Air Force Culture Is Impeding The Space Mission

By: Lisha T. Wallace

Estimated Reading Time: 10 Minutes

Editor’s Note: With the recent announcement of the creation of the United States Space Force as the 6th military branch we are reposting several articles that engage with a variety of issues in the space domain.

Excerpt: The culture of the Air Force is defined from the mission statement; to fly, fight, and win in air, space, and cyberspace. Air has always been the first domain in the mission and the main focus of the Air Force. Considering this cultural mindset, the other two domains in the mission statement will not receive the attention they need until the culture is changed.

The Department of the Air Force is in a crux of sorts. On one hand, they have an elite service with a mission to “fly, fight, and win in air, space, and cyberspace”. On the other hand, they have a Presidential Administration with their own mission, to break one of the core foundations of the Air Force mission (space) into a completely separate service (which could possibly be followed by cyber in the future). The National Security Strategy reinforces this focus. Strengthening America’s space capabilities is highlighted within the third vital national interest (Pillar III – Preserve Peace Through Strength) and a priority action is to “advance space as a priority domain.”

Whether each part of the Air Force’s mission separates into different services or we continue with the status quo, there is an underlying issue that needs to be addressed. There are two major elements of the mission that are almost always placed in the second seat compared to the “air” part of the mission statement. While Lt Col Timothy Cox coherently articulated what a Space Force would clarify (see “What Problem is a US Space Force Trying to Solve?” part one and two) I would like to approach the issue from a standpoint of how culture influences the human domain. The reason space and cyber have not been seen on the same plane as air (pun intended) is the inability to communicate the kind of culture that embodies space AND cyber. Cox alluded to this very concept in part one of his series when he stated, “The service is after all named the Air Force.” Indeed…and the air domain is the focus of the culture.

Culture is the deepest meaning of a group. Like someone’s personality or character. People tend to define it in terms of “this is how we do things.” In the 2010 book, Cultures and Organizations, Geert and Gert van Hofstedes and fellow author Michael Minkov define culture as “the collective programming of the mind that distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from others.” These groups can be divided regionally, by ethnicity, religion, gender, or in this instance, organizationally. In fact, every group and subgroup has a culture, to include the organization of the US Air Force.

In a letter to the Air Force, General Goldfein, the Chief of Staff, mentioned the “squadron is the beating heart of the United States Air Force.” He recognized that service culture and traditions are developed at the squadron level. Cultures are formed when a group shares similar values, have similar experiences or rituals, inspirational heroes, and pictures, words, objects or gestures that are commonly recognized by those in the cultural group. Then, the group “practices” these cultural aspects within the confines of the organization. These cultural components are often depicted as layers of an onion, with symbols being on the outermost layers and values in the deepest part. Practice crosses all the layers and can relate to a multitude of concepts. For example, heroes are memorialized through the practice of celebrations or recognized in stories. Symbols are put to practice by wearing them on garments or displaying them in locations where the group congregates. Practices are basically the group-wide actions or activities, subconsciously known within the group to be related to the cultural layer it is associated with. Culture is a big consideration within the human domain (see the video, The Human Domain Primer, for more information on this topic).

To elaborate a bit further on what each layer means, when you think of the Air Force, who do you think of? What symbol appears? What words come to mind? All of that, in essence, is the culture. Here are some more questions…did you think about satellites or rockets launching? If you did, was it because that is a part of your job? In reality, I bet the words and pictures that appeared are pretty close to the short video clips and pictures populating the Air Force’s website – planes flying, planes on the ground, planes dropping bombs, someone floating in space(?)…more planes etc…and Google’s search algorithms think the same way. Upon searching “pictures of the Air Force,” the first 130 images were mostly airplanes, the Air Force symbol and, oddly, Nike’s shoe named after Air Force One. All before the first image related to space appeared. These images embody what the world (and most Airmen) believes is the Air Force’s culture…and is why space is still fighting for recognition.

Lately, a phrase that has been heard across the ranks is “words mean things.” Since that is one of the elements of a culture, words, and their meaning is critical. To elaborate, let’s explore the Air Force Creed. Four parts, all beginning with “I am an American Airmen.” Not Spaceman, Cyberman, etc…Airman. “My Mission is to Fly, Fight, and Win.” This vaguely insinuates satellites, but we in the space community tend to describe them as orbiting versus flying. However, space also wants to fight and win, whether in support of terrestrial domains or in defense of space.

With regard to the words in a culture, sometimes, actions speak louder than words. Like when words are systematically deleted. For example, in the early days of the Air Force, forward thinking leaders coined the term “aerospace” to represent what they perceived as the seamless nature between air and space. This was captured in publications in the not too distant past. The Aerospace Force, released in 2000, was the Air Forces’ strategic plan for both domains. However, while space is still listed as one of the five missions (second to “air” by the way) space has been removed from the subject of other documents. Look at Air Force Instruction 13-1 Volume 2, dated 1 Aug 2005, which is labeled Standardization and Evaluation for the Air and Space Operations Center. That theme was not carried over to subsequent Air Force Instructions and Joint Pubs, which removed space, leaving only “Air” Operations Centers in the titles (see Air Force Instruction 13-1 Volume 3 and Joint Publication 3-30.) This was cited as an attempt to show both space and cyber were included an operations center, one was not more special than the other. However, the perception from within the Air Operations Centers was all space personnel just lost their jobs (a position I had to defend on numerous occasions while working in the 603d Air Operations Center as the Space Cell Chief in the Combat Operations Division).

