On the evening of 15 January 1991, the United States and its coalition stood on the brink of a major war against the fourth largest military in the world. Battle-hardened from a decade of fighting a brutal war against Iran and equipped with the most advanced export technology from the Soviet Union, the Iraqi military appeared to be a formidable adversary that would extract a horrific toll on any coalition attempting to liberate Kuwait. U.S. military planners expected 30,000 casualties with at least 10,000 deaths.
Six weeks later, the war was over. The United States had lost 147 troops killed in action, while Iraq had suffered one of the most decisive defeats in modern military history, with at least 20,000 killed and much of its massive military destroyed. During this short conflict, the United States showcased new space-based capabilities that gave it a decisive advantage on the battlefield—exquisite targeting from overhead systems; improved battle damage assessment; precise positioning, navigation, and timing; a fully integrated command-and-control network that allowed for coordinated attacks across huge geographic areas; improved weather forecasting; and a space-based missile warning system.
While space was not the only factor that gave United States an advantage, it did play a critical role in the coalition’s success. The conflict demonstrated two new realities of war. First, possessing a space capability is a necessity for modern militaries. Space has become the ultimate terrain or, as Chinese doctrine put it, “the commanding height of strategic competition.”1 Second, a conventional military that tries to fight as Iraq did, with tremendous lethality but without space capabilities, is likely to suffer the same fate as Iraq. Put differently, winning in space might not guarantee a win on earth, but losing in space will guarantee a loss.
Today, these lessons are becoming only more acute for the U.S. Navy, which relies heavily on U.S. dominance in space to accomplish its mission. Unfortunately, that dominance is being challenged, with both China and Russia investing in space programs that will increase their lethality while holding U.S. space capabilities at risk. The Navy no longer can assume that all space capabilities will be readily available when it needs them. Accordingly, the Navy is evolving its strategy and tactics to solve increasingly complex problems that its adversaries present as a result of their space investments. For example, China’s space-based intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) architecture allows it to target Navy ships with a variety of long-range weapon systems that force the Navy to choose between the potential loss of ships and lives or remaining so far from the conflict zone that its ships become irrelevant.
The good news is that this and other space-related problems can be solved. To do so will require not only technological innovation, but also a community of space-smart officers with a deep understanding of both the space and maritime domains. These officers will be asked to integrate space capabilities into maritime operations and plans to increase lethality and solve complex problems posed by China, Russia, and other competitors. The Navy already has a deep reserve of exceptional thinkers in the maritime domain, but, unfortunately, only a handful of individuals who understand space well enough to leverage the full range of current joint space capabilities, let alone develop new innovations in tactics and technology.
This space expertise deficit is an outcome of the Navy’s historic approach to building its space cadre through the additional qualification designator (AQD) system. The current AQD system develops “space aware” officers, but because of officer assignment limitations, diversity in source officer designators and established career paths, and the fact that repeat space tours are often detrimental to career progression, it does not build a space subject-matter expert. In fact, management via AQD has proven ineffective, and it has put the Navy behind in developing the expertise needed to remain competitive with peer and near-peer adversaries. This does not mean the AQD process is useless—the Navy will still need the AQD program to generate officers in different warfare specialties who have a basic understanding of space. But, to keep from falling behind in its competition with peer adversaries, the Navy needs true space experts who have the educational background and years of experience necessary to effectively integrate space capabilities and maritime operations.
With these factors in mind, the Chief of Naval Operations recently approved the establishment of a new warfare specialty within the information warfare (IW) community: the maritime space officer (MSO). The MSO designator will be composed of officers who previously have qualified in a naval warfare specialty (aviation, surface, submarine, SEAL, explosive ordnance disposal, IW) and have chosen to laterally transfer into the MSO community. It will be a small restricted-line community with an initial base of 99 billets, from O-4 to O-6, at Navy and joint commands (such as the U.S. Space Command), within the intelligence community, fleet maritime operation centers, naval warfighting development centers, and Naval War College, and including various staff positions to support man, train, and equip functions.
As a focused maritime specialty, MSO is designed to reward technical competence and expertise; it is not designed to build generalists or commanding officers. It will focus on integrating space and maritime capabilities at the operational level of war to make the Navy more effective at leveraging space capabilities and supporting joint space operations. Unlike the Space Force, this community will have a foot in both the space and maritime camps. Officers who want to build, fly, and operate satellites should consider interservice transfer to the Space Force; those who want to leverage space and naval expertise to compete, deter, and win if called on in the maritime domain should consider MSO.
This small community of professional space integration and planning experts is needed now. MSO has the potential to be a force multiplier, complementing and improving the culture of Navy planning and execution and helping the nation maintain superiority in multiple domains. Most important, MSO will prevent the Navy from becoming a 21st-century version of the Iraqi military. The American people should expect nothing less from their Navy.
1. The State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China, China’s Military Strategy (Beijing, China: People’s Republic of China, May 2015), eng.mod.gov.cn/Press/2015-05/26/content_4586805.htm.