Monday, February 20, 2006

Space Force?

Every now and then I want to unload with a more substantial topic than the 'Outrage of the Day'. So here goes...

Separate Space Force? Someday
A lot of 'futurists out there want a Space Force now.
and yeah, I've been thinking about this for a while.....


The discussion surrounding a possible separate military service responsible for "Space" has been heating up for years. Critics of the current system that has the Army, Air Force and Navy participating as components of a joint Strategic Command (an arrangement that has existed since 2002) feel the current system, like the system before it where individual service components reported to a unified U.S. Space Command, does not offer real advocacy for "Space".

The usual criticism is that the system merely perpetuates the relative apportionment of the "space pie". Whether or not the criticism is valid is not germane to the question of a need for a separate space service. What must be done is to use the principles and rationales that were behind the creation of the existing services, and overlay them on the current question of a separate space force. Using this methodology it will become obvious that there is no valid reason for creating a separate Space Force at this time.

Core Problem

The main difficulty in addressing the problem is that the individual service branches and the parent Department of Defense (DoD), as institutions, do not fully understand the reasons for the continued division in their responsibilities. They fail to understand the reasons because they do not recognize them. This failure comes about largely because the two most senior of the three independent services, the Army and the Navy have their conceptual roots in ancient history, and so the issue has not been thoroughly examined, or even greatly reflected upon, for centuries. It is also due to the fact that the third service, the Air Force, is still so new that some still believe it should be part of the other two services, and that the Air Force's own self-perception as an institution is still evolving(1).

Service self-perceptions have been further muddied in light of the Goldwater-Nichols (2) Act which, among other changes, made the nine unified combatant commands' Commanders (formerly called CINCs) directly responsible to the President through the Secretary of Defense. These Commanders are America's "warlords", who command organizations that have "broad, continuing missions" and are "composed of forces from two or more military departments (3).” Thus, the chain of command above the actual combatant commands now circumvents individual service chains of command and cultures. The individual services are no longer directly connected to, much less responsible for, the conduct of war.

Dilettantes and partisans assert that we have unnecessary overlap in the Roles and Missions of the different Services. Some have so grossly oversimplified the Service structures as to assert the US has ‘four air forces’ (4) or ‘two armies’(5). Setting aside resolving this issue for a moment, let us examine the specifics of the individual Service’s approach to the exploitation of the Space milieu.

Service Views on the Stewardship of Space

There was not even an American Air Force when the first military use of space occurred: the Nazi's V-2 rocket entered space on its sub-orbital hops from mainland Europe to England. At the end of the war, the Army and Navy vigorously pursued their own space programs using captured German technology as a seed for their own programs. The Army and Navy orbited the first and second United States military satellites respectively. The Air Force, as a new service in its own right, began immediately investigating military uses of space.

The Army and Navy saw (and still see) space as critical to performing their mission, and all services acknowledge that the Space dimension of warfare is going to grow even more important. This relevance to all the services drives their concern for space.

The Army and Navy stake some claim related to their role on land and sea, but only the Air Force has laid definitive doctrinal claim to space as a service-specific area of responsibility. All see space as part of a "continuum"(6) in which they operate, but the Navy and Army see it as part of a continuum of different environments through which they project force. Only the Air Force views space not as an extension into a different environment but as part of a continuous environment that is one of air AND space:

“Our Service views the flight domain of air and space as a seamless operational medium. The environmental differences between air and space do not separate employment of aerospace power within them.”(7).

It is this concept of the medium, central to the Air Force view, which caused Air Force General Larry D. White to coin the term “aerospace,” in 1954, and also later led to the Air Force being assigned the land based leg of the strategic "Triad"; ICBMs.

So all the Services find “Space” a critical element to their mission. When will Space warrant it’s own separate Service?

Looking Back To The Origins of the Existing Services

As mentioned earlier, the key to justifying the origin of a separate Space Force is found in the origins of the existing services.

The concept of an "Army" precedes recorded history, or at the very least has existed since history began. An army's purpose was (and is) to advance or defend some social construct. Since warfare only occurred on land, ancient armies were responsible for the total defense needs of a society.

