Space Control: An Air Force-Navy Rivalry for the Slipspace Age

Pictured above: An Air Force SS-110 Longsword posed for a static display, highlighting its array of available air-to-air missiles, anti-ship cruise missiles, smart bombs, and nuclear ordnance. Art by Isaac Hannaford, courtesy of Egmont Publishing and 343 Industries. (Halo: Warfleet)

The orbital domain has become more militarized than any point in history. The military industrial complex has capitalized on matured, economic launch platforms, allowing the proliferation of defense satellite constellations. These satellites do not host offensive or defense weapons. Not yet.

Hawkish world leaders in this warming geopolitical landscape have looked up towards the stars for an edge high above their adversaries. In the United States, the likes of the United Launch Alliance (a co-venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin) and Elon Musk’s SpaceX are emboldened by calls by the Trump administration for a new entity, a sixth combatant uniformed service: the United States Space Force.

This “space force” aims to seize all orbital functions from the still-youthful U.S. Air Force, itself having pried near-absolute control from the U.S. Navy at the turn of the millennium. Recent proposals have called for stripping responsibility for space operations from the entirety of the armed forces. This proposed United States Space Force would be charged as the sole administrative, operational, and procurement agency for the increasingly accessible orbital and outer space warfighting domain. Such a monopoly for an entire domain (alongside land, sea, air, and cyber) is unprecedented within the modern U.S. Armed Forces, and for very good reason.

Military aviation in the United States at the outset of the First World War was segregated between the Department of War (Army) and the Department of the Navy—the Coast Guard, Marine Corps, and Navy. A proper air force as we know it, functionally separate of the Army, would not be established until the Second World War; thereafter made fully independent as the U.S. Air Force in 1947. During those wartime and interwar years the two competing military departments would ensure the air domain would be free from a flinching monopoly.

The Army was charged with aerospace defense for the Continental United States (CONUS) and its colonial empire. Later, with the emergence of the Army Air Forces, land-based strategic and tactical bombing would become the soon-to-be independent service’s forte. The Department of the Navy would develop a responsibility scheme followed to this day. Navy air wings (formerly groups) operated from Fleet’s carriers to project power across Earth’s vast oceans. The Marine Corps, as the expeditionary force-in-readiness, maintained highly-mobile, land-based air wings to support fleet maneuvers; on occasion they would operate from the Navy’s big flattops. The Coast Guard, as expected, would carry out amphibious life-saving and civil security operations from CONUS and throughout the empire.

Operation UPPER CUTPictured Above: Navy frigate UNSC Savannah (FFG-371) is escorted by a section of the Air Force’s prototype YSS-1000 Sabre fighter-interceptors above Reach, 14 August 2552. Screenshot courtesy of Halopedia, the Halo encyclopedia. (Halo: Reach)

In 1947, the U.S. Air Force gained total autonomy from the Army in the midst of a new, Nuclear Age. Airmen coming off a high, believing they had single-handedly won the Second World War, thought the age of conventional warfighting had come to a close. The atomic massacres at Hiroshima and Nagasaki displayed the raw, destructive potential of nuclear weapons. Air Force leaders sought to capitalize on these developments and lobby within U.S. Congress for a monopoly not on air power and the aerial domain, but warfighting itself. Everything from the Navy’s fleet carriers to the Army Infantry was considered obsolete in the face of very-heavy strategic bombers armed with nuclear ordnance. President Truman encouraged this perspective.

With the 1949 cancellation of the United States-class supercarrier, a sea-based nuclear deterrent, the famed “Revolt of the Admirals” began. Navy and Marine officers sitting before Congress systematically shot down the eager Air Force’s proposal to do away with the Fleet entirely. The eagerness of the youthful service emboldened a public affairs machine to sway the American people, and thus Congress, to the perceived economy and strategic superiority of wholesale nuclear warfare.

The Korean War of 1950-53 safeguarded an Air Force grounded by modern war from dismantling its senior sister services. The Navy would retain and refine a supercarrier design in service to this day while the Army maintained an aviation component to deliver and support land forces, albeit stripped of most fixed-wing assets.

The aerospace defense scheme of the 26th century United Nations Space Command is no different. The Army maintains aviation in-support of its land forces, the Marine Corps continues as an expeditionary force-in-readiness, and the Office of Naval Intelligence does spooky things no one else wants to bother with. That just leaves the Air Force and Navy.

