An Assessment of U.S. Military Thinking on Cislunar Space Based on Current Doctrine

Louis Melancon, PhD made his own green-to-blue leap from the U.S. Army to the U.S. Space Force where he currently serves in Space Systems Command. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group. 

Title:  An Assessment of U.S. Military Thinking on Cislunar Space Based on Current Doctrine 

Date Originally Written:  December 4, 2022.

Date Originally Published:  December 12, 2022. 

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The author believes that doctrine shapes the mindsets and the eventual culture of military organizations. Current U.S. military space doctrine is insufficient to create the mindsets and culture to face the emerging challenges of cislunar operations. 

Summary:  The U.S. military mindset for space myopically focues on orbital regimes, similar to a green water navy staying in littoral waters.  If this mindset continues, the U.S. military cannot compete in cislunar space (the area of space between the earth and the moon or the moon’s orbit) in the same way in which a blue water navy competes in the open ocean.  The maritime theory of Sir Julian Corbett is useful as a lens to understand the current mindset constraints and shortfalls. 

Text:  The race for cislunar space is underway. The recent the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Artemis mission heralding an impending return of manned space flight beyond orbital regimes is an inspiring early leg. At least six nations are currently pursing efforts beyond geocentrism and its orbital regimes, pursuing moon missions and other activities at positions in space where objects sent there tend to stay put, known as LaGrange Points[1]. The ability to operate reliably in cislunar space is not just a matter of national pride, it is a demonstration of and mechanism by which to grow multiple aspects of national power. There are clear reasons for this: cislunar space offers a new frontier for economic development and if mankind permanently lives beyond the Earth, it will be in cislunar space. 

Elements of the U.S. government are fully ready enter into this race. The recent National Cislunar Science and Technology Strategy is a bold call for action. This document recognizes the importance of scientific and commercial development of cislunar space and the importance this will play for the future of U.S. national power[2]. It is with some, but not much, hyperbole that this strategy seems like a homage to Sir Julian Corbett, perhaps not the most well known, but in the author’s opinion the most thoughtful theorist on naval and maritime power. 

For the purposes of this article, there are a handful of applicable insights from Corbett’s seminal work, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy that are useful to assess the importance of the U.S. military being involved in cislunar space. Corbett proposes that a naval force alone rarely wins a war. Rather than the decisive fleet action of Alfred Thayer Mahan, Corbett sees a larger maritime picture[3]. It is not just a naval force but the economy through trade, communications, and naval capability of a state altogether traversing that common of the world’s oceans. Preserving and growing this strength requires command of the sea, and that is what Corbett suggests non-continental, maritime states leverage to be successful in conflict rather than simply relying on a powerful fleet. Command of the sea is not a constant condition. It is fleeting, pursued at positively at times, denied to adversaries at times, wholly up for grabs between adversaries at other times. But you do have to be there to compete. This brings us to the another insight, about the necessity of a fleet. 

Corbett also believes it is necessary to have a fleet in being to establish command of the sea. This is a different definition than the modern parlance which describes ships in a defended port. Here it is more about the fleet existing and operating somewhere, creating the potential for command of the sea by, at a minimum, denying an adversary the ability to feel they have a fully secured command of the sea[4]. The only type of force that can provide this is, using modern terms, a “blue water navy,” a force that can operate across the isolation of the wide, open oceans. In the space domain cislunar is the wide, open ocean. 

The problem is that the doctrinal space heuristic in the U.S. military doesn’t account for this Corbettian concept of command of the sea. There is a mismatch between the orbital regime heuristic and cislunar space as an area of competition. Whether one is looking at the unclassified summary of the Defense Space Strategy[5], Joint Publication 3-14 Space Operations[6], or the U.S. Space Force’s (USSF) Spacepower[7], the geocentric/orbital regime is the dominant, truthfully sole, heuristic. This single view results in mindsets and concepts that create a “green water navy” — a force that only operates within its littoral and neighboring waters, i.e. the orbital regimes near Earth, not a blue water navy that can establish and challenge command of the sea in cislunar space. 

Don’t misunderstand: it is absolutely critical that the USSF operate and dominate in the littoral waters of the orbital regimes. As the USSF Chief of Space Operations has publicly stated, all the other military services require space to fulfill their missions[8]. It is not an exaggeration that space is the glue binding how the U.S. joint force prefers to fight its wars. USSF must then operate effectively in the orbital regimes, enabling the rest of the military. This orbital regime mindset too aligns beautifully with Corbett, but Corbett pointed out that this is not sufficient[9]. Yes, different forms of equipment are needed between a green water and blue water force, but placing equipment differences aside, a blue water force can accomplish the functions of a green water force. The inverse doesn’t hold. Each breeds different mindsets, doctrines, and thus heuristics. A blue water force must cultivate and rely on a mission command, an independent mindset, that is not a requirement for a littoral focused force. 

The doctrinal documents mentioned don’t preclude cislunar operations. Spacepower mentions cislunar three times. But it does so in relation to orbital regimes, not a distinct area for operational and conceptual development. The argument that cislunar space isn’t precluded in the doctrine is weak, because cislunar presents a wholly different challenge, thus demanding new thinking patterns. The previous mental construct simply is an ill fit. Heuristics provide easy button when encountering roughly similar problems, but that’s also their danger. Not realizing the problems aren’t similar means a failed fit and tends to crowd out new ideas. This is where U.S. military space doctrine currently finds itself, potentially applying a way of thinking with which they are comfortable to a new problem that doesn’t suit that solution. 

Navies have and can evolved from green to blue water. But that takes time, lots of time. Other players in the U.S. government, other nations, and some commercial actors are not taking that time. There are bold efforts to create new heuristics for this space. The question becomes if the U.S. military feels it should slowly evolve or have a revolutionary leap, challenging its newest military service with jumping rather than crawling from green water force tethered to Earth through orbital regimes or a blue water force independently operating in cislunar space.  If it is the latter, these efforts will be stymied due to current heuristics and doctrine with limited cislunar vision.


[1] Duffy, L., & Lake, J., (2021). Cislunar Spacepower the New Frontier.Space Force Journal. Retrieved December 4, 2022, from

[2] Cislunar Technology Strategy Interagency Working Group (2022). National Cislunar Science and Technology Strategy. National Science and Technology Council. 

[3] Corbett, J. S. (2004). Some Principles of Maritime Strategy. Courier Corporation.

[4] Ibid. 

[5] Esper, M. (2020). Defense Space Strategy Summary. Office of the Secretary of Defense.

[6] Joint Staff (2020). Joint Publication 3-14 Space Operations. Joint Chiefs of Staff. 

[7] Raymond, J. (2020). Spacepower: Doctrine for Space Forces. US Space Force. 

[8] Pope, C. (2022, Nov 2).  “Saltzman formally elevated to Space Force’s highest position – Chief of Space Operations.”

[9] Corbett. Principles.

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