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Congress, free the Space Force

Congress, free the Space Force
© Twitter/ULA

In the near future, a Space Force admiral may interrupt a young ensign’s briefing and channel Curtis LeMay by reminding him, “The Chinese are our adversaries, the Air Force is our enemy.”  The latest assault is a recent op-ed by retired Lt . Gen. Dave Deptula, who works for the Air Force Association’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. The association presumes to speak for the Space Force, even as its website, as of this writing, still opposes the service’s very existence. 

Deptula opposes the bipartisan, House-passed Crenshaw Amendment that would imbue the Space Force with the Navy’s rank structure, and accuses Rep. Dan CrenshawDaniel CrenshawChanging suburbs threaten GOP hold on Texas Biden, Democrats see late opportunity in Texas Dan Crenshaw releases Hollywood-type action movie trailer MORE (R-Texas), a Navy veteran, of “service parochialism.” Deptula warns that 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.” That a general, even if retired, could write such a sentence should give serious pause. 

Disregarding the fact that congressional legislation has directed ranks for centuries, the sterner truth is that in the United States, civilians control the military. But if Deptula were really worried about the Space Force, he would be writing about the Air Force’s decision to keep the X-37B spaceplane for itself. Instead, he warns that the Crenshaw Amendment will break the Air Force’s cultural stranglehold of the Space Force.

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Deptula accuses the House of “looking backward on more than 1,000 years of naval ritual at sea — and a few decades of TV and movie fantasy” and seeking “to apply prescriptive solutions to build the fantasy force of their own dreams.”  If he were familiar with the Space Force’s actual culture, he would know that naval theory is nearly universally accepted as the essential foundation of spacepower theory.  Space Force Navy rank is often discussed by Space Force personnel, and the change is popular among many younger members. 

Likewise, it isn’t wild-eyed “Trekkies” making Star Trek references, but billionaires such as Elon Musk, who is rapidly turning “fantasies” into reality, and many of the Space Force’s best scientists, engineers, operators and strategists who realize that the service must confront these new realities.

Deptula clearly does not understand the new Space Force doctrine if he believes all of this naval talk is “petty nonsense.” All he had to do was look at the people acknowledged as making “contributions” to know that at least eight of the 27 people listed have written articles or books noting the strategic similarities between the sea and space domains. Perhaps the most famous contributor is Sir Julian Corbett, a foundational naval theorist. I’m honored with a mention, and I have written extensively on the Space Force and Navy rank. Naval talk in the Space Force is widespread, so what is Deptula thinking? 

Barry Posen’s classic study “The Sources of Military Doctrine,” suggests Deptula’s true motivation. Posen argues, “In the absence of civilian intervention, and the exercise of the legitimate authority that only the civilians possess, militaries will arrange a ‘negotiated environment’… likely to take the form of either preserving a customary budget split or dividing shares equally.” Before Space Force independence, the Air Force could rely on roughly one-third of the Pentagon budget. Having to share the Air Force’s “customary split” with the Space Force is deeply concerning to Air Force leaders. Keeping the Space Force chained to their lead through their power monopoly over the Department of the Air Force is the only way the Air Force can limit the perceived damage the new service has caused them.

With the Crenshaw Amendment, the House is attempting to force innovation on a resistant Air Force. Deptula claims that the “American way of war depends on space.” The “American way of war” — in reality, the Air Force status quo — hasn’t won a war in 30 years and has overseen America’s fall from hegemonic superpower status. The Space Force was created to offer the nation an alternative strategic vision better-suited to that nation’s stated goals and strategic situation

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Crenshaw Amendment supporters seek to bolster the Space Force’s organic maritime-inspired strategies that actually attempt to align military doctrine with the nation’s grand strategy for great power competition.    

In truth, Deptula likely has little interest in letting the Space Force define its own rank structure and is urging the Air Force’s Senate allies to kill the Crenshaw Amendment so the Air Force can retain its cultural dominion over the Space Force. He probably believes Space Force leaders, deprived of external support, will again yield to Air Force demands. Pressure must be intense, because after eight months the Space Force has made no decision on naming convention, rank structure, uniform and other critical Space Force cultural artifacts — areas where the Air Force has the most to lose long term. Navy rank has been discussed in Space Force circles for months.  Why shouldn’t Congress intervene if the Space Force refuses to make a decision? 

Posen warns that military services “will deliberately try to escape civilian control in the pursuit of their own interests.” Deptula’s op-ed appears to be such an attempt. The Senate should reject the Air Force’s cynical machinations and grant the Space Force the culture it needs to succeed, both against the nation’s adversaries and Air Force predations. 

Then again, maybe Space Force advocates should welcome Deptula’s attempt to block the Crenshaw Amendment. The last time the Air Force used its Senate allies to block a House-led space innovation — eliminating the Air Force Space Corps in 2017 — we got a fully independent Space Force two years later. Perhaps this time the Air Force will be rewarded for its obstinacy by the establishment of a full-fledged Department of the Space Force.

Brent Ziarnick 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 do not reflect the official policy or position of Air University, the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.