Space—The Final Military Frontier?

Monday, May 18, 2020
Image credit: 
Poster US 8648 (OS), Poster collection, Hoover Institution Archives.

Image credit: 
Poster US 8648 (OS), Poster collection, Hoover Institution Archives.

Late last week defense leaders presented the flag of the newly created U.S. Space Force to President Donald Trump in a ceremony in the Oval Office. The new Space Force emblem, eerily reminiscent of the logo for Starfleet Command in the Star Trek sci-fi series, now takes its place alongside those of the five other U.S. armed services. Proponents have argued the need for a separate military service to ensure U.S. domination of space, while critics have questioned the need for an expensive new headquarters to manage military activities better kept under the control of the U.S. Air Force. To gain perspective on the arguments surrounding the creation of the Space Force, an examination of the history surrounding the creation of the other branches of the military is in order.

The U.S. Army, which dates its heritage back to the creation of the Continental Army on June 14, 1775, is the senior armed service. People live on land, so it makes sense that the service designed to dominate that domain would be the first and most crucial branch of the military. The creation of the Continental Navy followed shortly thereafter on October 13, 1775, when the Continental Congress authorized the outfitting of two armed sailing ships to intercept British transports carrying supplies and munitions to North America. The U.S. Navy grew from that modest beginning into a force that eventually dominated the world’s oceans, providing the United States and its allies the ability to conduct seaborne commerce and project power across the maritime domain. The criticality of the land and maritime domains was important enough for the drafters of the U.S. Constitution to embody in the document the ability of Congress to raise and support armies and to provide and maintain a navy.

The U.S. Marine Corps also traces its heritage back to the Revolutionary War. On November 10, 1775, the Continental Congress authorized two battalions of Marines. Congress disbanded these units after the war but resurrected the Marines on July 11, 1798, in the midst of the Quasi-War with revolutionary France. Unlike the Army and the Navy, however, the Marine Corps is not responsible for a warfighting domain, but rather operates as part of the Department of the Navy. This unique status led to calls by some policy makers to integrate the Marine Corps into the Army as an act of efficiency and belt-tightening after World War II. The ensuing “Revolt of the Admirals” led to Congressional hearings that quashed the idea. On June 28, 1952, at the height of the Korean War, Congress passed the Douglas-Mansfield Act, which made the Commandant of the Marine Corps a statutory member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and wrote into law the mission, size, and structure of the force.

The U.S. Coast Guard traces its history back to a small fleet of revenue cutters, operated by the Treasury Department to prevent smuggling, authorized by Congress on August 4, 1790. In 1915 the Revenue Cutter Service merged with the Life-Saving Service to create the U.S. Coast Guard. It operated under the Treasury Department until 1967, when it was reorganized under the newly created Department of Transportation. After 9/11 the Coast Guard became part of the Department of Homeland Security. In times of war the Coast Guard operates as part of the Department of the Navy.

The U.S. Air Force began its life as part of the U.S. Army Signal Corps, as the primitive biplanes in the early days of manned flight lacked combat capabilities. From those humble beginnings the importance of the air domain grew along with the capabilities of manned and unmanned aircraft. In 1918 the U.S. Army formed the Army Air Service as a separate branch within the Army; in 1926 the service morphed to become the Army Air Corps; and during World War II the U.S. Army Air Forces became a coequal of the Army Ground Forces and the Army Service Forces. As part of the National Security Act of 1947, Congress created the U.S. Air Force as an independent service, responsible for operations in the air domain. Air Force leaders subsequently embraced the expansion of the air force capabilities into space and cyberspace.

From this brief history of the armed services, we see that when new domains become critical to national security, Congress creates new services to manage military activities within them. For most of the nation’s history those domains included the land and sea, but the advent of human flight inevitably made the air domain a critical part of military operations. Space is merely the next step in this progression. The Air Force created the Air Force Space Command in 1982. As space capabilities and missions increased, the growth of this command into a separate service mirrored the Air Force’s own history. Space is the next logical military frontier as capabilities to operate in that domain increase and the effects of space capabilities become more crucial to operations in the air, on land, and at sea. Congress has placed the new Space Force under the Department of the Air Force, making the newest armed service akin to the Marine Corps, which operates under the administrative control of the Department of the Navy.

So cheers to the U.S. Space Force—may it live long and prosper.