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'We’re in a sprint here’: The Space Force struggles to blaze its own path

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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — “Are there any Space Force here?” an instructor in a mechanical engineering class queried his students at the Air Force Academy on a recent morning.

“Hopefully,” responded an eager cadet, the only one in the group who applied to be commissioned a guardian in the newest military branch.

The exchange highlights the Space Force’s primary challenge as it nears its second birthday in December: stepping out of the shadow of the Air Force and plotting a different course than the rest of the military,

The smallest branch has settled on its headquarters structure and recently established the final of its three field commands. It’s officially taken over space operations from the Air Force, including missile warning, space launch and space intelligence. And it is now operating the military’s nearly 80 satellites.

But the service is finding it far more difficult to build its own combination of traditions, heritage and esprit de corps, which leaders consider critical to carrying out the Space Force’s marching orders: jettisoning old ways of recruiting and training and blasting through the maze of Pentagon red tape that has wasted taxpayer dollars and often left the troops wanting for better weapons and equipment.

“The first risk is we don’t think bold enough,” Gen. Jay Raymond, the chief of space operations, said in a recent interview at Peterson Space Force Base in Colorado Springs. “The second risk is that when we do think bold, then you have to get that implemented through a bureaucracy.”

POLITICO spoke to five generals and a number of other officers, contractors and rank-and-file guardians who are at the vanguard of molding the first new military branch in more than 70 years.

They point to a series of historic milestones that have turned what 18 months ago was little more than a concept, and a political rallying cry, into a multifaceted military force.

The Space Force now has more than 6,500 guardians. It has its first warfighting doctrine and set in motion plans to be the first fully digital military force. This month it unveiled a prototype of its new, futuristic dress uniforms.

It’s also instituting a series of specialized training programs to groom a dedicated cadre of space-focused troops prepared to keep pace with growing threats to military and civilian systems from potential adversaries Russia and China.

But because the Space Force remains under the Air Force, they also acknowledged the biggest threat to its momentum lies in the much larger and tradition-bound bureaucracy of its parent that still holds sway over its budget, how it prepares its future officers and enlisted troops, and what it buys and how.

“We did not spend so much political, financial, budgetary capital to treat the Space Force just so that we could do what we were able to do before,” said Eaton Kuh, a contractor with government services firm Booz Allen Hamilton who has been advising the effort since 2019. “It has to be faster. It must be better than what it was before.”

A new kind of war

In a cavernous aircraft hangar framed by the Rocky Mountains, Raymond recently presided over a ceremony establishing the last of the Space Force’s field commands, known by its galactic-sounding nickname STARCOM.

“You are developing the doctrine that will shape the next century of space as an operational and independent domain,” he told the gathered guardians of the Space Training and Readiness Command. “You are where the rubber meets the road in establishing a cohesive, unified cadre of space warfare professionals.”

But unlike in the past, space is now contested by other powers, particularly Russia and China. That requires a wholesale........

© Politico

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