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NEWS | Oct. 1, 2020

Why United States Space Force Doctrine Development Is Critical To Its Success

By Major Clayton W. Couch Air Land Sea Bulletin 2020-2


Major Clayton W. Couch is assigned to Air Force Tactical Exploitation of National Capabilities (AF TENCAP)at Schriever Air Force Base, Colorado.

“Victory smiles upon those who anticipate the changes in the character of war, not upon those who wait to adapt themselves after the changes occur.”—General Guilio Douhet

Doctrine is a word many combat warfighters throw into everyday discussions for various self-serving purposes, but they are reticent to actually read and understand it. While warfighters are privy to their small-unit tactics or weapon system employment, the general and widespread familiarity of joint (or Service) doctrine are often put on a shelf for dusting off during developmental education. One of the few exceptions are those who find themselves in academic circles of military Service advanced warfighting schools (either as employees or students). Unfortunately, it is not these individuals who write or update doctrine because they are bound for more, seemingly, important assignments like unit command. Finding the right process, people, and place to lead strategically imperative doctrine development is critical to Service branch success.

With the recent creation of the United States Space Force (USSF), the question arises: Who will write USSF doctrine? Perhaps, it will fall on staff officers who find themselves assigned to academically inclined doctrine centers, longing to get back to a tactical warfighting unit. If so, what will happen?

Space doctrine could become a strict copy of Air Force Annex 3-14, CounterSpace Operations and Joint Publication (JP) 3-14, Space Operations, relegating space operations to a supporting Service to the other domain. Another route may be adapting tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTP) hidden within the classified security stovepipe in which most military space capabilities now live and leave them in that classified space and unfit for the force at large to know, embrace, and understand. Either case is untenable for joint operations, much less the current development of multi-domain operations (MDO). Instead, Department of Defense (DOD) leadership must aggressively put its most talented military scholars and tacticians, from all Services, to task. Now is the prime opportunity. The newly created USSF is uniquely positioned to lead space and MDO doctrine development for four reasons. First, the space domain has the most global-reaching effect on the United States (US) military’s functional and geographic combatant commands while supporting effects for other instruments of national power, like information and the economy. Second, space (similar to cyber) integrates with all other military domains to support their operations, while the opposite does not always hold true. Third, there is a current momentum to develop space TTP and a general interest in space from the American public. Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, the “clean slate” presented by creation of the USSF affords a drive to create Service-specific doctrine which may force alignment of joint doctrine and multi-domain TTP.

The remainder of this article outlines the important relationship between doctrine and strategy, a review of doctrine development, and an overview of historic doctrine from other domains. Applied throughout are ideas and lessons learned for USSF personnel to consider when writing doctrine. This article will conclude with recommendations, based on lessons learned, to provide a framework for the way ahead.

Strategic Imperatives and Doctrine

An important guiding strategic document, the National Defense Strategy of 2018, highlights a very important point: “A long-term strategic competition requires the seamless integration of multiple elements of national power—diplomacy, information, economics, finance, intelligence, law enforcement, and military”. It also calls on the military to “integrate with US interagencies”. This view transcends most historical military doctrines that primarily focus upon a particular Service or physical domain (such as air, land, or sea). The space doctrine should transcend the other domains because of the importance it holds for economic and intelligence purposes. It should be strategic-level doctrine spanning more than just the military instrument of national power.[1]

Retired Air Force Lt Gen Steven L. Kwast fervently advocated for a separate space force and significantly opening the mission scope. In this era of strategic competition, Lt Gen Kwast notes China’s pursuit of a “navy in space” with the equivalent of “battleships and destroyers” that are “able to maneuver and kill and communicate with dominance.”[2] He further advocates that if the USSF is not “given the mission to defend the economy of space beyond Earth’s orbit, to the moon and beyond, and achieve dominance over any other competitor, it will fail at its purpose to protect our values into the future”. Furthermore, he challenges national leadership to take steps to create the USSF and give it the mission to defend the economy of space.[3]

Now that the USSF has been created, what of its mission? According to its website, its mission does not include the defense of the economy.[4] A military Service’s role is to organize, train, and equip forces, not conduct the warfighting itself. That is the role of US Space Command, whose mission statement includes “deter aggression and conflict” and “defend US and allied freedom of action.”[5] This may include defense of economic, intelligence, and military freedom of action. JP 3-14 states, “DOD space policy is centered to deter adversaries, defend against threats, and pursue resilient space architectures”.[6] It is worth quantifying the importance of defending the US and space economies.

