Air Force Capt. Lauren Bauer swears in future Space Force Guardians during a ceremony at the Pima Air and Space Museum in Tucson, Ariz., Jan. 15, 2022.

Air Force Capt. Lauren Bauer swears in future Space Force Guardians during a ceremony at the Pima Air and Space Museum in Tucson, Ariz., Jan. 15, 2022. U.S. Air Force / Staff Sgt. Kristine Legate

The Space Force Isn’t a Military Service

Unlike its sister branches, it doesn’t deal in violence. It needs a different model.

The U.S. Space Force has a problem: the public does not know it is a military service. Guardians have trouble receiving the special recognition from the airlines given to the other service members, and they lack access to special license plates as well. Ironically, though, the public instinctively knows what those who created the Space Force do not. Whatever the law might call it, the USSF is not, in fact, a military service. 

What it does is absolutely vital to America’s national security, but it lacks the core relationship to organized violence that defines the other services. Thus, by making the Space Force a military service, Congress has done it a disservice, forcing a poorly suited organizational identity onto it in the process. Fortunately for the Space Force and its leaders, there are other models that it might look to as its culture and identity take shape. But let’s look first at the reasons the military-service model is a bad fit.

First, the Space Force lacks the formative wartime experiences to give it credibility as an independent service. By comparison, World War II, for example, provided such experiences for the USSF’s parent service, the U.S. Air Force. The Air Force itself bristled under the control of its own senior service, the U.S. Army, for decades prior to World War II. Once America entered the war, the then-Army Air Forces brought to both major theaters of war a theory of victory through airpower. In the United Kingdom-based Eighth Air Force alone, 26,000 airmen died attempting to turn this theory into practice. As controversial as the strategic bombing campaign was, the airmen’s efforts and sacrifices impressed their fellow Americans and provided much of the impetus for service independence after the war. No such defining experience or theory of victory underpin the USSF. 

Second, this lack of formative experiences makes it difficult to create an internal narrative to shape the Space Force’s identity and organizational culture. As I’ve argued separately, military services provide organized violence-based solutions to national problems. To achieve this objective, services traditionally created more hierarchical organizations, emphasized physical hardship, and stressed operating in closer proximity to violence than their civilian counterparts. Especially in last few decades, the adherence to these characteristics has waned somewhat, but the relationship to organized violence remains central to military service cultural identity. The USSF’s tie to organized violence is fundamentally different. To the extent it physically strikes anything, its targets are satellite, not people. Disruption or destruction of the satellite might ultimately cost human lives, but the connection to violence against humans is much less direct and difficult to discern. Thus, organizationally, USSF leaders potentially create profound dissonance for their fellow guardians if they attempt to mimic an internal culture and create an internal narrative more akin to the other services, rather than allowing a unique culture to emerge organically.

Third, the Space Force’s designation as a military service drives guardian leadership to create staffs and structures to compete directly with the other services for resources and attention within the Defense Department. This means that, although the USSF is very small compared to the other services, nonetheless it will create a large staff relative to its own size, and pursue more peripheral undertakings such as building international ties or educational programs. Such activities might eventually be important, but they are hard to pursue effectively until guardians themselves better understand their organization and its culture.

Fourth, one of the reasons the Space Force is so small is that it excludes many key space and missile defense missions, to include those performed by the other services and organizations such as the National Reconnaissance Office and the Missile Defense Agency. A growing overlap in the strategic air missions after World War II led to bitter roles-and-missions debates among the services. The same is likely to happen as the number of space-oriented organizations grow, and organizational prerogatives inevitably come into conflict as a result. This means at some point the USSF will find itself in competition with other defense and space agencies, as well as the other military services over key responsibilities. If this is the case, it will be consumed by internal and public debates over exactly what role it is supposed to fulfill under the law, and it will struggle for credibility with Congress and the public.

Fifth, like many other U.S government space organizations, one of the key challenges facing Space Force leaders is its heavy reliance on civilians, especially contractors. As a recent RAND study noted, contractors comprise about one-third of the personnel at the former Air Force Space Command, which is now the USSF’s Space Operation Command. Moreover, these contractors “substantially contribute to operational space missions” and “often have more systems and technical expertise than the uniformed and civilian personnel they support.” Thus, USSF leaders face a daunting task creating a unique service organizational culture when so much of its talent resides outside its uniformed guardian ranks. Indeed, the larger likelihood is that seasoned contractors will shape the force’s culture more than any comparable official effort to do so. 

Finally, with so many government agencies and private companies competing for space missions, the Space Force has had a minimal role in shaping its public narrative. Yet, this public narrative is core to service identity and culture, reinforcing for service members that they serve a higher purpose. Right now, arguably other U.S. government organizations, such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, dominate the space narrative with activities such as the deployment of the James Webb space telescope. In addition, private companies like SpaceX play a key role in shaping the narrative through commercial initiatives like expanded space tourism. Beyond organizational culture, more pragmatically, the public narrative also functions as a proxy for a service’s value proposition to the nation. The more the nation values a service, the more resources and public esteem follow. Based on material in the public domain, USSF’s value proposition to the American people remains relatively low compared to the other services and other space organizations.

All this leads to the conclusion that the USSF is a different kind of organization, most likely invaluable to the nation, but not a military service. So what is it and where should it look for inspiration? 

The Space Force is what I’ve (coincidentally) referred to elsewhere as a guardian force. That is, an institution vital to the nation’s security but only loosely tied to providing organized-violence based solutions to national problems. In many ways, guardian forces serve as the successor organizations to the intelligence organizations that emerged shortly after World War II, most notably the National Security Agency and the National Reconnaissance Office. Both tackled large national intelligence problems, to include how to provide effective early warning in order to avoid another Pearl Harbor, as well as to how to understand the Soviet Union’s Cold War nuclear and conventional military capabilities with limited in-country access. 

Indeed, if USSF guardians look at the NRO, in particular, they will find a compelling organizational narrative rooted in solving a large national security problem, looking to space as the operational area for its solution, and relying heavily on civilians for leadership and expertise. As with most compelling narratives, the NRO’s has controversial moments; but, in no way do they detract from its success in uniquely using space technologies to understand Soviet military capabilities. The USSF similarities to the NRO are unassailable on the latter two elements. Space provides the physical medium for its operations and the USSF relies heavily on civilians. What remains uncertain is the enduring national problem the USSF is uniquely suited to address. Until that is commonly understood, commercial space, NASA, and the intelligence community will continue to shape space operations and associated narratives; and, the USSF will continue its uneasy relationship with other four military services. 

This all means that USSF leaders’ most pressing challenge is translating anodyne Title 10 functions into an important national problem needing a solution. They will realize that organized violence is neither core to the problem nor to its solution—and that the Space Force must look for inspiration not to its sister service branches, but elsewhere.

Paula G. Thornhill is a retired U.S. Air Force brigadier general. She is an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University (SAIS) and is the author of Demystifying the American Military.