NEW YORK – With the recent passage of this year’s big defense bill, Congress authorized the creation of a sixth branch of the armed forces — the United States Space Force. The move reflects the growing militarization of space, as the other branches have grown increasingly reliant on operations there. Despite criticism from spending hawks and late-night comics, the space force is an idea whose time has come. But the public, understandably, has questions: What will it look like? What will its mission be?
It’s worth pointing out that the U.S. hasn’t created a new branch of the military since the air force in 1947. While not without controversy at the time, that move simply recognized the reality at the time that air operations were going to become increasingly large and complex. This necessitated a cadre of true experts who would “grow up” thinking, planning, procuring equipment and actually conducting pure aviation in that domain — alongside the navy at sea and the army ashore.
That is the essential rationale for the U.S. Space Force — given the complexity and scale of operations in space, that domain requires a dedicated mission focus. Unlike Russia and China, which each have had dedicated space forces, the U.S. has relied largely on its air force to run space operations, with supporting efforts from the army and navy. In many cases, this puts space forces at a disadvantage in a fighter- and bomber-dominated air force.
The basic mission of the space force will be to train, equip and organize to conduct military operations in space. This means running the extensive constellation of U.S. military satellites (currently managed by the services separately, depending on function); operating the military’s launch facilities such as the air force’s bases at Vandenberg in California and elsewhere; executing financial planning and programming to purchase satellites and ground support equipment; and above all, training a specialized cadre of space officers and enlisted men and women.
It will start small with a few hundred specialists, probably reporting to a chief of space operations (a title resembling that of the head of the U.S. Navy, the chief of naval operations). Over time it will probably grow to 10,000 to 15,000 trainers, operators and leaders whose job will be to deliver capability in space to the 10 U.S. combatant commanders — the jobs I held at the four-star level both for Latin America and Europe/NATO. During my seven-plus years in command, I would have relished being able to call a fellow four-star in charge of space to levy my needs for greater surveillance, communications and targeting. My successors will be able to do so.
With that, I have three pieces of advice for the new chief of space operations, whoever he or she will be:
First, study the history. Both the creation of the U.S. Air Force in 1947 and the development of the U.S. Marine Corps offer powerful lessons. Learn how the first year and the initial decade of operations unfolded for the air force, studying the record to see the pitfalls and lay out a plan to avoid them. Those pitfalls include whether the services will resist giving up resources, whether the Joint Chiefs of Staff will pay heed to the “new” member, and what role Congress must take in giving initial lift to the new service. Likewise, the history of the Marine Corps — which remained a tiny adjunct to the navy until World War I and World War II created a narrative of larger-scale land operations — is instructive.
Second, build solid relationships, with both your boss — presumably the secretary of the air force — and the other members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. As the new kid on the block, you will require a special sense of humility, empathy and good humor to fit in the elite company of the other service chiefs. Likewise, building peer relationships with the 10 combatant commanders — who are the end users of the space force in conducting operations — will be crucial. Working closely with the U.S. Special Operations Command — which has both “train, equip and organize” and operational responsibilities — will be particularly helpful.
Third, push for a long tenure at the upper levels of the space force. One of the reasons the navy’s high-tech nuclear programs have succeeded is that the chief of naval reactors has always served a minimum of eight years in that essential job. To get the space force launched — pardon the pun — will require more than the typical four-year service chief tenure. Likewise, the other senior leaders of the space force should be in place for a longer tenure than is typical while it really gets off the ground.
On a lighter note, let’s also remember that the ranks should be naval in character — after all, the Starship Enterprise was led by Captain James Kirk, not a Colonel Kirk — and that he always piloted the ship from the “bridge” on the ship, not the “command post.”
But whether we end up with an admiral or a general as the chief of space operations, it seems clear that space, this vital fourth domain of combat, requires a focused and dedicated branch of the armed forces to master it for the nation. The voyages of the Starship Enterprise may be a century and more away, but the voyages of the U.S. Space Force are about to begin.
James Stavridis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a retired U.S. Navy admiral and former supreme allied commander of NATO, and dean emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.