The idea of a new military space organization had barely entered public consciousness when Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah” arrived in South Carolina to ask about the Space Force. President Donald J. Trump was touting the prospect of a sixth service, and a “Daily Show” correspondent attended a Trump rally to see how attendees felt about the proposal.
One man thought it had to do with cloud computing. A woman said she expected a new venture into space exploration. Someone else acknowledged the need for space regulations. “I think ISIS could get to space,” another woman suggested.
The Islamic State group isn’t advanced enough to launch anything into orbit, and the segment was styled for comedic effect. But it illustrates a larger issue ahead for America’s new Space Force: Getting everyday people to grasp exactly what a military space service can and will do. For most, space policy is still more science fiction than reality—the stuff of a galaxy far, far away. They imagine laser-toting gunships and interplanetary bases, not airmen at consoles adjusting satellites in orbit.
Those perceptions have persisted through about 18 months of pressure from the White House to make the Space Force a reality. Cheered by years-long proponents in Congress, legislators approved the new service as part of the Air Force in the fiscal 2020 defense policy and spending bills. The US Space Force was officially launched Dec. 20, 2019.
As Gen. John W. Raymond and others from Air Force Space Command—the nearly four-decade-old organization that oversaw space personnel and programs and now forms the basis of the Space Force—begin to define and build the fledgling service, the Pentagon will have to dispel misconceptions and get to the real work of bringing in members.
At its core, the Space Force aspires to pull together the Defense Department’s space experts—the majority of whom work for the Air Force—under one umbrella to look after military interests in the cosmos. Although the initial population will come from the Air Force, “the long-term vision of the DOD is still to consolidate the preponderance of space missions across the services into the Space Force,” officials said. That spans everything from the Global Positioning System satellite constellation to weather satellites, nuclear missile detection systems, military rockets, and communications networks.
Air Force, DOD, and White House officials say the Space Force will also support NASA’s push to return to the Moon and go beyond, leveraging commercial industry’s space boom driven by companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin, and partner with other federal agencies such as the Commerce Department that will act as the traffic cop of the heavens. It can track the growing amount of space debris and fend off potential missile attacks and signal jamming—leading the way toward possible offensive capabilities of its own.
Much of the Air Force’s initial blueprint for establishing the early Space Force over the next 18 months requires officials to figure out details as they go. Stand-up is slated to last until 2024.
As part of the Fiscal 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, lawmakers asked for a slew of information in the first organizational blueprint, which should cover fiscal 2021-2025, and other reports. Members of Congress want to see the Space Force’s requirements for its procurement, development, personnel, construction, and operations accounts in the Feb. 1 report.
They also asked for the Defense Secretary to suggest amendments within two months of the law’s enactment to help “fully integrate the Space Force as an Armed Force, and the regular and reserve military and the civilian personnel of the Space Force, into current law.” A separate report, due within 180 days of enactment, would help ensure the Space Force brings in quality employees, sets up pay and promotion processes, details training, and more.
The first step will be to bring in uniformed service members. Over the next year and a half, the Space Force will begin to consolidate Air Force-run space programs under the control of the new Chief of Space Operations. AFSPC boss Raymond will play that role for now, while at the same time leading the Joint Force combatant command US Space Command. In his role as CSO, he will answer to the USAF Secretary, who will double as the civilian head of the Space Force, just as the Secretary of the Navy oversees both the Navy and Marine Corps.
Officials are still developing plans for recruiting and for setting a path for bringing airmen into the Space Force and, ultimately, to train and promote them. Plans are also underway for establishing a Space Force organizational structure and how its wings and squadrons will be organized.
“Personnel issues are the most troublesome ones, and those will take years to work out,” said Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), an early advocate of a space branch, in December.
For the new service to fully tackle its mission, it must figure out who exactly should come over from the Air Force and the other services. Operators will make the switch, but will intelligence analysts and engineers? Will the Space Force later need its own security forces and lawyers, or could it rely on those within the Air Force? And when should it pull in Army and Navy space personnel?
