Space Force & The Limits of “Semper Supra”

Source: Image Designed by Aidan Poling (author) using Stable Diffusion AI

On September 20, 2022, the United States Space Force released its fight song “SemperSupra” (Always Above). It flopped. The song was widely mocked across social media and late-night television. Much of the criticism understandably focused on the melody and lyrics. However, these critiques miss the actual importance of Semper Supra as a service fight song.

Symbols matter: be they flags or medals. Service fight songs are no different. They encapsulate the esprit-de-corps and ethos of an organization. While these songs reflect existing character, they also help to promulgate and shape culture. The lyrics of the U.S. Marine Corps’ song “SemperFidelis” note how marines are the “first to fight… in every clime and place where we could take a gun.” This reflects the Marine Corps’ vision of itself as a rapid reaction force where every marine is first and foremost an infantryman. Similarly, the “Air Force Song” highlights the glorification of fighter pilots within the U.S. Air Force who “live in fame or go down in flame.” It also emphasizes the Air Force’s close connection with its aircraft, which the song poetically references as “crates of thunder… [and] wings to soar.”

General Raymond, the U.S. Space Force Chief of Space Operations, noted the significance of Semper Supra by stating that “this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to establish a Space Force song that will be part of our culture and heritage for years to come. Our traditions are part of the fabric that weave us all together as we execute our missions side-by-side.”

The lyrics of Semper Supra––as well as the song’s name which is the Space Force’s motto––accurately reflect the space forces current perspective on its role in the U.S. military’s joint forces but could prove culturally limiting should the space domain increase in economic and strategic importance.

The Space Force’s current mission primarily involves supporting U.S. warfighters by occupying the strategic high ground and providing orbital satellite-based Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (C4ISR). These services are undeniably indispensable in allowing the United States joint force to operate. Without them, the U.S. military would be unable to see, hear, or communicate. The name and lyrics of Semper Supra reflect this mission set. The satellites of the U.S. Space Force are “always above,” serving as the “watchful eye” and “invisible front line” for the U.S. military.

This definition of the Space Force’s mission is sufficient so long as Space Force’s primary role is to provide C4ISR. However, the Space Force should avoid the mistakes of services past and present. Organizational cultures can become strait-jackets if they ossify. Overemphasis on battleships and underemphasis on carriers by Western navies proved highly costly during the opening phases of the Second World War. Similarly, the Air Force’s understandable love affair with manned aircraft may slow the adoption of new systems like autonomous aircraft and drones.

In the not-too-distant future, the importance of space could expand well beyond providing intelligence and communications services to Earth. Space Force and Space Command have begun to recognize this as a distant possibility. The Space Capstone Publication, Space Force’s “foundational work,” notes that “commercial investments and new technologies have the potential to expand the reach of vital National space interests to the cislunar regime and beyond in the near future.” Gen John Shaw, Deputy Commander of Space Command, is a proponent of an expansive space agenda. In his 2002 book Whither Space Power, then-Major Shaw postulated a potential future wherein foreign and U.S. space companies compete for commercial dominance across the solar system.

We are already beginning to see these new enabling technologies and investments. Reusable rocket launch vehicles have resulted in the price of sending one kilogram into orbit falling from $10,000 in 2010 to $2,500 today. The price is expected to fall even further as new launch vehicles like SpaceX’s Starship are developed. NASA’s Artemis missions plan to send humans to the Moon by 2025 and create a lunar space station by 2027. Space solar power is increasingly being studied as a feasible renewable baseline power generation source. All of these innovations could help power a global space economy that financial services company Morgan Stanley estimates will be valued at $1 trillion by 2040 from $469 billion today.

General Raymond and his guardians should justifiably sing Semper Supra with pride. Their ongoing mission of safeguarding U.S. and allied C4ISR is a critical one. Even as they do so, however, they should not forget about “boldly reaching into space” since there truly is “no limit­­” – in the long term – “to our sky.”

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