The Battle For The Soul Of The Space Force

By Tim Ventura | 1 May 2020

The U.S. Space Force launches the AEHF-6 communications satellite. (Image: United Launch Alliance)

Threats on orbit and emerging space commerce raise serious questions about the mission role & scope for the newly created U.S. Space Force. We’re joined by Senior Fellow in Defense Studies at American Foreign Policy Council and former USAF Chief Futurist, Lt. Col. Peter Garretson (Ret.) to discuss the Space Force’s struggle to define itself in the rapidly changing theater of space operations.

Peter, the United States Space Force is only a few months old, and a lot of folks, myself included, are still trying to understand the basics of it. So in in terms of their mission & goals, what is the Space Force?

It’s an excellent question, because the mission of the Space Force is a highly contested idea. It’s important to understand that are two different schools of thought fighting to define what this organization is, and they have very different visions of the future of national security. This difference in vision has really become a battle for the soul of the Space Force.

Let me back up a bit and try to explain. The origin story for the Space Force is slightly different from the story of the Air Force. Institutionally, looking back to the days of the Army Air Corps, there always was a strong sense of esprit and real desire for independence, which manifested itself in the creation of the US Air Force with the passing of the National Security Act of 1947.

A few years ago, back around Y2K, the space portion of the Air Force certainly had that same desire for independence from rest of the USAF — and a lot of people inside the space community felt that this was a natural evolution. They didn’t break away, though, and over next two decades the bureaucracy really worked to instill them with a support mentality and integrate them into the larger Air Force culture.

The mentality of space in a supporting role to Air Power is a big part of the reason why we’re not moving fast as China and Russia in terms of space. We tethered this service to an Air Force promotion system that values supportive air power rather than space power in its own right, and also didn’t have an independent voice in Washington DC to articulate why it could better complete some missions than the Air Force.

Let me give you an example: let’s say that you know that the military space community has an ability to provide the services that an AWACS or JSTARS, does in terms of air-to-air or air-to-ground radar. Well, it would be a natural tendency of the Air Force to want to protect its existing investment in aircraft, rather than take the risk of doing it from space.

When you’ve got a military space community that’s subordinate to the Air Force, it has to always ask permission and try new solutions to problems, and the response is typically something like, “Hey, I know your idea is important, but let me make sure that I’ve got my F35, and then if Congress and the president approve our budget, then we’ll talk about this other thing.”

What I just described is the “status quo” school of thought, but the space forces really wanted to be able to go directly to Congress and say, “I can do this better than the Air Force, and you should fund it because it’s more strategic.” This would make space a direct part of the inter-service military competition to come up with the best ideas for the most effective systems.

What you’re describing sounds like market competition similar to what you’d see between companies selling competing products. So was the Space Force created as a response to internal organizational pressures then, or were there other factors that played a role?

Well you know, within the status quo part of the Air Force they were reaching critical problems, with acquisition, the prominence of the emerging threats from adversary experimentation with anti-satellite technology, and threats on orbit.

There was a long period of time in our history where nothing was threatening our satellite systems — and the sudden emergence of these threats caught the Air Force by surprise. Culturally we brought the space folks up as a support force, not as a fighting force, and we had other weaknesses like building our satellite constellations for the least cost instead of for survivability.

So that required a change in mindset and Air Force Space Command began taking a leadership role to raise the prominence of both the role of space as well as threats to it. They deserve a lot of credit for getting that message out that space isn’t a sanctuary, and that it faces threats you have to prepare for.

Now outside of the status quo, folks like myself started to embrace a more radical view of the future of warfare. We started looking being more than just a place for satellites — and instead view it as the primary engine for future geo-strategic growth. Real economic value will be found in space resources, and this means the Space Force needs to think of itself more like the Navy and the Coast Guard. It needs to be out there protecting commerce and exploration, which means it requires a broader and more independent role.

This emerging school of thought that views the Space Force as a facilitator for space commerce is what we call the “blue water” school of space power, as opposed to traditional “brown water” school — a parallel drawn from historical views of naval power.