The ultimate size and cost of the Space Force remains an open question. About 16,000 AFSPC Active Duty members and civilians are initially assigned to the new service, but the formal process of transferring them from the Air Force to the Space Force will take months to develop. The Trump administration previously estimated a sixth service would number 15,000 to 20,000 members and cost $2 billion over five years. But the Congressional Budget Office offered a higher estimate: $1.1 billion to $3 billion in one-time expenses, plus between $820 million and $1.3 billion a year to pay for 4,100 to 6,800 new management and administrative positions.
By law, the Space Force is not yet allowed to add any new military billets; all of the jobs must come from existing billets within the Defense Department. Todd Harrison, an aerospace security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and a strong advocate for creating the Space Force, said the most important first step will be developing a comprehensive plan for transferring talent from across the Defense Department into the Space Force over the next few years. “This should be a clean-cut transfer,” he said.
Then there is the question of skilled space experts who are not currently assigned to Air Force Space Command, said Kaitlyn Johnson, associate director of the CSIS Aerospace Security Project. “Service members rotate all the time, so there are some space professionals who may be on a non-space rotation at the moment,” she said. “The Air Force needs to do a full review of its dedicated space professionals instead of just transferring every person within [AFSPC] at this moment.”
Space airmen may get a new set of ranks and uniforms and could be called something other than airmen. These issues will be key to developing an organization and culture distinct from the Air Force, just as the Air Force, in its initial years, set up its organization and culture to be distinct from its Army roots.
The easiest path forward would be to adopt Air Force ranks, said Brian Weeden, a space policy expert at the Secure World Foundation. But others have called for using naval ranks, as used in “Star Trek” and other science-fiction thrillers.
Brent Ziarnick, an assistant national security studies professor at the Air Command and Staff College at Maxwell AFB, Ala., has written multiple articles arguing for the adoption of naval ranks for the Space Force and on what to call airmen in the new service (he prefers “sentinel.”) Ziarnick says naval ranks would help “develop a separate and unique service culture, independent of the US Air Force and suited best for the reality of military space missions.”
For now, though, they’re all still airmen.
The Space Force could draw members from all of the services and from multiple agencies and entities, including DOD space, intelligence, cyber, the US Air Force Academy, and the public at large. It will also need experts in engineering, human resources, law, public affairs, and more.
There won’t be a Space Force Academy, a senior Air Force official said in December, but young adults from the other military schools could commission into the space service. It’s unclear how the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps would adapt to the change.
“We already have a process set up today through Air Force Recruiting Service and through our commissioning sources to bring people into the space professions and those places,” the USAF official said. “Going forward, we see that continuing.”
Excitement about being part of something new and exciting is running high, said Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), one lawmaker who first pushed for a Space Corps.
“I get so many young people that are so excited when I’m out talking. They want to know where they can apply,” Rogers said. “There are people in the other services who are looking forward to transferring over. [Recruitment will] be the least problem in this service of all the services. This is going to be the cool service that the young, bright people want to be in.”
But Maj. Gen. John E. Shaw, head of Space Operations Command within the Space Force, has other concerns. Last year, he said the Space Force could face the same recruiting and retention challenges as the Air Force, where competition for talent is severe, especially for pilots and cyber specialists who can often earn more in private industry. Space Force must consider creative ways of letting space personnel move between government and industry along with sharing them between organizations, said Shaw, then AFSPC deputy commander.
He started crunching the details of how Space Force recruitment might work, including ways to piggyback on the brick-and-mortar recruiting offices operated by the other services nationwide, or the potential to do all its recruiting online.
“We could probably follow the models from our sister space agencies (at the National Reconnaissance Office and National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency) that are represented here, as well as NASA, in that regard,” Shaw said.
Harrison said it would be smart to transfer space-minded recruiters from the Air Force to the Space Force to help launch that pipeline.
