The US Space Force is overdue

The US Space Force is overdue
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The formation of the United States Air Force followed a torturous route. It started with the establishment of the Aeronautical Division, Signal Corps (1907 to 1914), then on to the Army Air Force (1941 to 1947) and finally to the Air Force (1947 to the present).

Forty years after the recognition that the atmosphere joined the Earth’s surface and the Earth’s oceans as focused combat theaters, the Air Force was formed. Each operational theater requires unique skills, unique platforms, uniquely qualified staff, and unique concepts of operations.


The current U.S. military space units are distributed at the national level, the joint level, and within the Army, Navy and Air Force. The space theater is a secondary mission for the operational units in the three military services and as such its leaders are less likely to be promoted to high ranks. For example, all 21 current and former chiefs of staff of the Air Force are pilots, none with a space career path.

No definite altitude defines the beginning of space. The von Kármán line, at an altitude of 100 kilometers (62 miles) is generally used as the start of outer space in space treaties and for aeronautic and astronautic records. This altitude is approximated by the atmospheric layer known as the turbopause that separates the heterosphere above it from the homosphere below it.

In the homosphere, turbulent mixing causes the chemical composition to be nearly constant. In the heterosphere, molecular diffusion dominates, and the chemical composition varies according to the chemical species. At these altitudes the atmospheric density is less than one-millionth of that at sea level.

Theory indicates that scramjets (supersonic combustion ramjets) will eventually provide the highest service ceiling for aircraft at about 75 km. Above this altitude, aircraft would need to travel faster than the speed required to achieve orbit in order to generate sufficient lift to sustain flight.

Alternatively, the Air Force and NASA each recognize 80.5 kilometers (50 miles) as the beginning of space. The X-15 reached an altitude of 96 kilometers (60 miles) and the SR-71 Blackbird reached a reported altitude of 26 km (16 miles) but is believed to have gone higher.

Space as a theater of war was introduced in the early 1950’s with the development of ballistic missiles by the Army, Navy and Air Force. Each had and continues to have a role and this should continue in the future. However, there is as significant a distinction among operating on land, sea, or air as there is in operating in space. 

As there are lead agencies, the Army for land warfare, the Navy for sea warfare, and the Air Force for air warfare, there should be a lead agency for space warfare. Space is an entirely different environment with specific challenges. This was recognized early in the space era with the establishment of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) in 1961. The NRO has the lead in the design, development, and operation of spacecraft to support the intelligence interests of the nation. Its director reports to the director of National Intelligence and the secretary of Defense in parallel with the service chiefs of staff and the service secretaries who also report to the secretary of Defense. So, a space entity already exists in parallel with the three services.

Operation in space is markedly different from operating in the atmosphere requiring different skills, different training, and different vehicles. Similar to the other services is the need to be able to attract the very best personnel. Consequently, the United States would be better served by a separate Space Force that works in collaboration with the Army, Navy and Air Force. It has been over 60 years since the launch of Sputnik I in 1957, the Space Force is overdue.

Vincent L. Pisacane, Ph.D., headed the Space Department at The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory and was the inaugural Robert A. Heinlein professor of Aerospace Engineering at the United States Naval Academy.