In the opening scenes of the movie “Gettysburg,” the film adaptation of the brilliant Civil War novel “Killer Angels,” Union Brig. Gen. John Buford gazes across the rolling Southern Pennsylvania hills and laments the plodding tactics of his commanders. Imagining the battle to come as an inevitable failure, he says: “When our people get here, Lee will have the high ground and there will be the devil to pay.”
Buford did not wait for orders from above. Seizing the high ground for the Union, he turned the tables on the Confederates such that it was the Union, and not Lee, that held the high ground and the rocks when the battle began in earnest. Thus it was Lee, and not the Union, whose forces withered and lost the ensuing battle.
The war—and the preeminent place the United States has held in the world ever since—may well have hinged on that decision.
The quest for the high ground is as old as war itself. A castle on a hill was harder to attack and provided the early warning to spot marauders while they were still a long way off. Attacking from on high offered other advantages, including speed and range, factors that remain critical even today. Manned flight—from balloons and dirigibles to powered flight in and beyond the atmosphere—take that concept to its natural conclusions.
Ignore the nonsense.
Seize the high ground.
Win the fight.
“Spacepower,” the foundational doctrine of the U.S. Space Force, was released in August. In it, the new military branch defines space as “a critical manifestation of the high ground in modern warfare”—one might even say the ultimate high ground. Providing a God’s-eye view of the world beneath, legal, permission-free overflight, and the means to move and manage information globally at unparalleled speed, space is transformational.
Space also is increasingly contested by other ambitious powers and crowded by commercial and military ventures. It may not be crowded like Times Square on New Year’s Eve, but as traffic increases, it is becoming more complex. Commercial operators are fixing to launch constellations of thousands of satellites, creating a host of new business opportunities—and potential military targets.
America does not own this high ground outright. The Space Force’s objective, according to the doctrine, is to ensure the freedom to operate where, when, and how we wish; to enable the remainder of the Joint Force with precision, strategic warning, and global communications, and the ability to provide—independent of the other services—military options in, from, and to space.
To do this, the Space Force envisions five core competencies: space security, to ensure a stable operating environment for both military and civilian space activities; combat power projection, to enable offensive and defensive actions to deter aggression and fight and win if necessary; space mobility and logistics, to enable movement of people and equipment in space; information mobility, to ensure timely data collection and transmission; and domain awareness, to ensure effective identification and understanding of activity in space.
It is instructive to note that only one of these core competencies explicitly describes people in space. While combat power projection could conceivably involve manned space planes in the future, the near-term and foreseeable reality is that man’s role in space will be to manage the domain via remote control, much as we do today. While astronauts assigned to NASA man the International Space Station, our Space Force can expect to do its business from the familiar confines of our terrestrial atmosphere.
Of course, some have more ambitious notions of what the Space Force should be and do. Last winter, when the Air Force Association hosted Elon Musk at the Air Warfare Symposium, he not only silenced the room by declaring “the fighter jet era has passed,” but also opined on the brand-new Space Force. It needs “really cool” uniforms, he said, and should cast its gaze outward toward interplanetary travel, rather than back at Earth.
Then we have the comedic Netflix series “Space Force,” which presents a new service branch intent on “putting boots on the moon.” And this summer, in real life, Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas) managed to convince his House colleagues—overwhelmingly from the opposite party—to agree to an amendment to the 2020 defense authorization bill that would require the Space Force to adopt Navy ranks. Crenshaw, who was medically retired from the Navy as a lieutenant commander, is a combat-decorated Navy SEAL.
The appeal of naval ranks, of course, flows from the visions conjured up by science fiction writers in the 1950s and ’60s, the same romantic souls who scripted Captain Kirk to be a cosmic Casanova with a star-crossed femme fatal on every planet. Our 21st century Space Force needs more appropriate role models.
Proponents argue a new rank structure is essential to help the Space Force peel away from its Air Force roots. But if that’s so, why cleave to the Navy instead? How does that advance the cause of an independent Space Force?
Chief of Space Operations Gen. John “Jay” Raymond is obligated to consider every possibility and deserves the freedom of maneuver to fashion the Space Force as a bold and innovative endeavor. He isn’t building just today’s Space Force, but one that can stand a century onward. If the Space Force does indeed require a new rank structure, it should invent one.
But, do not be hasty. In an increasingly joint military, are more ranks and more potential for confusion advantageous? Might they instead prove a distraction? If the rank insignia remain the same for ease of recognition, ought not the names of the ranks remain the same, as well? How does changing the second lieutenants into ensigns make the force more lethal? And if it doesn’t make the force more lethal, why do it?
America needs a more effective Joint Force to deter aggressors and, if necessary, fight and defeat them in short order. The Space Force was created for that very reason, to focus national attention on the critical fourth domain and its impact on all the others. Every action to define its creed should advance this objective. Actions that fail to advance that ball ought to be rejected.
Here, the Space Force’s motto—Semper Supra—Always Above—offers inspiration.
Ignore the nonsense. Seize the high ground. Win the fight.