Space Force vs. U.S. Air Force: Who Will Do What?

Anti-satellite weapons, lasers, nuclear warheads, space drones and hypersonic weapons skimming along the upper boundaries of the earth’s atmosphere all are part of uniting the Air Force with the emerging U.S. Space Force

U.S. Space Force Commander General John Raymond likened the Space Force’s relationship to the Air Force to the Marine Corps’ connection to the Navy: united yet distinct at the same time. 


“Marines pride themselves on everyone being a rifleman, and they have their distinct culture. At the same time, they rely on the Navy for ships, medical support and so on,” a Pentagon report stated

While there is and will continue to be massive amounts of overlap, given the rapid proliferation of new satellites and the advent of new space weapons, there will also likely be certain specific things which are unique to the space force. Space drones, for instance, could emerge at some point in coming years, along with various kinds of space-operating warplanes. Airplanes, attack platforms and drones configured to fly beyond the earth’s atmosphere will certainly need very different requirements for combat. The atmosphere beyond the earth is sure to be quite different from areas closer in, creating a need for entirely new avionics, guidance, propulsion, sensors and weapons than those that might be built for missions near earth. 

Then there is the issue of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), interceptors and space-traveling technologies such as kill vehicles, many of which fall within the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency. What all of this amounts to is that the Pentagon will need to achieve a crucial and potentially delicate balance between individual service requirements and joint efforts. 

The emerging X-37B, for instance, could soon become a space-traveling attack platform, engineered with a unique set of space-specific requirements. Hypersonic weapons and the kinds of faster-moving ICBMs expected in the future are also systems from which the architects of new generations of space weapons developers can learn from. Perhaps future space drones can help engineer a sensor web between otherwise dispersed satellite systems, creating a seamless integration of combat data-sharing and operational synergy. The concept of laser-firing space drones may also become a reality far sooner than what has been anticipated. 

Much of this will rest upon an ability to manage extreme temperatures. For instance, newer kinds of heat resistant materials now being developed for hypersonics could easily apply to current and future space weapons systems. Traveling through the expanse of space introduces many requirements, the first and most pressing of which may simply be speed. The area is so vast and expansive that any kind of effective transit will require massive amounts of speed, a circumstance which brings the need to manage extreme temperatures and sufficiently cool or manage otherwise destabilizing heat. 

Kris Osborn is the new Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

Image: Reuters