A study by RTI (Research Triangle Institute) International puts the economic value of the US Global Positioning System (GPS) constellation’s economic gain at $1.4 trillion since being made available for civilian and commercial use in the 1980s. If GPS service were lost, the estimated economic loss is $1 billion per day.[7] This is only for GPS and does not include the economic utility of commercial satellite communications, the burgeoning commercial space-based internet, or commercial space-lift.

What of the value of space resources themselves? Interest is growing. The Colorado School of Mines recently stood up the first interdisciplinary degree program of its kind in Space Resources.[8] A European Space Agency Space Resources Strategy document highlighted a study funded by the Luxembourg government citing market revenues worth 73–170 billion Euros between 2018 and 2045, and for between 845 thousand and 1.8 million full time jobs.[9] The catch is, most of these economic resources are on and beyond the moon—much as Lt Gen Kwast suggested. If America does not drive a strategy that affords its burgeoning commercial enterprises, the freedom of action needed to capitalize on such economic potential now, will it lose the opportunity to do so? If historical examples are to be believed, the answer is yes.

Current and Historical Naval Doctrine

Air Force doctrine states, “space superiority is of primary concern to airmen as it enables the continuous provision and advantages of space-enabled capabilities to joint warfighting operations”, and references the JP 3-14 definition of space superiority as “the degree of control in space of one force over any others that permits the conduct of its operations…without prohibitive interference from terrestrial and space based threats.”[10] This view may be Service centered, but if taken in context of historical naval doctrine theories, it can serve to support Lt Gen Kwast’s recommended mission. Such history is, perhaps, appealing for those hoping the USSF takes on a maritime flavor for terminology.

At the height of the European powers’ naval supremacy in the age of sail, needs for naval force were driven as much by economic purposes as they were for support of an army. The discovery of America was driven by economic motives and a search for a shorter passage to India. The prospect of new land, resources, and profit created a great power competition that included nations, pirates, and corporations. Indeed, the power of the British East India Company was substantial, at its peak it was responsible for half of Britain’s trade, driving the need for its own army and naval power.[11] Today’s corollary might be the likes of Amazon, Google, and SpaceX which, combined, are eclipsing the economic might of nations as they venture into the realms of cyber and space for profit. The significant economic potential of space beyond Earth’s immediate sphere may be compared to exploration beyond the view of a nation’s coastline. Using a naval analogy, space has been used for reconnaissance missions and as a line of communication in shallow sea lanes near land. This is equivalent to a littoral reconnaissance force with little to no self-defense capability and, therefore, is reliant upon support from nearby ports and in-range land forces to provide for its protection. Perhaps, this historic parallel is worthy of consideration when it comes to what USSF doctrine should look like in an environment of strategic competition. If USSF is to be viewed as its own combat arm and not a force support Service to air, land, and sea; perhaps, its capabilities should evolve to serve a mission similar to that of cruisers protecting economic commerce and lines of communication on the open sea, ultimately extending beyond littoral operations.

Consider Sir Julian Corbett’s Principles of Maritime Strategy. An examination of Corbett’s ideas serves as a framework that USSF doctrine can benchmark. Current space doctrine posits a primarily defensive mindset. Corbett states “counter-attack is the soul of defense. Defense is not a passive attitude…rightly conceived, it is an attitude of alert expectation”. Perhaps, his more important contribution is the fallacy, “you can avoid attack by depriving yourself of the power of offense and resting on defense alone”. This is a lesson learned by armies (static defensive trench warfare does not work) and air forces (destroying an enemy air force on the ground is more efficient than defensive counter air). Also, “a naval defensive means nothing but keeping the fleet actively in being—not merely in existence, but in active and vigorous life”. Seemingly, this fleet-in-being concept is the current status quo of America’s space capability. As such, a larger scope of mission and doctrine should be taken, and pursued aggressively, by the USSF.[12]

In Corbett’s view, the whole object of naval warfare is to secure command of the sea or prevent the enemy from securing it, whether directly or indirectly.

Now, consider the multi-domain arena. It is no secret that space and cyber are intertwined. Further, since the physical infrastructure that supports space capability is now only terrestrial, they are subject to attack from physical domains or electronically attack delivered from any of those domains, including cyber. Such operations may cut a critical link in the chain of supporting effects needed to defend space capability. This view flips the roles such that air, land, and sea may become the supporting force while space becomes the supported force. Such doctrinal shift requires exploration.

