Commentary

Parochialism, not Congress or naval history, will kill the Space Force

As the Federation’s greatest warrior and explorer, Capt. Kirk notes — for over 100 years, humans have looked to the stars and seen an extension of the sea: an inevitable destiny of manned voyages in space communicated through generations of story telling. This is our collective vision of the future, not something to dismiss.

Crewed long-range military operations are the future, as generations of Americans have both predicted and demanded: patrolling shifting inter-planetary strategic lines of communication, surveying celestial objects, enforcing Exclusive Economic Zones in the asteroid belt. These operations will be as new as they are old — but they will remain distinctly maritime.

Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula suggests that the Space Force should outright reject naval ranks, that the culture of America’s contemporary Navy will undermine the Space Force’s ability to make decisions at 24,000 mph. But even today, as the Air Force launches its sibling into orbit — the Navy has its back through the operation of its own satellites and a globally deployed ballistic missile defense system, developing lethal military lasers, lending naval aviator and astronauts to NASA human spaceflights, and perfecting mobile nuclear power.

Together, the Navy and Air Force have broken down human frontiers for generations: from General Yeager to Admiral Shepard, from the USS Nautilus’ sub-Arctic transit to the F-22′s G-suit pushing individual human endurance to the brink. The foundations of America’s Space Force will not be a single story, but the evolution of the Navy and Air Force’s proud boundary-shattering aero & nautical history.

But the Space Force is in the unique position of standing up before its defining war, and in a time when the prospects for the organization are limitless. The Space Force’s first conflict will not be with our peer competitors, but escaping the orbit of a pre-existing institutional inertias. Gen. Deptula’s distrust, in rejecting naval ranks and congressional involvement, unfortunately represents the worst tendencies of any service faced with change and an expanding new frontier.

Service-centric parochialism will kill the Space Force. It leads some to reject the image of ships in space out of hand, citing the Space Force’s current responsibility for controlling remote craft in orbit. Those orbital coast-guard duties are absolutely critical to every terrestrial service, but not the end of the Space Force’s purpose. To paraphrase Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the Earth is the cradle of the Space Force, but the Space Force cannot stay in the cradle forever.

The Department of the Navy (DON), whose ranks would provide a maritime quintessence to the Space Force, has more lessons for the Space Force’s relationship to the Air Force. When the Marine Corps was resurrected in 1789 and bound to the Navy, the associated bureaucracies were neither large nor lucrative enough to battle over identity and rank — and the Quasi-War too important for much argument when the blue-green team was already proven during the revolution.

Now, the Marine Corps remains independent from the Navy to the benefit of both — different ranks, titles, personnel systems, and missions, but still linked in a unity of purpose. The Air Force and Space Force would benefit, as the DON has from this joint land-sea relationship, from a joint air-maritime competitive-collaborative relationship.

With respect, but contrary to Gen. Deptula’s suggestion, Congress has had oversight throughout the evolution of all our services. Oversight is Congress’ right, and its responsibility. In the past, Congress’s involvement was often command-by-negation — each service having proven concepts and combat credibility in war. Gen. Deptula cites Army Air Forces Gen. “Hap” Arnold as an example of service impunity — but Gen. Hap Arnold didn’t build a service from whole cloth. Gen. Arnold cultivated an organization with a pre-existing history through the trials of war, and with an eye to its grander future — whose ultimate founding was approved after his retirement by a Congress with first-hand knowledge of the organization’s nature and combat achievements. The Space Force is, thankfully, not the product of conflict as was the Air Force. It is wholly new.

No doubt, the Space Force will cherish the continued civilian leadership and oversight of Congress from elected officials such as Reps. Dan Crenshaw, Mike Rogers, Jim Cooper, and members of both the HASC and SASC with vested interest in the service’s success. The Space Force is building the character of an entire front of human advancement, not just the culture of a single service. They will be, among all of us, the military face of America’s future.

The Space Force, and joint combatant Space Command, are at a crossroads. Here is where the Space Force and the Air Force personnel attending to her creation decide if USSF’s destiny is to defend our inter-planetary freedom of navigation or a future of mere orbital robot monitoring. To the skeptics, like Gen. Deptula, let the Space Force “boldly go” beyond Earth’s confines and to cislunar and further into deep space — an independent, powerful service with a character unique from but still touched by its USAF and USN heritage. Together: Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, Army, Coast Guard — we must all aid the Space Force in building a grand future to eclipse, but encompass, all our terrestrial service legacies.

“Your limits are somewhere up there, waiting for you to reach beyond infinity.” – Gen. Hap Arnold

Matt Hipple and Jack McCain, both naval officers, were born too late to explore the world and too early to explore the stars, but just in time to argue about it. Their views expressed in this article do not represent the official policy or position of the U.S. Navy, Department of Defense or the U.S. government.

Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, haltman@militarytimes.com.

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