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Dr. James Holmes: The Naval Diplomat - 19FortyFive

Should Space Force Look at the Moon or the Earth?

U.S. Navy
130105-N-ZZ999-001 U.S. 5TH FLEET AREA OF RESPONSIBILITY (Jan. 5, 2012) The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74) operates in the Arabian Sea during sunset. John C. Stennis is deployed to the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility conducting maritime security operations, theater security cooperation efforts and support missions for Operation Enduring Freedom. (U.S. Navy photo by Yeoman 3rd Class James Stahl/Released)

So is it going to be Mahan or Corbett in orbit?

Corbett, according to Frank Calvelli, the top acquisition executive for the U.S. Space Force. On January 24, Space News reports, Calvelli addressed the National Security Space Association’s defense and intelligence conference. And his remarks had a seawater flair—in all likelihood unintended—for students of nautical affairs.

Sir Julian Corbett was the fin de siècle English sea-power historian and theorist who insisted that navies cast their gaze shoreward because that’s where military contests are ultimately decided. For him ruling the sea was a necessary but insufficient condition for strategic and political success. After all, noted Corbett, people live on land. Land ought to be the focal point for martial enterprises.

Including those carried out by navies.

Influential voices maintain that the same should go for spaceborne enterprises. In Corbettian style, Calvelli enjoined the U.S. Space Force to devote itself to supporting earthbound operations. At issue is whether the Space Force will turn its attention and energies toward “cislunar” space—defined by U.S. law as “the region of space from the Earth out to and including the region around the surface of the Moon”—in conjunction with NASA, or whether the service will occupy itself mainly with rendering aid to military operations on the Earth’s surface.

The answer matters. Early signs indicate that a cultural rift may be dividing guardians against themselves. Some appear intent on reorienting toward cislunar space, while more traditional officers and officials, Calvelli among them, call on the U.S. Space Force to put the accent on orbital joint operations carried out in concert with the Air Force, Army, Navy, and Marine Corps.

No one should underestimate the chances or consequences of such a rift. The U.S. Air Force, the Space Force’s parent service, has long been a bureaucratic battleground between advocates of strategic bombing, a school of aerial warfare that aims to command the wild blue to strike directly at enemy centers of gravity—the government, economic nodes, maybe even the populace—and advocates of ground-centric operations such as close air support. Roughly speaking, close air support involves cruising hostile skies in search of targets of opportunity among enemy armies on the surface below, or answering calls for fire from friendly land forces.

Both schools inhabit the same geospatial domain. Even so, their missions beget divergent outlooks on air power.

The implications of a similar cultural disjunction could be even more pronounced in the U.S. Space Force than in the Air Force. After all, strategic bombers, fighters, and attack aircraft all roam the same skies, albeit usually at different altitudes and across different geographic areas. They should share a common frame of reference to some degree. But as space enthusiasts note, operating in Earth orbit means not just looking down toward the earth but confining one’s attentions to a relatively small volume of space. Operating in cislunar space means looking away from the Earth. It also means acknowledging new realities of distance and time. A primer out of the Air Force Research Lab points out that “cislunar space is a three-dimensional volume that dwarfs the volume of space” encompassed by geosynchronous Earth orbit.

In fact, cislunar space is 1,728 times as voluminous. It may as well be a domain unto itself.

Despite the orders-of-magnitude shift in perspective between orbital operations and those in cislunar space, we might catch a glimpse of coming debates within the U.S. Space Force by revisiting not just air-power debates but quarrels between sea-power proponents a century-plus ago. That’s when Julian Corbett insisted that Great Britain’s Royal Navy meld strategy, operations, and tactics to support ground forces. He sketched an intensely joint, terrestrial-centric vision of what mariners and fighting ships ought to do.

By contrast Corbett’s contemporary and great rival, Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, exhorted the U.S. Navy to bend its efforts toward commanding the “great common” that was the high seas. Americans, that is, should amass “overbearing power on the sea” to expel foes from vital expanses and cut off their navies and merchant fleets from the briny main. Mahan seemed relatively indifferent to what happened after apocalyptic strife for maritime command.

The two marine theorists agreed on the fundamentals, namely that navies existed to uphold the national interest in the saltwater realm. But beyond that, their differences in strategic perspective gave rise to profoundly different philosophies on how to design and employ fleets of warships. The U.S. Air Force has seen worldviews conflict in similar fashion, and the Space Force is apt to witness bureaucratic wrangling of its own. It’s worth thinking ahead as partisans of orbital and cislunar endeavors square off on behalf of their preferred strategies, operations, and forces.

We have seen this before.

So in the interest of self-knowledge, spacefarers could do worse than review the works of sea-power theorists of old. Break out those dusty copies of Corbett’s Some Principles of Maritime Strategy and Mahan’s The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783. The ages of sail and steam have something to teach those venturing into the final frontier.

Author Expertise and Experience: Dr. James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the U.S. Naval War College and a Nonresident Fellow at the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. The views voiced here are his alone.

Written By

James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface-warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.”



