The case for a Space Force

The case for a Space Force
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Ever since General Washington led the Continental Army across the Delaware River on Christmas night in 1776, the American military has been conducting joint operations.

For many decades, the two “domains” of operations were of course land and sea, and with the advent of the airplane in the 20th century, air was added as a third domain of warfare. When humans mastered the skill of launching things into space, it did not take long for that technology to become weaponized, creating a fourth domain.


While the concept of Joint Operations is at the heart of how any modern military operates, the term “multi-domain” warfare has come into vogue, emphasizing how we really need to operate in some very distinct domains, to achieve a common goal.


Before military forces are employed in a joint operation, they must first be organized, trained, and equipped. That is the job of each service. For example, the Air Force organizes, trains, and equips the various units of the Air Force- and the same goes for the Army and Navy and Marine Corps. 

Then, when combat operations are required, each service provides their forces to the combatant commander, who exercises operational control over his Joint Forces. When it comes time to fight, everyone is on the same team. But before that, each service has its own unique set of skills and culture and mentality that defines its soldiers, sailors, airmen, or marines.

Which brings us to the question of whether or not our nation should pursue a separate “Space Force,” in addition to the other four uniformed services. 

Is space a unique domain, distinct from the other domains of air, land and sea? Is there a unique culture and set of technical skills required when operating in space? I believe that the answer to these questions is a resounding yes.

During my 30 plus years in the Air Force I had the privilege of serving as a pilot for my entire active duty career, with 16 of those years in Air Force Space Command as an astronaut. And I can say unequivocally that the air and space domains are completely different and independent of each other.

The technical skills and equipment required to launch vehicles, operate them while in space, and recover them to earth are entirely different than those required to operate aircraft.

The culture and mentality of space operators is very different than that of pilots and aircraft mechanics. An important part of a military service is in managing the careers of its officers and enlisted members. In the Air Force, when there is a promotion or selection board, it is often foreign to the pilots on the board when they try to understand what the space operators have done, and vice-versa. 

Air Force Space Command was formally stood up over 35 years ago, and as such, there are many senior members who were “raised” in it, rising to the rank of general or chief master sergeant, having spent most of their career in Space Command. An argument in the past against having a formal “Space Force” was that there wasn’t enough organically grown talent to lead the force, but although that argument holds true for relatively young cyber forces, it is no longer valid for space.

In fact, keeping Space Command in the Air Force is analogous to having the Infantry be a sub-command of the Navy. In theory it would probably work, but it’s absolutely not the smartest way to do business.

If space is a separate domain, worthy of its own uniformed service, what exactly should it comprise, and what would it look like? Today, not only does the Air Force have its own space component, but so does the Army and Navy as well as other government agencies. I propose combining all “title 10” (i.e. combat related forces, as opposed to “title 50” intelligence gathering forces) assets that leave the atmosphere, or return from space, in a newly formed “Space Force,” reporting directly to the secretary of Defense.

This would include launch and space vehicle recovery operations, satellite control, land-based missile defense, and land based ICBM nuclear forces. While sea and air based missile defense and nuclear forces would be operated by the Air Force and Navy, the overall mission of missile defense and nuclear operations would be led by Space Force.

There has been resistance to making this significant change by some in DoD, which is to be expected from the largest organization (from a budget perspective) on earth. Change of this magnitude will not come easily.

I believe making this change will actually save money, as duplication is eliminated. It will also improve the quality of support that the joint force commander has at his disposal, as the joint-force space component commander will be entirely focused on providing space domain support to the joint fight, and not on pleasing an Air Force (or Navy or Army) chain of command that may have conflicting priorities.

A secretary of the Space Force will not have to juggle his budget in order to fund the latest fighter or tanker aircraft programs, and space will have an equal seat at the budget table, on par with the other services. Space warriors would be able to be more innovative when their sole focus is on space, and not supporting a larger force that is entirely unrelated to space. 

The time for a new uniformed service, the Space Force, is now. America deserves the most modern, efficient, and innovative military possible, and this will be a critical element in keeping us many steps ahead of our enemies. 

Commander Terry Virts is a former NASA astronaut and test pilot (Col. USAF ret.), having spent over 200 days at the International Space Station in 2015. He is only one of 4 astronauts ever to pilot a shuttle, fly on a Soyuz rocket, conduct spacewalks and be commander of the International Space Station. He is the author of “View from Above,” published by National Geographic in October of 2017. Follow him on Twitter @astroterry.