National Guard and Reserve components, which weren’t included in the approving legislation, can also play an important role in staffing the Space Force. The service plans to bring along Reservists and Guardsmen with space-related missions, which could help draw on the private sector’s experience, according to Air Force Secretary Barbara M. Barrett.
Margaux Hoar, a Space Force expert at the Center for Naval Analyses, said modern demands are changing for space. “You can’t just have space generalists anymore, you need specialists, you need that breadth and depth of experience,” she said in December. “You want to be able to maintain currency in the newest in space science and technology and engineering.”
That allows the Space Force to experiment and be “a little bit heretical” when it comes to keeping people in the service or replacing those who leave, she said. Hoar recommends doing away with “up-or-out” promotions that boot people out of the military once they are twice passed over for a promotion, and instead looking at ideas like letting people ping-pong between Active Duty, the Reserve, and industry.
“You can off-ramp and on-ramp and get into industry and get exposed to some of that thinking … and then come back and bring that with you to use that energy and some of that new thinking back into the Space Force,” Hoar said.
Another radical idea: CSIS’ Johnson said there’s no reason to impose strict physical requirements on Space Force members. That could help the Space Force achieve a more diverse workforce. The service could attract experts in robotics, artificial intelligence, and data science who might not even qualify for military service in other services because of the physical demands. Those aren’t really the same for a Space Force.
On the industry side, leaders are optimistic about the new frontier but say the space sector’s growth presents myriad challenges. The National Defense Industrial Association is the dominant defense industry group representing firms providing military space equipment. Its president, retired Air Force Gen. Herbert J. “Hawk” Carlisle, said the growth in commercial space demands could strain resources across the defense industrial base. Space excites the imagination and could invigorate the tech sector, he said, but will prompt a huge demand for people and systems.
Within the policy community, Carlisle said, the government needs to provide much more clarity about what space warfighting will look like and how the various operations and acquisition pieces will fit together. Without the right funding and support, he worries the idea will fail.
Traditional defense suppliers and the commercial sector alike will need graduates with experience in science, technology, engineering, and math, skilled tradesmen, cybersecurity experts, and others to develop and control the next generation of communications, propulsion, sensors, weapons, and more. Industry has tried to incentivize growth in those areas for years but says the demand still outpaces supply.
The Air Force has struggled in recent years to keep from losing pilots, software coders, cyber specialists, and highly trained and skilled technical specialists to the private sector. As space changes from being a government-run enterprise to a commercially dominated one, it could face the same talent crunch.
Mike French, vice president for space systems at the Aerospace Industries Association, said the competition will be fierce across the industry and military sectors. “We will need even more technical talent than before,” he said. “That means funding and encouraging STEM education throughout students’ lives, from kindergarten through college. The US should also capitalize on the Space Force stand up to educate our youth—from all backgrounds and experiences—on the importance and benefits of a space industry career.”
As the Space Force gets up and running, the Defense Department has more work to do to educate the American public about one of the most significant changes to Pentagon bureaucracy since the Air Force was created in 1947.
Survey Says …
Public opinion about whether the US needs a space service still appears split, even among service members:
- A Military Times poll of Active-Duty personnel in fall 2018 found that about 40 percent of troops surveyed supported the idea of a sixth military branch for space operations, while about 37 percent opposed it.
- A CNN/SSRS poll in 2018 found only 37 percent of all Americans supported forming a Space Force, while 55 percent of Americans did not.
- A November 2018 Anderson Robbins Research and Shaw & Company Research poll conducted for the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute found Americans were split on the idea of a Space Force, with Republicans favoring it twice as much as Democrats.
- And a poll conducted in August 2018 by The Hill and the HarrisX polling company found a majority favored creating a new organization, with 57 percent approving of “creating a sixth branch of the military, the Space Force, which would be designed to protect US interests and assets in space.” By contrast, 42 percent disapproved of the same statement.
Do Americans outside the military policy bubble need to grasp the specifics of what their sixth service will be doing? Weeden says no—if only because many only understand the broad strokes of how the other branches work anyway.
