The Captain has Spoken!  The Future Needs You!

Captain Kirk himself recently ordered the Space Force to cast aside their Air Force roots and embrace Navy rank.  In a hilarious yet masterfully sharp commentary, William Shatner wielded his command of pop culture to provide “absolute proof” that the Space Force needed the rank upgrade.  Shatner’s essay was a follow-up to an earlier tweet that has over seven thousand likes and twelve hundred retweets.  Shatner was reacting to the Crenshaw Amendment to the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act.  The Crenshaw Amendment would direct that the Space Force use the same rank structure as the United States Navy. 

While undoubtedly funny, Shatner was drawn into a very serious debate waging for months over the culture of the Space Force of which ranks are merely one very visible example.  The debate is between factions in the U.S. government, including many in the Space Force, that feel that the Space Force must focus down on Earth from “GEO and below” to focus on earthbound “warfighting” and those that think the Space Force must look to “cislunar space” – the Moon and beyond – to outcompete China, Russia, and other powers in great power competition in the Final Frontier.     

For decades, the main responsibility for Air Force Space Command, the Air Force organization that operated and maintained GPS and communications satellites and, on occasion, launched rockets, was to provide needed space support to Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine combat operations.  The mantra was “space integration” to the “warfighters.”  Developing military space power to Air Force Space Command was to ensure an F-15 could use a GPS signal for navigation and bombing accuracy.  This approach persisted for years.

But in 2007, the Chinese destroyed a derelict weather satellite with an anti-satellite missile and US officials began to consider “space as a warfighting domain.”  In the almost fifteen years since, Air Force officials have become increasingly more comfortable with arguing that America’s adversaries have developed capabilities to disrupt or destroy our military space advantage.  Talk of space weapons and fighting “wars that extend to space” have become common.  However, even though emphasis has shifted from support to the fight on Earth to fighting in space, the focus of the Space Force – essentially Air Force Space Command promoted to a new service – is still on supporting the fight on Earth.

Space power theorists and writers have begun to call this mindset the “brown water school” of spacepower.  Borrowed for a naval term that describes a navy built for rivers and coasts of a country rather than the deep sea, the brown water school sees spacepower as little more than a support service for an Earth fight that includes navigation, communication, and remote imagery services.  The focus of this “GEO and below” mindset keeps its adherents dedicated to satellites and “warfighting” to the exclusion of all other strategic opportunities in space.   

At first glance, it seems that the brown water approach is good for the Space Force.  Why not keep the Space Force focused on protecting America’s warfighters?  Well, keeping the Air Force brown water approach supreme in the Space Force does not only keep the service largely ignorant of advances in the commercial and civil (NASA) space sectors, it can also turn the Space Force into an agent of a dark future.  In 2018, when establishing the Space Force was being debated, retired Air Force General Dave Deptula, who is on record rejecting naval rank for the Space Force, argued that before the Space Force could earn its independence, it must first emulate the Air Force and demonstrate the “ability to produce significant direct combat effects” in and from space.  “From space” suggests that the Space Force must be able to strike Earth targets from space in order to be a legitimate armed service.  If this brown water mindset is allowed to remain in the Air Force, shouldn’t we expect the Space Force to develop strike capabilities from space?

A different view has risen to challenge the Air Force’s classic brown water mindset for space.  The “blue water school” wants the Space Force to reach into deep space, like a blue water navy is designed to operate in the deep sea, for national strategic advantage.  While fully acknowledging the Space Force must ensure that the other services continue to receive vital space support in combat, blue water advocates argue that the great power competition of the 21st century – probably between American-led and Chinese-led coalitions – will be decided in outer space.  Therefore, the blue water school claims that the Space Force must focus on supporting a “whole of government” campaign for America to lead the industrialization and settlement of the Moon, Mars, and beyond to provide economic growth for the Western powers.  Generally, the blue water school wants the Space Force to, at least, adopt a new mission of “space commerce protection” in cislunar (Earth-Moon) space instead of simply preparing for a war in space.  