A much larger, more notable action regarding the type of culture the Air Force inspires, is how the budget is divided between Air Force missions. Recall the “ritual” part of the onion with respect to culture. The ritualistic requirement of budgeting and spending in the Department of Defense is a social norm within the services. Mr. Todd Harrison, director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, mentions in his article Why We Need a Space Force, that there has been an inherent conflict of interest which has “short-changed space programs for decades…when the Services must choose between space and their native domain, one should expect that they will choose what they are organized to do.” He notes that during the budget downturn between fiscal years 2010 and 2014, spending on space and air decreased by approximately one-third. However, once the budge rebounded, the budget on aircraft increased by fifty percent while spending on space continued to decline by another seventeen percent. The Air Force is organized for air purposes and the culture emphasizes that construct, even through spending.

However, all is not lost with regards to culture. Culture is not easily changed, but it is not impossible. Again, return to the cultural onion. A key component for a cultural change is for leadership to recognize the various cultural elements and develop a well thought out, systematic plan detailing how each layer of the onion will be altered to infuse a more space centric mindset. Naming space as a priority domain in the National Security Strategy is a start. In addition, the Air Force leadership, namely the Secretary of the Air Force and Chief of Staff, need continue to communicate the importance of the space domain to the Air Force to enforce the value concept. Leaders within the Space Cadre also need to be the biggest advocates for this plan and emphasize the symbols, rituals, heroes, and values that are practiced within the space career.

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As an example, during each graduation for the newest space operators from the 381st Training Group (the technical training school for all new space and missile operators and maintainers) the space badge is displayed while a speaker explains why each component of the badge was included. The speech may quickly depart from memory after the ceremony, but if this were re-iterated at the squadrons as well (as General Goldfein intended) it would give more validity to the symbol that is the space aeronautical badge.

What about heroes? Many in the space career field probably recognize General Bernard Schriever, however, what about the rest of the Air Force? He probably fought one of the more difficult cultural battles in the history of the space field as the main advocate for satellites and a space program during the 50’s into the early 60’s. A tribute to his advocacy is the base that is named after him, Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado Springs. (For more information about how he accomplished his goal, check out A Fiery Peace in a Cold War by Neil Sheehan.)

The main point is the same rituals, symbols, heroes, and values the Space Cadre rally around should be practiced to bring in a more space mindset to an air fused culture. And by practice, this alludes to more than training because as Hofstede et al. state, “training programs without the support of hard changes usually remain at the level of lip service and are a waste of money.”

How long will it take until visions of spacecraft, satellites, and launches appear in the mind’s eye when someone thinks about the Air/Space Force? Some cultural experts indicate a cultural change can occur in as little as 90 days or as long as 2-3 years. I predict a cultural change of this magnitude and with a force larger than a mega company would take more than five years. An instructor at Space Education Training Center in Colorado Springs indicated when the air component separated from the Army, it took almost twenty years for the culture to convert.

However, a change of this magnitude would also remove a lot of what makes the Air Force great. There is a reason the phrase “the sound of freedom” is often associated with a jet taking off. Secretary Wilson predicts an independent Space Force will cost $13 billion, but that might be worth it to keep the character of the Air Force focused on air, something that is noble considering there are about two hundred, eighty thousand non space people living the Air Force culture. At the same time, solely prioritizing air impedes the space domain from achieving its full potential.

In summary, the Air Force has three distinct parts to the mission, air, space, and cyber. They all have three distinct cultures but an equal desire to be recognized. Suffice it to say, at the moment, we are Airmen, we have Air Power and we help our Wingman. These all feed the larger air culture that permeates the service, and it does not provide allowances for space or insinuate space is on equal footing. In fact, recently, a cadet from the Air Force Academy (another nod at the true nature of the culture) was discussing what jobs the cadets were listing as their top choice and stated: “Space is pretty much everyone’s second choice.” I found this statement to be ironic considering it is second in line in the mission statement. So while the irony of the statement was lost on the cadet, it makes complete sense to those of us non-fliers living in an air centric culture.

Lieutenant Colonel Lisha T. Wallace is a Doctoral Candidate in the School of Business and Leadership at Regent University, Virginia Beach, VA. She is a Course Director and Instructor at the 705th Training Squadron, Hurlburt Field, FL. Lt Col Wallace has previously served as the Director of Operations at the 381st Training Support Squadron, Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA and Space Cell Chief in the Combat Operations Division at the 603d Air Operations Center, Ramstein, Germany. Email:

Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the US Government.

Featured photo from Cultural onion diagram from the book “Cultures and Organizations” by Geert and Gert Jan Hofstede, and Michael Minkov. Space badge picture from Photo in conclusion paragraph courtesy

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One thought on “Air Force Culture Is Impeding The Space Mission

  • March 15, 2019 at 9:17 pm

    The proof in the pudding is the fact that due to the lack of promotional opportunities,the Air Force tried to create the representation of the Flight Wings for the 0-6s by calling the Senior Space Program Officers Wing Commanders. This was intended to let promotion boards appreciate the level of responsibility that Program Managers had as a function of their role in the Space Enterprise.
    Sadly, it was so unsuccessful that they subsequently renamed the positions as Program Managers as it did not have the intended (allegedly) impact on the members of promotion boards that they had hoped for. The promotion rate for Space officers has consistently been well below that of rated individuals, as would be expected since the primary mission of the AF is to fly and fight.


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