In the early years of Halo, the Fleet was thought to be of absolute importance to the United Nations Space Command. Fans like myself wondered, “What need is there for an Army or Air Force when a single Navy cruiser can deploy both Longsword fighters and Marines?” Canon reflected this. For nine years the Army and Air Force went almost entirely unmentioned, even in passing. With Bungie’s final entry, 2010’s Halo: Reach, military-minded fans within the community would receive a rude awakening.

Halo: Reach introduced the fandom to SPARTAN-III commandos separated from the Navy and Office of Naval Intelligence that trained them. Now our beloved supersoldiers were in the grounded clutches of Army Special Warfare. Our protagonist SPARTAN-B312, the mystical “Noble Six,” was an Air Force test pilot prior to their reassignment to Reach. Supporting us were Army Infantry and Rangers, a far-cry from the gung-ho leathernecks usually accompanying the Master Chief. Army Pelicans and Air Force Longswords stood-in for the Naval Aviators who raced us from one ringworld to the next.

Yet, we were still left with questions of functional and area responsibility between the land-based Air Force and the celestial Navy. Surely this must be cause, in-universe, for intense service rivalry with the two military departments stepping all over each other’s toes in the orbital battlespace. Now, in hindsight, we can see that Bungie and 343 Industries may not have known what to do with this, at least in the public eye. The minutiae of canon is largely unimportant to the day-to-day affairs of these institutions. Casually stating this or that can and will open up a can of worms down the road—it’s more work than is necessary.

Recent developments have allowed myself to clarify and rectify the internal military boundaries of the United Nations Space Command.

For 2004’s Halo 2 players made their way back to Earth just in time to combat the coming Covenant invasion. The Prophet of Regret lead the Fleet of Sacred Consecration with its pair of assault carriers and handful of escorting battlecruisers against the defending, reinforced UNSC Home Fleet. 300 orbital weapon platforms (OWP) were oriented in a geosynchronous pattern between Lord Hood’s Home Fleet and the Earth below. These OWPs, networked in battle clusters of three stations each, were armed with a single Super MAC gun and batteries of point defense guns. At the helm stood the Navy’s sailors in their pretty dress white uniforms.

Home Fleet and Earth Orbital Defense GridPictured above: A UNSC Navy heavy cruiser transits past the Athens-Cairo-Malta Battle Cluster in Earth orbit, 20 October 2552. Screenshot courtesy of Halopedia, the Halo encyclopedia. (Halo 2)

Upon our return to Earth in 2007’s Halo 3, Commander Miranda Keyes provided the following report to the Master Chief: “The Prophet of Truth’s ships breached the Lunar perimeter. Smashed what was left of the Home Fleet.” That didn’t set well with myself at the time. Didn’t we just see Lord Hood fighting off that very Covenant fleet from orbit aboard Cairo Station? Surely this must be hyperbole.

It was not. The UNSC’s Home Fleet was indeed decimated by Truth’s fleet, yet Earth’s Orbital Defense Grid remained.

2018’s Halo: The Official Spartan Field Manual has offered definitive clarification: The Orbital Defense Grid and its 300 Super MAC-armed stations weren’t Navy assets, they were operated by the Air Force. Cue the mind blown gifs.

You may be wondering, “Natalie, how can that be? In Halo 2 they showed only Navy sailors at the helm and Marines defending the station. Lord Hood isn’t Air Force now, is he?” No, Lord Hood, the current Chief of Naval Operations and Commander-in-Chief Fleet, is most certainly not an Airman. Those Marines were likely his personal security detail. The station itself? That is Air Force through and through.

To explain the overwhelming presence of Navy officers at the controls of Cairo Station, bear in mind that Sergeant Major Avery Johnson, a Marine’s Marine, was also adorned in Navy officers’ dress whites. We are able to surmise that this is merely an oversight and economic use of game assets by Bungie in 2004. Halo 2 did not have the healthiest of development cycles to expect them to dress Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, and Airmen in their own unique dress uniforms.

YSS-1000 SabrePictured above: The YSS-1000 Sabre, predecessor to the F-41E Broadsword in service with the Air Force and Navy since 2554. Concept art and render courtesy of Microsoft Studios and Bungie.

The YSS-1000 Sabre fighter-interceptor was developed by the UNSC Air Force for colonial aerospace defense. Sabres incorporated the first energy shielding aboard an operational aerospace craft for the UNSC. As well, they’d be armed with miniaturized Medusa missiles similar to those sported by the Spartan’s OF-92 Booster Frames. SPARTAN-B312 is the first known augmented airman having served as a test pilot on Sabre.

