The U.S. Space Force (USSF) turns two today. The youngest branch of the U.S. military was established on December 20, 2019, with the passage of that year’s National Defense Authorization Act. Here are a few things to know about the newest U.S. military service.
Space Force was created to address the growing importance of space to both military operations and everyday life. Just as the U.S. Marine Corps is part of the Department of the Navy, Space Force is organized under the Department of the Air Force. Space Force’s ties to the Air Force are understandable. It was created by merging twenty-three different Air Force units, and Air Force General John W. “Jay” Raymond was made the first chief of space operations. The Air Force’s influence over the USSF will likely continue for some time—it handles 75 percent of the new branch’s logistics work.
Space Force’s mission is to organize, train, and prepare “to conduct global space operations that enhance the way our joint and coalition forces fight, while also offering decision makers military options to achieve national objectives.” Its specific responsibilities include operating missile detection networks and the Geographic Positioning System (GPS) constellation—the set of satellites that your smartphone, among other applications, uses to pinpoint your location. The USSF also monitors both intentional and unintended threats (e.g., “space junk”) to the 4,550 satellites active in space—more than half of which U.S. owners operate. And it works to enhance U.S. space strategy and the international rules governing space. In 2020, Space Force took control of its first offensive technology, a system to jam adversaries’ satellite signals. It certainly has more classified tech in development and in use.
Members of Space Force are called “Guardians.” (No, they do not take their name from Cleveland’s professional baseball team or vice versa.) Space Force’s motto is Semper Supra, or “Always Above.” As Space Force reaches its second birthday, there are around 6,500 uniformed Guardians. To put that number in perspective, the next smallest service, the Coast Guard, has nearly 41,000 active-duty service members. Space Force is expected to grow by 10 percent next year as individuals currently serving in the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines transfer into the service. But Space Force was established with the expectation it would remain a small (and relatively agile) organization. So don’t bank on it ever rivaling the size of the Army or the Air Force.
Although Space Force is the first independent service of its kind in U.S. history, it isn’t the U.S. military’s first space-centered program. Soon after the end of World War II, the Army Air Forces (the predecessor of the U.S. Air Force) turned its attention and funding to satellite and rocket technology. In 1985, the Defense Department organized U.S. Space Command, which was charged with planning military operations in the domain of space. In 2002, Space Command was absorbed into U.S. Strategic Command. It was reactivated as a distinct combatant command in 2019 and now works closely with Space Force. Meanwhile, U.S. military leaders and policymakers had debated the need for an independent branch for space for years before President Donald Trump pushed for the USSF’s establishment.
Space Force stands separate from NASA, the United States’ civilian space agency, though the two are frequent collaborators. Earlier this month, NASA’s Atlas 5 rocket took nine Space Force experiential projects into space. Space Force also works with private space contractors like SpaceX to launch satellites. And it cooperates with international partners, such as Japan and Norway.
Space Force is so young that no movies have been filmed or books written extolling its exploits. But here are some ways to learn more about its operations:
- “How We’re Building a 21st-Century Space Force.” General Raymond explains how military leaders are designing the USSF’s size, culture, and mission.
- “How the U.S. Space Force Is Trying to Bring Order to Increasingly Messy Outer Space.” General Raymond discusses the challenge of establishing the international norms to regulate a relatively new frontier.
- “Space Force: A New Domain.” StarTalk podcast hosts Neil deGrasse Tyson and Chuck Nice talk to experts about the science of space warfare and the role of Space Force.
- “Space Force: Inside America’s Newest Military Branch.” Time produced a video and accompanying news report that outline the significance and scope of the USSF’s operations.
- “Commanding Space: The Story Behind the Space Force.” The Center for Strategic and International Studies filmed a twenty-minute documentary that traces the history of the U.S. military in space and the debate surrounding the creation of Space Force.
The growing military and commercial role of space means that the importance of Space Force will only increase in the future. So happy birthday to the U.S. military’s youngest branch, and a tip of the cap to all new and incoming Guardians of the Space Force for their service.