In remarks last week announcing his vision for American missile defense, President Trump said “we will recognize that space is a new warfighting domain, with the Space Force leading the way.” Any strategic decision should be evaluated both by the ends it seeks to accomplish, and by the means by which it intends to accomplish them. The president’s proposed Space Force fails on both counts.
If the mission is to maintain US dominance in space, a Space Force is overkill. And by purposefully reframing space as a warfighting domain, the United States will almost certainly damage the existing, fragile peace in orbit.
Support for Trump’s idea. Last March, Trump first floated the idea of a Space Force, a new branch of the military focused on defending American assets in space. At first the comment seemed to just be another one of the president’s signature asides, but subsequent announcements made it clear that he takes the idea seriously. In the months since, some leaders in the science and military communities have warmed to the idea. Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson came out in support of the Space Force, as did former astronaut Terry Virts. Even astrophysicist, science communicator, and regular Trump critic Neil deGrasse Tyson cautiously endorsed the idea.
The growing support may be the result of an increasingly clear articulation of what the Space Force is supposed to accomplish. Trump’s speeches on the matter repeatedly stressed the need for American dominance in space. In August, the Department of Defense released a report explaining how it intends to create the Space Force. The report acknowledged that Congress would have to approve the official creation of a new military branch, but explained that its component parts—including a Space Development Agency responsible for developing and fielding space capabilities, and a Space Command to develop warfighting operations—were already in the works. The report also made clear that the main objective for the Space Force is to protect the United States’ vital interests in space. As expected, the plan places a premium on military dominance.
Unanswered questions. There are some questions that remain to be answered about the Space Force. First, do the benefits outweigh the costs? A unified Space Force may be better able than the current military structure to take military actions in space, but cost estimates for the new force range from less than $2.7 billion to more than $13 billion over a five-year period. There is also the question of what form the Space Force will take. It has been reported that the force will actually be part of the Air Force (akin to the Marine Corps falling under the Navy), but details like the exact structure of the organization and its mission are still secret. The answers to these questions will determine how receptive the Democrat-dominated House of Representatives will be to the final proposal.
Even if Trump’s team can push the idea through Congress, the political struggles will continue. As with all military organizations, clashes with the other branches or commands over resources are nearly inevitable. Additionally, after Trump’s presidency ends, the institution will have to justify its existence to his successor. If the decision is made to eliminate the Space Force, the bureaucratic nightmare still would not end, because institutions of this type tend to be very difficult to eliminate (the Army learned this the hard way when it attempted to eliminate the Marine Corps). To preserve itself, the Space Force might lobby for the ability to deploy increasingly complex and expensive space weapons, in much the same way that DARPA scientists saved Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory from closing by proposing a weapon that could destroy a continent. Once can easily imagine another F-35esqe debacle or worse being caused by such maneuvering.
The wrong goal. Even if the Space Force proves to be the best means to achieve dominance in space, the goal is still fundamentally flawed. Instead of dominance, the president should be pursuing peace in space. The mistake Trump and the military establishment seem to be making is believing US dominance and peace are synonymous. They certainly are not mutually exclusive, but one does not automatically lead to the other. With the aggressive rhetoric being used, US leadership in space technology is increasingly seen by other countries as a threat and may be actively increasing the likelihood of a space war. Rather than a “warfighting domain,” space must be seen once again as a sanctuary.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower was the first president to grapple with the effect of space technology on international relations and so began championing what is known as the “sanctuary doctrine” of space. Eisenhower put forth the idea that space should be preserved for use by all mankind, with weapons of mass destruction prohibited. The reasoning was purely strategic: Instead of starting another costly arms race, the United States and the Soviet Union could use surveillance satellites to verify nuclear stockpiles without fear of anti-satellite missiles, which would perhaps deescalate the Cold War. Eisenhower and his successors were able to institute the sanctuary norm, culminating in the signing of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty by the overwhelming majority of the United Nations.
High stakes in space. The world has changed considerably since those days. An increasing number of countries now maintain space assets, and private industry is making orbits even more crowded. Space technology is now a crucial part of everyday life in developed countries. This means that the stakes in a space war have never been higher. A destroyed or disabled satellite might not immediately fall out of orbit; it often becomes a projectile that can easily collide with other objects in orbit. If enough debris is generated, an orbit can become unusable for years.
This is not to say that military space assets are not needed. Retaining some anti-satellite weaponry can deter would-be aggressors from employing their own space-based weapons, and anti-satellite weapons can be used in the event that a large piece of debris (for example, a defunct satellite) is about to collide with an important space asset (such as the International Space Station). However, neither the United States nor any other country can afford to be overtly aggressive. The peace in space has lasted through these past decades because nearly everyone involved agreed that it was too fragile and too valuable to disrupt. If only the president would do the same.