Matt Hipple should be commended for making a very astute observation about the future of military space operations. Visions of future sustained operations in space do indeed resemble classic naval operations at sea. Virtually every single work of science fiction in film or print describe their space military as a space navy. NASA and commercial plans for lunar industrial parks or Martian colonies cannot help but draw comparisons to Europe’s maritime expansion—and the navies that allowed those expansions to take place.
I agree with Hipple’s suggestion that mature space operations are “clearly naval operations.” I also sympathize with his view that only a naval culture is compatible with the United States’ long-term space needs. Where Hipple goes wrong, however, is when he claims “the Air Force lacks the particular mentality and expertise necessary” to accomplish these advanced space missions and, consequently, that space “belongs to the Navy!”
Hipple’s error is subtle but serious. It can be stated clearly. There is a great difference between the military space forces adopting a naval culture and federal government giving the “space mission” to the U.S. Navy.
In a November 2015 article , Air Force General John Hyten, now commander of U.S. Strategic Command, concluded that “improving [U.S.] situational awareness [in space] and operational mindset in order to effectively control [space] when needed” to “support joint missions worldwide” is an “Airman’s responsibility—and an Airman’s story.” Unfortunately, there is some evidence that maintaining and defending space support to joint military operations is the maximum extent of space interest in the corporate philosophy of the Air Force.
While the Air Force has provided some support to emerging space companies, such as SpaceX and others, that support is generally limited to use of facilities and interest is little more than in lowering launch costs for traditional Air Force missions. SpaceX plans to colonize Mars and other corporate plans to mine asteroids are of as much institutional interest to Air Force Space Command as they are to any other military organization—namely none. As Hipple argues, a space navy is not needed in a far future of manned spaceships, a naval mindset is necessary to understand the changes occurring in space now.
But what Hipple doesn’t understand is that while the larger Air Force culture may not be equipped to handle these changes, a subset of airmen (Air Force civilians, contractors and uniformed personnel) from the space culture are well aware of the necessity of adopting some—or all—of the naval culture. Although there is by no means a universal agreement that the Air Force space culture must transition to a more naval mindset, almost all advanced space thinking—overwhelmingly the product of airmen—have drawn heavily from naval history, theory and tradition.
It may surprise most, but military science in the Air Force has considered a maritime culture for space forces for almost twenty years. In 2000, Air Force Lt. Col. Cynthia McKinley argued that most military space missions, both current and anticipated, were support missions that bared a very strong resemblance to the U.S. Coast Guard and offered the U.S. Space Guard as a model space organization for the twenty-first century (sorry Hipple, but coasties deserve more than a hat-tip). McKinley’s idea is alive and well , but attempts to add conservationist missions to Air Force doctrine, such as orbital debris mitigation and collision avoidance in space (directly analogous to Coast Guard missions), have so far been ignored or couched in the more comfortable Air Force term “space situational awareness.” The Global Positioning System is perhaps the most critical space infrastructure the Air Force wants to defend for the joint force, but the service considers satellite navigation such as GPS as Space Force Support instead of its true character, the vastly more logical and inclusive maritime-friendly description “Aid to Navigation.” Even if it is not universally accepted, there is a strong case that in order both to develop and embrace its holistic space mission, the space forces need to adopt a maritime organizational culture, just as Hipple argues. However, airmen—not the U.S. Navy—are at the forefront of that debate.
What does have far wider support is the value of traditional naval thinking to military space thought. The three most comprehensive academic works on space-power theory derived from military studies. They include Everett Dolman’s book, Astropolitik, John Klein’s Space Warfare , and my book, Developing National Power in Space , which all borrow heavily from naval history and theory. Klein took his inspiration from the writings of Julian Corbett while I preferred U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Alfred Thayer Mahan and Rear Adm. Robert Wilson Shufeldt. Dolman, ever the iconoclast, tried to center his ideas on the land-power theorist Halford Mackinder, but even he couldn’t escape the very navalist economic expansion argument to explain why deep-space operations were so important to the future of the country. But even though these books reflect naval culture in their thinking, the fact remains that they are the product of airmen. Dolman was an Air Force civilian when he wrote Astropolitik and remains one to this day. I have served as an active-duty Air Force officer and in the Air Force Reserve. Klein wrote his book as an active-duty naval officer, but is now a contractor on the Air Force Secretary’s space staff. These books have also been textbooks for Air Force professional military education. From organizational debates to descriptions of the space environment, the greatest proponents of applying naval culture to space have been airmen.