Blue water school adherents are often from the space enthusiast community who want to see humanity expand into the solar system for prosperity, adventure, and security.  However, the blue water school is anything but enamored with fantasy.  They are among the most technically- and/or militarily-educated professionals the Space Force has, with many members coming from the engineering and science community, while others are military space strategists.  Blue water adherents also include many from the civilian space community, including NASA technologists and SpaceX employees. 

The blue water school’s foundational document is arguably the October 2019 Air Force Space Command “The Future of Space 2060” report.  There, scientists, engineers, and strategists ranked a number of potential futures based on three variables: number of humans in space, amount of wealth generated from space, and Free World superiority in space, to help determine how Air Force Space Command (now the Space Force) should posture itself to help ensure the future in space is a positive outcome.  Positive outcomes we generally classed as answering the most of these three variables “yes”.  For instance, the reports most optimistic future is one in where the “U.S. coalition retains leadership over the space domain and has introduced free-world laws and processes that have led to significant global civil, commercial, and military expansion in space and resulted in large revenue streams. Thousands of humans live or work in space at a variety of habitats across cislunar space, the Moon, and Mars.”  Other positive futures include as many of these attributes as possible. 

The report concluded that “Examining long-term space futures along the axes of human presence, space economy, and space leadership is a powerful tool in developing a national strategy to achieve U.S. space interests“ and that the Space Force “is a critical partner in such a whole-of-government approach to national space strategy and action.”  Further, the Space Force must commit to advancing American progress along all three space futures axes and its mission of defending U.S expanded military, civil, and commercial space interests.”  Of note, the report labeled its most positive future “Star Trek.”

This is ultimately why Shatner’s argument for the Space Force to use Navy rank is important.  The Space Force rank debate has turned into an early referendum on whether the Space Force will develop a “brown water” or “blue water” culture.  If the Space Force retains its Army and Air Force officer ranks, the “brown water culture” will likely carry on the Air Force’s war-centric, “fighter pilot” and seek war for cultural legitimacy.  Alternatively, a Space Force with Navy rank may seek out a more classical maritime and Star Trek-like identity with the “blue water school” vision that stresses safety, security, and expansion alongside warfighting like its Navy and Coast Guard cousins.

Shatner has concluded that the Space Force needs to set on the road, however long it is, to become Starfleet.  The future he wants for the Space Force is crewed ships out into the black.  Shatner is pure blue water school – he inspired most of the blue water school to start it! 

Now, we need the Star Trek fans and the science fiction readers who think humanity has a future in space, knows that we have a future in space, and demands that we have a future in space, to demand the United States government takes action to start building that future in space!  Demand that the Space Force don the mantle of Starfleet and adopt Starfleet’s ranks!

The House and Senate will negotiate the final bill and determine whether the Space Force will have naval ranks or not this month.  If you want to help fight for the Starfleet we want, please write, call, or email your congressman and encourage them to pass the Crenshaw Amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act!       

On September 17, 1976, the prototype space shuttle Enterprise was unveiled in Palmdale, California.  Attending the event was Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry and many of the original cast.  Originally intended to be named Constitution, NASA had been flooded with hundreds of thousands of letters from devoted Star Trek fans asking that the first space shuttle be named after NCC-1701.  Organized by Bjo and John Trimble, the same fans that earned Star Trek a third season in the “Save Star Trek” campaign years earlier, their letter writing campaign helped convince the White House to rename the first space shuttle.  Star Trek made its mark on America’s civil space agency.

Can Star Trek fans mount one more campaign to change space history and make its mark on America’s military space service?  Can Star Trek and sci-fi fans win the Space Force naval rank and help the service embrace and help Starfleet become real?  If you can, please write or call your representative and senator to support the Crenshaw Amendment!  

Captain Kirk himself has entered the fray on the side of Starfleet.  Please join the fight!   Captain’s orders!


Brent D. Ziarnick
Brent D. Ziarnick

Brent D. Ziarnick is an assistant professor of national security studies at the Air Command and Staff College at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Air University, the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.