Gen. William "Billy" Mitchell's court-martial in 1925.

Gen. William "Billy" Mitchell's court-martial in 1925. U.S. Air Force

Is This Space’s ‘Billy Mitchell Moment’? Let’s Hope Not

Enflaming service rivalries will not help the U.S. military develop the joint spacepower it needs.

Some proponents of a separate U.S. Space Force compare today’s situation to the interwar years, when Brig. Gen. Billy Mitchell risked his career to promote military aviation despite an obstinate Army and Navy. But Mitchell’s divisive advocacy tactics and corrosive view of inter-service cooperation would erode the sentiments of interdependence, collaboration, and trust that today’s U.S. military must rely on as it looks to transform military spacepower. 

Mitchell is rightfully lauded for his vision as an airpower theorist, but he must also be scrutinized for the divisive tactics he employed to advance his views. Thomas Wildenberg’s book Billy Mitchell’s War with the Navy demonstrates how Mitchell deliberately enflamed interservice rivalries to advance an independent air force. As Wildenberg shows, Mitchell’s willingness to use divisive tactics manifested just one year after the Great War drew to a close. Testifying before the Senate Committee on Military Affairs in 1919, Mitchell accused the Navy of refusing to embrace airpower, which he predicted would ultimately “carry the war to such an extent in the air as to almost make navies useless on the surface of the waters.” Two months later, he returned to Congress to declare that “I think the flying personnel of Naval Aviation are really in favor of [a separate air service] but hesitate to express their opinions because they are all junior officers and because the senior officers are against it largely, I believe, from lack of familiarity of the subject.”

Secretary of War Newton Baker and Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin Roosevelt quickly and systematically debunked Mitchell’s claims the Navy was refusing to embrace military aviation. And of course, rather than make surface forces obsolete, military aviation has enhanced the Navy’s ability to conduct forward presence, deterrence, sea control, maritime security, and humanitarian assistance. 

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But despite these false statements, Mitchell accomplished his primary objective. The national media seized on the interservice rivalry unfolding within congressional testimony; the debate for an independent air force became part of the national public discourse. All told, Mitchell’s divisive tactics and organizational identity politics successfully generated substantial public attention for the proposal to establish an independent air force. 

As Mitchell made clear during his congressional testimony 100 years ago, he extolled primacy for airpower over synergy, independence from other service branches over interdependence with them. The general argued that airpower should replace coastal defense naval forces, not complement them. He believed that airpower could be unilaterally decisive and not an interdependent force multiplier. This rhetoric was corrosive enough a century ago. A return to similar arguments today undermines the Pentagon’s ability to wage modern war. 

Today, joint interdependency is the fundamental organizing construct of the U.S. military. Joint Force doctrine defines joint interdependence as “the purposeful reliance by one Service on another Service’s capabilities to maximize complementary and reinforcing effects of both.” For example, the Navy will initially rely on the Air Force B-1B to employ the Long Range Anti-Ship Missile, or LRASM, while the Air Force relies on the Navy for the airborne electronic attack capabilities provided by the EA-18G jet. Joint interdependence means military spacepower must become more than an auxiliary adjunct to airpower, landpower, and naval power. Conversely, joint interdependence implies military forces in the land, air, maritime, and cyberspace domains must help secure space superiority. 

These interdependent service relationships can only be built through cooperation. Conflating space operations today with the Billy Mitchell controversies of the interwar period emphasizes contention and division. This emphasis corrodes the fundamental sentiments of cooperation required to make any military space service an effective and interdependent element of the Joint Force. 

At a more fundamental level, divisive tactics erode trust. This impact extends beyond the trust between two partners. Organizational research shows high-levels of internal and external trust enhance performance and cultivate innovation. Conversely, political infighting erodes this trust and devolves competing groups away from innovation and towards self-preservation. Following his testimony in 1919, the U.S. Navy famously opposed many of Mitchell’s airpower experiments. In 1921, the chief of the Navy Department’s aeronautics bureau went so far as to recommend the Navy “take no part whatever in any activity with which General Mitchell is associated, especially in view of unprofessional conduct and disobedience.” It seems clear a more trusting relationship would have streamlined the development of airpower tactics. 

In the end, the “Mitchell moment” analogy is useful as a warning. Public advocacy through divisive tactics erodes trust. The U.S. military must cultivate spacepower theorists with Brig Gen Mitchell’s vision, but a “Mitchell Moment” should not be part of the Space Force founding ethos. Instead of elevating a problematic analogy that exemplifies division and contention within the armed forces, the discourse on the proper organization of U.S. military space forces should center around premises of trust, cooperation, and joint interdependence.