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Former Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson was among those that apeared to want to shape the Space Corps in the mold of the Air Force, rather than have it create its own culture. (credit: U.S. Air Force Photo by Adrian Cadiz)

Why the Space Corps needs to use naval rank

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Regardless of whether the Senate or the House wins on whether it will be called the Space Force or the Space Corps (hereafter referred to as the Space Corps), the sixth military branch of the armed services will be organized like the US Marine Corps (USMC): it will be the junior partner in a military department that manages two services. Like the USMC in the Department of the Navy, the US Space Corps under the Department of the Air Force will need a strong, proud, and fiercely independent sense of identity if it is to succeed in creating a successful military space culture that the President, Congress, and defense leaders demand. Civilian leadership, whether by Congressional or Presidential action, can perform one last great service to the newly-independent military space culture: direct the Space Corps to adopt naval officer rank immediately upon establishment.

The impulse to stick to the status quo must be resisted, especially because much of the reason to establish the Space Corps is for cultural reasons.

There are many reasons that Space Corps officers should adopt naval rank and very few for why they should keep Air Force Space Command’s Army rank structure. However, perhaps the most likely decision factor at the moment for this vastly important cultural determinant is the least purposeful: simple bureaucratic inertia. The impulse to stick to the status quo must be resisted, especially because much of the reason to establish the Space Corps is for cultural reasons. Merely changing terms of address for officers (enlisted rank should be decided upon by the Space Corps’ senior non-commissioned officers) would be very inexpensive and provide immense dividends. It would not even require a uniform change to accomplish. Here are a few of the dividends Space Corps naval rank will provide to the American people:

1. It will help the Space Corps recruit the right talent.

The most immediate benefit of directing naval rank for the Space Corps is the potential boost in the quantity and quality of potential recruits for the new service that the move is likely to entail. Certainly, the establishment of the Space Corps itself will attract young high school and college talent interested in space into potential careers—or at least stints—in the military space service. However, if the Space Corps is simply a renamed Air Force Space Command—even if only at first—with Space Corps personnel being indistinguishable from Air Force personnel by sight, title, or experience (such as common basic training at Lackland or Maxwell Air Force Bases, Air Force ROTC, or the Air Force Academy), far fewer recruits interested in space, especially the brightest ones, will be interested. An added danger is that if the Air Force retains responsibility for processing recruits for both services, the Air Force will still send the best to fly.

However, if a new Space Corps officer is Ensign Smith, rather than Second Lieutenant Smith, potential recruits will know that as a Space Corps officer they can truly be something never before seen. Additionally, if Space Corps leaders they see are addressed “Admiral” or “Captain,” rather than “General” or “Colonel,” potential recruits will likely be much more motivated towards careers in the service since they will be able imagine themselves sharing the same ranks as their heroes from their favorite television shows and movies. How many NASA engineers, scientists, and leaders were motivated to choose their careers by watching science fiction growing up? How much stronger will that effect be for joining the Space Corps if they can see the service as the beginning of what they see on screen? There is very little doubt that the Space Corps, especially with naval rank, will attract far more space enthusiast and science and technology-bent recruits into military space than the Air Force ever could. This first generation of Space Corps recruits are especially important, because they will probably be the ones that determine what the space culture will ultimately become.

2. It will spur the creation of a separate space culture.

For the importance attached to space culture by proponents of the Space Corps, very little attention has been paid to what exactly that culture should be. The only widely agreed upon attributes are that it should be different from the Air Force’s air-centric culture and that the Space Corps’ culture should be a “warfighting” culture. The first step is to develop a separate space culture distinctly different from the Air Force.

The greatest danger to the development of a separate space culture is not active opposition by the Air Force (which will be discussed later), but rather apathy from Space Corps personnel themselves. An uncomfortable truth that historians of the Space Corps must eventually confront is that Air Force Space Command officers did not lead the charge for their own independence. Rather, the Space Corps was the result of a handful of dedicated Air Force officers (many not space officers themselves) and concerned statesmen politicking behind the scenes to force change upon the mostly ambivalent military space cadre. Even if this silence was due to pressure from senior Air Force leadership, the damage has been done.[1] Unless the new members of the Space Corps break their silence and embrace this organizational change, no worthy space culture will emerge.

Directing the Space Corps to adopt naval rank will ensure that the external trappings of the military space culture conform to maritime norms, norms that are far more applicable to the missions of the Space Corps than their Army or Air Force counterparts.

