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Space-Mindedness: The Application of Space Power – Ryan Sanford

20 July 2018 marked the 49th anniversary of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landing on the Moon. To mark that occasion and contribute to the growing discussion regarding Australia’s role, interests, and capabilities in space, we are pleased to host our first cross-post from Angle of Attack. In this post, Ryan Sanford examines the roles and responsibilities of the United States Air Force in space and argues that a clear concept of “space-mindedness” is a critical foundation for advancing the discussion. We think there are many points in Ryan’s article for Australian members of the profession of arms to consider.

The United States Air Force has struggled lately in resourcing its National Command Authority assigned missions.[1]  While the immediate focus tends toward material and equipment, a potentially more troubling problem facing the Air Force may be the ever-increasing gap caused by poor pilot retention across multiple platform specialties.[2]  Under-resourced and losing talent, the Air Force would seem to have a sufficient amount of strategic ailments from which to suffer.  Yet, there are some who assert that the Air Force’s biggest strategic obstacle deals not with resourcing its missions, but that the service’s biggest problem is, in fact, teleological.  In other words, for some, the service lacks a true purpose and mission.[3]  Such an assertion quickly engendered rebuttals and counterarguments.[4]  Still, despite hints of a histrionic tenor within their argument, those who questioned the purpose of the Air Force raised a valid question.  What is the mission of the United States Air Force?

Major Michael Benitez, in his War on the Rocks article, attempts an answer.[5]  To wit, Benitez explains that the current Air Force mission statement lacks a measurable and readily definable purpose.[6]  As a remedy, Benitez offers that the Air Force mission statement should instead be, “to provide an agile global force capable of providing prompt, sustained, high-domain superiority to deter aggression and jointly win our nation’s wars.”[7]  In arriving at this answer, Benitez asserts that the lack of a meaning-laden mission statement, one that embodies the Air Force’s raison d’être, stems not from the service’s lack of mission.  Indeed, the service is incredibly adept at performing its assigned roles.[8]  Rather, the lack of a purpose-laden mission statement results from a lack of air-mindedness among today’s Airmen.  In other words, because America’s Airmen do not exhibit a well-formed cognizance of the service’s quintessence, they are ill equipped to explain the service’s mission.  Interestingly, the inability to explain the mission stems, in part, from the lack of a codifiable mission statement.  In self-perpetuating style, the want of such a mission statement exacerbates the problem of Airmen not being air-minded.[9]

Benitez’s efforts are laudable.  His article challenges today’s Airmen to think of airpower as more than a mere catchphrase.  Benitez urges the reader to “comprehend air-mindedness by…thinking of it as…high-dimensional operations (HDO).”[10]  In defining HDO, Benitez asserts that since the domains of air and space, plus cyber from a cognitive sense, constitute realms above the Terran, an Airman is better suited to think of air-mindedness from a high dimensionality perspective.  In thinking of air-mindedness as HDO, that is, as an amalgamation of the air, space, and cyber domains, an Airman can better understand how the service is “trans-dimensional [and] uniquely multi-domainsional [sic]” thereby enabling better advocacy for the service.

Still, Benitez did not go far enough in redefining air-mindedness.  Or rather, his definition was incomplete.  In defining HDO in Benitez’s manner, one makes an assumption that the Air Force in general and its Airmen, in particular, know what it means to be space-minded.  In other words, drawing an isomorphism between air-mindedness and HDO may be correct, or at least provide a useful way for America’s Airmen to understand the quintessence of air power; however, doing so illuminates a conspicuous absence of a certain “mindedness” for each of the sub-domains comprising the service’s “multi-domainsionality.”  Defining “air-mindedness 2.0” as operations among the triune domain of air, space, and cyber, necessarily requires explaining mindedness in the space and cyber domains.[11]

The final launch of the space shuttle Atlantis [Image credit: Angle of Attack]

