Space Force, Part 6: Why Space needs to separate from Air

I discussed the arguments for and against a separate US Space Force in my first post on this topic. I let the air out of some arguments against, but I think I could provide more clarity on why a Space Force is a good idea.

There are aspects of military service which are hard to explain and hard to capture in a sentence or two, but still very real, so bear with me as I lay out some concepts that I will not attempt to prove.

Ruling Class

A military service has a ruling class, from which its senior leadership is largely selected. From what I have seen (as a small furry animal who reads a lot there’s only so much I can see), the ruling class of the Army is infantry, armor, and artillery officers. For the Navy, aviators and submarine drivers arm-wrestle each other to be the ruling class, while the ship drivers look on from a distance. For the Marines, it’s infantry first and aviators second. For the Air Force, it’s aviators, particularly fighter pilots. Other aviators are a noticeable step down, and non-aviators are even further down on the status ladder. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing; it’s necessary that the senior leadership of a service is composed largely of combat leaders. But it’s kind of tough when you’re not in the ruling class. It’s career-limiting, and makes life a bit harder. The Air Force says it’s mission is to fly, fight, and win in air, space, and cyberspace. So that means the space and cyber forces are growing leaders who can move up close to the highest levels in the Air Force, right? Right? No? General Ron Fogleman, former Chief of Staff of the Air Force, said the service was an Air and Space force moving toward being a Space and Air Force. He said that in 1997.  Has that happened? Is the Air Force developing space officers into leaders who can take on the highest positions in the Air Force? Not as far as I can tell.  Fliers have been put in charge of space organizations, to learn space. Are space officers put in leadership roles in flying organizations, to grow them into senior leaders? My rough estimate of the answer is no. There are some reasons why that’s difficult (aviation commanders need to understand aviation), but if it was important to the Air Force, a way would be found to put space leaders where they could learn enough about the flying business to be competitive for top jobs.

A flying general who led space had an interesting take. General Chuck Horner commanded Central Command Air Forces during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, the first war against Iraq. After that, he led Air Force Space Command. General Horner said we need to get to the point where the space operator can walk into the Officer’s Club, sit at the bar, and say ‘get out of my way, I had a bad day flying my satellite’ and get respect from the aviators. We can talk about whether that’s the right measure of success (it’s not), or we can accept his yardstick and ask if it’s happening, or if it will ever happen. Short answer: Don’t hold your breath.  With this understanding of the Air Force ruling class, we can see that the best way to get space officers into it may be to allow a space ruling class to rise in a Space Force.


In the Navy, the top enlisted men (chiefs) wear khaki uniforms, like the officers, so that chiefs and officers are seen as the ruling class over the sailors, who wear different uniforms.  In the Air Force, everybody’s in the same uniform, unlike the Navy.  Right? Wrong. The ruling class of the Air Force wears a different uniform than everybody else; they wear flight suits. Flight suits are a utility uniform suited for the needs of aircrew. Flight suits are also a cultural dividing line between the wearers and the non-wearers. A young fighter pilot who had no missions scheduled on a Friday may have spent the whole day at home in civilian clothing. When the evening rolls around, he will put on his flight suit. Night flying? No, he’s headed to the Officers’ Club. He will spend the evening at the O’Club bar in his flight suit, swapping stories with other pilots and shooting his watch. It would never occur to him to go to the Club in the polo shirt and shorts he has been wearing all day. If something about that seems silly to you, you’re not a fighter pilot.

Air Force space operations officers realized that (a) the ruling class is pilots and (b) pilots wear flight suits and (c) people not in flight suits don’t get much respect from people in them. That was a problem. The solution was either (1) to fix that particular weirdness of Air Force culture, or (2) put selected non-fliers in flight suits in an effort to trick pilots into respecting them. They of course chose (2). It’s too hard to change the culture of the ruling class, especially for people who are not in it.   With this peek at Air Force culture, we can see that space culture is being shoehorned into it, sort of a square peg in a round hole.  Better to let space culture be its own thing, but that leads to second-class (or lower) citizenship in the Air Force.  It does not lead to space officers in the leadership; a Space Force is needed for that.


Doctrine is how a service thinks about its basic mission, its reason for existence: fighting and winning wars. Doctrine is the distilled experience of decades or even centuries of combat, codified into principles that must be considered in the development of organizations, training equipment, plans, everything it takes to fight and win. Air Force doctrine carefully considers service experience and theory when it comes to air mission, as well it should. USAF space doctrine is air doctrine stretched and bent to sort of fit space. It’s a political construct, not the distillation of the best thinking and experience. The Air Force says air and space are indivisible, so of course they use the same doctrine, right? That top-down, political thought has been preventing the development of space doctrine for decades.  A Space Force could write doctrine that makes sense for space without regard to Air Force political considerations.


