The term “space force” has an exciting ring to it, conjuring images of Starfleet officers in sleek jumpsuits pointing shiny guns at aliens. Yet when US President Donald Trump said Monday that he was directing the Pentagon to create a space force—a sixth branch of the US military, with the same status as the Air Force, Army, and Navy—reaction from US military leaders was muted. US Air Force leadership responded to Trump’s announcement with a measured letter the next day, saying, basically, that it would study the problem, as Ars Technica reports. The letter notes, “we should not expect any immediate moves or changes.”
This absence of enthusiasm should not come as a surprise. In a 2017 letter to Congress, Defense Secretary James Mattis was pretty clear on his feelings about a proposed space corps: “I oppose the creation of a new military service and additional organizational layers at a time when we are focused on reducing overhead and integrating joint warfighting efforts.”
As Mattis’ words imply, for all the shock and awe Trump likes to bring to his press conferences, his announcement was really about a non-urgent matter of bureaucratic organization. The US military, after all, is already present beyond Earth’s atmosphere, operating satellites, flying space planes, and doing various secret things. Trump has injected new vigor into a debate that interests military planners but hasn’t exactly captivated the general public: Who should run space operations—the Air Force, a new entity, or some combination of existing armed forces? Does Congress have to authorize a new armed service? And in what year’s defense appropriations bill will we see a US Space Force line item? There’s a reason not many Battlestar Galactica episodes were devoted to military budgets.
While top brass try to figure out the logistics—or how they can study the problem until the current president goes away—ordinary citizens are more curious about what a space force would actually do. Not fight aliens, it turns out. Todd Harrison, director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Defense One that a space force could groom a cadre of professionals “to think space, space power, strategy, doctrine, and to develop more innovative operational concepts.” Like Starfleet Academy graduates perhaps, but more focused on the petty squabbles of Earth than exploring strange new worlds.
In many sci-fi scenarios, humans have buried their differences with one another and even joined forces with the inhabitants of other planets to fight a shared enemy. Star Trek’s Starfleet represented the United Federation of Planets, while the pilots in Star Wars fought for the Rebel Alliance. In reality, though, humans are militarizing outer space not in unity or alliance with fellow humans, but so that we can continue to kill each other from up there. As Harrison says, “the weaponization of space is being led by other countries.” China and Russia both have entities devoted to space warfare, and how the United States decides to organize its operations may not have much impact on whether we fight space wars or not.
Want to dive deeper? The Bulletin has explored issues related to weapons in space in a number of stories over the last few years:
China’s strategic arsenals in a new era (2018)
The cyber threat in outer space (2016)
The logic for space arms control (2015)
Space weapons and the risk of nuclear exchanges (2015)
Should nuclear devices be used to stop asteroids? (2015)
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