COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — “Are there any Space Force here?” an instructor in a mechanical engineering class queried his students at the Air Force Academy on a recent morning.
“Hopefully,” responded an eager cadet, the only one in the group who applied to be commissioned a guardian in the newest military branch.
The exchange highlights the Space Force’s primary challenge as it nears its second birthday in December: stepping out of the shadow of the Air Force and plotting a different course than the rest of the military,
The smallest branch has settled on its headquarters structure and recently established the final of its three field commands. It’s officially taken over space operations from the Air Force, including missile warning, space launch and space intelligence. And it is now operating the military’s nearly 80 satellites.
But the service is finding it far more difficult to build its own combination of traditions, heritage and esprit de corps, which leaders consider critical to carrying out the Space Force’s marching orders: jettisoning old ways of recruiting and training and blasting through the maze of Pentagon red tape that has wasted taxpayer dollars and often left the troops wanting for better weapons and equipment.
“The first risk is we don’t think bold enough,” Gen. Jay Raymond, the chief of space operations, said in a recent interview at Peterson Space Force Base in Colorado Springs. “The second risk is that when we do think bold, then you have to get that implemented through a bureaucracy.”
POLITICO spoke to five generals and a number of other officers, contractors and rank-and-file guardians who are at the vanguard of molding the first new military branch in more than 70 years.
They point to a series of historic milestones that have turned what 18 months ago was little more than a concept, and a political rallying cry, into a multifaceted military force.
The Space Force now has more than 6,500 guardians. It has its first warfighting doctrine and set in motion plans to be the first fully digital military force. This month it unveiled a prototype of its new, futuristic dress uniforms.
It’s also instituting a series of specialized training programs to groom a dedicated cadre of space-focused troops prepared to keep pace with growing threats to military and civilian systems from potential adversaries Russia and China.
But because the Space Force remains under the Air Force, they also acknowledged the biggest threat to its momentum lies in the much larger and tradition-bound bureaucracy of its parent that still holds sway over its budget, how it prepares its future officers and enlisted troops, and what it buys and how.
“We did not spend so much political, financial, budgetary capital to treat the Space Force just so that we could do what we were able to do before,” said Eaton Kuh, a contractor with government services firm Booz Allen Hamilton who has been advising the effort since 2019. “It has to be faster. It must be better than what it was before.”
A new kind of war
In a cavernous aircraft hangar framed by the Rocky Mountains, Raymond recently presided over a ceremony establishing the last of the Space Force’s field commands, known by its galactic-sounding nickname STARCOM.
“You are developing the doctrine that will shape the next century of space as an operational and independent domain,” he told the gathered guardians of the Space Training and Readiness Command. “You are where the rubber meets the road in establishing a cohesive, unified cadre of space warfare professionals.”
But unlike in the past, space is now contested by other powers, particularly Russia and China. That requires a wholesale rethinking of how military personnel who still primarily operate from behind computer consoles can deter those who might try to attack or degrade American satellites that provide global communications, navigation or early warning of military attacks.
“We need to think about, ‘What does it mean to teach space power, to prepare someone for competition and conflict in the space domain?'” STARCOM chief Brig. Gen. Shawn Bratton said in an interview. “The domains are different, so we have to think differently.”
Helping to build that new depth is the National Security Space Institute, the Space Force’s focal point for continuing education at Peterson Space Force Base.
The student body has grown from about 800 to 3,000 since 2018, according to its director, Lt. Col. Max Lantz. That is set to ramp up to about 6,000 students per year, including Space Force guardians and troops from other branches and allied nations.
One of the more advanced courses is in space planning, which focuses on developing strategies to deter potential adversaries from threatening American space capabilities.
“A lot of military people understand joint warfighting planning in their domain — the air guys, and the land guys, and the maritime guys,” Lantz said. “When you now start to think about it from a space domain, what are the unique space-flexible deterrent options? What kind of messaging can you do? If you did something on orbit how would the adversary view that action? How would it be interpreted?”
But it is more complicated than most military personnel are used to, he added. “Put a carrier off the coast, that sends a message to an adversary that, ‘Hey we’re serious about this,’” he said. “Are there things we can do in the space environment that lets an adversary know that we want to communicate a specific message to them that, ‘We see what you are doing, we got you, we are going to check that?’”
“We want to have a warfighting culture,” Raymond said. “We want a culture that is innovative, that is not risk-averse, and can move fast.”
‘The big challenge’
In one major respect, however, that means overcoming a legendary trait of military culture: red tape.
“Every step of the way we have tried to slash bureaucracy at every level,” Raymond said. “When we stood up the organizational structure … we got rid of two layers of command” compared to the Air Force.
But bypassing the Pentagon’s cumbersome decision-making process is expected to be most challenging when it comes to acquiring new technologies.
There are a host of organizations and procedures that hold sway over what the Space Force can buy. And most of them do not answer to the Space Force.
The service recently restructured the Space Systems Center in California, which had previously been an Air Force organization. But senior Air Force civilians still have final say over acquisition decisions and there are several other independent agencies that also have a piece of its acquisition portfolio.
One is the super-secret National Reconnaissance Office, which builds and operates spy satellites. Another is the new Space Development Agency, which was created by Congress to bypass the current acquisition system to get new commercial technologies to space forces more quickly.
But veterans of the process warn that established programs and approaches with entrenched constituencies will be difficult to dislodge.
“The question is how do you get these great technologies and new companies into the programs of record?” said Steve Isakowitz, president and CEO of the Aerospace Corporation, a government-funded think tank that advises the Air Force and Space Force on acquisition matters. “I think that’s going to be the big challenge that we’re facing.”
