On objections to space force naval rank

Naval officers

Naval ranks offer a better option for a Space Force than those used by the Air Force, or even an entirely new structure. (credit: U.S. Navy photo by Darwin Lam)

by Brent D. Ziarnick
Monday, October 7, 2019

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In July, I argued that the US Space Force should adopt naval, or maritime, rank structures for officers in order to develop a separate and unique service culture, independent of the US Air Force and suited best for the reality of military space missions (see “Why the Space Corps needs to use naval rank”, The Space Review, July 22, 2019). That essay has by far generated the most discussion about Space Force. The relationship between the two armed forces has been compared often to that of the US Navy and US Marine Corps, which have separate and unique service cultures, and also have different rank nomenclature and structures. In this article, I respond to some more persuasive objections.

The Space Force should follow the Royal Air Force and determine new ranks

The Royal Air Force (RAF) rank history is very relevant and instructive to the US Space Force, because it did not just simply adopt either British Army or Royal Navy ranks. The RAF proposed completely new ranks and combined various ranks to form a new rank structure that is, by many accounts, substandard. The table below showcases five historical or proposed officer rank structures for the RAF, compared to their equivalent grade in United States terminology. The Royal Flying Corps (RFC) was the air arm of the British Army from April 13, 1912 to April 1, 1918, and the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) was the air arm of the Royal Navy from July 1, 1914 to April 1, 1918. Both merged to form the independent Royal Air Force (RAF) on April 1, 1918. The RAF abolished RNAS rank for its officers and used RFC rank until August 1, 1919, when a proposed RAF unique rank structure was considered and rejected in favor of a blended rank structure that is active today.

Of primary interest to the Space Force is that the RAF has used Army ranks, a number of blended Army/Navy rank structures, and even a unique system with three new ranks. This suggests that the Space Force need not commit to a rank structure early, and that debate and experimentation might be possible. However, this experimentation might not be desirable.

Proposed Space Force officer ranks such as “Novas,” “Rocketeers,” or “Orbiters” would likely make the Space Force the butt of Pentagon jokes for decades to come.

Perhaps the most interesting is the proposed rank structure of 1919 and its three wholly new ranks: Reeve (US O-5 equivalent), Banneret (US O-6 equivalent), and Ardian (US flag officer equivalents).[1] Reeve was termed from its historical definition as a local official, particularly the chief magistrate of a town or district in Anglo-Saxon England.[2] The definition of Banneret is a knight who commanded his own troops in battle under his own banner.[3] The RAF rank was meant to bring the connotation of a knight-leader through the RAF practice of a commander of an air formation “flying a streamer which formed a rallying mark as did the banner of a knight for his vassals.”[4] Finally, the flag rank Ardian, was structured after the Gaelic terms for chief (Ard) and bird (Ian).[5] These ranks have a certain romantic air, but even among the classically educated British, they would have been hard to take seriously as a modern military rank.

Now, consider the Space Force and the importance of American science fiction, often called the “literature of ideas.” The “giggle factor” of the Space Force is already very high, perhaps inevitably so. However, the Space Force with a contrived rank structure will be infinitely harder to take seriously in a society low on classical education but high on pop culture science fiction and fantasy. Proposed Space Force officer ranks such as “Novas,” “Rocketeers,” or “Orbiters” would likely make the Space Force the butt of Pentagon jokes for decades to come. However, the RAF rank cautionary tell instructs far more than the danger of contrived ranks.

Distinction between ranks and appointments

A significant drawback to the RAF’s rank structure is that many ranks refer to an officer’s function though the function is no longer relevant to the rank. For instance, an RAF pilot or flying officer may not fly. A Squadron Leader, Wing Commander, or Group Captain may not lead any RAF formation at all. Though this discontinuity might no longer be problematic for the RAF due to a century of use, a new officer rank system for the Space Force based off of current functions, say a rank structure based off of the 21st and 50th Space Wing space crews: O-1: Space Vehicle Operator, O-2: Orbital Analyst, O-3 Crew Commander, O-4 Flight Leader, O-5 Squadron Leader, O-6 Group Leader (or flight, squadron, Group space formation equivalents) would face the dual problems that plagued the unique RAF rank: it may take twenty years for the rank to be generally accepted by the nation, and many officers will not have the appointment the rank suggests.[6] A crew commander may have the rank of flight leader, a squadron leader may not be the squadron’s commander. An Army captain may have no clue whether he outranks a Space Force orbital analyst. Add unfamiliar space terminology to ranks such as “Nova” and/or “Corona” and things will get irretrievably worse.

Line versus non-line

The drawbacks of designing a new rank structure based on functions or appointment are made far worse when one ponders the distinction between line (command and operations) and non-line (support) officers. Although commissioned officer ranks in the Army were often the same for line and non-line officers, the same cannot be said about the Navy until all engineering officers were granted line officer rank on March 3, 1899. Previously, engineers had ranks such as “Chief Engineer” or “Fleet Engineer” with the equivalent grades to line officers, but no combat authority.

Adding a third new rank structure for the Space Force is an unnecessary distraction and runs the risk of causing a number of problems in the Space Force for potentially decades to come.

If a unique rank system based on functional line appointments is established for the Space Force, support and engineering/technical staff officers will be even more alienated from the functions the ranks are based off of than the line officers. An entry-level engineering officer at a lab would have the rank of Space Vehicle Operator, even though he might not ever operate a spacecraft. Some staff officers may prefer to use staff functional ranks such as “Materiel Leader,” a functional designation used by the Air Force Acquisition community, generally equivalent to a squadron commander in terms of authority and responsibility. An explosion of specialist officer ranks may then be unavoidable.