Corbett provides plenty of additional framework ideas worth investigating. “Command of the Sea”, he notes, “is not identical in its strategical conditions with the conquest of territory.” In contrast, he says, the only right any nation might have on the sea is the right of passage. In other words, this is the equivalent of overflight and a means of communication that space currently holds as defined by international policy. Much like “international waters” beyond a nation’s shorelines, perhaps space beyond geosynchronous orbit may be thought of as the open seas. Additionally, Corbett states “it is commerce and finance which now, more than ever, control or check the foreign policy of nations” which brings to his point that “over and above the duty of winning battles, fleets are charged with the duty of protecting commerce.”[13]

Corbett’s writing does not translate perfectly from the maritime realm to space. For instance, the idea that an enemy may “remove his fleet from the board altogether” to preserve itself from decisive defeat. Such “fleet-in-being” doctrine forces one’s own maneuver and tactics along with those of the enemy. Unfortunately, that capability in space is very limited, and once removed from orbit, it cannot readily or economically be placed back on the board. However, he notes that ships are not confined by geography as readily as land forces; and, therefore, are not as predictable. This is not true of space-based assets given the current realities of orbital mechanics, lack of resupply on orbit, and miniscule maneuvering capabilities resident on most assets. In effect, once an object is in orbit, its future location is fairly easy to predict assuming orbital parameters are known. However, Corbett’s assertion that “the narrower the sea, the easier it is to watch” may still apply. Everything in proximity to Earth is subject to space object surveillance and identification networks in place to watch them. If space commerce ever moves well beyond the moon, watching those movements could become significantly more difficult using terrestrial sensors alone, while time delays restricted by the speed of light grow with increasing distance.[14]

Current Doctrine and Early Airpower Theory

Looking to the past provides necessary lessons that need not be learned the hard way. Unfortunately in the case of airpower doctrine development, J.F.C. Fuller’s statement came true: “To establish a new invention is like establishing a new religion—it usually demands the conversion or destruction of an entire priesthood”.[15] Rapid technological change is an impetus for new military applications, and by extension, doctrine and theory for their use as well. A collection of essays by retired Air Force Maj Gen I.B. Holley Jr. discusses this interrelationship in his book: Technology and Military Doctrine. Unfortunately for early airpower theorists, the initial placement of the airplane into the Army Signal Corps in lieu of a combat arm itself relegated it, primarily, to reconnaissance use. Such “conversion or destruction” occurred when the US cavalry was supplanted by the airplane and combustion engine. That story is one Maj Gen Holley uses to relate his ideas from which we may learn.

Well before Corbett’s writings, cavalry had become a critical combat arm of the land domain. It served four mission functions: the charge, reconnaissance, screen, and strategic attack that relied upon speed and maneuver to conduct attacks deep within enemy territory.[16] The critical enablers for these missions were the speed advantage cavalry held over other land forces and their ability to avoid deterrent forces as a result of short range, poor accuracy, and slow fire rate of muzzle-loading firearms used to oppose them. The airplane had better speed and threat avoidance, making it a logical successor to many missions carried out by cavalry troops. Unfortunately, although doctrinal use of the cavalry for such missions was well tested and defined, this logical succession and application of cavalry mission doctrine did not transfer to the airplane.

Since the Signal Corps was not a combat arm but a Service that supported the Army, its members viewed themselves as ancillaries that assisted the infantry, artillery, and cavalry in carrying out their tactical missions. This mirrors descriptions of assigning space assets to the Air Force to provide support to Army, Marine Corps, Navy, and Air Force missions. This treatment of the airplane resulted in misconceptions and poor strategic direction for its future (i.e., its uses and technological development). Similar to Corbett’s outline of how the necessary composition of a fleet is mission driven to protect commerce, so too was the US airplane fleet affected in its early days. As a result of its placement in the Signal Corps: the 1920 record of Army aircraft acceptances shows nearly 1,000 reconnaissance aircraft in its inventory, with only 112 pursuit planes and 20 bombers.[17] Does the current space fleet have a similar composition based on how it has been viewed and organized by the armed Services and national leadership over the past five decades? If this trend holds true, the vector of near-term space doctrine is linked to what the USSF will become down the road, and vice versa. Holley concludes, “if we define our role in space as ‘mission support’ for operating forces, then will it not logically follow that the organization we build for space will be appropriate for a service or support role?”[18]

