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Capt. Kirk to Space Force: Let’s debate rank names

The chief of space operations for the U.S. Space Force displays the service's uniform name tape in the Pentagon Jan. 17, 2020 in Arlington, Va. Will the next Space Force commander be a general or an admiral? Some people, including the original Capt. James T. Kirk, actor William Shatner, want the service to use Navy ranks and grades.

ROBERT BARNETT/U.S. AIR FORCE

By CHAD GARLAND | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 25, 2020

The original Capt. James T. Kirk of the starship USS Enterprise would like a word with Space Force officials about the new service branch’s rank structure, and some lawmakers appear to be on his side.

“I’m just a nobody here but I was wondering; is it true that the commanding officer onboard a ‘Space Force’ ship is designated a Colonel & not a Captain?,” William Shatner, the actor who played Kirk on “Star Trek,” wrote to the service on Twitter. “Is this up for debate? I think I’d like to debate the issue.”

His post over the weekend came days after the service, which falls under the Department of the Air Force, touted the transfers into its ranks of two Air Force officers and their promotions to lieutenant general.

But Shatner may have characteristically beamed himself into an ongoing fray, as lawmakers have proposed requiring the service to use Navy ranks and grades.

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The House last month approved its version of the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act with an amendment by Texas Republican and former Navy SEAL Dan Crenshaw that would force the service to call its O-1s “ensigns” and those with stars on their shoulders “admirals.” That version has yet to be reconciled with the Senate’s.

The service won’t comment on pending legislation, Space Force spokesman Maj. Nicholas Mercurio said when asked about Shatner’s query. Officials are still developing the service’s uniforms and hope to soon unveil what they’ve decided the service’s personnel will be called to help craft its “unique and identifiable culture,” he said.

Two service branches having different rank structures within the same department would not be unprecedented. The Marine Corps, which falls under the Department of the Navy, has a rank structure more like the Army.

But earlier this month, retired Air Force three-star general David Deptula, now dean of the Air Force Association’s Mitchell Institute of Aerospace Studies, blasted Crenshaw’s proposal as misguided and a bad precedent in an op-ed published in The Hill.

“Rather than look backward on more than 1,000 years of naval ritual at sea — and a few decades of TV and movie fantasy — let’s empower the Space Force to live out its Semper Supra motto and rise above such petty nonsense,” he wrote.

Its troops, meanwhile, are “firmly rooted on the Earth” while remotely operating satellites in orbit, he wrote.

“Space may be the final frontier, but our Space Force will not be cruising alien planets like Captain Kirk,” Deptula wrote.

But Deptula may be out of touch with the Space Force culture and doctrinal theories, Brent Ziarnick argued in a response published Friday in The Hill. The assistant professor of national security studies at the Air Command and Staff College at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala., has previously advocated for Navy-inspired ranks as a way to help the space service chart its own course.

Talk of naval ranks is popular among younger service members, wrote Ziarnick, and theorists who have written about the similarities between the oceans and the heavens have been credited with influencing the service’s newly published spacepower doctrine.

It may not be rank structure that’s really at issue, he wrote.

“Keeping the Space Force chained to their lead through their power monopoly over the Department of the Air Force is the only way the Air Force can limit the perceived damage the new service has caused them,” Ziarnick wrote.

garland.chad@stripes.com
Twitter: @chadgarland

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