Air Force's Space 'Think Tank' Studies Future of Conflict Beyond Earth

Air University’s Air Command and Staff College located at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama. (U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Tammie Ramsouer)
Air University’s Air Command and Staff College located at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama. (U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Tammie Ramsouer)

MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Alabama -- Within the Air Command and Staff College here resides a unique task force that has one core mission: to be America's think tank for space.

Lt. Col. Peter Garretson is deputy director of the Schriever Scholars program, as well as the director of the Space Horizons Task Force at the college. sat down with Garretson while accompanying outgoing Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson on her visit to Maxwell on Tuesday.

Garretson teaches a number of space courses for the scholars program. The space horizons course specifically looks at the long-term strategic perspective of space and information policy, feeding into a broader, university-wide space research task force.

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"We're trying to take the best space operators and tacticians and turn them into the world's best strategists," Garretson said during an interview in his office. "We're also interested in, how does great power competition evolve over time? How do we ensure a balance of power favorable to our allies and our goals? How do we attempt to set the norms that mitigate conflict? And of course, if we fail … what do we need to be thinking about to ensure we would prevail."

Who Are the Schriever Scholars?

The Schriever Scholars program is the first of its kind. Its inaugural class began last August, with students -- mostly majors -- scheduled to graduate next month.

The program is competitive and selective. Garretson said the next applicant pool contains more than double the 13 available spots.

"There's never been a year-long course to train space strategists before, so this is truly an innovation," he said. The scholars program is funded in part by Air Force Space Command, as well as Air Education and Training Command.

The hope is that mid-career officers who take the year-long course will excel in their careers, potentially offering expertise in top leadership positions later on.

"Some of our graduates are going exactly where I want them to -- the new U.S. Space Command, the strategic planning side in Air Force Space Command, the National Space Defense Center. … But over time, my hope would be to have a Schriever Scholar as an assistant on the National Space Council staff, a liaison to [the U.S. Department of] Commerce, NASA, in Congress," as well as the other services, Garretson said.

The program is about more than figuring out how to protect American assets in space. Garretson and the officers he teaches study decades of U.S. power and technological advancement and have applied new concepts of space exploration to theories of what the space domain will likely look like 50 years from now.

War games and exercises are played throughout the course, and the officers travel to Washington, D.C., to meet with top officials and think tanks. They also visit the annual Space Symposium in Colorado to see the newest technological advancements and equipment.

The program comes at a time of uncertainty.

The Trump administration has not made clear its agenda for the U.S. Space Force, according to lawmakers, experts and some past officials who still question the necessity of a sixth military branch.

Confusion blossoms from officials conflating military space operations with NASA, to citizens being polled on which White House-designed logo is the coolest, to Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, recently claiming the Space Force is needed to combat "space pirates."

Discussion of future space threats has given way to internet mockery as the conversation has become focused on space rangers who'll fight off aliens with lasers instead of how adversaries are manipulating operations to gain a foothold in space.

There is no intention to deviate from the official Pentagon line, said Garretson, who served as the airpower strategist to former Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz.

But "where we are different is … in the Pentagon, you're constantly assaulted with current crises. We at Air University have the ability to look beyond the headlights or the radar picture … and look at things with greater depth," he said.

Some of the questions Garretson's class tries to answer include, "How do you plan for peacetime competition in the global strategic campaign? How do you want to think about adapting your documents for planning?" he said. "D.C. has to appropriately respond to, 'what are the pressures of the present?' [Whereas] we are looking at where the trends are going and what would be adaptive in those situations."

Beyond Space Force

Garretson, who previously worked as the Air Force's division chief of irregular warfare strategy, plans and policy at the Pentagon, said he is a Space Force proponent because it elevates threats the U.S. has been shortsighted about in the past.

He said he and some of his colleagues "saw the writing on the wall for some time" regarding great power competition. "It takes some time for a consensus to be reached," he added. For example, "we know that our strategic competitors, the [People's Republic of China] fully intends to exploit Earth, moon and space for their own rejuvenation."

Garretson cited a recent work about great power cooperation or competition by Namrata Goswami, a researcher at India's Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, about just how ambitious China is regarding space.

China "has plans to [create] nuclear-powered shuttles. Their plans to industrialize the moon and to build a ring of solar-powered satellites that power Earth with green energy … those could completely shift the [conversation] of, 'What is the center of gravity of global geopolitics?'" he said.

Garretson equates these space operations to maritime and naval operations. "In maritime theory, navies exist in order to secure commerce," he said.

The space domain, Garretson explained, has evolved beyond putting equipment in orbit to extract information into fast, free movement for commercial purposes, much like today's shipping routes. The commercial benefit will evolve even faster with businessmen such as Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, who are monetizing the domain and even plan to create space colonies.

"Once that happens, it starts to look a lot more like naval power. The logistics, location," Garretson said.

"First of all, America needs to understand what kind of a race it's in, and I don't think it does. Our history in growing up in the Cold War leads us to think about space in terms of impressive show-off firsts, where we plant a flag in some new place, or its link to nuclear security," he said. "And I don't think our strategic [competitors] have those hang-ups. China sees … the value of space principally for its economic power. We're talking about tens- to hundreds-of-trillions-of-dollar economies."

What "if you're able to build, like the Chinese are planning, a ring of solar-powered satellites?" Garretson said.

Cheap, reusable rockets moving cargo into space to store energy or create logistics hubs for equipment are also possibilities, he said. The idea is not far from what retired Gen. Carlton D. Everhart II, former head of Air Mobility Command, proposed last year.

And if people ever do decide to live in space, a military presence would likely follow, Garretson said. "It will be stabilizing to have people in uniform up there as well."

He said it's too soon to know whether the Space Force will eventually absorb the scholars program. "Certainly, the faculty here is a really outstanding resource on which you could build a future service school if that was decided, and if [the Pentagon] wanted to keep it here," Garretson said.

How the Other Side Thinks

Amid a lot of "Star Wars" memorabilia scattered around Garretson's office is the Chinese game "Weiqi," more commonly known as "Go."

He says he keeps the game out for his students to play, but also to act as a metaphor.

"Clearly, one of our competitors that we most respect as sort of a pacing competitor is … China. They have a wonderful, long-standing tradition of strategic and military thought. But just like chess -- or football or poker -- which inform our thinking, China uses this game. This is an extremely different game that causes you to think in particular ways," he said.

Whereas chess is a battle focusing on maneuver to checkmate the king, Weiqi forces the player to focus on position, encirclement and counter-encirclement, Garretson said. "It's important to understand, by metaphor, how the other side thinks and to be able to understand why they use particular analogies, what they're talking about, as well as how they might look at [something]."

He continued, "Once you've played this game, you look at what [China] might be doing on its borders, in the South China Sea, on the moon in a different way. … And [unlike] chess, you have many different battles happening in different places. So sacrificing, creating diversions and trickery, or [hiding] your design are all strategic lessons that come out of a game like this.

"My objective in teaching it is to inform how the other side thinks," he said.

Garretson will retire June 1 after 28 years in the service.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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