Some may ask, what happened to airpower doctrine? Well, as it was developed beyond World War I, the ideas of strategically bombing civilian and industrial centers took hold. This was tested at great cost of life and material in World War II’s combined bomber offensives, notably, the idea that the bomber would always get through to its target. The task of formulating doctrine initially fell to the Air Corps Tactical School, while proponents such as Maj General “Billy” Mitchelland General “Hap” Arnold contributed in their struggle to develop and gain consensus on strategic airpower doctrines and form a separate air Service.  Mitchell, regarded by some as the father of the Air Force, was famously court martialed during his antagonistic quest to form a separate air Service.  Arnold, a Mitchell protégé and supporter during the interwar years, eventually became a five-star general and the Chief of US Army Air Forces upon its creation during World War II.  After many years of such advocacy, the US Air Force became a separate Service in 1947, though its doctrinal heritage was already decades old.

Maj Gen Holley provides a profound warning: “we shall make as many mistakes in formulating space doctrine as we did with cavalry doctrine and airpower doctrine if we do not first get our house in order”.[19] Getting our house in order means getting the best people which, in turn, may mean picking those whose ideas go against the grain, as in Billy Mitchell’s case.  Maj Gen Holley notes that “…the brash and barely respectful subordinate who is forever making waves by challenging the prevailing posture may prove to be the most valuable.” Picking the right people is a necessary step toward getting the right doctrine, and calls for an informed and willing participation of many individuals. It is too important to be left to a handful of staff officers, especially those who are not passionate about the possibilities of a separate space force. Furthermore, the economic incentives for technological improvements from the American military-industrial complex means there will be no shortage of capability improvements. What economic (or otherwise) incentive is there for doctrine?[20] Doctrine and organization are intricately related to one another. With the stand-up of the USSF, the time for a new doctrine focus is now.

Recommendations for Space Doctrine Development

While defining the core values and culture that make the USSF is the role of its leadership, history has shown doctrine and theory often generated itself at lower levels by tactical visionaries. Choosing the right people, processes, and place are key steps to success. The following are recommendations.

  1. Choose tacticians with innovative ideas and a passion for pushing the envelope. Blitzkrieg and maneuver warfare theories came from experienced field-grade officers who later reached their fame at the flag officer level in World War II. Heinz Guderian was a communications officer before becoming the blitzkrieg genius who led mobile panzer units to swift victory in 1939 and 1940.[21] The right tacticians need not all come from a space background. Airpower theory, too, was driven by those at similar field-grade levels of experience. More recent US Air Force examples are Colonels John Warden and John Boyd. Warden, author of The Air Campaign, was known for developing the air attack plan on Iraq dubbed “Instant Thunder,” and ultimately the basis for the airpower plan used during Operation Desert Storm.  Boyd is best known for the creation of the Observe-Orient-Decide-Act (OODA) Loop, initially born from his dogfighting expertise while an instructor at the US Air Force Weapons School, he eventually taught his warfighting concepts at the US Marine Corps Command and General Staff College.  Both individuals pushed the boundaries of their trade and the comfort level of their superiors. Services should handpick and delegate authority to officers from all warfighting domains who understand their Service’s current tactics and doctrine, but also possess a drive for changing the status quo.
  2. Write a doctrinal vision that transcends joint operations within the Earth orbit. A radical idea is that the USSF will reach beyond the near Earth environment. Much like the primacy and clout of British and Spanish naval power exceeding that of their armies, the USSF should envision operations well beyond the “shorelines” of Mother Earth. If the doctrinal status quo fails to change, the USSF will find itself the equivalent of a littoral naval fleet, useful only for operations near its base of origin. A “blue water” equivalent that extends well beyond Earth’s influence will drive technological improvements needed to make such a vision a reality.
  3. Make USSF doctrine the benchmark for new multi-domain doctrine. Space and cyber sit at the intersection of all joint, geographic, and functional combatant commands in the DOD. Furthermore, the space domain’s integration and support to economic, political, and national intelligence organizations uniquely suit it for needed intergovernmental coordination required for true MDO goals. In some regards, such an important coordination function, beyond military use, may justify space as its own separate instrument of national power.
  4. Doctrine developers in the USSF must first study and take note of past doctrinal failures and successes. The aforementioned doctrinal shift from cavalry to the airplane and the airplane to space for missions such as reconnaissance, screening, and deep interdiction provide valuable lessons. Doctrine developers chosen for this role should either possess a necessary historical and doctrine familiarity, be given that training as part of the task, or have with them experts in these fields to complete the task.
  5. Service Chiefs and national leadership need to appropriately delegate authority to accomplish the mission. The job of the leaders is to organize, train, and equip Service members and civilian workers. Organizing with the right people for each task, providing them the resources and time needed to digest information away from their primary duties, and equipping them with the facilities or conference attendance are requisite to successful doctrine development. This is not to say that an equivalent to the Air Corps Tactical School needs to be created and funded. Rather, a gathering of personnel at a doctrine conference is a good first step, followed by iterative gatherings of invested personnel until a worthwhile working doctrine is produced. This is how most Air Force TTP documents are rewritten as new technologies get fielded and tactics improve. Revising doctrine documents follows a similar model, but usually does not get the needed support or personnel because such personnel are prioritized for operational mission execution. In short, for doctrine development to succeed, it requires prioritization as a strategic imperative, even at a short-term cost of personnel needed for current mission execution.
  6. Make the doctrine simple. If it is not simple, it will not be read, remembered, or understood by USSF personnel. This is the greatest pitfall of current doctrine across the Services, joint doctrine included. If senior leaders want their personnel to read and embrace the intent of its guiding documents, the doctrine must be easy to digest and align with the culture of the organization.