  1. 403Forbidden

    January 29, 2023 at 7:23 pm

    US Space Force was set up as a military force to support supremacy and ascendancy on the military front on Earth.

    Thus its main job or function is to disable or destroy assets belonging to rivals.

    That is therefore a threat to the peaceful use of outer space and so other nations need to set up their equivalent ‘Space Force’ units along with their space force personnel and weapins.

    One weapon is the spaceplane and/or spaceglider. This is a critical piece of hardware no spacefaring nation worth its salt can do without.

    Spaceplanes travel at mach 22 or faster as they circle around the planet, so any nefarious attempt to disable them would be immediately discerned or discovered.

    That is critical because the gut feeling today is that a space war could well break out in 2025, or just 24 months away. Thus spaceplanes are important or very critical today.

    It’s a BIG & HUGE surprise russia is still clinging to the ISS, a dying project.

    Russia should instead be building spaceplanes today to counter the csshq and x-37b now already flying in space.

  2. pagar

    January 29, 2023 at 8:02 pm

    To counter Space Force, russia needs to either build spaceplanes, or build lasers.

    Building spaceplanes require lots of time and money, so lasers best choice for the moment.

    Russia already has built its peresvet laser which was first announced by putin in march 2018. Now it is building the kalina laser that is way more powerful.

    Kalina will disable a whole bunch of space assets belonging to rivals thus preventing or denying their military supremacy on the ground.

    The satellites providing signals to the ground are a prime target for Kalina. Take them out and the rivals’ signals-riding weaponry are thereby rendered useless.

  3. Commentar

    January 30, 2023 at 8:17 am

    Space, or the region that sports various kinds of satellites and space stations, is the next frontier.Already or very early on, US tested some highly pioneering ASAT weapons in space, soon quickly followed by others.

    The moon though is (nominally) covered or governed by the outer space treaty that prohibits military weapons but this could SWIFTLY change when small guys like middle east states get onto the celestial body.

    Middle east states tend to launch their military activities any way they like as observed very very recently. No doubt, this posture will similarly extend to the moon. But now, they aren’t there yet.

    But they are already jn space, with satellites and covert nuke arsenals.

    Thus to counter all threats, from small pint-sized middle east guys to big biggie genghis-class types, independent & sovereign nations on Earth must deploy fleets of (optionally manned) space stations and spaceplanes and FOBS gliders and ground-based laser shooters.


  4. phil stacy

    January 30, 2023 at 12:11 pm

    The biggest problem is millions of foreigners invading America so a Border Force makes more strategic sense. America’s enemies are destroying America with this invasion of drugs and welfare
    people but there is no weapons industry profits to be made in stopping an actual foreign invasion.

  5. SeanKendall

    January 30, 2023 at 4:04 pm

    It appears to me that on all the “sides” of each area of argument, seafaring, “air-faring” or “space-faring” military activity should support both sides of the “argument.” As far as space force is concerned I would like to see it have the capability to take out all hostile space plaftorms (e.g. salelites, etc) AND be able to launch space based kinetic weapons to targets on Earth. As I understand it there exists a treaty banning the “weaponization” of space. I am positive that China, Russia (for certain) and other bad actors will ignore such a treaty.

  6. CRS, DrPH

    January 30, 2023 at 8:14 pm

    “Space Force” was, and is, a huge waste of money (just like Department of Homeland Security). We had a space force called US Air Force. First priority is to establish a permanent manned base on the moon. Always, control the high ground. (I used to advocate doing this together with the Russians, but they blew their chance).

  7. David Chang

    February 6, 2023 at 1:13 am

    God bless people in the world.

    Before people could be space soldier, people must learn to be astronaut.

    Mr. Calvelli’s thought will not stop the permanent mission of Space Force, but he needs more astronauts, so bonds bind him.

    Cislunar space is the defensive area for Space Force, and the tactic is different from being in the atmosphere. People will feel more alone with escorting mission in interstellar voyage. Even according to Mr. Calvelli’s speech, space force must defend low earth orbit first, but robots are not enough to complete the task.

    But Captain Mahan’s power theory and regular missions of navy explain the political meaning of space military missions that to keep commercial shipping, defending important strategy location is more important than chasing enemy.

    Captain Mahan think about politics, but the politics of Mr. Clausewitz and Mr. Corbett are the desire of king, president, or prime minister, so both of them think about war only.

    Therefore, socialism parties and their navy do not believe Captain Mahan’s theory. They only believe the theory of evolution which Darwin and others say: search and destroy.

    The behaviors of CCP and U.S. Democratic-Republican Party in the high-altitude shooting exercise show us the war principles explained by Mr. Mahan. If we look for enemies outside without protecting our people inside, enemy will make us panic with sudden appearance.

    God bless America.

  8. Louis M

    February 12, 2023 at 7:54 pm

    This piece, I would suggest, mis-interprets some key aspects of Corbett. The fleet in being is the central premise to allow for the economic leveraging of the sea and potentially denying the same for the opponent. The joint role, while recognized as important, does not have such a place in primacy as this piece states.

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