The Space Force needs a brand-new culture of its own
It doesn’t do organized violence—and shouldn’t pretend that it does.
The nearly-four-year-old Space Force has taken pains to emphasize its uniqueness as a military service, especially vis-à-vis the Air Force. Leaders have introduced new uniforms, organizational structure, fitness test, enlisted ranks, basic training, and professional military education. However, these initiatives are not meaningfully connected to a deeper, organizational culture. Such efforts will succeed only when Space Force leaders understand they are responsible for a new, different type of national security organization—not a military service. The Space Force needs an organizational culture that reflects this reality.
A military service masters, manages, and employs organized violence on behalf of its nation against other political units. Service cultures are shaped by this relationship to organized violence. The Space Force supports these services and the warfighting combatant commands, and plays a critical role in today’s military operations. However, people do not (yet) fight and die in or from space. Without a direct link to organized violence, encouraging a warfighting culture in the Space Force creates a profound disconnect between the rhetoric and day-to-day operations. Most importantly, forcing a warfighting culture on the Space Force restricts its ability to grow into a unique organization with its own vibrant culture.
If not organized violence, what then are the defining characteristics of the Space Force, and how can understanding these characteristics help to shape its culture?
A systematic review of 132 articles appearing in five defense publications reveals that the Space Force narrative is dominated by its multi-dimensional relationship to industry. Over one-third of the articles focused on this relationship, though a range of topics that included speeding up space launch, improving the kill chain, using commercial space, and building out the space architecture. Conversely, articles devoted to space operations, including efforts to achieve tactically responsive space (which also has an industry-heavy component) numbered in the single digits. Interestingly, fitness testing and prospects for a Space National Guard garnered as much attention as space operations.
Even recognizing a possible bias for industry issues in these publications, their striking focus on new technologies, industry, programs, contracts, and contracting suggests such areas are fundamental to the Space Force’s purpose and hence cultural core. Thus, rather than try to impose an ill-fitting warfighting culture on the Space Force, its leaders should embrace this unique relationship to technology and industry by creating a culture to match. Here are seven ideas that suggest what this might entail.
First, leaders should emphasize recruiting and retaining an elite, STEM-focused workforce by hiring personnel with accredited, demanding STEM undergraduate and graduate degrees. Hiring practices could include a practicum to demonstrate an aptitude for understanding and solving technical, quantitative problems. Such a workforce would foster more substantive discussions with industry about various technologies and what it would take to operationalize them. It would encourage adaptation and innovation in using space for military purposes as technology continues to advance. This, in turn, would also encourage lifelong learning in the STEM disciplines. Professional relevance would require Guardians to stay abreast of scientific and technological developments in their disciplines. Such expertise would even help from a contract management perspective, by allowing Guardians to bring their expertise to contract oversight.
Second, reconsider who qualifies as a Guardian. If STEM expertise underpins the Space Force workforce, then civilians, who already make up 35 percent of the force, could conceivably fill even more of the ranks. Preparing them for their duties would require considerable training but of a different sort. Everything from the purpose of basic training to fitness testing to base inspections to the role of command would need reevaluation. Do these help execute the mission? Or are they attempts to compel the Space Force to adopt incompatible vestiges of the military services?
Third, Space Force leaders should continue to explore a longer-term approach to assigning personnel. Rather than subjecting Guardians to a more traditional move, or PCS, cycle, consider how teams are assigned to major space projects such as the Mars Rover or the James Webb Telescope. This would build deeper technical expertise, foster team esprit, and encourage the development of integrated problem-solving skills. Such an approach could contribute to building a strong cultural identity while providing personal stability for Guardians.
Fourth, leadership should embrace the Space Force’s relatively small size, using it to build a reputation as an independent elite organization only the best can join. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, an agency of only 220 employees, has long enjoyed such a reputation within DOD, as have the national labs affiliated with some of the nation’s top universities. Space Force could then concentrate on its core mission and sidestep competing with the military services within the Pentagon bureaucracy.
Fifth, Space Force leaders should create a “uniform,” even khakis and a polo shirt, that all its personnel can wear. Government civilians and contractors are so fundamental to the Space Force’s operations that, arguably, civilians rather than uniformed Guardians possess greater credibility when dealing with everything from space acquisition to operations. Better for all to build a single team across the spectrum of uniformed and government-civilian personnel and contractors. The Army Futures Command has already adopted such an approach, eschewing uniforms in an effort to remove barriers within the command and when dealing with civilian companies.
Sixth, make learning about war and the military services important, but not core, to the Space Force’s role. Guardians must help the military innovate and adapt to the changing character of war, and they need to understand the services they support. But building and retaining currency in their technical areas must come first. They need to use their technical expertise to help identify and address large national problems in peace and war.
Finally, leaders need to articulate what the Space Force uniquely does. This delineation must address not only the overlapping roles among the multiple space organizations within DOD but how the Space Force fits into the broader, more complex government, private-industry space ecosystem. Until this is accomplished, the Space Force will continue to battle a powerful, mostly unspoken four-part narrative: First, politicians created the Space Force for political reasons, rather than to address a large national problem; second, these circumstances produced an organization confused about its purpose; yet, third, now that the organization exists, it jealously protects perceived prerogatives; and fourth, no one wants to discuss the narrative, especially with the Space Force, because of the huge contracts it controls. It is an unfortunate narrative, but leadership must confront it directly or it will insinuate its way into the organization’s culture.
Being a small, elite, technically unrivaled organization offers the best way to challenge this narrative and create a powerful new one. Only by embarking on this unchartered course can the Space Force fulfill its full potential as a crucial guardian force released from direct responsibility for wielding organized violence yet absolutely essential to providing for the nation’s security.