OPINION: The Space Corps needs naval rank


Like the Marine Corps in the Department of the Navy, the proposed Space Corps under the Department of the Air Force will need a strong, proud, and fiercely independent sense of identity if it is to succeed in creating a successful military space culture without being smothered.

To ensure it, the president and Congress can perform one last great favor to the new service: direct the Space Corps to adopt naval officer rank immediately. Here’s why:

It will spur the creation of a separate space culture

The greatest danger to the development of a separate space culture is apathy from Space Corps personnel themselves. An uncomfortable truth is that Air Force Space Command officers did not lead the charge for their own independence. Rather, the Space Corps was the result of a handful of dedicated Air Force officers (many not space officers) and concerned statesmen politicking to force change upon the mostly ambivalent military space cadre. Unless the new members of the Space Corps break their silence and embrace this organizational change, no worthy space culture will emerge.

Since the Space Corps will remain under the Department of the Air Force and that Space Corps may only fully emerge in 2023, many space professionals will have no incentive to change. Some may not even discard their identities as Air Force officers at all. The risk that the space cadre as a whole will take no positive action to develop an independent culture is unacceptably high.

Mandating naval rank will compel the Space Corps to develop its own culture because it will kick out the crutch of its old Air Force identity. Otherwise hesitant Space Corps officers will be forced to adapt their external language to the new conditions – for instance, answering the telephone “commander” rather than “lieutenant colonel” – which will ensure at least some cultural change will take place. More importantly, the motivated officers will embrace their new roles and begin forging the new space culture immediately.

It will help ensure the Space Corps gets its culture right.

Beyond developing a separate culture, the Space Corps must develop the right culture. The evidence is overwhelming that the most powerful martial history that can inform and inspire a robust space culture is from the sea services. Every major military theoretical work on spacepower has been inspired by naval writings. Naval history and culture speaks to the serious student of spacepower in ways that airpower history simply cannot.

Air Force missions, such as gaining air superiority, strategic bombardment, reconnaissance, and airlift are episodic, focused on applying force on the ground, and generally occur only in times of war or conflict. Many Navy missions, alternatively are enduring, such as the control of vital sea areas, and especially the protection of sea lanes and friendly shipping.

Air Force Space Command’s mission of providing global utilities such as GPS location and timing services are enduring and support billions of people around the world. The Space Corps’ proposed warfighting mission is protecting space assets that provide communications, intelligence, and other services to the joint force from adversary aggression. These enduring missions are much more aligned to the historical experience of navies than to air forces. Space officers with naval ranks will more readily adopt useful naval analogies over air-centric ones.

It will help protect the space culture from the Air Force.

The Department of the Air Force will probably not approve of the Space Corps’ naval culture and may resist through misunderstanding more than malice. In April 2018, Chief of Staff General David Goldfein stated that in space, the Air Force “must always be the predator and never the prey.” To the fighter pilot, only two things fly: predators and prey. Retired Lieutenant General Dave Deptula also argued that only a Space Corps that could strike Earth targets from space was worthy of independence. This is the Air Force warfighting culture. But even if space is a warfighting domain, there is more than one warfighting culture.

The Navy also has a warfighting culture. However, there are more than predators and prey on the ocean. The Navy acts as the sheepdog of the seas. Sheepdogs protect others from predators, they are not predators themselves. The sea, like space, is much more than simply a warfighting domain. When the Space Corps begins to become the sheepdog of space, it will not reflect the Air Force. The risk is high that the Air Force will try to squash these advances. In one of her last interviews as Secretary of the Air Force, Heather Wilson expressed worry about how insufficient attention is being paid to developing space warfighters, by which she meant space personnel with Air Force warfighting norms. With naval rank, the Space Corps will be better inoculated against undue reverence for the Air Force’s opinion on what the military space culture should be doing.

The American people expect it.

In the American imagination, the ultimate expression of the military in space is Star Trek’s Starfleet – a space navy. The American people expect that a mature Space Corps will field Star Trek-like equipment when feasible. Elon Musk is developing plans and equipment to found a colony on Mars. Jeff Bezos aims to ultimately move a trillion people into space. The billionaires are setting the pace and the Space Corps will struggle to keep up. If a group of space tourists die a slow death on orbit because no rescue capability was available, the Space Corps will be blamed. The defense analysts claiming that the Space Corps should only be a satellite combat command are on the wrong side of the technological curve, not those that think the Space Corps should and will be the trailblazer to Starfleet. By adopting naval rank now, Space Corps officers will better appreciate their ultimate destination.

There is no time to waste. It will cost virtually nothing to place the Space Corps in the best position possible to develop the powerful, independent military space culture America needs. The nation’s civilian authorities must direct the adoption of naval officer rank for the Space Corps immediately.

Brent Ziarnick is an assistant professor of National Security Studies at the Air Command and Staff College at Maxwell Air Force Base, 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 Air Force, the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.

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