Can you elaborate on what you mean by blue water versus brown water navies? I think I understand the analogy you’re making, but what would that mean for the Space Force?

Sure. Back when people were debating the value of navies, you had the brown water school of thought which said navies were only good for transporting armies, and then you had the blue water school of thought that said navies are good for protecting an open system of commerce.

Now a lot of people don’t realize that our own United States Navy wasn’t started to transport armies or make war, but instead to secure our trade from the threat of the Barbary pirates. When you apply that same perspective to space, it doesn’t take long to realize that there’s a billion times the resources of Earth in the inner solar system alone — which means there will inevitably be commerce to protect.

As an industrialized society, our ability to expand and prosper within the inner solar system is unbelievably vast, and it creates an opportunity for the expansion of states very similar to the opportunity the European powers had by colonizing the new world — the nations that go abroad to access the vast energy and material resources of space will have a geopolitical advantage on earth.

Ultimately it becomes a question of how you define victory. For the brown water school of space power, victory means using space as a force multiplier to support armed forces in conflicts back here on Earth. The bigger picture — the blue water theory of victory — is that what determines victory is national economic and industrial power, and those things are secured by safeguarding our access to space resources.

It sounds like your vision for the Space Force would include roles like safeguarding Elon Musk’s Mars colony and Jeff Bezos’ proposed asteroid mining missions. In that context, is the blue water school school of space power really a fundamental recognition that mankind is moving out into space, and the idea that we need way to secure our liberty there?

That’s right. I think the difference in vision for the Space Force comes from our underlying assumptions about the future of space. The brown water school looks at what Elon and Jeff are saying either skeptically or in the “not my job” category. They’d say that off-world colonization or industrialization is science fiction, and there’s no need to worry about it.

In contrast, the blue water school takes these concepts completely seriously and recognizes this as a societal ambition just as important as colonies wanting to establish themselves in the new world. From that perspective, the Space Force has to plan for future where they’ll be successful and will require protection.

Now, this also means that building strong partnerships with the private sector is vital to our future success. The brown water school looks at Blue Origin and SpaceX and says, “how are you a resource for me to exploit to do my current job cheaper?” The blue water school says, “what interesting things are you planning to do that I have to take into consideration, and what innovations will you make that fundamentally change the expression of military power?”

This approach to building partnerships has been very hard for the Department of Defense to wrap its head around, because it is so used to a traditional military-industrial base that is that is willing to provide whatever the customer wants and is not independently ideologically motivated.

Now in both Elon and Jeff’s case, they’re ideologically motivated to change the future of humanity. Elon wants us to be multi-planetary and hopes to build a million-person city on Mars. Similarly, Jeff has looked at creating the infrastructure for O’Neillian space habitats where people live in free flying space colonies working in space-based industries so that we can enjoy a green, natural earth. These are central, political, societal movements that are shaping infrastructure and platform.

What’s important about both of Musk and Bezos is that they’re interested in accessing space on a massive scale, because of their Silicon Valley upbringing and familiarity with how platforms scale. However, this type of vision is so far outside of traditional defense thinking that it has been hard for the DoD to really understand or plausibly consider. It needs to be considered, though, because space will be the primary determinant of national power in the next century. If we America are to win, part of our national plan needs to include a Space Force that’s aligned with our future goals in space.

As I understand things, part of this blue water vision for the Space Force includes more than simply defense from other world powers. You’ve written in the past about the need for real asteroid defense, and proposed research into nuclear propulsion to facilitate that, right?

Right. I want to tell you a story back about 15 years when you and I were first corresponding. I remember going to one of the advanced propulsion shops sponsored by the DOE and USAF and asking about nuclear propulsion, “Hey, if we already have a path forward based on advanced nuclear-thermal or space-fusion propulsion, why aren’t we pursuing that?”