In ancient times, a state’s ‘navy’ was the sum total of all it’s sea-going fleet of merchant ships. Around 1200 BC, the first recorded sea battle occurred between the Egyptians and the Sea People. This first battle was between sea-borne infantry forces carried aboard small ships designed for other purposes. If the nature of man has not changed too much over the centuries, there can be little doubt this battle on the ocean set off the first calls for an independent combat Navy: But for centuries that followed, the Navy's sole combat purpose was to transport the Army to far shores for use in land battles. While occasionally sea combat occurred, it was always in context of supporting land-based objectives, by ramming the enemy and using foot soldiers engaged in close combat. Eventually, technologies were developed for sea-based combat, such as purpose built ships with catapults (the first naval artillery). Over time the growing importance of sea-borne trade to a society's survival also created a need to protect that trade. The focus then shifted to exploiting the sea medium as a means to directly support societal objectives, not exploiting the sea medium to support land-oriented combat. In short, control of the sea became an important objective in its own right.

Roles and Missions Vs. Mediums and Methods

Modern discussions of the different services have focused on how their Roles and Missions are unique yet mutually supportive. But ‘Roles and Missions’ are the ‘what’ in how Service responsibilities differ and are merely products of the differences in ‘Mediums and Methods’.

The ‘Mediums and Methods’ are the ‘why’ we have different Services.

For centuries now, the purpose of the Army has been to exploit terrain and the Navy's has been to exploit the sea to support societal (now national) objectives. When man first began to fly, a new medium for conflict and exercising National Power became available. It’s an environment distinctly different from the others, in that it is a three-dimensional and global medium. Like the earliest naval combat example, it was originally viewed in the context of its usefulness to the other mediums, but over time has become important in its own right (non-withstanding the fact that there are those who would see the Air element as forever a supporting element.)

The other services still use the air (now aerospace) as an environment in exploiting their primary mediums, as the Air Force also uses the land and sea in exploiting aerospace. The key to understanding the delineation among the services is to understand that while they all use the land, sea, and aerospace mediums, each one is only responsible for development of methods to exploit one of the mediums. Thus, instead of thinking of the services in terms of Roles and Missions, it is more appropriate to think of the delineation in terms of Mediums and Methods.

The Goldwater-Nichols Act has driven home this concept, by completing the separation of the individual services from the direct responsibility to conduct warfare operations and explicitly tasking the individual services for providing the right forces, through training, research and development, and acquisition, to exploit their respective mediums under a joint service effort.

Air and Space or Aerospace?

So at what point does Aerospace yield to "Space"? As stated earlier, the key to justifying the origin of a separate Space Force is found in the origins of the existing services. Each service is chartered to exploit a medium for national defense. The need for each service to become a separate entity came about when its medium and operation within that medium became important in its own right to a societal interest. At this time, all space operations (8) are important as a support element to or sub-part of operations in the other mediums, and clearly within the concept of Aerospace. As the 'space' portion of Aerospace becomes a more critical part of what would previously be considered pure "air" operations, it would probably be appropriate for the Air Force to become the Aerospace Force.


Space will become an important medium in its own right when stand-alone activity in space becomes important to national interests. When space becomes an important medium in its own right, separate from its support function to operations in other mediums, space will warrant a separate service charter to exploit and develop the medium of Space sans "Aero." This will likely occur after we are living and working permanently in deep space, executing non-earth-centric operations and then only after we are out there with a more significant investment in resources and personnel. Examples of this kind of environment includes permanent self-sustaining space-borne activities, such as Lunar or Lagrangian-based large scale manufacturing concerns, that cannot be effectively protected or developed by Aerospace forces. Eventually, as extra-terrestrial colonization is established, a Space Force will be necessary to ensure free trade and movement among far-flung interests.

(1) See The Masks of War and The Icarus Syndrome by the late Carl Builder for excellent analyses and summaries of the service branchs' self-perception.
(2) See Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986 at for a complete summary.
(3) Ibid
(4) Senator Sam Nunn on the Senate Floor, 1992.
(5) Richard D. Hooker, America’s 2 Armies,
(6) An excellent example of this is found in Space is an Ocean, a briefing on the Naval Strategic Vision for Space by the Strategy and Policy Division (N51), Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, retrieved 1 March 2002 from
(7)United States Air Force, The Aerospace Force (Washington D.C., 2000), i. See also, United States Air
Force, America’s Air Force Vision 2020: Global Vigilance, Reach, and Power, (Washington D.C., 2000), page 3.
(8) See The Transformation of American Air Power by Benjamin S. Lambeth. “A functional or operational, as opposed to a systems, approach to thinking about space power application should make the differences between orbital and atmospheric operations irrelevant.” Page 258 (Cornell University Press, 2000)

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