Air Force Space Command has released a remarkable document that will become a strategic foundation for the United States Space Force.
In 2018, Air Force Space Command invited dozens of scientists, engineers and space professionals around the government to consider the future of the space domain. This group included personnel from Air Force Space Command and Air Force Research Lab civilians and military members, NASA and government think tanks. The participants, including myself, discussed the next 40 years in the space domain and produced a report on the future of space.
Envisioning the year 2060, the participants used three questions as “axes of space power,” simplified, were: Will large numbers of humans be living in space? Will the space industry become a major source of wealth and economic growth? Will the United States and its allies take the lead in establishing the norms of behavior in space?
Based on these questions, three positive scenarios were futures where the space domain is a source of rich settlement and/or wealth under liberal democratic values. The more negative scenarios include futures where space is still a source of human flourishing, but its potential is guided under autocratic values, led by an authoritarian great power like China. Finally, the two worst-case scenarios were futures where space remains hostile to both settlement and commerce but is a source of bitter conflict for its relevance to Earth wars — little different than today.
The report concluded that the U.S. must recognize that space will soon become a major engine of national political, economic and military power for “whichever nations best organize and operate to exploit that potential. The report further states that “China is executing a long-term civil, commercial, and military strategy to explore and economically develop the cislunar domain with the explicit aim of displacing the U.S. as the leading space power.”
The report recommended that the U.S. develop a long-term, national whole of nation space strategy to ensure continued space leadership against this competition from China. The strategy should develop technologies and capabilities to answer “yes” to as many of the space power axes questions as possible. They also recommended that the military should “defend the full range of expanded national interests in space,” including civil and commercial space capabilities and citizens in space and “not just space services “that directly support national security.
Air Force Space Command and the United States Space Command should both commit to the national space strategy and be accountable for its development and execution as specified responsibilities. These conclusions and recommendations are far different from what the Air Force has normally considered its space responsibilities and justify a robust and independent United States Space Force, just as the president has requested and Congress appears to be favoring.
The report has great significance to the debate on whether the United States should commit to the Blue Water or Brown Water School of space. The three positive futures emerge from a robust human or economic presence — preferably both — in the space domain governed by Western values and the rule of law. The report is thoroughly a Blue Water School document, emphasizing the vast opportunities of the space domain for human and economic development.
By contrast, the Air Force Association’s Brown Water School vision ignores the human and commercial implications of the space domain. The report describes the futures the Brown Water School emphasizes as the two worst of the space futures envisioned.
The chief scientists of the Air Force, Air Force Space Command and the chief technologist of NASA, favor the creation of a blue water Space Force charged with protecting American and allied space commerce and upholding international space law in an expanding human frontier. It remains to be seen how quickly Air Force Space Command, soon to become an independent space service, will act on the report’s recommendations, but the report offers a first clear and comprehensive path for the Space Force’s development.
Brent D. Ziarnick is an assistant professor at the Air Command and Staff College, Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama. The views expressed in this article are those of the author only on do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Air University, the Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the United States government.