Let the Space Force define its own ranks 

The U.S. Space Force unveiled its foundational doctrine, “Spacepower,” on Aug. 10, the product of nearly a year’s effort to define how the nation’s newest military service will defend U.S. interests in space. 

The doctrine expresses America’s desire for a peaceful, secure, stable and accessible space domain; the requirement to deter and defeat aggression in space and protect national interests there; and the unparalleled reach, persistence, endurance and responsiveness possible from space. 

Such lofty goals are worthy of a military service whose motto — Semper Supra, “Always Above” — lays out its clear and righteous ambition. 

The Space Force is a 21st century test of the concept that a cadre of professionals will forge a new kind of military organization, a startup culture in the midst of established organizations, borrowing the best of what came before them and leveraging history to avoid past pitfalls. Thus, it was when Gen. Hap Arnold formed the Air Force from the vestiges of the post-World War II Army Air Forces; so it is today, as Chief of Space Operations Gen. John “Jay” Raymond builds out the doctrine, mission, culture and ethos of a nascent Space Force. 

Inevitably, outsiders seek to influence the outcome. Rather than defining their intent and letting the Space Force leaders decide the best way forward, some lawmakers seek to apply prescriptive solutions to build the fantasy force of their own dreams. 

The House approved an amendment to the 2021 National Defense Authorization bill in July that states, “The Space Force shall use a system of ranks and grades that is identical to the system of ranks and grades used by the Navy.” Just as the nation launches the Space Force, the powerful and disrupting force of service parochialism is already seeking to erode the Space Force’s status as an independent armed service. 

Specifically, Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas) introduced the amendment to require the newly established combat orbiteers to use Navy ranks and grades. A war hero, Crenshaw is a proud Navy veteran. But as a congressman, he should have considered the larger inference of his action. If Congress can dictate service rank and grades, the implication is they also could dictate service doctrine, ethos, leadership style, military customs and courtesies, and perhaps even target selection. This rank and grade decree is not a good precedent to set for this reason alone — and there are others.

The Space Force routinely operates at velocities 1,600 times faster (24,000 miles per hour) than the average speed of 15 miles per hour of Navy vessels on the oceans of the Earth. This reality demands a very different approach for authority and accountability in a warfighting organization for a very different domain.

As the Space Force’s architects strive to get right this once-in-a-lifetime — no, once in a nation’s lifetime — opportunity, the House of Representatives wants to present the 21st century Space Force in the image of 20th century science fiction. 

In imagining the future of interplanetary space exploration, science fiction writers did adopt naval ranks. Star Trek’s Captain Kirk described space as “the final frontier” and the mission of his Starship Enterprise was “to boldly go where no man has gone before.” In the epic Star Wars series, mythic space heroes Han Solo and Luke Skywalker are swashbuckling spacefarers in a resistance fight led by an admiral. 

Space may be the final frontier, but our Space Force will not be cruising alien planets like Captain Kirk. Today’s real space professionals run a largely automated fleet of spacecraft, and always have. They have over 50 years of experience operating spacecraft by remote control. The Space Force flies, operates and defends satellites remotely from hundreds to thousands of miles away — 24/7/365 — all while firmly rooted on Earth. The X-37B space plane is also remotely operated. Those select few astronauts who remain in the military are, at least for now, assigned to NASA. 

The Space Force’s mission is not just to go where none has gone before or search for interstellar civilizations. Congress and President Trump established a Space Force to ensure America’s ability to operate in, from and through space, as that domain becomes more and more contested. The American way of war depends on space and we now have a Space Force to help ensure this strategic advantage continues. 

Put another way, the Space Force challenges conventional notions of space as “an adjunct to other forms of military power,” and instead “elevates spacepower as a distinct formulation of military power on par with” air, land, sea and even cyber, as the new Spacepower doctrine states. 

In building a force from scratch, the Space Force should not be forced by legislation to convert its second lieutenants into ensigns, its captains into lieutenants, and its colonels into captains; there is no advantage to such an edict. The force would be better served to apply its own logic to its organization and rank structure. Rather than look backward on more than 1,000 years of naval ritual at sea — and a few decades of TV and movie fantasy — let’s empower the Space Force to live out its Semper Supra motto and rise above such petty nonsense. 

Senate leaders in conference must correct the parochial agenda behind the House rank amendment and allow the Space Force to forge its own path to a unique and enduring ethos, identity and organization. That includes rank. To dictate resolutions raises ego above logic and self above service. We must keep those the other way around. 

Congress should encourage the Space Force’s leaders to define their own future. Arbitrarily ordering the Space Force rank and grade system to replicate the Navy and Coast Guard, rather than the Air Force, Army or Marine Corps, makes no sense. We need better from our Congress, and especially from our few military veterans in elected office who have a special responsibility to rise above their personal service biases and think in the context of what is best for the nation. 

In creating the Space Force, Congress and the president laid out a great blank canvas on which the service’s founders could color their future. Let’s let them do just that — without tying their hands behind their backs. 

David Deptula is a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant general. He planned the Desert Storm air campaign, orchestrated air and space operations over Iraq and Afghanistan, and was the first chief of Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance. He is now dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.

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