In the recent movie “Midway,” Vice Admiral William “Bull” Halsey, played by Dennis Quaid, calls Lt. Col. James Doolittle “maybe the best pilot in the world.” On April 18, 1942, Doolittle’s Raiders launched their B-25 bombers off the flight deck of the carrier Hornet on a daring raid to bomb Tokyo. Most people thought launching a bomber from a carrier was impossible, but Doolittle was a world-famous test pilot and innovative engineer known for aggressively advancing the art of flight. By striking the first blow against Japan’s homeland, Doolittle boosted American morale immensely at a time when the Japanese Empire seemed unstoppable. Doolittle, the man who did the impossible, also was a Reserve officer.
The Department of the Air Force’s decision to delay the creation of the Space Force Reserve and Space National Guard (the Space Reserve Components) until 2022 at the earliest hasn’t merely showcased its disdain for the 3,000 part-time space professionals by orphaning them in the Air Force. It also has virtually ensured that there will be no “Doolittles” for space.
Jimmy Doolittle joined the Army in 1917 and, in 13 years of active duty, flew as a test pilot, pioneered instrument flying and graduated from MIT with the first aeronautical engineering doctorate awarded in the United States. In 1930, Doolittle left active duty to manage Shell Oil Company’s aviation division, but he retained his commission in the Reserve. As a civilian, Doolittle became a celebrated air racer and helped develop 100-octane aviation gasoline, a project most considered foolish. By the end of World War II, American servicemen were consuming 20 million gallons of “Doolittle’s million-dollar blunder” a day. The Army taught Doolittle how to fly, but it was his civilian experience — and reserve commission — that propelled him to Tokyo before any active duty commander.
Today, aggressiveness and innovation in space is owned entirely by the civilian space community. SpaceX, the most pioneering space organization in the world, plans to send humans to Mars in 2024. If all goes to plan, NASA astronauts will be on the moon at the same time. Hundreds of civilians would have flown to space on Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic tourist vehicles.
Also in 2024, the 86 Space Force officers commissioned on April 18 will be close to completing their active duty service commitments. In the four years they’ve been on active duty, they would have been trained in either orbital warfare, space electronic warfare, or space battle management command and control — all specialties irrelevant to their civilian counterparts engaged in the conquest of the solar system. Their superiors who told them they had an “almost zero” chance to become Space Force astronauts now will be advising them to spend six months at Nellis Air Force Base playing handmaiden to combat pilots. The best Space Force officers may decide that the real space opportunities are in the civilian world and, like Doolittle, leave active duty for new challenges.
It might be true that the United States needs a Space Force composed of “remotely piloted aircraft, drones, artificial intelligence, vehicles that operate by remote control or autonomous control” that the Air Force is planning, but there is a great deal of evidence that space activity beyond Earth orbit will become a multitrillion-dollar center of economic activity in the near future. Moreover, China is attempting to seize this economic high ground. In this future, the Space Force’s focus on satellite combat will not be strategically relevant.
It is in the Space Force’s interest to keep officers leaving active duty in a part-time status to retain their skills. It is likewise in the Space Force’s interest to hedge against the risk that it will need to master transformational private space capabilities in order to be effective, even if the active duty cannot do so. The Space Reserve Components are necessary to provide both a way for separating personnel to continue to serve and provide the Space Force critical civilian experience.
This is not a requirement that can be delayed even months, much less years. Civilian space organizations are poaching active duty personnel now. Furthermore, many of the brightest young American space professionals working in the private sector want to serve in the Space Force — if they can serve part time. They also could use the benefits that Reserve service offers. But they will not join the Air Force. They want a Space Force uniform, and if they must wait for years to get one, they’ll pass.
In a conflict, Space Force satellite jammers probably won’t be enough to drive the adversary from space. Space Reserve Component officers who operate Starships, Blue Moons, and other commercial spacecraft daily as civilians would offer the Space Force unparalleled strategic depth. These experts will be key if America needs a “Doolittle solution” in a space crisis.
America’s most ambitious space professionals will congregate where aggressiveness and competence is rewarded — the private sector. The Space Force must immediately charge the Space Reserve Component to recruit as many of these young professionals to part-time Space Force service as possible. The Air Force’s current plan is grossly inadequate for this task.
Contrary to her department’s lazy dismissal, the secretary of the Air Force can and must act now to establish the Space Force Reserve. The National Security Act of 1947 authorized the Department of the Air Force to establish “reserve components.” The secretary did not need congressional approval to establish the Air Force Reserve in 1948 and she doesn’t need it to establish the Space Force Reserve. Immediately after establishment, the Space Force Reserve must organize a new type of officer specialty charged with commercial-civil integration and fill these positions with young civilian professionals who can bring expertise, passion and aggressiveness to the Space Force.
If the American people let the Air Force continue to fail reserve Space Force personnel, current and potential, we should not expect to see the likes of Jimmy Doolittle again.
Brent D. Ziarnick, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of national security studies at the Air Command and Staff College at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama. 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 Department of Defense or the U.S. government.