But government officials acknowledge they have a crucial window of opportunity to shape the narrative before others, like late-night talk show hosts, continue to do it for them.
In Secret or Open?
Space operations are often classified, highly technical, and rarely explained in a way meant for the average American. In the nearly four years since Rogers first floated his Space Corps proposal, the Air Force has started to recognize the need to describe space operations in a way that clicks with people inside and outside the Beltway.
“There’s a lot that needs to be classified, but there’s a lot, most of the stuff that we’ve seen in the [Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility] doesn’t need to be in a SCIF,” Rogers said. “In fact, if it had been declassified, this would have been a much easier lift two years ago, because it would upset you to know what China and Russia have been doing and what we haven’t been doing and the threat, what it could do to us if they were to shut our satellites off or destroy them.”
The Air Force Secretary wants to declassify as much space information as possible, both about what the US is planning and what China and Russia are up to. If America’s adversaries hear what the US is capable of, Rogers said, that could discourage an attack.
CSIS’ Johnson believes communicating the Space Force’s role is one of the biggest challenges to standing it up. She added: “The organization needs strong technical experts and communicating these new opportunities will be key to public understanding that the Space Force is not Marines in space with laser guns. … The loss of GPS, for example, does not only shut down your Google Maps app, but also Uber, ATMs, the New York Stock Exchange, online shopping, and so much of our current way of life.”
The Funding Flow
Sufficient funding for space programs also depends on how well the Pentagon explains those needs and threats to Congress, Johnson added.
Harrison criticized the Air Force for initially resisting the push for an independent Space Force and said USAF missed its chance to educate the public about what the military already does in space and its importance. The Air Force didn’t recognize the discourse was changing, he said. Now it is up to Raymond and civilian leadership to tell the public this force is not about aliens.
In January 2019, comedian Steve Carell emerged as an unexpected spokesman for Space Force.
In a secretive trailer, Netflix announced that Carell, known for his work on the TV hit “The Office,” would create and star in a sitcom about the men and women who have to figure out how to launch a Space Force.
The show, slated for release this year, aims to join a storied history of military sitcoms that includes “Gomer Pyle, USMC,” “Hogan’s Heroes,” “McHale’s Navy,” and “M.A.S.H.,” the finale of which was the most-watched television episode in history. As the Pentagon works to spread its own message, the comedy heavyweights involved with “Space Force” will be more visible in the public eye than Raymond.
Robert Thompson, a pop culture expert at Syracuse University, said it’s too early to tell whether the TV version will help or hinder broad understanding of military space missions. But its existence will pose an interesting conundrum for the fledgling service: the other services were well established when TV built programs around their military cultures. Not so for “Space Force,” which will roll out alongside its namesake.
“Since this Netflix thing is getting up and running before Space Force is getting up and running, the real Space Force … is going to have to emerge into an environment where there’s already a parallel Space Force running in a comedy, and probably a pretty snarky comedy at that,” Thompson said.
In fact, the show appears set to launch with one of the false narratives of space warfighting: that the Pentagon wants to put “boots on the Moon.” Such actions are banned by the 1967 Outer Space Treaty.
Harrison says it will be incumbent on the government to spread the word about what’s fiction and what’s not.
But Weeden suggested that all public relations could be good PR, as long as it keeps the issue in the public sphere. And Thompson said the show could have some educational and recruiting power.
Just as “Star Trek” and “Star Wars” drove viewers to join the space sciences starting in the 1960s and 1970s, seeing a Space Force in popular culture could pique people’s curiosity.
“There is a number of ways in which this could go,” Thompson said. “There are people who might have watched [“Veep”] and seen through the parody … and still been inspired to the excitement of government at that level, and that could very well be what happens with the Space Force.”
In the meantime, the actual Space Force will start to unfold under new leadership in this era of renewed federal commitment to what lies beyond Earth’s atmosphere.
“We will be watching it like a hawk,” Cooper said. “Pretty soon the stars in the sky will pale in significance to what’s commercially overhead. This is amazing, and we need to get ready for this era.”