Space Force Was Set to Announce Its New Rank Structure. Then, Congress Stepped In

Lt. Gen. Nina M. Armagno promotion ceremony.
Lt. Gen. Nina M. Armagno watches as her new three-star flag is unfurled during her promotion ceremony at the Pentagon, Arlington, Va., Aug. 17, 2020. Armagno transferred from the Air Force to Space Force during the ceremony. (U.S Air Force/Eric Dietrich)

The U.S. Space Force was all ready to move ahead with announcing a rank structure -- until lawmakers stepped in, according to the newest military branch's top enlisted adviser.

Chief Master Sgt. Roger Towberman on Wednesday said that an amendment proposed by Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, that would require the service to use Navy ranks, stalled the sixth's military branch's plans to roll out a personnel structure

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"So we've got to let that law, that legal system play out, and until it plays out, there's really no point right moving forward," Towberman said during a Q&A segment during the Air Force Sergeants' virtual symposium.

Crenshaw, a former Navy SEAL who was medically retired as a lieutenant commander, proposed an amendment in the House version of the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, requiring "the same system and rank structure as is used in the Navy," for the Space Force according to a summary of the text. The House and Senate have passed their versions of the NDAA, and the chambers will meet to iron out the differences after the August recess.

"I'm ready to be a master chief if that's what the law says I'll be; we're ready to pivot and do something else if we're asked to do something else," Towberman said.

Towberman continued, "I know that that's frustrating to folks, we really would have preferred to have an answer by now. We're going to [start] bringing airmen in on Sept. 1, and for those junior grades in particular, it means they're still going to be called 'airman' even though they're in the Space Force, because we just don't have any other options right now."

The Space Force on Thursday announced Towberman, currently the command senior enlisted leader to both the Space Force and U.S. Space Command at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado, will no longer wear both hats; Marine Corps Master Gunnery Sgt. Scott Stalker will become the SPACECOM adviser, according to a release.

Experts have argued that a Navy rank system would make sense for the fledgling Space Force.

"A good reason to use Navy ranks in the Space Force is to better distinguish [Space Force] personnel from Air Force personnel, kind of like [the Marine Corps] using different ranks than the Navy," Todd Harrison, director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, said last month via Twitter.

Furthermore, a naval command structure would emphasize strategic similarities between space and maritime operations, Lt. Col. Peter Garretson, then-deputy director of the Schriever Scholars program at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, said in an interview last year. He has since retired.

The space domain, Garretson explained, has evolved beyond putting equipment in orbit to extract information. It now involves fast, free movement for commercial purposes, much like the ocean.

"In maritime theory, navies exist in order to secure commerce," he said, adding that the commercialization of space is on a path to evolve at a rapid rate with businessmen such as Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk looking to capitalize on assets in space. "Once that happens, it starts to look a lot more like naval power -- the logistics, location," Garretson said last year.

Even William Shatner -- the actor who portrayed Captain James Kirk of the USS Enterprise in the original "Star Trek" series -- recently backed the idea.

In an Op-Ed titled, "What the heck is wrong with you, Space Force?" published in Military Times, Shatner said there is historical precedence -- in the entertainment industry, anyway -- for space commanding officers to take naval ranks.

For example, "'Le Voyage Dans La Lune' ('A Trip to the Moon,' 1902) -- the earliest known space film -- had a captain in command of the rocket ship played by Henri Delannoy," Shatner pointed out, adding a handful of examples of leaders who "have been the heroes that saved the day, the planet, the galaxy and the universe."

"And even though it pains me to point out, Han Solo was 'captain' of the Millennium Falcon," he joked.

Fictional characters who've held ranks from other military branches were prone to disaster, he argued, highlighting Lee Majors' character Col. Steve Austin, "an astronaut who crashed his ship and severely injured himself that cost taxpayers $6 million to put him back together."

"'Star Trek' has borrowed so much of its iconic rank symbols from the U.S. military and NASA," Shatner wrote.

"When you unveiled the Space Force logo, many immediately saw it as an homage to 'Star Trek' (even though our Delta was an homage to the previous military space insignias). Why not borrow back from 'Star Trek' and adopt our ranks as well? We took them from the Navy for good reason.

"They made better sense when talking about a (space) ship," Shatner says.

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

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