At Reach these prototype craft would be used to great effect in warding off the Covenant Fleet of Valiant Prudence, sortied to defend vital Navy orbital shipyards and deploying boarding parties aboard the alien’s warships. Though unfielded in vast quantities, the YSS-1000 would inspire similar upgrades for post-war production of F-41 Broadswords and SS-110 Longswords.

Pairing fighters like Broadsword with the Orbital Weapon Platforms high above colonial worlds, we know now that the Air Force is the main force provider for aerospace defense in the orbital battlespace. At Meridian, the Air Force would maintain aerospace superiority against the might of the Covenant for three years. This action stands out amongst nearly all other UNSC efforts in the war. Only the wartime record of the SPARTAN-II’s and Admiral Cole’s Third Fleet in the Harvest Campaign can compare.

Air Combat Command and Orbital Defense Command maintain prime warfighting assets for a UNSC increasingly finding itself in a new paradigm, as an astropolitical and military superpower venturing further and further out into the universe.

In the years following the Covenant War the Air Force would grow a close bond with Spartan Operations, the sixth, newly established military department of the UNSC. A cross-service laboratory was stood-up by the Air Force to further evaluate the feasibility of augmented personnel as fighter pilots. Operational certification for individual Spartan pilots on the latest aerospace craft was also provided. Air Force Special Operations assets are routinely detached to support Spartan deployments to far-off locales, such as the Forerunner shield world Requiem.

Expeditionary Strike Group ONE at EarthPictured above: UNSC Infinity (INF-101) sorties with Expeditionary Strike Group ONE from Earth. Art by Isaac Hannaford, courtesy of Egmont Publishing and 343 Industries. (Halo Mythos)

Having developed such a special relationship with the Navy over the course of the Covenant War, the Air Force of tomorrow is a far cry from the spiteful, cocky young service its predecessors were some 600 years prior. Earth has escaped the ultimate tragedy on two occasions in the 2550s. This is a testament to the bond two once warring sister services have forged through the perils of galactic war.

The Navy, meanwhile, mostly operates in the domain beyond immediate orbit—the celestial sea. Fleet Command, in-conjunction with UNICOM’s Fleet Marine Forces, sortie out into the wild unknown to conduct missions on behalf of the President of the Unified Earth Government, to maintain a space and expeditionary force-in-readiness to perform their bidding. Once backed into one corner after another, long-range deployments to Earth’s wayward Outer Colonies and the Joint Occupation Zone in former Covenant territory have become the norm for the Fleet.

Carrier Battle Groups, the mainstay of fleet actions since the Second World War, continue their primacy as the go-to force projection asset. Supercarriers like Trafalgar and Infinity stood toe-to-toe against the Covenant as peers. These capital ships would deploy carrier air wings of dozens and hundreds of fighters, interceptors, and other space control and combat support craft. Unlike the Air Force, however, Navy and Marine Corps fighters would take the fight to the Covenant menace, not react to them.

Lord Hood has since rebuilt the peacetime Navy department into a leaner, meaner, and more adaptable deep space force, one that would make Admiral Cole green with envy and those angsty American admirals of 1949 roll in their graves. All is well within the United Nations Space Command. The six military departments still have interservice squabbling from time to time. Passionate rivalries persist among a few hardliners at the top, yet mild the further you get down the chain of command.

The Air Force and Navy as depicted in the Halo universe serve as a model for humanity’s military endeavors to come. The proposed United States Space Force would serve only as a strategic and tactical blunder monopolizing the entirety of the warfighting domain under its corporate grasp. This is easily avoidable through mutual cooperation and well-defined areas and functions of responsibility between the armed services active today.

As Earth’s military powers today establish a constant presence and aggressive posture in orbit, sooner rather than later, we must consider the ramifications of a humanity no longer confined to a single planet. They must contend with nations unilaterally seeking to capitalize on space and maintain space supremacy by circumventing or altogether ignoring the pacifist Outer Space Treaty. The coming war will surely cement the orbital domain within the annals of warfighting. Only time will tell if constellations of communications, reconnaissance, and surveillance satellites will be joined by orbital weapon platforms littered with railguns and lasers.

To my darling Isabella, I wouldn’t be bothering to write without your support. I also offer my thanks today to friends Haruspis and Lor ‘Tarkam for encouraging me this past week.

With love,

Domain Libration

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