The birth of the Space Force some 73 years after the Air Force separated from the Army is rife with opportunity. Executed correctly, it can empower new thinking and creativity in how space is applied to warfare and diplomacy, accelerate the development of new capabilities, and yield unimagined strategic advantages for US defense.
Yet we must not ignore the risks should the launch fail to go as planned. Increased tribalism, underfunding for necessary resources, insufficient personnel, lack of integration of the multitude of agencies with a role in space, and the associated loss of synergy, trust, and coordination, could all undermine the intent of the new military service. The entire Defense Department must unite to keep that from happening, as all of DOD will depend on the capabilities a strong and effective Space Force brings to the fight.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein and the new Chief of Space Operations, Gen. John W. “Jay” Raymond, clearly understand the stakes. They’ve seen their share of interservice and interagency dysfunction over their 30-plus years of active service, and both are respected for consistently rising above that parochialism to form high-performing cross-functional teams. Their experience as joint operators will inform the decisions they make now and into the future.
For the thousands of Airmen affected, however, the risks and challenges may not be fully apparent. The rush to declare independence and the power that results could be dangerously intoxicating for some. Unity of effort and joint force thinking can easily collide with the natural drive to settle old scores, create new power bases, and form new fiefdoms. How leaders respond, and what they do to ensure perpetual affinity between the Air and Space forces will go a long way toward defining how we look back at Dec. 20, 2019, the day the Space Force was born.
The Department of the Air Force, in which Space Force lives, must evolve. To make clear its full role and responsibility, it should become the Department of the Aerospace Forces. The Air Force and Space Force can and should coexist within that single framework, a nod to the inextricable ties between air and space warfare and the hazy line that separates the two domains. There is no reason to create a new secretariat to oversee space.
This is not to say, however, that it is not essential for the new Space Force to develop and establish its own identity and culture. Doing so will communicate what the new force values and what kind of leaders it develops in the future. If today’s leaders do not begin to define those cultural touchpoints and values now, others will do so for them, and not necessarily with the best vision or intent. General Raymond won’t do it all on his lonesome, but he will have to take the point in nurturing the best ideas and debates while gently redirecting—and even, when necessary, snuffing out—divisive and counterproductive influences.
First in the order of cultural matters is what to call members of the Space Force. For now, of course, they remain Airmen, but that’s not going to last—nor should it. Space Force members deserve to be distinctly recognizable and identifiable, just like Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines. Coast Guardsmen sail, but they are not Sailors. So it is with Airmen in the Space Force. If the service tries to stick with “Airmen,” the space Airmen will inevitably differentiate on their own—or, worse, succumb to whatever nickname others pin on them.
What should they be called? Spaceman is uninspired. Few, if any, will ever actually operate in space, and the term evokes hokey images from ancient sci-fi movies.
Sentinel, favored by some, is not much better. By definition, a sentinel is a Soldier standing watch. Our new Space Force will do far more than that, deploying systems and weapons in space, enabling complex communications and intelligence gathering, and ultimately operating offensively and defensively from among the stars.
Astro or Astron are also options. Meaning “of or relating to the stars,” Astro derives from the Greek Astron, meaning star. These relate directly to space and check all the other boxes: just two syllables (like Sailor, Soldier, Airman, and Marine); gender neutral; self-explanatory; without significant secondary meaning. They are unique and relatable.
Uniforms will be another matter. Clothes make the person. While some will inevitably cry out about waste, uniforms matter to recruiting and retention; how one looks relates to how one feels. The Space Force will have a unique opportunity to design uniforms for precisely the kind of work its members do and for the times in which we live. Think of dress uniforms for the information age, no neckties, and performance fabrics.
Uniform envy poses risks, of course. In the utilitarian 1970s and 80s, the military adopted common camouflage utilities. When Marine Commandant Gen. James L. Jones wanted to create a uniquely Marine camouflage pattern in the late 1990s, the Marines’ eagle, globe, and anchor logo was designed into the pattern to ensure the other services would steer clear. In the resulting arms race of camouflage patterns, the Navy created a uniform that perversely made Sailors stand out on the decks of ships but hid them in the waves if they fell overboard. The Army wasted $1 billion before it dropped its universal camouflage pattern because it was putting troops at risk in Afghanistan. Such is what happens when tribalism reaches illogical extremes.
Nomenclature and uniforms are symbolic touchpoints. They mask the more contentious struggles to come over roles, missions, and resources.
For the Space Force to be successful, Congress and the Pentagon will have to consolidate space assets, capability, know-how, and budgets from the other services. Simply renaming Air Force Space Command “Space Force” won’t get us anywhere. Just as critical, they will have to finally address the fate of pass-through funding that has for years masked the true size of the Air Force budget.
That so-called “non-blue” pass-through amounted to $38 billion in 2019 and will top $39.1 billion in 2020, money that funds the space assets of the National Reconnaissance Office. Significantly, it’s more than the entire Space Force budget and will be for years to come.
The right solution is to consolidate the NRO and its budget into the Space Force, providing the means and capability to make bold and significant decisions about space investment into the future. Failing that, the pass-through should be specifically attached to the NRO if that is to remain separate from the Space Force, because neither the Air Force nor Space Force has any control over those resources. This will help to accurately and honestly portray the nation’s investment in each military domain—air, land, sea, and space—and ultimately better defend the American people. That, after all, is why we have armed services in the first place.