2018 Gen. Bernard A Schriever Memorial Essay Contest Airman/NCO Division Runner Up: "American Space Capabilities: How Do We Stay Ahead?"

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed or implied in this scholastic article/commentary are those of the author and should not be construed as carrying the official sanction of the Department of Defense, Air Force, Air Force Space Command, or other agencies or departments of the US government. This article may be reproduced in whole or in part without permission. If it is reproduced, the Air Force Space Command requests a courtesy line.


For years, the United States has enjoyed the best space assets of any nation. From our many GPS satellites to our military space vehicles, America has definitely led the rest of the world in terms of space dominance. However, this may be slowly changing, due to threats from other nations. Across the globe, our adversaries are continually developing their own space capabilities—many of which pose a threat not only to America’s dominance, but also to some of our very systems themselves. Naturally, this leads to an important question: how can the United States best maintain its military dominance in space, while simultaneously deterring threats and aggression from our enemies? The purpose of this essay is to present the reader with a few strategic, logical plans which will help answer that question. Three main areas shall be discussed: education concerns, realignment of government resources, and space funding; specifically, each will be addressed according to how they can help the U.S. remain superior in space.

Education Concerns

For the United States and its military, the quest to stay ahead of our adversaries begins not at the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) or a research laboratory, but in the classroom. There should be a radical change in the education system in our nation, moving away from the arguably bureaucratic “common core” to a system where educators are free to emphasize essential life skills such as communication, listening, speaking, critical thinking, and problem solving. This is not to suggest that common core is all negative, but there are a number of problems inherent with it. Writing for the American Institute for Learning and Human Development, Thomas Armstrong argues that common core standards potentially rob students of age-appropriate developmental learning styles, teach students more about the “how” than the “why” in a subject, and also puts pressure on teachers to “teach the test,” thus depriving students from further learning or understanding.1 An additional concern is the relative lack in higher education concerning space policy. While it is true that many colleges and universities offer advanced degrees in astronomy and/or physics, there are few degree programs specifically tailored toward space policy from a national security perspective. The University of North Dakota’s Department of Space studies appears to be one of the few exceptions.2 If more schools nationwide adopted such programs, students could gain more understanding of space policies before even being hired by NRO or commissioning as an Air Force officer. When considering matters of national security, such as maintaining an advantage in space, the United States must first have well-educated citizens, capable of solving problems, communicating well, and thinking strategically. According to author W. Cleon Skousen, one of America’s founding principles is that “a free society cannot survive as a republic without a broad program of general education.”3   The preservation of our society, and by extension our advantage in space, demands it.

Government Resources

            If history has taught us anything, it has shown that times do change. When this change occurs, we must adapt to these changes, or we could be left extremely vulnerable. Additionally, there are important lessons to be learned from our history. Occasionally, it becomes necessary for certain resources or entities to be reassigned, shuffled around, or even altered, to meet the demands of the age. Within the United States, this concept can be applied to any facet of government or military structure, including the way we strive to remain the world’s dominant force in space. The realignment of federal resources has occurred many times in America. For example, let us consider the Department of Homeland Security, a cabinet-level organization. DHS, which includes such sub-organizations as the US Coast Guard, US Customs and Border Protection, Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), has not always existed. Rather, it was the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks that caused the United States to realize the need for a separate federal department committed to “improving the social and economic sustainability of our communities from all threats.” 4  Soon after the attacks, then-president George W. Bush passed Executive Order 13228, officially creating the Office of Homeland Security.5 Again, this occurred because a horrific terrorist act had just happened on American soil, and the government realized that creating DHS would represent a necessary realignment of smaller agencies and resources, not only to be better prepared to respond to various homeland threats, but also to improve communication between each organization.

            The same logic should be applied to the US Military’s space capabilities, and the overall goal of maintaining our dominance in space. We should also learn from the past, so that it does not take a catastrophic event (such as 9/11), for the change to occur. Therefore, perhaps the time is right to ask some important questions. Should the United States have a new cabinet-level entity known as the “Department of Space,” with its own secretary to advise the President on space issues? Would it be wise, perhaps, to create a “United States Space Force” out of the present Air Force Space Command, and have the new branch fall under the Space Department (similar to the Coast Guard operating under DHS)? Should we consider merging NASA with the Space Force under the new Space Department, so that a single department is responsible for both space defense and research/discovery, and therefore be in a better position to decide how precious federal funding should be spent? People may scoff and mock at the idea of creating a “Space Force,” let alone an entire “Department of Space,” but again, when considering each variable, the idea may not be so ridiculous. Change is inevitable—the United States frequently faces new challenges. The nation should always strive to meet these challenges, while also remembering important lessons from history. It is better to be proactive than reactive, and America’s military space capabilities are no different.


