Cover: Traversing the Kármán Line

Traversing the Kármán Line

Mitigating Potential Air-Space Friction

Published May 7, 2024

by Sarah Harting, Kotryna Jukneviciute, Michael Spirtas

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Research Summary

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Research Questions

  1. What are the points of friction in USAF-USSF integration, both within and external to the DAF?
  2. How has the establishment of the USSF and USSPACECOM affected space capabilities, space forces, and the execution of space operations?

Space remains a vital national security interest for the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), which has resulted in several DoD reorganizations to effectively manage national security space activities. The 2019 establishment of the U.S. Space Force (USSF) within the Department of the Air Force (DAF) is the most recent example of this. The establishment of a separate armed service for space within the DAF led to a concerted effort by the DAF, the U.S. Air Force (USAF), and USSF senior leaders to ensure an effective relationship between the two services as the organizations evolve. To inform that relationship, USAF leaders sought to understand what potential issues could arise between the USSF and the USAF and how to mitigate those issues. The purpose of this report is to address that topic by describing the insights gained from a set of workshops and interviews with airmen and guardians across the DAF. Additionally, this report builds upon a 2022 study of DAF organizational changes, a tactical analysis of the integration between air and space forces, and a review of governance mechanisms to inform options for managing and mitigating friction.

Key Findings

  • In some areas, USAF-USSF integration is working well. Some workshop participants and interviewees noted the effective integration of Headquarters Air Force's programming efforts, in which USAF-USSF teams are colocated to develop a resource allocation plan for air and space forces. However, there are areas that require continued attention, such as professional military education and training, programming and budgeting, operations, long-term strategic planning, and space decisionmaking and understanding. Even though programming and budgeting was highlighted as an example of effective integration, some workshop participants and interviewees saw areas needing improvement to ensure integration continues over the long term while the services evolve and potentially diverge in some respects.
  • Multiple organizational frictions or challenges exist external to the DAF that complicate air-space integration efforts, such as between the DAF and U.S. combatant commands, defense and intelligence agencies, commercial space providers, and allies. These organizational challenges are associated with information sharing, who executes space operations, the prioritization of joint space requirements, and the integration of commercial and allied space capabilities.
  • The establishment of the USSF, U.S. Space Command (USSPACECOM), and other changes in how DoD organizes for space will continue to affect the development and fielding of space capabilities and forces, the execution of operations, and how services and combatant commands unite service components into a joint force. These major organizational changes are still unfolding and will have implications for the DAF. DAF senior leaders will have to navigate and understand these changes to inform its approach to long-term air-space integration.


  • The Secretary of the Air Force should establish a DAF-level strategic process to identify air-space integration priorities for the DAF.
  • The DAF should establish a DAF-level integration office to ensure DAF air-space integration over the long term.
  • Developing multidomain expertise for airmen and guardians should remain a priority for the USAF and the USSF.
  • The DAF should improve air-space decisionmaking and understanding within the USAF and the USSF.

Research conducted by

This research was prepared for the Department of the Air Force and conducted within the Strategy and Doctrine Program in RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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