Lots of media types are mocking President Trump’s announcement directing the Pentagon “to immediately begin the process necessary to establish a Space Force as the sixth branch of the Armed Forces.” Several outlets have reached for the easy laugh, panning it as a “Space Farce.” One dismisses it as “ridiculous.” Another recent news segment featured reporters openly laughing at the idea. The reactions of these media outlets expose their own ignorance about the subject.
To be sure, President Trump provides plenty of fodder for late-night comedians. But just because Trump is wrong on some things doesn’t mean he is wrong on everything. What the giggling pundits don’t know is that a military branch dedicated to defending America’s increasingly vulnerable interests and assets in space is not a new idea. Trump’s decision is the natural next step in a long line of moves toward a military branch focused on space.
In the 1990s, the Clinton administration adopted a space policy directing the Pentagon to “develop, operate and maintain space-control capabilities to ensure freedom of action in space and, if directed, to deny such freedom of action to adversaries.”
In 2001, a congressional commission composed of leading defense experts contemplated the establishment of “a Space Corps within the Air Force” to conduct “independent operations” in space and “to deter and defend against hostile actions directed at the interests of the United States.” The commission added that it may be necessary to create “a military department for space”—or Space Force.
In 2016, John Hamre, deputy secretary of Defense under President Bill Clinton, concluded that “we are not well organized to deal with the new challenges we face in space. The old structure may have been sufficient when space was an uncontested area of operations. That time has passed.” He mentioned as possibilities creating a full-fledged US Space Force, carving out a “Space Service” within the Air Force or “elevating the Space Command to become equal in stature to the Strategic Command.”
The last two years have seen efforts in Congress to prod the Pentagon to begin the process of standing up a Space Corps under the Air Force (modeled after the Navy-Marine Corps relationship) or a full-fledged Space Force (modeled after the Army-Air Force separation after World War II). Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL) and Rep. Jim Cooper (D-TN), who lead a key subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, pushed for a provision in the FY2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that required “the creation, under the secretary of the Air Force, of a new Space Corps, as a separate military service responsible for national security space programs.” That proposal failed to make it into the NDAA, but the final measure did order the Pentagon to study the feasibility of a Space Corps.
“Space must be a priority, and it can’t be one if you jump out of bed in the morning thinking about fighters and bombers first,” Rogers argues, referring to the Air Force. He believes “space needs to be put on par with the other domains… It cannot remain a subservient mission.”
The Air Force has a strong preference to remain the lead branch in space operations, and Defense Secretary James Mattis has described a space branch as “premature.” That turf battle and how to handle Trump’s executive order will have to be settled by Congress—the sooner the better.
It would be wrong to conclude that elected officials are steering America toward a military branch dedicated to space. To the contrary, they are following US interests into space. At its core, the US military’s job is to protect American interests; today, those interests increasingly extend into space.
A recent Space Foundation report reveals a global space economy of more than $323 billion—up from $261.6 billion in 2009. More than 221,500 Americans work in the space sector. Non-governmental US space spending tops $32 billion annually. Of the 1,300 functioning satellites orbiting earth, 568 are American.
Missile-defense warships prowling the Pacific; ground troops patrolling Afghanistan; unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) circling over Yemen and Somalia; joint direct attack munitions (JDAMs) strapped to fighter-bombers loitering over Syria; sensors monitoring Russian, Chinese, and North Korean nukes; the communications systems that connect troops, weapons, bases, allies, and the National Command Authority; and the infrastructure of the entire military all depends on space assets. A typical Army armored brigade, for instance, “contains over 2,000 pieces of equipment that rely on space assets to function,” the Lexington Institute’s Loren Thompson notes.
We are approaching a day when space will become more than just a means to support military operations. It will become a theater of military operations. But don’t take my word for it. “In the coming period,” as the space commission concluded, “the US will conduct operations to, from, in and through space.”
A military branch focused on space operations will do more than simply serve the national interest; it will extend America’s capacity to promote stability in yet another part of the global commons.
The importance of bringing “rules of the road” and enforcing norms of behavior in space—as the US Navy does at sea—cannot be overstated. The natural order of the world—and of the space surrounding our world—is not orderly. At the international level, there are no police to enforce the rules, settle disputes, or keep the peace. Those tasks fall to responsible powers like the United States. As Providence’s declaration on faith and foreign policy argues, “most of the daily craft of foreign and defense policy involves the regular management and implementation of policies to preserve order.” America and its allies, owing to their resources and reach, have “special stewardship responsibilities…to encourage, grow and defend the institutions and culture of ordered liberty among the community of responsible sovereign nations.” These liberal powers are called, as the statement explains, to cultivate “the garden of world order” by “tending to the tasks that uphold public safety, execute justice and promote human flourishing.” That responsibility is not limited to the domains of land, sea, and sky; it extends into cyberspace, space, and wherever man’s broken nature affects his fellow man.
Hostile regimes are already conducting activities in space that threaten the national interest and international order.
China has tested anti-satellite weapons (ASATs): a 2007 test rammed a kill vehicle into an aging Chinese satellite, increasing the amount of debris in orbit by 10 percent; a 2014 test demonstrated the same capability without creating a debris minefield; a 2013 test sent an ASAT into what’s described as “ultra-high altitude…three-times higher than the weapon tested in 2007 and 2014.” According to a 2016 Pentagon report, the People’s Liberation Army’s “writings emphasize the necessity of ‘destroying, damaging and interfering with the enemy’s reconnaissance…and communications satellites,’ suggesting that such systems, as well as navigation and early warning satellites, could be among the targets of attacks designed to ‘blind and deafen the enemy.’”
Russia tested new ASATs in 2015. In 2013 and 2014, the Russian military deployed a number of satellites capable of “rendezvous and proximity operations”—military parlance for maneuvering around other satellites in order to disrupt or disable them. And Moscow announced in 2015 that Russia’s air force, air defenses, and space assets would be grouped under a unified command known as the Aero-Space Forces.
In short, Russia and China are posturing their militaries to defend their interests—and exploit their capabilities—in space. The US should do no less. As George Washington counseled, “there is nothing so likely to produce peace as to be well prepared to meet an enemy.” That time-tested truth applies whether the enemy lurks on land, at sea, in the sky, or in space.
Photo Credit: The US Air Force’s 45th Space Wing supported SpaceX’s successful launch of the KoreaSat-5A satellite aboard a Falcon 9 rocket on October 30, 2017, from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on the Air Force Eastern Range, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL. Courtesy photo for US Air Force, via SpaceX.