The two officer rank structures of the United States

Even though they only coalesced into their (mostly) final form in the last century, the United States has two military rank structures that govern its seven uniformed services. Three armed services use the American “land” rank system: the Army, Marine Corps, and Air Force. The “maritime” rank system is used by the Navy, Coast Guard, Public Health Service, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Commissioned Corps. Air Force Space Command, the core of the US Space Force, currently uses the land rank systems since it emerged as part of the Air Force. What other traditions do we have in the Air Force that are uniquely Army? I know that when Air Force officers become generals they get an Army-like handgun issued to them. What else? This is why there should be a clean break and an opportunity to get new traditions, symbols, et cetera.

Adding a third new rank structure for the Space Force is an unnecessary distraction and runs the risk of causing a number of problems in the Space Force for potentially decades to come. Viewed through military history and theory, the Space Force mission is more analogous to the maritime domain than the land or air domains. The maritime rank structure has also proved remarkably versatile, providing the equivalent (if not the official) rank structure to the Public Health Service and the sea services. The Space Force can become distinct from the Air Force while remaining capable of developing their own identity by adopting the maritime rank structure for officers. One minor difference between Space Force and Navy rank might be the substitution of Commodore for Rear Admiral Lower Half (O-7) to account for lower flag officers commanding fleets of satellite constellations. However, having different ranks will keep the two services separate and unique like the Navy and Marine Corps. Otherwise, if the Air Force and the Space Force adopts an Army rank structure then the two services will lose their uniqueness and separateness by blending together through osmosis.

Enlisted ranks should also be changed to reinforce the Space Force’s independent identity. The enlisted rank structure of the Space Force might also adopt the maritime rank structure, replacing the earlier ranks with the generic term “crewman.” Crewman reflects the current use of the early enlisted space 1C6 career field in the Air Force, since virtually all early enlisted space professionals are placed on a space crew for their first assignments. However, if the Space Force enlisted corps finds completely abandoning the Air Force enlisted rank structure, there appears no overwhelming reason that enlisted rank must change from the Air Force structure, with minor adjustments to the junior enlisted ranks by replacing Airman with Crewman.

Naval rank has too many connotations, especially around the term “captain”

There is no doubt that maritime rank has been connected to space forces in science fiction through the concept of the space navy in science fiction media such as Star Wars and Star Trek. However, maritime rank would go far to center the Space Force upon naval history and maritime military theory, which is considered the most analogous terrestrial military operations available to current and proposed military space operations. Concerns about maritime rank raising the “giggle factor” to an unacceptable level or simply being driven by science fiction aficionados spring from an insufficient appreciation for military theory, history, and culture that serious analysis and contemplation can remedy.

The advantages of adopting naval rank are much greater than the disadvantages and far surpass any other potential solutions.

Specific concerns around the term “captain,” as a Space Force senior rank are similarly misplaced. No doubt Star Trek has provided an overdeveloped regard for the rank of captain in a space navy. However, in the real US Navy, the functional captain of all but the largest capital ships are O-4s or O-5s. O-6s is a senior rank for larger warfighting formations than a single ship, such as a Destroyer Squadron or a Cruiser/Destroyer Group. The term captain became established in the navy when infantry formation began to be placed on seagoing merchant ships in time of war. Captains were in charge of fighting and Masters were in charge of sailing. Thus, the maritime rank of captain descends from the army rank of captain, which descends from the Latin caput, meaning head. And perhaps like it did in early naval warfare, captains may not be as focused on operating space systems as they are in fighting them.

In near-term space warfare, the crew commanders (probably O-3s or O-4s) will probably be responsible for operating the space systems on a day-to-day basis, including times of war. However, regular crews may likely have very little authority in adjusting their systems for combat. Instead, commanders placed in organizations such as the National Space Defense Center (NSDC) will probably give fighting directions to all space forces, and the NSDC Director has a grade of O-6, equivalent to a naval captain. So, in the Space Force, the term captain may come full circle. In the Space Force, the captain may again be the chief warfighting officer of a satellite constellation while other, more junior officers serve as their operational masters. Of course, this trend could reverse yet again if crewed spacecraft enter military service in the Space Force in the future. But either way, the rank of captain would find an integral and storied place in the history of the Space Force.

The Space Force should adopt naval rank (with the substitution of Commodore for Rear Admiral Lower Half, O-7, to recognize that the lowest flag rank may command multiple constellations of satellites) instead of developing any contrived new rank structure. Enlisted Space Force rank should adopt naval rank through the use of the term “crewman” for the junior ranks as well. The advantages of adopting naval rank are much greater than the disadvantages and far surpass any other potential solutions. Make it so!

Proposed Space Force Officer Ranks


  1. H.A. Jones, The War in the Air: Being the Story of the Part Played in the Great War by the Royal Air Force, Volume VI (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1937), pp 25.
  2. Definition of Reeve, from Oxford Dictionary.
  3. Definition of Banneret, from Oxford Dictionary.
  4. Jones, The War in the Air, 25.
  5. Jones, The War in the Air, 25.
  6. Charles Sims, The Royal Air Force: The First Fifty Years (London: Adams and Charles Black, 1968), pp 27.

Brent Ziarnick is an assistant professor of National Security Studies at the Air Command and Staff College at Maxwell Air Force Base, 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 Air Force, the Department of Defense or the US government.

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