Since both chambers’ proposals agree that the Space Corps will remain under the Department of the Air Force and that the new service may take until 2023 to fully emerge, many space professionals will have no stimulus to develop their own culture. Most may not even be motivated to discard their identities as Air Force officers at all. The risk that the space cadre as a whole will take no positive action to develop an independent culture is unacceptably high. Forcing Space Corps officers to adopt naval rank will be the cultural shock necessary to force space officers into positive action to develop their own identity.

Mandating naval rank will compel the Space Corps to develop its own culture because it will kick out the crutch of its old Air Force identity—an identity that the Air Force, even if subconsciously, will encourage the Space Corps to maintain. Otherwise ambivalent Space Corps officers will be forced to adapt their external language to the new conditions—for instance, answering the telephone “commander” rather than “lieutenant colonel”—which will ensure at least some cultural change will take place. Also, the more motivated officers will embrace their new roles and begin forging the new space culture immediately: incorporating that which is valuable from the current space culture, aviation heritage, naval heritage, with bold new ideas to birth a proud and confident new culture the American people demand and deserve.

3. It will help ensure the Space Corps gets its culture right.

Beyond getting a separate space culture, the Space Corps must develop the right culture. The evidence is overwhelming that the only martial history or theory that can inform and inspire a robust space culture is maritime and naval history and theory. Every major military theoretical work on spacepower has been inspired by naval writings. Jim Oberg’s Space Power Theory, Everett Dolman’s Astropolitik, John Klein’s Space Warfare, this author’s Developing National Power in Space, including papers by the current Air Force Space Command deputy commander, Major General John E. Shaw, all take inspiration from Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan or Julian Corbett, both celebrated naval thinkers. No comparable space works inspired by William Mitchell or Giulio Douhet exist. Air Force attempts to develop spacepower theory derived from airpower theory have failed. Naval history and culture speaks to the serious student of spacepower in ways that airpower history simply cannot. It is not difficult to understand why.

The functions and responsibilities delineated to each armed service in President Harry Truman’s Executive Order 9877, dated July 26, 1947, remain accurate statements regarding the roles and cultures of the individual services. Truman ordered the Air Force to organize, train, and equip for air operations, gaining and maintaining general air supremacy, establishing local air superiority where and as required, strategic bombardment, strategic reconnaissance, and air lift and airborne operations support, among other missions. What remains common among these missions is that they are episodic, focused on applying force on the ground, and generally occur only in times of war or conflict. The Navy, alternatively, is ordered to organize, train, and equip for the control of vital sea areas, the protection of vital sea lanes, and the suppression of enemy sea commerce, and protection of shipping, among other missions. Many Navy missions are enduring, such as the control of vital sea areas, and especially the protection of sea lanes and friendly shipping. The suppression of enemy sea commerce is an offensive mission of the Navy, as opposed to strategic bombardment of an enemy’s homeland.[2]

Which service functions best match to the current and potential space missions of the future? Air Force Space Command’s mission of providing global utilities such as GPS location and timing services are enduring and support literally billions of people around the world. The Space Corps’ proposed warfighting mission is primarily focused on ensuring the integrity of friendly space operations that provide communications, intelligence, and other services to the joint force from aggressive predations by potential adversaries. Striking terrestrial targets from space is a minor concern to almost all political supporters of the Space Corps. These Space Corps missions are much more aligned to the historical experience of navies, and to a surprising extent coast guards, than to air forces. Further, envisioned missions of the Space Corps such as providing safety (rescue) and security services to civil and commercial space operations (that will soon include mining of space resources), upholding the international rule of law in space, and the weapons-centric mission to defend Earth against asteroid and comet strikes are equally enduring. Navies have an enduring peacetime mission set that episodic war-centered army and air forces simply do not share, and army and air forces have a focus on applying force to the interior of adversary nations that navies, and probably space forces, do not share.

Directing the Space Corps to adopt naval rank will ensure that the external trappings of the military space culture conform to maritime norms, norms that are far more applicable to the missions of the Space Corps than their Army or Air Force counterparts. Space officers with naval ranks will naturally find a greater affinity to maritime history and will more readily adopt naval analogies that, while perhaps never a complete match, will be far superior to Army or Air Force ways of thinking. Put simply, the Space Corps will need to pattern itself as a nascent space navy in order to be most effective now and to place itself in the proper context for maximum development to be the dominant force in space in the future. Directing the Space Corps to adopt naval rank is the single most effective and cost-effective action that can be taken to ensure the nascent space culture gets it right.

