The U.S. Space Force — which has been dismissed variously as a fantasy, a presidential folly and a prospective Pentagon turf war — will finally launch for real on Saturday, as 86 newly minted space warriors graduate from the Air Force Academy.

The surprise in this space start-up, so far, is that most of the bad things that were predicted haven’t happened. The turf battles have been minimal, and the politicians have mostly stayed quiet. While the world has been hunkered down with the novel coronavirus, the new space commander, Gen. John W. “Jay” Raymond, has been keeping his eyes on the heavens, literally and figuratively.

The Space Force was a pet project of President Trump’s, and there has been more talk about new uniforms and logos than the mission. But that’s about to change: Sadly, for a generation that grew up watching Apollo astronauts walking on the moon, space is now a contested domain. The latest sign was Russia’s launch of an anti-satellite missile on Wednesday, joining China in demonstrating war-fighting capability in space.

The new Space Force graduates will be welcomed Saturday by Raymond, who became chief of space operations in December. Joining him will be Gen. David L. Goldfein, the Air Force chief of staff. The ability of these two to work together has helped avert the bureaucratic wrangling that many feared.

The Air Force brass initially had sharp elbows, arguing, in effect, that when it came to space, “we’ve got this.” But Trump wanted a new service, and Goldfein says that as he pondered the need for speed and agility, he decided the advocates of a new force were right. “I started in a different place than I ended up,” he told me in an interview this week.

Goldfein said that a key moment on his “journey” to embracing the new force came when he visited Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama and talked with a group of young officers training for space operations. He asked how many favored a separate service, and every hand went up but three. He concluded that with his Air Force baggage, “there was a potential that I was going to slow this down.”

Raymond said in an interview this week that his biggest challenge is to “think boldly” about building a new service from the ground up — a lean, digital network of people and systems without the legacy weapons and culture of the Air Force. One creative idea is allowing lateral transfers from the space business — recruiting a vice president at a fast-growing technology company, say, to become a part-time colonel, sharing his expertise.

The space business is hot right now, with launch costs plummeting and new commercial projects booming. Raymond wants to tap this. The force recently posted an announcement of 53 civilian jobs and received 8,144 applications.

Raymond says he wants to be highly selective, “keep our numbers small” and build a “lean, agile service.” The force will probably be 10,000 to 15,000, tiny by comparison with other military services, and many members will be civilians.

For a military that is burdened by wildly expensive aircraft carriers and fighter jets, the Space Force is a chance to start from scratch. “The challenge for the Space Force leadership will be to break with the status quo, embrace new ideas and technology, and reimagine how our military operates in space. Raymond gets this. The hardest part is actually doing it,” messaged Christian Brose, the former staff director of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a champion of military modernization.

We’re used to thinking of space as a benign, boundless environment, where the biggest danger is that satellites will collide with debris. But Raymond warned Congress in February that China has systems in space “capable of damaging, disrupting or destroying satellites as far out as geosynchronous orbit.” The Chinese also have jammers to disrupt space communications and lasers that can blind U.S. satellite sensors.

Goldfein said at a defense forum that the United States needs to “punch back.” The Space Force deployed its first offensive weapon, a jamming system, in March, and is readying a space-based reconnaissance system called Silent Barker that can maneuver among satellites and investigate their capabilities and threats.

Space weapons are highly classified, and Raymond wouldn’t discuss how the United States might disable or destroy hostile forces in space. But he said that to deter adversaries, the United States must message its capabilities. “They have to know what you have,” he told me.

War in space would be catastrophic. Goldfein said that in every war game that involves space, “we’ve never come out winning.” But this week’s Russian anti-satellite missile, and Saturday’s graduation ceremony, remind us that like it or not, we’re entering a new military era.

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