The Air Force has a Weapons and Tactics Instructor program. There’s a school that takes the very best hard-charging young fighter pilots and weapon systems officers (back seaters), then teaches them to be even better, so they can bring the best tactical knowledge back to each squadron. If that sounds like the movie Top Gun, that’s because the Air Force stole the idea from the Navy.  Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, after all. Over the years, Air Force expanded Fighter Weapons School into Weapons School to teach courses for bombers, airlift, intelligence, air battle managers, space operations officers, and missile launch officers. In every case, outstanding young officers were given intense training to become weapons and tactics experts for their systems, then go back to their squadrons and pass the knowledge around. In every case except space. Space weapons school graduates didn’t go back to their units to make space better. Their role was to integrate space capabilities into air operations. If you’re trying to have the best space operations, you send weapons school grads to units like the ones they came from. If you’re trying to fill a gap caused by Air Force leaders not understanding space, you do what USAF did. If you’re trying to make air leaders comfortable that space efforts are serving air needs, you do what USAF did. A model of excellence (weapons school and its graduates) was broken because (a) USAF leaders don’t understand space and (b) making space better was simply not a priority.  A Space Force could adapt the Weapons School model to Space Force needs.

Operationally Responsive Space and ‘penny packets’

It takes a long time to get new capabilities into the space business. Putting satellites into orbit is a hugely expensive undertaking requiring years of planning and development. Even fielding ground stations or ground-based space capabilities takes a long time. So when the Air Force dreamed up Operationally Responsive Space, it sounded great. It was a way to push new capabilities into use much faster, to meet immediate needs.  Somebody involved with ORS decided that the best approach was rapidly (three years instead of ten is ‘rapidly’) launching satellites based on the needs of theater commanders, and dedicating the satellites to support of each theater. Please let me try to explain to you why that is exactly wrong.

When the Air Force supports the Army, individual airplanes or squadrons are not dedicated to individual units like divisions and brigades. That’s ineffective. The Air Force derisively calls that arrangement ‘penny packets’ for a reason. Air power can have theater-level effects, and dividing it up into artificial parts ensures a lack of focus across the theater of combat. Instead USAF gives ground commanders capabilities that vary according to the situation. Ground commanders get the effects they need from air power, based on resource limits and theater priorities (assuming they bring air planners into their ground planning*). Space should be like that. Theater commanders and their air and ground units should get space capabilities that meet their changing needs, subject to theater or world-wide priorities. Space capabilities have global effects.  Giving theater commanders dedicated satellites is as dumb as assigning a small number (a ‘penny packet’) of fighters to each brigade commander.  If the brigade commander owned some airplanes, he would get all the airstrikes he wanted.  If he didn’t need them that day, his planes would still belong to him and wouldn’t fly in support of anyone else**.  The number and type of airplane sorties needed by a ground unit changes from one day to the next, so each ground unit will never have the right amount of airplanes unless they are provided as needed by a higher authority. And that’s just counting airplanes.  Air power is not just airplanes, but a set of capabilities that provide effects where and when needed. Air power is best controlled by one air commander in each theater.

In parallel, Space power is a set of capabilities, not just satellites. Let’s say there’s a satellite dedicated to Central Command (CENTCOM) in a low-earth, polar orbit.  How much of its orbit is spent over the CENTCOM area of responsibility (AOR)?  Very little.  So who gets support when the CENTCOM satellite is not over CENTCOM AOR?  Anybody?  A theater commander who has ‘his own’ satellite does not have space power.  What he has is an expensive resource, mostly idle, that could help other theater commanders, but won’t. A theater commander who can call on a piece of the national space capability as needed, has outstanding space power that is also available to the rest of US forces around the world.  I’m not sure who dreamed up theater-dedicated satellites, but the Air Force has thankfully moved on from that. Certainly it did not represent holistic space power thinking.   A Space Force would be able to think about space operations, space systems, space command and control, space logistics, etc. from a holistic view.

The items I mentioned above indicate the lack of seriousness the Air Force has given to developing space leaders and new space capabilities. A separate Space Force would necessarily do better, freed from being an afterthought of a flying service.

* Not like Operation Anaconda, where detailed planning between Army and Air Force before the mission was omitted.  Didn’t go as well as desired.

** The Army Air Forces fought with air power divided up among ground commanders in North Africa up through the Battle of Kasserine Pass.  It didn’t go well.  After that, the Army decided (see FM 100-20, 21 July 1943) that aircraft would be centrally controlled by the top Army Air Forces officer in a theater.


2 thoughts on “Space Force, Part 6: Why Space needs to separate from Air

  1. For a long time (from formation until late Vietnam) the ruling class of the Air Force was SAC….You can see this in who was appointed CoSAF and where they came from: Except for Sweeney (TAC, but not even really), they were all Lemay’s men.


  2. Exactly right. The ruling class was bomber guys until it was fighter guys. “Rise of the Fighter Generals” (Mike Worden, Air University Press) is a great book on the topic.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s