The battle for the soul of the Space Force

The battle for the soul of the Space Force
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Finally, the debate that should have begun over a year ago has now arrived in earnest. Two different visions for the future of the Space Force have recently been presented to the public.

One is from the president of the Air Force Association, retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Bruce Wright. The other by the currently serving Air Force Lt. Gen. Steven Kwast.

These two men encapsulate the two major factions that exist in the Space Force debate. Wright expresses the Air Force’s preferred “warfighting domain” school. Kwast is the most senior and vocal proponent of the maritime-inspired faction that has begun to call itself the “blue water” space school. Which school America chooses to first lead the Space Force will have serious repercussions to the United States for decades to come.

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Wright recently outlined a vision for Space Force.Wright claimed that the U.S. must “answer the rising threats posed by China and Russia against commercial, military, and intelligence satellites with unparalleled military capability to deter and, if necessary, defeat enemy threats in space.” Wright has identified Chinese anti-satellite weapons as the greatest space threat because they were developed to take away America’s current advantage in space, its system of satellites that allows the United States to dominate terrestrial combat.

“The ability to fight concurrently across multiple domains,” Wright argues, “will advantage our defenses and confound adversaries should we ever need to take the offensive.” Wright stresses interdependence between the Space Force and the Air Force — at one point using the term “Space Force Airmen” — because his Space Force’s strategic focus would be warfare on Earth. Wright’s vision for the Space Force, like the “warfighting school,” is to defend America’s satellites from military threats in order to preserve America’s terrestrial combat advantage.

Kwast outlined his own vision for the military branch. Kwast identifies China as America’s greatest threat in space. However, the space race with China “is about determining which values will dominate the future world order,” not solely securing America’s terrestrial military advantage.

Space, Kwast believes, will be a “multi-trillion dollar market” and the first great power to develop the infrastructure to harness the resources of space will become economically dominant on Earth. China’s anti-satellite weapons concern Kwast, but what concerns him more are Chinese plans to build bases on the moon and Mars, develop nuclear powered space shuttles, and build space solar power stations by 2040.

To Kwast, China’s rapid technological development in hypersonics, 5G wireless internet, artificial intelligence and other technologies will eliminate America’s current advantages far more completely than their anti-satellite capability. Further, “China is actively pursuing a plan to use space as the ultimate ‘high ground’ to dominate the global economy and transform economic, military, and political power in its image” — an authoritarian image anathema to American values.

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Kwast’s Space Force would “defend all American interests to include commerce in space” and be completely independent from the Air Force “to ensure space has the attention and focus required” to “implement a strategy that can secure the American way of life in this century and ensure the goods and promises offered by space are not dominated by a country disinterested in human freedom.”

The differences between Wright’s and Kwast’s visions are stark. Wright sees the Space Force operating in Earth orbit and below — the “brown water” of space — supporting the joint warfighter. Kwast wants the Space Force to harness the power of space, which requires extending into the “blue water” – the moon and beyond.

Wright wants a Space Force focused on fighting a great power war with China. Kwast sees a Space Force that competes with China for economic and technological supremacy by defending America’s interest in space across all elements of national power. Wright argues for a satellite combat command. Kwast states the need for a frontier defense force. Wright’s strategic outlook assumes a zero-sum game that prioritizes protecting what America has. Kwast envisions an open system that America can capitalize upon to secure a future of increased peace and prosperity.

Graham Allison’s concept of the Thucydides Trap, “the severe structural stress caused when a rising power threatens to upend a ruling one,” is a useful analytical tool to explore the differences between these Space Force visions. The Thucydides Trap is often sprung when a dominant power declares war against a rising power it fears will soon overtake it. In our current circumstances, the United States is being threatened by a rising China. In this framework, Wright’s warfighting Space Force is intended to help win a catastrophic war against China to retain America’s dominance. Wright’s service would do very little to prevent China from threatening the United States’ position as the world’s dominant power.

Kwast’s commerce-protecting Space Force, alternatively, is intended to outcompete China for economic, technological, and military dominance through the power of space so that a rejuvenated superpower America is never confronted with a Chinese Thucydides Trap in the first place.

Which Space Force ultimately defends American interests best? The American people must make that decision themselves, and not let the Pentagon decide for them without a vigorous and open debate.

Famous naval theorist Alfred Thayer Mahan wrote that “Naval Strategy has indeed for its end to found, support, and increase, as well in peace as in war, the sea power of a country.” If space strategy’s end is to found, support, and increase, as well in peace as in war, a country’s ability to harness the power of space for national advantage, which vision for the Space Force is the most robust? Which is most capable of securing American power and prosperity — and world peace — in today’s and tomorrow’s great power competition? The decision to establish the U.S. Space Force is just the beginning. The real question the American people must answer is what guiding mission will breathe life into the Space Force’s soul?

Brent Ziarnick is an assistant professor of National Security Studies at the Air Command and Staff College at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama. He is a member of the U.S. Naval Institute and a fellow of the British Interplanetary Society. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Air University, the Air Force, the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.