Most military solutions to space problems offered by Air Force space professionals, owing to the dominance of the air culture, naturally begin their intellectual foundation from airpower concepts and doctrine. The methodology to prepare and present space forces, the space mission force, is modeled after similar models for the combat and mobility air forces. The premier space mission planning training event, Space Flag, takes its name from the service’s elite aerial combat training exercise, Red Flag. While imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, it does nothing to develop a culture, but rather conforms its people to the airpower lineage of the service.
Understanding these realities, it will come as no surprise that space personnel will be selected for promotion and developmental education at lower rates than aviation counterparts in the Air Force or other communities in the Army and Navy. Well intentioned efforts to boost these rates, such as separating space from aviation personnel on promotion boards or increasing school slots, actually exacerbate the problem, arbitrarily shaping the ranks of the workforce without legitimate and focused talent development. Until a cadre of space professionals is removed from the shadow of the air-centric culture of the Air Force and establish their own service, one that deliberately grows, educates and promotes its best, the DoD will never truly maximize space warfighting capability.
Space Force (or whatever title Congress settles on) provides an incredible opportunity to build a service culture from the ground up, implementing lessons learned from decades of personnel administration failures across the services and adopting contemporary ideas for an ultra-modern domain. Together, DoD and Congress can shape Space Force at the outset, stipulate relief from harmful personnel management legislation and break the Pentagon’s bureaucratic mold of rank by seniority, establishing a genuine meritocracy that rewards, promotes and preserves top talent. Space Force should be able to recruit, train, educate, and retain the best and brightest from not just commissioning and enlistment sources, but also academia, industry, think tanks, and government service, while encouraging members to cycle in and out to diversify expertise.
By breaking traditional restraints and predispositions on human capital management and creating a distinct separate service, Space Force can be the incubator for a culture that develops all members toward a specific goal: domain-specific excellence. Space Force members will establish an identity as space warfighters and will master, rather than triage, the problems of today, while ensuring dominance in the future.
Getting there will require revolutionary leadership and bold vision, hallmarks of America’s national defense when facing its greatest challenges. Standing up a new service must be an iterative and collaborative process, unconditionally reliant upon sincere DoD transparency and effective, yet responsible Congressional oversight. DoD must act in good faith; just as ready to disclose failures and ask for help as it is to flaunt successes. Congress must view Space Force matters paramount to national security and not of political or parochial interest.
Change won’t be easy, it won’t happen overnight, and it won’t come for free. Nothing worth doing or having, particularly when national security is at stake, ever is. When Congress finally legislates a separate service, satellites will not instantaneously be developed any cheaper, quicker or be more resilient. Russia and China, with their own service-specific space forces, will not back down from developing capabilities to offset U.S. space advantage. Commanders will not immediately be able to execute space capabilities via the defined doctrine and operational concepts required to prevail in this warfighting domain.
However, the organizational inertia will finally be set in motion to develop a legitimate service culture that cultivates a cadre of space leaders who will transform the enterprise and never compromise U.S. superiority in space.
John Galer is a space operations officer in the U.S. Air Force. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Air Force, Department of Defense or the U.S. government.