The U.S. Space Force (USSF) turns three today. The youngest branch of the U.S. military was established on December 20, 2019, with the passage of the John S. McCain 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 national security 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 named its first chief of space operations. Last month, another Air Force veteran, General B. Chance Saltzman, succeeded Raymond as chief of space operations. The Air Force’s influence over the USSF will likely continue for some time—it handles more than 75 percent of Space Force’s logistics work.
Space Force’s mission is to organize, train, and prepare its service members “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 5,500 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.
Space Force is currently developing its first unmanned, reusable space plane, the X-37B. Last month, the X-37B completed its sixth test flight, landing at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing facility after spending a record 908 days in orbit. Space Force certainly has more classified technology in use and development.
Members of Space Force are called “Guardians.” (No, they do not take their name from Cleveland’s professional baseball team or Marvel’s superhero band of galaxy saviors.) Space Force’s motto is Semper Supra, or “Always Above.” As Space Force reaches its third birthday, there are more than 8,400 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 to about 8,600 active-duty personnel next year with a requested budget of $24.5 billion, up 40 percent from last 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 that it would remain a small (and relatively agile) organization. So don’t bank on it ever rivaling the size of the Air Force (333,000 active-duty personnel), let alone the Army (482,000 active-duty personnel)..
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. Shortly after World War II ended, 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 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. Last April, the two agreed to share information on near earth objects to help inform efforts to eventually construct a planetary defense strategy against asteroids. USSF also 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:
- “Inside Space Force: Here's What the New Agency Does.” Time produced a video and article overviewing the Space Force’s mission and makeup.
- “Let’s Get to Know Space Force, Trump’s Most Misunderstood Creation.” Intelligencer (New York Magazine) debunks myths associated with Space Force.
- A Space Pro. The official podcast of the Space Force Association explores the way the USSF seeks to achieve space superiority and deterrence.
- “Lessons from the US Space Force on Creating an Agile Talent Model.” The Vying for Talent podcast discusses the value of diverse talent with Katharine Kelley, Deputy Chief of Space Operations for Human Capital.
- “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.
Sinet Adous assisted in the preparation of this post.