Herein lies the problem.  Just as air-mindedness has at times escaped definition because of the “chicken-and-the-egg” problem of grasping what airpower “does” versus what airpower “is,” so too has space-mindedness.  In fact, to this author’s knowledge, no attempt has been made to define space-mindedness.[12]  An admixture of Dale Hayden’s conception of air-mindedness and Brigadier William Mitchell’s definition of air power, both adjusted for space, combined with Benitez’s “high-dimensional operations” may provide a useful starting point.  That is, space-mindedness, in general, is a lens by which the mind’s eye views the vast potential of space, and in recognizing this potential, advocates for the “constant development and experimentation” of space-going capabilities to harness the latent power of space in the continuing pursuit of national power.[13]  More specifically, as “space-mindedness” relates to the Air Force, it is the “lens through which Airmen perceive warfare and view the battlespace,” a battlespace that resides in the “perpetual and rhythmic” domain of space.[14]  Furthermore, like air-mindedness connoted during the interwar years, space-mindedness connotes possessing an awareness of spacepower’s strategic nature.  Unlike the ideations regarding air power, which tended to focus on strategic bombing, sometimes to the detriment of policy aims, such a strategic awareness, for the “space-minded” Airman, should remain anchored to the primary question of how spacepower can serve “some useful purpose.”[15]  This assertion holds true whether that purpose is fulfilled through the military instrument or other space-borne instruments of power.  While donning the uniform necessarily focuses one’s mind frame on military matters, the ubiquitous, all-encompassing, and entangled nature of space and human activity therein suggest that Airmen never forget the larger question of how spacepower and its instruments are used for policy’s purposes.

Defining space-mindedness in the manner offered here accomplishes three results.  First, the definition, much as theory does, provides a “systematic order” by which an Airman may contemplate the service and nation’s role in employing spacepower.[16]   While no theoretical definition of “space-mindedness” will “equip the mind with formulas for solving problems,” the definition found here does “cast a light on all phenomena” by compelling one to ask how the myriad elements of spacepower can achieve the policy aims set forth by civilian leadership.[17]  Indeed, by codifying space-mindedness in the fashion espoused in this paper, an Airman may now “trace each action” in space “to an adequate, compelling cause,” which is the harnessing of spacepower and fulfillment of national objectives.[18]

The second effect of the definition offered here is a corollary of the first.  Not only does our definition of space-mindedness provide an analytical framework, but it also proves to be aspirational in nature.  The space-minded are those that continually ask if the service and nation are tapping the full potential of space’s capability while advocating for the development of new space technologies, even those not directly beneficial to the military.  The space-minded seek to exploit opportunities in space and always refer to the raison d’être of space capabilities, which is the furtherance of national power in space.

Finally, our definition of space-mindedness provides a practical, third effect.  Namely, in trying to cohere the elements of airpower as they relate to the idea of air-mindedness, logic demands an adequate explanation of what it means to be space-minded as an element of overall air-mindedness.  Space-mindedness is a necessary condition for air-mindedness, but only once the former is well defined.

While it is doubtful that the definition offered here will satisfy all space power theorists and practitioners, defining space-mindedness in the fashion of this paper will hopefully advance the conversation on space power theory and its application.  By offering an articulation on space-mindedness, this author suggests that Airmen have a structure upon which they may build their thoughts on the employment of air power in general and space power, in particular.  Moreover, they have a goal to aspire toward, to contemplate the potential of space and advocate for the harnessing of such potential in the pursuit of national strategy.  To be an Airmen should entail asking how the application of space power aids in the quest for strategic aims.  Those asking such a question are, in essence, space-minded.  Knowing what it means to be space-minded, the next task is to ascertain whether the Air Force is space-minded, something future studies should attempt.  Furthermore, efforts should be made to find methods for cultivating space-mindedness where it does not otherwise thrive.

This post originally appeared at Angle of Attack on 18 March 2017 and is republished with the kind permission of the editors. We recommend our readers check out Angle of Attack!

Ryan Sanford is an active duty officer in the United States Air Force. He is a Fighter Pilot and an Experimental Test Pilot. A graduate of the United States Air Force Academy, School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, and USAF Test Pilot School and a published author in the fields of Mathematics, Aeronautical Engineering, Developmental Flight Test, and Tactical Employment, he recently completed a Master of Philosophy thesis analyzing the need for a USAF astronaut corps to support national objectives in space. He is currently performing duties as an Operations Officer.


[1]. Jim Michaels, “Air Force Chief: Personnel Shortfall is Critical,” USA, 21 Dec 16, Accessed 9 Jan 17,

[2]. W.J. Hennigan, “Air Force Struggles to Add Drone Pilots and Address Fatigue and Stress,” LA Times, 9 Nov 15, Accessed 9 Jan 17,; “Air Force Struggling With Fighter Pilot Shortage Amid Ongoing Air Wars,” Fox, 11 Aug 16, Accessed 9 Jan 17,

[3]. Robert M. Farley, Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force, (Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press, 2015).  The reader should note that Professor Farley had espoused the idea of abolishing the USAF well before he published his book.