The response I got was shocking. The researcher told me, “well, look, there’s a little thing in the American government called the anti-deficiency act, which means that you’re not allowed to spend money on anything that’s not a validated requirement, and there’s no validated requirement for these systems. We can already get from LEO to GEO just fine, and we don’t need to go any further than that”.

To me, that seemed to me like a horrific pathology, but it’s part of a larger issue that plagues our entire military system, which has the net effect of slowing down innovation in an attempt to save money. Instead of identifying a solution & planning to achieve it, we’re forced to spend years scoping out the system, figuring out requirements, and coordinating things across 20 different agencies.

OK, so why does this matter? The reason is that military investment in transportation, manufacturing, or information technology has always had massively important economic and societal effects. Giving the Space Force a validated requirement to defend against asteroids would catalyze the development of future propulsion because our Space Force would have to be able to get to them expeditiously.

Another way to inspire the same research is explicitly state that the job of the Space Force is to defend American commerce wherever it goes. If Elon Musk wants to build a colony on Mars, then the Space Force needs to be capable of getting there. It doesn’t have to be an immediate capability, but it means that you start planning and building the basic embryonic technology early. This is why the mission of the Space Force really, really matters — because the mission is what defines the investment.

Politics aside, asteroid defense should just be an obvious part of the Space Force’s mandate. Other than the Space Force, who would you think is going to defend planet earth and America from an asteroid? Why would you not think that’s the Space Force? So making that explicit would be a good thing.

Remember, the possibility of an asteroid impact is real, and it’s among the most serious threats that our planet faces. Minor asteroids impact us all the time, and we know a big one wiped out the dinosaurs. It seems crazy for us to focus on preventing an enemy’s anti-satellite weapon from degrading our GPS if we don’t also have a plan to stop a 30-meter asteroid from obliterating a city.

It sounds like the real battle for the soul of the Space Force comes down to the difference in vision between continuing the status quo mission of USAF Space Command instead of a big picture vision for a new type of manifest destiny among the stars.

Well, you know, I am attracted to big picture areas. I try to think about the actions we could take today that could make the largest amount of change tomorrow for the future of our nation and humanity as well.

I gave a talk at the 2013 Starship Congress called “A Billion Year Plan”, and in it I tried to elucidate a big idea that most people haven’t fully considered: either mankind is alone in a very big universe, or we’re not. Both of those ideas are awesome in their implications.

If we are alone in the universe as an intelligent species, it means that we’re the sole light. If anything happens to earth, it isn’t just that humanity dies — it could be the end of intelligence forever. The ability of the universe to appreciate itself, to be able to see stars, to have thoughts is a sacred trust. It’s something we have a moral obligation to protect at all costs.

The other possibility is that we’re not alone. Perhaps this means we can interact and enrich ourselves culturally with trade abroad — but the equally frightening possibility is that they’re enough like us to be aggressive. Failing to build our technology strong and early leaves us in the position the Aztecs were when the Spanish ships arrived.

No matter what we find out about the possibility of life in the universe, I think there are compelling reasons for us to be pushing as far and fast as possible. It will take a lot of work, along with investment in the technologies to make it happen — but it opens up the possibility of near infinite energy, resources, and habitats for humanity.

About Our Guest

Peter Garretson is an independent strategy consultant focusing on space and defense. His accomplishments include a 33 year career with the Department of Defense, and service in a number of prestigious roles such as the Chief of Future Technology for USAF Strategic Planning in the Pentagon, the Director of the Space Horizons Task Force, and the Division Chief of Irregular Strategy, Plans and Policy, and as a strategic policy advisor to the Chief of Staff of the Air Force.

Peter has also served as an assistant professor of comparative military studies at the USAF Air Command and Staff College, as member of the National Space Society Board of Directors, and in his current role as Senior Fellow in Defense Studies at the American Foreign Policy Council. Learn more on his website at:

Reprinted with permission from the author.

Tim Ventura is a futurist, marketing executive and sometime writer with 25+ years of industry experience and a passion for the future. Follow him at LinkedIn and Twitter.

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