Kirk and Spock
Popular culture, like Star Trek, has led us to expect Starfleet—or the Space Corps—to use naval ranks. (credit: Parmount)

4. It will help protect the space culture from the Air Force.

The United States Air Force, and potentially the Department of the Air Force, will probably not approve of the Space Corps adopting naval culture and may resist it. Not necessarily because they want to suppress the Space Corps, but because they will dismiss the emerging space culture’s importance since they won’t understand it. This cultural misunderstanding has been evident since the drive to create the Space Corps. In April 2018, Air Force Chief of Staff General David Goldfein stated in a speech at 34th Space Symposium that in space, the Air Force “must always be the predator and never the prey.”[3] General Goldfein was remaining true to the Air Force’s fighter pilot culture, which champions individual air combat between “knights of the air.” To the fighter pilot, only two things fly: predators and their prey. Retired Lieutenant General Dave Deptula also argued that the Space Corps could only rightfully claim independence by fielding a force that could directly attack terrestrial strategic targets from space.[4] This is the Air Force conception of the “warfighting” culture. The mantra that “space is a warfighting domain” has been pushed on Air Force Space Command through the Space Mission Force initiative, managed generally by Air Force Weapons School Space graduates (who are steeped in airpower culture), which have dramatically increased the study of tactical space considerations, just as the Air Force culture focuses on tactical expertise.

There is a tremendous risk that the Air Force, and the Department, may interpret the Space Corps’ emerging culture as a step in the wrong direction and attempt to squash it.

There are more warfighting cultures in the armed services than the Air Force’s. No one can argue that the Navy does not have a warfighting culture. However, the Navy’s culture stresses the defense of sea lines of communication, protection of commerce, and grand strategy as much as it values tactical expertise. Additionally, there are more than predators and prey on the ocean, and the Navy acts as the sheepdogs of the seas. Sheepdogs protect others from predators, they are not predators themselves. Further, the Navy does not base its independence on the ability to strike mainland targets from the sea. Lastly, naval officers do not place undue emphasis on tactics over strategy, at least at the higher levels of command. The sea is much more than a warfighting domain. So is space.

When the Space Corps begins to pattern its warfighting culture on naval foundations, it will not reflect the Air Force culture. There is a tremendous risk that the Air Force, and the Department, may interpret the Space Corps’ emerging culture as a step in the wrong direction and attempt to squash it. In one of her last interviews as Secretary of the Air Force, Heather Wilson expressed worry about how insufficient attention is being paid to developing “space warfighters.” Wilson said, “I think over the long term, the culture of [space] units in shifting from a mentality of operating a utility to being a warfighting component is a change that takes more time.”[5] As a firm supporter of the Air Force’s warfighting culture—and the Space Corps adapting it—she gave no consideration to the possibility that operating America’s vital space global utilities may be something (but certainly not the only thing) that will define what space warfighting is. The Space Corps will certainly have an important, and perhaps dominant, peacetime role that the Air Force does not share. The Air Force may interpret that peacetime role as the Space Corps abdicating its warfighting responsibilities. With naval rank, the Space Corps will be better inoculated against undue reverence for the Air Force’s opinion on what the military space culture should be doing.

The touchstone of the relationship between the Department of the Air Force and the Space Corps will likely be found in the first message the Secretary of the Air Force addresses to the department after the establishment of the Space Corps. If the secretary begins the letter with “Fellow Airmen,” just as Secretary Heather Wilson did in her June 19. 2018, memo after President Trump’s announced he would begin planning for a Space Force, the Space Corps should prepare to defend against a long and bitter siege.

5. It follows historical precedent.

The only current military department that manages two independent services is the Department of the Navy, which oversees the US Navy and the US Marine Corps. The Marine Corps has had to fight for its independent existence from multiple adversaries for its entire history, most often the threat to be absorbed into the Army. In fact, Congress transferred the Marine Corps to the Department of the Navy as a sister service to the Navy in 1834 to specifically to protect the Corps from President Andrew Jackson’s attempt to merge it with the Army. The Department of the Navy has been able to secure the Marine Corps’ independence ever since. But what if the Marine Corps had naval rank for its officers? Would the Navy have been able to resist the urge to absorb the Marine Corps if they shared a more compatible culture, including the same rank structure? The separate rank structures that exist between the two sister services in the Department of the Navy have at least some impact toward maintaining the integrity of both the department’s unique warfighting cultures. The Department of the Air Force would benefit by having separate rank structures to maintain the integrity of its two unique warfighting cultures.

