The U.S. Space Force is the newest branch of the American military and it’s still working on nailing down its identity. Its leaders insist the Space Force is not just about mastering the stars but also about protecting cyberspace and assisting the Pentagon in a number of poorly defined areas. Space Force claims, however, that it wants to be an all digital service according to a new vision document which is largely a 17-page collection of buzzwords and phrases that feel pulled from a dotcom startup pitch deck from 1995.
“The USSF will become the world’s first fully Digital Service. We will be an interconnected, innovative, digitally dominant force,” the document said. “At this moment, potential adversaries are working diligently to negate U.S. advantages in the space domain and are rapidly closing the gap. They are pressing to field space, counterspace, cyberspace, and electromagnetic spectrum (EMS) capabilities more quickly than we are and, in some cases, are on pace to surpass us.”
The Space Force, whose purpose to date has been so poorly defined that Netflix made a workplace comedy starring Steve Carrell that parodies it, was invented by President Trump, and set up largely by Mike Pence. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki has said that the Space Force has the full support of President Biden, but also joked about the branch when pressed by reporters.
Calling the Space Force an all digital service feels like an exercise in branding. We’re witnessing a rare thing—the birth of a new branch of the American military. That doesn’t happen often and it’s fascinating to watch the service attempt to define itself as it struggled to be born. This “digital” branding begs a few questions though. Why is Space Force pushing itself as a digital service and what the hell does it even mean? The "digital" branding is even more confusing when you consider that the Space Force has literal spacecraft, which are decidedly not digital.
According to the vision document, one big reason is that the Space Force is small and will probably be that way for a while. “The size of the Space Force provides another compelling reason for digital transformation: to accomplish our expansive mission with a small, specialized Service, we must be extraordinarily proficient and lethally efficient.”
Currently, the Space Force has 4,480 Guardians—yes, that’s what they’re called—and around 77 spacecraft. This will grow over time, but right now the Space Force is struggling to define itself and figure out what it can take over from the Air Force. Guardians aren’t in control of America’s military satellites just yet. Without any real power in the force structure yet, Space Force is pitching itself as technical experts who can quickly adapt and help the rest of the Pentagon when it fights online and in space.
What does it mean for a military force to be digital? Space Force’s vision document breaks it down into three buzzwords. “This Vision of a Digital Space Force is defined as: an interconnected, innovative, digitally dominant force.”
The interconnectedness speaks to the Space Force’s small size.
“Technology, and how to use it, should be stitched in as part of every Guardian’s DNA,” Space Force Lt. Gen. Nina Armago said in the document under the section explaining what it means by “interconnected.” Basically, it’s easier to spread Guardians across the country and have them communicate and collaborate digitally.
The next pillar is innovation. “This will help us achieve diversity in thought and expertise as well as inclusivity of backgrounds and experiences to bring the best ideas to bear, inoculate against groupthink, and drive innovation.” The bolding here is the Space Force’s choice. It really wants everyone to know it’s taking diversity and inclusivity seriously, attempting to appeal to what it thinks Millennials and Zoomers want out of the military.
The next pillar promised the Space Force will be digitally dominant. “Through the pipeline of interconnected innovation described above, our Digital Service will be capable of rapidly acquiring, developing, and fielding game-changing capabilities and allowing us to leverage a streamlined workforce to outpace the threat,” the document said.
It’s hard to parse what any of this means, specifically. It’s thousands of words dedicated to the idea of branding the Space Force as young and innovative, but the language still feels rooted in the Pentagon bureaucratic-speak. Worse, it’s adopted the language of Silicon Valley to explain what it wants from Guardians.
“Guardians will be encouraged to share information—while remaining cognizant of security requirements—not just within their respective missions, but also to the larger community of stakeholders to gain diverse viewpoints and promote enterprise perspectives,” the document said.
All 17 pages are like this. It’s a document long on generalities and short on specifics, but the sense is of a new military branch desperate to fill its ranks with talented and smart young people more interested in taking jobs with tech companies than the Pentagon. Which makes sense, the American military is having a hard time meeting its recruiting goals.
The pandemic made in-person recruitment impossible for much of last year and 20 years of endless war has soured many young people on the military. To survive, the Pentagon needs to change and become more attractive to the kind of candidates it wants to recruit. The Army recently authorized a more casual dress code policy for women. The Air Force and Navy are spending a lot of time on Twitch.
Space Force needs to set itself and it seems to be doing that by promising to be “digital.”