AMU Editor's Pick Military Original Space

Will the Space Force Develop the Right Culture for Its Mission?

By Wes O’Donnell. Managing Editor, Veteran U.S. Army & U.S. Air Force.

Company culture is often defined as the “personality” of a company. In nearly all cases, the culture is set by the board, the executive leadership or key stakeholders.

Some companies may be a toxic bureaucracy, where an ultra-competitive workforce results in a high turnover rate. Other companies may be more democratic; allowing the group to help make decisions about company objectives.

Like corporations, each branch of the military also has its unique culture. But unlike corporations, this culture is often set by the rank-and-file soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines and traditions that may date back hundreds of years.

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For instance, the culture of the Marine Corps is one of elite riflemen. Every Marine, no matter their job, is a rifleman first. In addition, the Marines are the smallest branch within the Department of Defense (DoD) and are well known for their strict entrance requirements.

This elite status, cultivated for decades, has led to a unique culture in which the Marines can claim to be “the few and the proud.”

On the other hand, the U.S. Air Force prides itself on being one of the smartest branches. The service appreciates airmen who can think on their own. The Air Force also prides itself on its ability to project airpower anywhere in the world at a moment’s notice. Airpower dictates every task and purpose in the Air Force. At the same time, the Air Force does not put as much emphasis on customs and courtesies as the Army.

As an example, while serving in the Army, I was expected to stand at parade rest while speaking to a non-commissioned officer and at attention when speaking to an officer. When I switched to the Air Force, however, I was shocked to witness lower enlisted airmen having a conversation with the squadron commander with their feet kicked up on their desk!

There is no right way or wrong way. It is just a different culture.

The Space Force Has an Opportunity to Define Its Culture for Years to Come

While I may take issue with the cheesy name “the Space Force” (Space Corps would have been exponentially better), Space Policy Directive-4 (SPD-4) has established the legislative groundwork for this fifth branch of the military.

Note: The U.S. Coast Guard falls under the Department of Homeland Security except in time of war.

Initially, the Space Force will be incorporated within the Air Force, much the same way that the Marine Corps falls under the Department of the Navy. The headquarters would have about 200 people, a mix of military and civilian personnel led by a four-star chief of staff, a vice chief of staff and a civilian undersecretary of the Air Force for space.

Because of this staffing, one might assume that the Space Force culture would simply be an extension of the Air Force culture. However, the Space Force is projected to include 15,000 members at an annual cost of $500 million, with servicemembers transferred in not only from the Air Force but from the Army and Navy as well.

It is this mash-up of servicemembers from different branches that affords the greatest opportunity to create a culture as unique as their space-based mission.

Courtesy Department of Defense


Can the Space Force Define a Unique Culture Separate from the Air Force?

According to Peter Garretson of War on the Rocks, the Air Force has chosen to organize around a theater-centric, centralized command and control system that is ill-suited for the global nature of space power.

“The airpower bias has incentivized American space professionals to think of space power in an extremely constrained manner,” Garretson writes. “The effect is the same as if the Army had conditioned the Air Force to think primarily in terms of close air support, or if the Navy culturally could only think in terms of a coastal ’brown water‘ navy versus a more expansive, sea-going ’blue water‘ navy.”

Space Force personnel, and especially their leadership, will need to be bold in their break from the cultures that have previously defined their members.

There exists an incredible opportunity if they are willing to grab it, to leverage their fantastic imagination to create a unique culture for future generations of Space Force servicemembers.

If Star Trek and pop culture have taught us anything of value, it’s that, at the very least, a Space Force needs to adopt Navy ranks instead of those of the Air Force. Even though the early Space Force will consist of only a few offices at the Pentagon, one must admit that it would sound better to answer the Space Force phone as Lieutenant Commander Smith instead of Major Smith.

After all, the Marine Corps, while under the Department of the Navy, has a rank structure that is unique from its parent branch.

Space Policy Directive-4 (SPD-4) indicates that stand-up of the U.S. Space Force would be phased in over five years – fiscal year 2020 to fiscal year 2024. Now is the time for Space Force leaders to think critically about what makes them unique, and define their culture accordingly.

Commander, make it so.

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Wes O'Donnell

Wes O’Donnell is an Army and Air Force veteran and writer covering military and tech topics. As a sought-after professional speaker, Wes has presented at U.S. Air Force Academy, Fortune 500 companies, and TEDx, covering trending topics from data visualization to leadership and veterans’ advocacy. As a filmmaker, he directed the award-winning short film, “Memorial Day.”

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