6. It will ensure balance between Army and Navy rank in the US armed services.

If the Space Corps adopts the Army rank structure, four of the six armed services (Army, Marine Corps, Air Force, Space Corps) will have Army rank structures, while only two (Navy and Coast Guard) will retain the naval tradition. However, if the Space Corps adopted naval rank, the six services’ rank structures will be balanced for the first time since the establishment of the Air Force in 1947. This is not a trivial concern. In the near-term, it will mean that neither the Army nor Navy rank structure is clearly dominant, and the histories and decorum of both the elemental service cultures will be maintained in relative equilibrium. In the longer term, it will help ensure that both elemental cultures exist in the future regardless of how militaries develop. For instance, if the importance of the sea starts to wane and space becomes the dominant strategic theater, there will always need to be a ground operations component (be it a space-capable Army or Marine Corps with an Army rank structure) and a domain operations component (in which the Space Corps can carry the mantle of the naval elemental culture). The Navy has an interest in keeping its essential traditions alive unconnected to the ocean proper.

7. The American people expect it.

Any discussion of the Space Corps will inevitably swerve into some element of science fiction. The “giggle factor” was alive and well after President Trump announced the Space Force in June 2018, with YouTube videos of Star Trek, Star Wars, and Starship Troopers appearing about “Trump’s Space Force.” However, buried in this cultural landscape is an element of social truth. When one thinks about a military space organization, the public expectation is that it will be a space navy. In the American—and probably human—imagination, the ultimate expression of the military in space is Star Trek’s Starfleet. Captain Kirk is not a colonel for a reason. Regardless of what one thinks of the military theory or mission set case for Space Corps naval rank, the American people expect that a mature Space Corps will field Star Trek-like equipment as soon as it becomes technologically feasible. Elon Musk is developing plans and equipment to establish a human settlement on Mars. Jeff Bezos aims to build the bridge that will eventually move billions of people into space. The billionaires are setting the pace. Now it is the defense analysts claiming that the Space Corps should only be a satellite combat command that are on the wrong side of the technological curve, not those that think the Space Corps should be and will be the trailblazer to Starfleet.

Not taking positive steps to ensure that the space cadre develop their culture along the lines most profitable to the nation would be a critical mistake since establishment of the Space Corps is fundamentally meant to be a cultural undertaking.

The American people expect the Space Corps to develop the technologies that will help the United States become a truly spacefaring nation. Although most observers will understand that warp drive, artificial gravity, and photon torpedoes should not be crash-developed immediately, the American people will expect that the Space Corps embrace the space domain and have a considerable interest in all space activities. If a group of space tourists die a slow death on orbit from a spacecraft malfunction because no rescue capability was available, the Space Corps will be blamed. Moreover, if the Space Corps instead focuses exclusively on satellite combat to support the terrestrial joint force, the American people will eliminate the Space Corps as a military organization the moment technology is available to develop a space navy. Only a space navy is a military space organization deserving of a great power like the United States, and the American people know this. If the Space Corps fails to deliver the space capabilities that the United States—not simply those the Air Force or the joint force—demands, then the Space Corps will not have developed the superior space culture the President and Congress has demanded.

There is no time to waste. Congress or the President should direct the Space Corps to adopt naval rank as soon as possible. The alternative is to leave Army officer rank, and the Air Force culture, in the Space Corps for no other reason than institutional inertia. Not taking positive steps to ensure that the space cadre develop their culture along the lines most profitable to the nation would be a critical mistake since establishment of the Space Corps is fundamentally meant to be a cultural undertaking. There are many reasons why the Space Corps needs naval rank, and virtually no reasons that the space culture should be shackled to Army rank and Air Force patterns of thought. It will cost virtually nothing to place the Space Corps in the best position possible to develop a powerful, independent military space culture. The nation’s civilian authorities must direct the adoption of naval officer rank for the Space Corps immediately.


  1. Timothy Cox, “In Space Force Debates, the Military’s Space Experts are Missing in Action,” The Hill, February 12, 2019.
  2. Executive Order 9877. Functions of the Armed Services, July 26, 1947.
  3. Gen David L. Goldfein, “Remarks at the 34th National Space Symposium,” April 17, 2018.
  4. Lt Gen Dave Deptula (ret.) and Lt Col Michael Martindale, “Organizing Spacepower: Conditions for Creating a US Space Force,” Mitchell Institute Policy Paper Vol. 16, August 2018.
  5. Oriana Pawlyk, “Outgoing SecAF Worries About Developing Service Culture at New Space Force,”, May 16, 2019.

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