In Space Force debate, the military’s space experts are missing in action

The last time the United States considered the creation of a new military service, there was an extensive debate within the military departments, Congress and the public sphere. Airpower’s great advocates, with names like Billy Mitchell, Hap Arnold, and Tooey Spaatz became established in the collective zeitgeist long before war-time exploits or Air Force base names would inscribe them more permanently to history.

There was an expectation that military members, as public servants and the experts on various forms of warfare, would have a voice in informing the debate. However, the ultimate decision to create an independent air force would be a political one. All service members, constitutionally beholden to civilian control, would then be expected to unquestioningly comply.  

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In light of this history, it is strange that in the space force debate, there is so little dialogue overtly informed by military space professionals. This may stem from any number of legitimate concerns, including the prudent aspiration of the armed forces to remain apolitical. Yet, military members are obligated to the Constitution and bear a statutory responsibility to advise the country’s leadership on the necessities of national defense. Without depending in some part on the knowledge of military space professionals, how can others be expected to make informed decisions? 

Most of the public discussion to date has been the purview of concerned politicians, late night comics and talented meme creators. While an internal discussion of space organization has been ongoing in military circles for many years, the leading public voice has been the Air Force Association via its public pronouncements. That voice has been decidedly negative toward the notion of an independent space force.  

Representatives of that organization generally make two arguments:

  • First, there is no need for a separate space service because there is no separation between the domains of air and space.
  • Second, that there should be an independent space service, but just not yet.

It is hard to know what to make of these contradictory arguments, but in any analysis, it must be recognized the Air Force Association is dedicated to promoting airpower, not space power.

To justify an independent Air Force, General Billy Mitchell argued that “Airmen alone can understand the proper employment of airpower.” It is fair to say that military space professionals are similarly unique in their ability to understand and properly employ space power. They particularly understand the full nature of the space battlefield, and the risks to military operations, the economy and the social fabric of society. They are, further aware of adversary capabilities to exploit American dependence on orbital systems.  This is why their contribution to the dialog is vital, whatever the outcome.

It is impossible to be an airman without knowing the story of Billy Mitchell.  Seen by most airmen as a hero and the philosophical father of the Air Force, Mitchell was an early airpower advocate. He battled in the theater of public discourse to demonstrate the decisive value of airpower and the national need for an independent Air Force.

While many idolize Mitchell, he also stands as a warning, since his career was marred by court-martial.  Mitchell’s court-martial, however, came not from his airpower advocacy, but as a result of his public accusation that the Army and Navy were administering the national defense in an “almost treasonable” fashion following the loss of the airship Shenandoah. This statement was unacceptable in any circumstance and disruptive to good order and discipline.

Space power’s uniformed promoters need not repeat the intemperance of Mitchell in their advocacy. His mistakes were needless, leading to his professional undoing.  Yet, his challenging of false assumptions and leadership were vital to building the appreciation of airpower which enabled victory in World War II. Space professionals from all sectors should provide a cogent and articulate voice to the merits of space power to ensure political leaders can make informed judgments about any future military organization. 

As the most credible voice on the subject, military space professionals have an obligation to join the public dialogue. Many may consider it disloyal or be concerned that speaking against orthodoxy could be bad for their careers.   And they might be right.  

I received a call from a contract employee on the secretary of the Air Force’s staff (presumably acting on his or her own initiative) who stated that some of my previous work was “off message” and that “I needed to be sure I knew what I was doing.”  Colleagues have relayed similar experiences, with one reporting that a wing commander had stated “the only airmen allowed to have an opinion on space force are the Secretary and the Chief of Staff.” 

If this subject is off limits, then an order to that effect should be given. But, in point of fact, when asked about the importance of public engagement by personnel, Gen. Goldfein, the Air Force chief of staff said, “

I want our Air Force to be out there and writing and publishing and talking and debating, because these are important issues. These are national issues.”

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The only military voices on this topic shouldn’t be the chief and the secretary of the Air Force. While they appropriately represent the official Air Force perspective and advice to the secretary of defense, Congress and the president, neither is a space professional. There would never have been an Air Force if the only military voice in the public discussion of airpower in the 1930s had been Gen. Malin Craig, the Army chief of staff. 

A lively, dynamic, apolitical, and public dialogue, consistent with good order and discipline, should be encouraged at all levels to ensure that a broad understanding of service equities and domain necessities are publicly understood. Long before there was an Air Force, there was a national appreciation of airpower. The value and risks are no less in space than they were in the air, what is different today is the discourse. 

Lt. Col. Timothy Cox is an Instructor at the Joint Forces Staff College. He has previously served as the chief of the Space Control Division at Headquarters Air Force and commanded an Air Force recruiting squadron. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force, Department of Defense or the U.S. government.

Ryan Evans contributed to this piece.