Suddenly, it seems like the U.S. Space Force is no joke.

It never was, of course, though its hyper-politicized origins made failure a real possibility. Last week, the Space Force took charge of operations for all American military communications satellites, marking the first time a single service branch has done so.

The final vestiges of U.S. Army communication satellite operations came from the United States Army Space and Missile Defense Command in Redstone Arsenal, AL. The Space Force annexed the U.S. Navy’s Navy Satellite Operations Center and its detachments in June 2022.

The word “historic” is overused, but the assumption of such critical infrastructure is a historic moment. This is particularly so given the oftentimes bitter space asset rivalry between branches. This turf war in space that reaches back to the earliest days of the American space program.

It also marks the latest in a string of wins by a branch founded under political strife and media derision.

SPACE FORCE

In a sense, the United States should have stood up some variation of a Space Force in the 1950s. Instead, the Air Force assumed a leading role in orbital operations, with other branches taking whatever they could, rockets to reconnaissance satellites.

Seventy years later, the greatest internal challenge the Space Force had to overcome was its own lack of distinct service culture. (I have written previously about this for ClearanceJobs.) By the end of World War II, the Air Force was already its own branch in all but name. The National Security Act of 1947, which made it official, was practically a formality, and the branch began life at full gallop.

The fast assumption by the Air Force of the U.S. intercontinental ballistic missile program is a testament to the deftness with which the branch operated. (The Army wanted the program badly, arguing that ICBMs were basically artillery.) This control of two-thirds of the nuclear triad during the Cold War made the branch virtually invincible. Today, the U.S. Air Force ties with the U.S. Navy for the largest budget among the service branches.

But the Space Force, however vital the mission, and regardless of how many decades strategists longed for such a branch, was conjured into existence for reasons that had nothing to do with unique service culture or the inability of the Defense Department to achieve its mission. Which means, had it been placed in feckless hands, the resultant branch could have undermined U.S. military effectiveness and just generally been an ongoing headache for everyone involved.

THE BOSS

General John “Jay” Raymond is the chief of space operations, and the first head of the Space Force. He had until recently perhaps the least enviable job in the military: standing up an independent service branch during the tumult of the late Trump administration, and amidst pop culture ridicule writ large.

The Air Force had Hap Arnold and Chuck Yeager; the Space Force had Steve Carrell. Good luck with recruitment. But he and the embryonic service branch under his aegis leaned into the cultural assault. “Any program that opens up a conversation about the ongoing, vital national defense mission performed by the U.S. Space Force is a worthwhile endeavor,” said a Space Force spokesman in 2020.

Gen. Raymond even went on the Daily Show this year, and performed quite admirably. I wouldn’t mind watching other service branch heads try to do the same.

The initial general responsibilities of the Space Force that we know of went off without a hitch. (Your GPS never stopped working, for example.) It continues to launch orbital assets for programs long in development, such as the Space-Based Infrared System Geosynchronous Earth Orbit (SBIRS GEO) satellite constellation, a missile warning system. The service placed the sixth and final GEO-6 spacecraft in orbit earlier this month. It is already looking ahead to a successor with improved hypersonic missile tracking capabilities. Congress seems likely to approve the $25 billion program.

Today, the Space Force is battling the same procurement woes that have haunted the Defense Department for ages. Of course, open warfare as we saw in Iraq and Afghanistan has not yet tested the effectiveness of the branch. Its constituents have certainly earned their stripes separately.

THE LITTLE THINGS

Those are the big things. What intrigues me most are the small things the Space Force is doing.

Where the Army has repeatedly demonstrated the worst possible judgment with respect to uniforms, out of the gate, the Space Force adopted the OCP uniform. While this seems like the no-brainer of the century, one look at the Air Force’s embarrassing and finally retired “ABU” pajama pattern, whose fit seemed designed for a potato; and the Army’s ACU pattern, designed to blend into any environment, and thus blending into none at all—to say nothing of the Army’s time traveler service dress debacle—suggests, at the very least, sanity in the Space Force ranks.

Indeed, the Space Force has proven itself willing to think outside the box on a lot of fronts. Rather than have Guardians train for an annual fitness test, the service seeks to encourage a holistic fitness and dietary regimen driven by wearable fitness trackers. Programmers designed the  system to let Guardians compare themselves against each other in real time.

As for grooming standards, the Space Force (as well as the Air Force) is evaluating a program to allow men to grow beards. Why not? Though I loathe the idea of hand and neck tattoos on service members, the service led on allowing those, too.

The willingness to try such things are indicative of a service culture unshackled to the past. This is because for all intents and purposes, it doesn’t have one. It is a future-oriented branch in every meaningful way. Not all these ideas will work, and there’s a good reason why military heritage is so treasured. But the Space Force in part must answer a question that no other military branch has ever really faced: What does it mean to be a member of the armed forces with precisely zero chance of ever seeing physical combat?

THE FUTURE of the space force

Gen. Raymond announced this year he will retire after 35 years of service. This is, on some level, worrisome given the embryonic state of the Space Force. Because Gen. Raymond’s judgment has been on-point every step of the way, perhaps it is a stamp of validation. If he thinks the Space Force is on the right track, and that he can safely glide into retirement, then maybe we can sleep easy.

What the future of the Space Force looks like remains hazy. Its budget is now bigger than that of NASA, which will greatly benefit America’s civilian space program. The flurry of space science missions launched in the 1990s, from landing the first rover on Mars to landing the first spacecraft on a comet were a direct result of an Apollo-scale research program for the Defense Department’s Strategic Defense Initiative.

Logically, the Space Force should eventually take over the ICBM arsenal presently run by the Air Force. This would divide the nuclear triad among three branches. The Air Force has its nuclear bombers; the Navy has nuclear submarines; and the Space Force would have nuclear missiles. Each branch would have a vested interest in running the best programs imaginable. Cyber warfare seems also like the natural domain of the Space Force.

I continue holding out hope for a Space Force Corps of Engineers, its members drilling tunnels and building infrastructure on Mars. That might be a few years out. Considering the Space Force’s rate of growth, however, and just how good the Defense Department is at getting big dollars that have long eluded NASA, it might not be as far out as we think.

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David Brown is a regular contributor to ClearanceJobs. His most recent book, THE MISSION (Custom House, 2021), is now available in bookstores everywhere in hardcover and paperback. He can be found online at https://www.dwb.io.

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