It is time to forge the USSF of 2030 and beyond. The force we have will look very different from the force we need if the USSF is asked to protect US commercial and economic assets beyond the near-Earth environment. Those who view this as unlikely or not worth the cost fail to see the threat and the potential for change in a strategic environment. In the event they are right, imagine the technological progressions that can still be applied to the near-Earth environment. This is no different than the second- and third-order gains reaped by the US as a result of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s pursuit of putting a man on the moon. In the event they are wrong and the USSF takes their stance, the US will be at a significant disadvantage to those nations who do pursue such capability. Losing primacy on the high seas in the age of discovery spelled strategic decline for the Spanish, Dutch, and British governments and corporations like the British East India Company. If the US and allies want the strategic upper hand, the time to act is now.

Major Clayton W. Couch is assigned to Air Force Tactical Exploitation of National Capabilities (AF TENCAP)at Schriever Air Force Base, Colorado.

End Notes

1. Department of Defense. Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America. DOD website.

2. Tingley, Brett. “Recently Retired USAF General Makes Eyebrow Raising Claims about Advanced Space Technology.” The Warzone website. December 11, 2019.

3. Lt Gen Kwast, Steve. “Where the Space Force Must Go.” Politico website. January 17, 2020.

4. US Space Force Fact Sheet. United States Space Force Website. Accessed Mar 5, 2020.

5. United States Space Command Fact Sheet. United States Space Command Website. February 26, 2020.

6. Joint Publication 3-14 “Space Operations.” 10 April 2018.

7. McTigue, Kathleen. “Economic Benefits of the Global Positioning System to the US Private Sector.” National Institute of Standards and Technology website. October 2, 2019.

8. Space Resources Program page. Colorado School of Mines website. Accesed Mar 5, 2020.

9. ESA Space Resources Strategy. ESA website. Accessed Mar 5, 2020.

10. Annex 3-14 Counterspace Operations. Curtis E. Lemay Center for Doctrine Development and Education. 27 August 2018.

11. Blakemore, Erin. “How the East India Company became the World’s most Powerful Business.” National Geographic website. September 6, 2019.

12. Corbett, Sir Julian S. “Principles of Maritime Strategy.” Dover Publications, Inc. Mineola, New York, 2004. Originally published by Longmans, Green, and Co., London and New York, 1911.

13. Ibid.

14. Ibid.

15. Holley, I. B., Jr. Technology and Military Doctrine: Essays on a Challenging Relationship. Air University Press, Maxwell Air Force Base, AL. 2004.

17. Holley. Technology and Military Doctrine

18. Ibid.

19. Ibid.

20. Ibid.

21. Boyd, John R. “Discourse on Winning and Losing.” Briefing Transcript, USMC Command and Staff College, Marine Corps University, MCB Quantico, VA. 25 April/2 May/3 May, 1989.