WASHINGTON — Amid the growing pains that come with being a new military branch, the U.S. Space Force is trying to establish its brand and build an identity.

“The amount of work that we’ve done in three years is absolutely eye-watering to me, but we’re still trying to figure out how to navigate” within the large military bureaucracy, said Lt. Gen. DeAnna Burt, deputy chief of the U.S. Space Force for operations, cyber and nuclear.

In an interview with SpaceNews, Burt said service leaders are being challenged on multiple fronts. As the smallest branch, the Space Force has a flatter structure and senior officers wear several hats. As a new organization less than four years old, the Space Force also wants to innovate, and has pushed changes in personnel policies, fitness tests and uniform design.

The Space Force is responsible for organizing, training and equipping forces to conduct operations in the space domain, such as flying satellites and ensuring these assets are always available. 

The service today has more than 12,900 members, known as guardians. That includes about 8,409 uniformed military and 4,519 civilians. By comparison, the Space Force’s parent service, the U.S. Air Force, has about 328,820 active duty personnel and 152,231 civilians. 

Even within the strict rules and deeply rooted norms of the Defense Department, “we want to try to do things differently,” said Burt, “whether that be talent management, focus on diversity and inclusion, being a digital service and flattening the organization.” 

For this to work, Burt said, “we have to find that balance of doing things in a new way, but also being part of the joint force.”

Uniforms, physical fitness tests

An example is a move by the Space Force to reinvent the annual physical fitness tests required for military members. Instead it is using a holistic approach where guardians volunteer to share fitness assessment data from wearable trackers. Participants are exempted from taking the conventional Air Force fitness test for two years. 

“This is going very well,” Burt said. “It’s the idea that holistic health is not just about a once-a-year test. It’s about being healthy all the time.” 

“All the services are watching this,” she said. “Initially there was a little pushback but now it’s in a good place.”

Another area where the Space Force has sought changes is women’s uniforms. 

The service was pilloried on social media in 2021 when a female guardian wore a prototype dress uniform with ill-fitting pants. 

In the Air Force all the uniforms were designed by men, said Burt. The Space Force now has a male designer for the male uniform and a female designer for the female uniform. Space Force Director of Staff Lt. Gen. Nina Armagno offered a sneak peak of the new dress uniform at the Space Symposium in April. 

The design specs and details of the Space Force female uniform are transferable to the Air Force, said Burt. “So I think in the end, the Air Force women’s uniforms are going to get better as a result of the work the Space Force is doing.”

A uniform design company measures guardians for proper uniform fit. Credit: U.S. Air Force photo by Andy Morataya

No problems recruiting so far

While the Army and the Air Force face shortfalls in recruiting, the Space Force attracts more applicants than it has slots to fill. 

Officials said this is due to the Space Force’s small size and growing enthusiasm in the U.S. about space career opportunities. The Space Force brought in 564 new active-duty guardians in Fiscal Year 2022. 

“We’re very selective” both in the selection of officers and enlisted personnel, said Burt. Having a large pool of candidates also allows the Space Force to “build diversity and inclusion from the ground up, so the force reflects the population we are defending.”

According to self-reported guardian racial demographics, the service is 63% White, 14% Hispanic or Latino and 7.5% Black or African American and 6.3% Asian. The remainder includes a mix of American Indian/Native Alaskan, Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander and others. 

Personnel initiatives such as providing opportunities to get advanced degrees and exchange programs with the private sector are intended to help retain skilled people, Burt said. A concern going forward is losing guardians to the higher-paying private sector.

Unlike in the larger military branches, younger officers in the Space Force have significant responsibilities because there are far fewer generals. In the Pentagon people have recognized that “I have colonels that I have to empower to send to meetings,” Burt said. “And they’re punching above their weight class and they’re doing great work,” she said. “They feel very empowered by the fact that they are given that level of responsibility.”

Burt herself manages areas that in the Air Force are overseen by five different general officers: Operations and logistics, cybersecurity, wargaming, nuclear command and control. She is also one of the rare three-star female generals overseeing operations.

“I tell you that often I’m the only woman at the table,” said Burt. That’s something she hopes will change as more female junior officers move up the ranks. “It’s still interesting how few female general officers are in this building.”

Gen. Chance Saltzman, chief of space operations, speaks to the Air University faculty at Maxwell Air Force Base. Credit: U.S. Air Force photo by Darius Hutton

New chief’s priorities

The Space Force chief of space operations Gen. Chance Saltzman earlier this year rolled out a list of priorities, the first of which is to field “combat ready forces.” 

Having a skilled workforce versed in advanced technology is key to meeting this goal, Burt said. “We have to provide the most exquisite space capabilities we can to the joint force and defend those capabilities so that they can continue to deliver.”

Saltzman also wants to define the “guardian spirit.” This means answering central questions such as “What do we expect of our guardians? And how do we evaluate talent and build talent based on our core values?”

The third priority, “partnering to win,” is about forging ties with foreign allies and with the commercial industry. 

Saltzman also wants the Space Force to become better known by the American public. “We all need to be spending time talking about what we’re doing and how we’re doing it,” said Burt. “Because it helps the American people understand where their tax dollars are going.”

Most people are not aware of their reliance on satellites for routine daily activities like using GPS or trading stocks, and what could happen if satellites in orbit were taken out of service. “We need to talk about it as much as we can,” said Burt. 

According to a memo Saltzman issued June 8, “Our effectiveness as a military organization depends on an unassailable relationship with the society we serve.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...