He singled out the Space-Based Infrared Surveillance program, a set of new and sophisticated early warning and missile tracking satellites.
“A lot of agencies have a strong vested interest,” Isakowitz said. “In many ways, Space Force is going to be judged on that program and how they see making that pivot … from where we are today to where we need to be.”
Reforming the process for getting new capabilities to the troops with a new, flatter approach is a major test of whether the Space Force experiment can work, say top commanders.
“We gotta go really fast,” Army Gen. James Dickinson, commander of U.S. Space Command, the warfighting headquarters in Colorado Springs that draws heavily on the Space Force, said in an interview. “The way forward right now is very much more a flat type of process.”
But while he sees positive signs that things are changing, he also acknowledges that the tug of war is just beginning.
“Have I gotten that widget yet in a very quick way? I can’t say that right now because I think it’s too early to tell and you’re very familiar with the length of an acquisition process.”
‘Circle the wagons’
One place where the Space Force is working to plant its own roots is at the Air Force Academy, the training ground and research university for future officers. A small share of the more than 4,000 cadets — fewer than 100 — now get commissioned annually directly into the new branch instead of the Air Force.
And there are positive early signs that it is becoming a path of choice.
When the academy recently polled first-year cadets about what they’d like to do when they become officers, the space mission was second only to pilot, the lifeblood of the Air Force. And a course in which cadets design, build, launch and operate their own satellites is now one of the most competitive.
“We got many more registrations than we could support,” said Lt. Col. Luke Hagan, an assistant professor of astronautics who transferred from the Air Force to the Space Force in July. “Never had we had to essentially close down registration because it was full.”
But until now the space mission in the Air Force has almost been an afterthought, said Col. Jeff Greenwood, the Space Force’s liaison to the academy, or “kind of like security forces, kind of like contracting. It was on par with those types of jobs.”
And there are strong institutional headwinds against changing that.
For instance, some in the Air Force have expressed concern that the Space Force will pilfer the best and the brightest from the Air Force Academy, Greenwood said.
“There’s some issue right now between the Air Force and the Space Force figuring out what the process should be,” he said during an interview in his cramped office, where his deputy was still working from a chair wedged next to the corner of his desk while the rest of the office suite was being refurbished.
“And this is a struggle we’re having,” he added. “There is a concern from the Air Force side … that we’re handpicking all of their folks.”
Little things also matter, he said. For example, he wants to display more models of space systems around campus, such as satellites or the X-37 space plane, to balance out the aircraft models that are nearly everywhere. “You walk into most things at the academy and it’s aircraft because that’s what we’ve done,” he said.
He believes that instilling more of a space theme is about “making sure cadets see it so that then it can kind of perk their interest and they say, ‘OK, I need to go talk to somebody about this. That thing up there or that billboard or that display looks really cool, I need some more information on that.’”
“We need to kind of circle the wagons and figure out what we’re doing to make sure that space is taught here and it’s part of the culture,” Greenwood added. “And that’s a huge shift because this place has been so air dominant for so many years.”
‘The competition is going to be very fierce’
The Space Force is also still struggling with how to manage its image, which has often spun out of its control.
“We’re really not that focused on meteors striking the Earth,” said Lantz.
Space Force Lt. Col. Uri Mandelbaum, the director of operations at the National Security Space Institute, put it this way: “We don’t train for capabilities we don’t have.”
But Mandelbaum, a space operations officer who transferred into the Space Force from the Air Force a year ago, was also standing in front of a painting depicting a rocky, red, Mars-like landscape with a Star Wars-esque rover in the foreground and fiery rocket launch in the distance.
The space art, located in a hallway lined with classrooms, was emblematic of the challenge for the new branch in striking the right balance between myth and reality.
There’s a common misperception, supercharged by popular culture and fueled by former President Donald Trump, that the Space Force’s mission is other worldly, conjuring images of galactic battles and military outposts on other planets.
The real Space Force was across the hall, where a dozen mask-wearing guardians were huddled around computer screens and large, rectangular consoles with a series of protruding wires. Their mission in the classroom exercise: to jam the satellite communication links of an enemy’s surface-to-air missile batteries.
“I just don’t want them to have a false perception of what the mission is,” Lantz said. “I think very quickly as they get involved and start researching what the Space Force is they realize the difference between the function and reality.”
But over the longer term, building a Space Force that is truly innovative also requires playing up at least a little bit of science-fiction fantasy, in order to attract true pioneers who can break the Pentagon mold.
For example, Greenwood said a club for academy cadets interested in the space mission recently took on a research project that posed a beyond-the-horizon question: “Should we put a military base on the moon?”
The commercial space industry, of course, is already planning to put down permanent stakes on the lunar surface. And the Space Force will need to compete for the best and the brightest.
“Space Force is going to be challenged to recruit the in-demand talent,” said Kuh, the Space Force contractor. “The competition is going to be very fierce. And so coming up with some new ideas on how to position the Space Force so that it could operate in that environment is going to be crucial.”
But first that depends on figuring out how much to leave the Air Force behind.
“The Space Force maintains dependency on the Air Force for many, many things,” said Bratton, the general in charge of training and readiness. “So we’re thinking through, ‘What do we partner on with the Air Force?’ There’s probably some things we’ll do differently or separately from the Air Force to … make sure we are distinct and separate.”
Raymond acknowledges, however, that charting the Space Force’s own path will probably take years. “You can’t order a culture on Amazon Prime,” he said. “It doesn’t come overnight. It’s going to take some time.”
The question is whether the Space Force has enough of it before it is pulled in by the Pentagon’s gravity.
“This is not time to sit back and be passive,” Raymond said. “We’re in a sprint here.”