The U.S. Space Force (USSF) turns four 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 year, 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 the 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 6,718 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.
Members of space force are called “guardians.” (No, they do not take their name from Cleveland’s professional baseball team or Marvel’s band of galaxy saviors.) Space Force’s motto is Semper Supra, or “Always Above.” As Space Force hits its fourth birthday, it has 8,600 uniformed guardians. To put that number in perspective, the next smallest service, the coast guard, has nearly 43,000 active-duty service members. Space Force is expected to grow next year with a requested 2024 budget of $30 billion 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 (329,000 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. In April 2022, 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.
I asked Col. Kristen D. Thompson, an air force officer spending a year as a visiting military fellow in CFR’s David Rockefeller Studies Program, to recommend readings for anyone looking to learn more about the space force. Here’s what she suggested:
Loren Grush, The Six: The Untold Story of America’s First Women Astronauts (2023). In this magnificent book, Grush chronicles the stories of six extraordinary women astronauts. Each woman made her indelible mark on the development of the U.S. space program. Along the way they inspired subsequent generations to dream about flying on the NASA Space Shuttle and orbiting in space. The rigorous training, media attention, self-sacrifice, and gender bias all played a role in each of the astronaut’s careers and remarkable journeys. It is worth the read to see how each conquered her fears and silenced her critics.
Robert Kurson, Rocket Men: The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8 and the Astronauts Who Made Man’s First Journey to the Moon (2018), is a great add to one’s personal library. The danger, courage, audacity, and leadership needed by the crew of Apollo 8 to depart earth and head to the moon is riveting. The Apollo 8 mission also took place during the backdrop of an interesting and poignant year in the United States. Kurson extolls the bravery in undertaking this extraordinary mission while the nation dealt with Vietnam’s Tet Offensive, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, and the riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
Tim Marshall, The Future of Geography: How the Competition in Space Will Change Our World (2023). Marshall details the inevitable space race and ensuing power struggles among great power competitors–the United States, China, and Russia. The book also discusses the intense economic challenges surrounding the space race that will continue to transform geopolitics. Marshall offers valuable insight into how this will affect leaders, nations, and people throughout the world in the foreseeable future. It is a great read for anyone interested or invested in space technology to know what to expect in the future.
Rush Doshi, The Long Game (2021). Straight from the secretary of the air force’s reading list, Doshi’s masterful and comprehensive work details China’s ambition for domination on the global stage. Doshi argues that efforts to accommodate or change China are unlikely to succeed, so the most logical alternative strategy is that of competition. Guardians understand that the future is dependent upon their innovative ideas to preserve freedom of action in the ever-important space domain, especially in the great power competition with a near peer adversary.
StarTalk, from New York City’s Museum of Natural History and Hayden Planetarium. Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson and his rotating hosts bridge science, pop culture, sports, comedy, and science through an interesting podcast. The hosts dive into the military’s newest service on the episode, “Space Force: A New Domain with Maj Gen DeAnna Burt, Charles Liu, and Moriba Jah.” In fifty-five minutes, you learn, laugh, think deep thoughts, and grow to not only love the hosts for their intelligent and thought-provoking questions but the guests with their fascinating answers as well. You can listen on YouTube or any of the popular podcast platforms.
To get a good feel for the comprehensive necessity for a United States Space Force, look no further than the U.S. Space Force website where you can watch the video short called, “Never a Day Without Space.” The video centers on the everyday importance of the constellation of Global Positioning System satellites (GPS). The U.S. Space Force operates the GPS which was conceived in the Pentagon in 1973 and has since grown to more than thirty satellites. These satellites are a resilient system designed to maintain the signals required for accurate positioning, navigation, and timing around the world. The video is just four minutes in length but packs a punch in understanding what life would be like if we lost control of the space domain.
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.