            The US military could have everything going for it: top-notch troops and officers who are intelligent, strategic thinkers, standing ready to meet any threat. However, without adequate funding, the military’s mission becomes very difficult, if not impossible, to accomplish. The Air Force, in conjunction with the NRO, could realize the “perfect” design for newer, more resilient, longer lasting satellites, but requires funding to make it a reality. At present, there is evidence to suggest that the federal budget, in regards to space, may need to be adjusted. According to one journalist, military space assets (not including intelligence community payloads), receive about the equivalent of one day of federal spending for an entire year.6 In the meantime, NASA’s budget for fiscal year 2019 is projected to be nearly $20 billion, with several focus areas, including a return of manned lunar missions as well as additional rovers sent to Mars and Jupiter’s moon, Europa.7  Some are even arguing for NASA’s budget to be increased even more, in the hopes of someday sending astronauts to Mars.8  Space exploration and discovery is not a bad thing, but once again, we should ask ourselves some critical questions. Is space exploration more important than using additional funding to protect our military space capabilities and deter aggression from our adversaries?

Current space concerns would make a strong case for providing more funding to the national security side. For example, a Defense News article states that several of our adversaries, including China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran, each pose a threat to America’s dependence on space capabilities.9 The threats are highly variable and include physical weapons, electronic warfare, and cyberattacks, with Iran, North Korea and Russia almost certainly having the ability to accomplish the latter.10 Other capabilities have already been demonstrated, such as China destroying one of its own satellites in 2007, and Russia (along with China) developing technologies to “blind” American assets.11 The United States has always been a nation of scientific breakthroughs, technological development, and innovation. However, if we are not sending the appropriate amount of funding to the necessary areas, our military space dominance will be hindered, and the country will consequently be weaker. An important principle of economics applies here: we must consider the long-term effects of a policy, not just the immediate results.12 This principle suggests that if we apply more funding to defense now, we may have additional freedom to further explore outer space later. Other nations appear to be taking their military space assets very seriously, and America ought to do the same.


To conclude, we have discussed the topic areas of education, government resources, and funding, and how each one plays its own role in American space superiority. It is crucial for the United States to take each step necessary to maintain its dominance. While America may view space as free or peaceful territory, there is no guarantee that other nations will keep to that mindset. Almost any country could build up the potential for an all-out space attack, and should that ever occur, keeping these simple, fundamental principles in mind will ensure the United States always stands ready.

1. Armstrong, Thomas. 2018. “12 Reasons the Common Core Is Bad For America’s Schools.” American Institute for Learning and Human Development site. http://www.institute4learning.com/2018/04/26/12-reasons-the-common-core-is-bad-for-americas-schools/

2. “Welcome to the Department of Space Studies.” 2015. University of North Dakota, John D Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences. http://space.edu

3. Skousen, W Cleon. 1981. The Five Thousand Year Leap. Published by National Center for Constitutional Studies. Cited by Judd Patton, Bellevue University Online. http://jpatton.bellevue.edu/biblical_economics/greatideas.html

4. Jane A Bullock, George D Haddow & Damon P Coppola. 2016. Introduction to Homeland Security. Waltham, MA: Butterworth-Heinemann, 1.

5. Ibid, 2.

6. Loren Thompson. 2018. “War in Space: How the Air Force Is Preparing, and What Might Go Wrong.” Forbes site. https://www.forbes.com/sites/lorenthompson/2018/01/19/war-in-space-how-the-air-force-is-preparing-and-what-might-go-wrong/#42b0a72147a9

7. Mike Wall. 2018. “Trump’s 2019 NASA Budget Request Puts Moon Ahead of Space Station.” Space.com, Spaceflight page. https://www.space.com/39671-trump-nasa-budget-2019-funds-moon-over-iss.html

8. Ibid.

9. Joe Gould. 2018. “Think Space Force is a Joke? Here are Four Major Space Threats to Take Seriously.” Defense News. https://www.defensenews.com/space/2018/08/09/think-space-force-is-a-joke-here-are-four-major-space-threats-to-take-seriously/

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid.

12. Henry Hazlitt. 1979. Economics in One Lesson. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press, 17.