The U.S. Air Force, Not the Navy, Should Lead America in Space War

In his February 2017 article “America Needs a Space Corps,” Matt Hipple made an astute observation about the future of military space operations.

Visions of future sustained operations in space do indeed resemble classic naval operations at sea. Virtually every single work of science fiction in film or print describe their space military as a space navy. NASA and commercial plans for lunar industrial parks or Martian colonies cannot help but draw comparisons to Europe’s maritime expansion — and the navies that allowed those expansions to take place.

I agree with Hipple’s suggestion that mature space operations are “clearly naval operations.” I also sympathize with his view that only a navy culture is compatible with the United States’ long-term space needs. Where Hipple goes wrong, however, is when he claims that the U.S. Air Force “lacks the particular mentality and expertise necessary” to accomplish these advanced space missions and, consequently, that space “belongs to the Navy!”

Hipple’s error is subtle but serious. It can be stated clearly. There is a great difference between the military space forces adopting a naval culture and federal government giving the “space mission” to the Navy.

In a November 2015 article, Air Force general John Hyten, now commander of U.S. Strategic Command, concluded that “improving [U.S.] situational awareness [in space] and operational mindset in order to effectively control [space] when needed” to “support joint missions worldwide” is an “airman’s responsibility — and an airman’s story.”

Unfortunately, there is some evidence that maintaining and defending space support to joint military operations is the maximum extent of space interest in the corporate philosophy of the Air Force.

While the Air Force has provided some support to emerging space companies such as SpaceX and others, support is generally limited to use of facilities and interest is little more than in lowering launch costs for traditional Air Force missions. SpaceX plans to colonize Mars and other corporate plans to mine asteroids are of as much institutional interest to Air Force Space Command as they are to any other military organization — namely none.

As Hipple argues, a space navy is not needed in a far future of manned spaceships, a naval mindset is necessary to understand the changes occurring in space now!

But what Hipple doesn’t understand is that, while the larger Air Force culture may not be equipped to handle these changes, a subset of airmen — Air Force civilians, contractors and uniformed personnel — from the space culture are well aware of the necessity of adopting some or all of the naval culture.

Although there is by no means universal agreement that the Air Force space culture must transition to a more naval mindset, almost all advanced space thinking — overwhelmingly the product of airmen — have drawn heavily from naval history, theory and tradition. A U.S. Navy satellite launches into orbit in 2015. Navy photo It may surprise most, but military science in the Air Force has considered a maritime culture for space forces for almost twenty years. In 2000, Air Force lieutenant colonel […]