[4]. Scott D. Campbell, et al., “Why America Needs an Independent Air Force,” War on the Rocks, 26 Feb 14, Accessed 9 Jan 17, ; Michael Auslin, “Why America Needs the Air Force: Rebuttal to Prof. Farley,” Breaking, 13 Aug 13,  These responses followed Professor Farley’s Foreign Affairs article, “Ground the Air Force,” where he concludes that having a separate service exacerbates the effects of tight budgets and only encourages the services to duplicate efforts with minimal cross-service coordination.  See

[5]. Michael E. Benitez, “Air-Mindedness 2.0: We Need to Do Better Than ‘Fly, Fight, and Win’,” War on the Rocks, 8 Aug 16, Accessed 21 Dec 16,

[6]. “Mission,”, 2016, Accessed 9 Jan 17,

[7]. Benitez, “Air-Mindedness 2.0: We Need to Do Better Than ‘Fly, Fight, and Win’.”

[8]. Eric Schmitt, “Aboard a US Eye in the Sky, Staring Down Isis in Iraq and Syria,” NY Times, 25 Dec 16, Accessed 9 Jan 17,   Large numbers of weapons employed and enemy body counts do not necessarily equate to strategic success.  Still, the coalition bombing efforts have severely degraded ISIS’ ability to expand its operations as well as placed large portions of its financial support at risk thereby curtailing recruiting efforts.

[9]. This seeming tautology hints at the duality of the problem Benitez exposes.  Without air-mindedness, Airmen lack the depth of understanding of what the Air Force “does.”  Conversely, an unclear, and in Benitez’s words, a “narcissistic” motto hinders sharpening an air-inclined mind.

[10]. Benitez, “Air-Mindedness 2.0: We Need to Do Better Than ‘Fly, Fight, and Win’.”

[11]. To see this assertion, one need only look at the penultimate exercise in categorization, mathematics.  In basic set theory, a collection of items, or a set, is defined by the very elements, which comprise the collection.  Hence, to describe air-mindedness accurately, one must convey what mindedness means for each subdomain that constitutes the overall Air Force domain.  See Joan Bagaria, “Set Theory,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Winter 2016, Accessed 26 Jan 17,  Furthermore, ontological arguments also suggest that attempting to define air-mindedness requires defining the subparts as long as those parts are encompassed by the greater whole of air-mindedness.

[12]. Compare this claim to the lineage of “air-mindedness” as a term.  While not overtly expressed as such, ideas, which pointed to air-mindedness, first arose during the interwar period with Brigadier General Billy Mitchell’s concept of air-going nations (see Winged Defense).  To Mitchell, air-mindedness equated to taking a whole-of-nation viewpoint regarding the use of the airplane, especially in light of its potential applications.  Lee Kennett’s, The First Air War, also hints at such an ideation albeit with a greater focus towards the use of the air weapon.  More recently, Dale Hayden explained, “air- mindedness is the lens through which airmen perceive warfare and view the battlespace.”  See Dale L. Hayden, “Air-Mindedness,” Air & Space Power Journal 22(4), no. 4 (2008): 44.

[13]. Hayden, “Air-Mindedness,” 44; William Mitchell, Winged Defense: The Development and Possibilities of Modern Air Power–Economic and Military, 1st Edition ed. (Tuscaloosa, AL: The University of Alabama Press, 2009), 198.

[14]. Benitez, “Air-Mindedness 2.0: We Need to Do Better Than ‘Fly, Fight, and Win’”; Hayden, “Air-Mindedness,” 44.

[15]. Mitchell, Winged Defense: The Development and Possibilities of Modern Air Power–Economic and Military, ix; Giulio Douhet, The Command of the Air, 1st ed. (Tuscaloosa, AL: University Alabama Press, 2009), 404; Lee Kennett, The First Air War: 1914-1918, (New York, NY: Free Press, 1999), 288; Richard Overy, The Air War: 1939-1945, (Lincoln, NE: Potomac Books, 2005-09-01), 290.  To see where a focus on strategic bombing undermined policy aims, one should review Tami Davis Biddle’s Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare: The Evolution of British and American Ideas about Strategic Bombing.

[16]. Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Reprint ed. trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989), 578.

[17]. Clausewitz, On War, 578.

[18]. Clausewitz, On War, 578.


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