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It was greeted with skepticism, mockery and institutional resistance.
Its advocates were seen as “revolutionaries” seeking to upend the military status quo and add yet another layer of bureaucracy to the nation’s bloated defense establishment.
But in the end, the creation of the U.S. Air Force — which marks its 71st anniversary this week — was a monumental leap forward for the U.S. military that cemented the air as its own war-fighting domain, a military priority fully worthy of a separate service on equal terms with the Army and Navy.
If the story sounds familiar, it’s because President Trump’s proposed Space Force for challenging the country’s adversaries beyond Earth’s atmosphere has run into a similar wall of doubt.
Historians and military analysts say the run-up to the founding of the Air Force in 1947 bears many similarities to the fight over the Space Force. Advocates argue that taking the step represents a recognition that space is the next frontier of war in much the same way that air represented the cutting edge of military operations in the 1930s and 1940s.
Although there are questions about the new force’s mission and mandate and key differences between then and now — including reliably partisan reactions to anything Mr. Trump proposes, many military thinkers argue that the Pentagon has reached the same tipping point it did seven decades ago.
“Is the idea of a Space Force a good one? I believe it is, firmly, and this is the time to do it,” said Richard P. Hallion, a leading Air Force historian and former senior adviser for air and space at the Pentagon. “You do not want to be the first nation that loses a space war.”
Much like the Army and Navy’s situation during the World War II era with respect to air power, Mr. Hallion said, the Air Force is now in a place where outer space has become such a major challenge — and distraction — that a new dedicated service is warranted.
“Trump understands that this construct isn’t working. It’s not sufficient to meet the challenges we have,” he said. “Is now the right time to do it? Is the model of Air Force creation a useful one? I think yes. … The Air Force has too many missions and responsibilities on its plate. It’s too small in size to do all of these things.”
Although Mr. Trump’s enthusiasm for a Space Force quickly became a punchline on late-night TV and in some circles in Washington, it has quietly garnered support from unlikely quarters.
Even some frequent critics of the president say the idea isn’t as wild as it seems.
“Just because it came out of Trump’s mouth doesn’t require that it then be a crazy thing,” astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson said during an appearance on “The Late Show” earlier this month.
“We have a Space Force — it’s called the United States Space Command, and it’s under the auspices of the Air Force,” he said. “We already have a presence in space: The Air Force launches satellites, the Air Force puts GPS satellites into orbit around Earth.”
In much the same way, American air power hardly originated with the Air Force. The U.S. military for decades had been building its air arsenal as part of the Army Air Corps and in other divisions of the existing armed forces. American air power played a key role in the Allied victory in World War II, and its highly visible contributions proved to be the final push needed in the yearslong fight to carve out a separate Air Force.
But it was hardly an easy runway to takeoff.
Historians say there were loud arguments against the move because of how radical it seemed. Much of that opposition came from inside existing branches of the military fearful of losing turf, power and funding.
“In the sense that the air weapon was new and untested before the war, these men were sometimes perceived as ‘revolutionaries,’” author Herman S. Wolk wrote in “The Struggle for Air Force Independence,” a comprehensive look at the Air Force’s formative years. “Basically pragmatic, they were sure the development of better military aircraft would solidify the Air Force’s position as the predominant service.”
Indeed, military analysts said the sharpest debates centered on the true mission of air power and whether that mission would detract from what existing forces were tasked to do.
“The big argument between the Air Force and the Army back in the 1920s and 1930s is the Air Force believed its doctrine should be strategic bombing, and they needed to create airmen who could think about strategic bombardment,” said Douglas Loverro, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy. “The Army, on the other hand, they believed the role of air forces is to support ground troops. … This is the fundamental fight, this doctrinal fight, over what is the role of air forces.”
Some strategists argue that the Pentagon has reached a similar point regarding the military’s role in space. With China having tested weapons in orbit and a host of other nations actively developing their own capabilities, space is rapidly becoming its own theater, not just an extension of the air domain or a staging ground for satellites and other tools that aid traditional air, land and sea forces.
“I think we’ve already crossed the Rubicon on this,” Mr. Hallion said. “I think space is already weaponized, and I think it has been for quite some time. If you’re a terrorist leader and you’re killed by a bomb that has been cued from space, dropped from an airplane overhead from space-based navigation, space-based communication … tell me you haven’t been killed from space. Tell me that isn’t space warfare.”
Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick M. Shanahan, in one of the most extensive discussions of the Pentagon’s reaction to Mr. Trump’s order, said top military brass are well aware of the sensitivities and the pitfalls involved in creating a new branch of the military from scratch.
In an address to the Air Force Association conference in suburban Maryland this week, Mr. Shanahan promised that the Space Force will be a “lean” operation that will “do no harm to existing missions, create no seams between the services and remain laser-focused on our war fighters and the capabilities they need to win,” according to the Washington Examiner.
“While there’s plenty of debate about the how,” he said, “we are united by the why: protecting our economy and deterring our adversaries, and focused on delivering more capability faster.”
Some analysts, however, say major differences also must be taken into account. Critics argue that the military — and the federal government as a whole — have failed to articulate a specific U.S. space-fighting doctrine that can be easily understood.
The Air Force, they say, had clearly demonstrated the importance and strategic value of air power during World War II. No such demonstration has been made in space despite the long existence of the U.S. Space Command and other space-related arms inside the Defense Department.
Some analysts say the lack of public support for a Space Force stems from the fact that most Americans have little direct relationship with the military and simply don’t know what the force would be trying to accomplish.
“The conditions are different socially,” Mr. Loverro said. “Not only did most Americans understand airplanes, Americans had fought in Word War II. They clearly saw the functions of an Air Force, whereas space is invisible. Nobody knows what the Space Force would do.”
The Defense Department’s Mr. Shanahan this week suggested that some of the obstacles have been exaggerated as the Pentagon works to meet a February deadline to produce a legislative proposal for what would be the nation’s sixth military branch, joining the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and Coast Guard.
“Getting everyone on board will be simpler than most people think,” he said in an interview on CNBC.
“It is imperative that we protect our economy and our economy runs on space. So it’s all about how do we protect our space assets and then deter our adversaries who wish to do us harm,” Mr. Shanahan said.
The Space Force, however, has had few outspoken, well-known champions beyond a handful of lawmakers on Capitol Hill, Mr. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence. Scholars say tapping a well-respected, somewhat apolitical figure to become the face of the Space Force will be critical to generate the kind of public support to drive the idea past the finish line.
“Education of the public is a critical component of this,” Mr. Loverro said.
The administration “needs an articulate spokesman … who can help remove the shroud of secrecy that has pervaded space and [help the public] understand why this does make sense is critical to gain the hearts of the people,” he said. “It’s going to be hard.”
In addition, historians say the Space Force likely will encounter the same internal resistance that the Air Force faced last century and that opponents will hope the idea eventually loses momentum.
“You will see this continued … fear of shedding and losing control over institutionalized capabilities, giving them up to a new service,” Mr. Hallion said. “The professional bureaucrat always believes they can outlive the administration.”
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