Why policymakers must birth the right culture for the Space Force
The House this week passed the National Defense Authorization Act, marking one of the final steps towards toward the creation of the Space Force as a new service. This will become a service within the Air Force, akin to the Marine Corps within the Navy. The signing of the bill into law will end the drama of creating a legal framework for the Space Force, but it is by no means the end and is certainly not the end of the beginning.
What happens on day two of the Space Force is as, if not more, important than its legal structure. For the first time in more than 60 years, the armed forces will stand up a new entity with a unique mission set of securing and defending the United States position in space and need to create a new service culture. Space is, as has often been repeated, now a warfighting domain. American adversaries witnessed the growth and application of space capabilities. China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea each now aim to develop and deploy their own similar capabilities to counter our own.
To address this, getting the Space Force right means getting government aligned toward national defense, and national security aligned with civil space. The Commerce Department, the Transportation Department, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and others will play roles in this. It means we need to revisit launch licensing and remote sensing licensing, and find ways of making this process more efficient and more effective. It means developing a framework for the safe coordination and deconfliction of satellite orbits and the tracking of much space debris.
We should be heartened by the work of the National Space Council to coordinate activities and policy reforms across the federal government. We are fortunate to have military leaders such as General John Hyten and General John Raymond, and civilian counterparts like Secretary Barbara Barrett, who understand that success in space is not a military affair alone. The Space Force needs smart and capable officers and enlisted personnel who understand space and what is required to meet the challenge. It is no longer enough to ensure that the trains run on time. In this era, the Space Force must be prepared to meet challenges in space, deliver capabilities within and through space, and support the warfighters on the ground.
Getting the Space Force right also means getting cooperation with the commercial space sector right. Space X, Blue Origin, Rocket Lab, and more are the tip of a massive commercial space sector developing and launching payloads in space, a domain once accessible only to national governments. The Commerce Department has estimated that the space industry could eventually be worth a trillion dollars. The Space Force has to partner with the commercial space sector in a faster and more effective manner. This means changing a culture created back in a different era for a different threat and establishing the right culture in the Space Force.
The entirety of the national security space apparatus grew to operate in a domain that was largely benign and uncontested. The United States could operate with little fear of other players. To be sure, antisatellite weapons and other capabilities existed, but the United States was able to create the architecture that enables our dominance to date. This is no longer the case. The challenge is that while the domain changed, how we organize, acquire, equip, and train for that domain had not sufficiently changed.
Slow contracting procedures built and fielded incredibly expensive and fragile single points of failure in small constellations. Risk, understandably, was a four letter word. This kind of process will simply not cut it anymore, especially when one looks at what the commercial sector is doing and at what our adversaries are doing. The Space Force and, if we are honest, the entirety of the Defense Department, needs to adjust its culture to go faster, accept greater risks, and shift to the great power competition.
There are signs that this is already underway. Novel acquisition programs such as the Space Pitch Day, Space Enterprise Consortium, and others are working to rapidly bring new capabilities that meet our challenges. These programs, while great, should be reflected in the larger programs such as launch. The United States cannot afford to continue to operate the same launch acquisition mentality as it did in the 1980s, when Space X, Blue Origin, and Rocket Lab are now launching more frequently with greater capabilities, and when American adversaries are quickly catching up.
Getting the Space Force right means getting the mission and culture of the service right. What things are named, what ranks and uniforms are adopted, and how things are structured matter. This is not the time for sardonic memes, funny though they may be, about the Space Marines. It is critical for Washington to look at the threat and the opportunity space presents and that which the Space Force seeks to address, and establish the right culture to respond to the former and to seize upon the latter.
Joshua Huminski is the director of the National Security Space Program and the director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence and Global Affairs with the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress.