Space Force. There are few phrases almost guaranteed to elicit a positive, almost gleeful childlike response from me. When it briefly flashed up on my news feed that President Trump was forming an entirely new branch of the U.S. military, called the “Space Force” I nearly fell off my replica captain’s chair. It conjures up images of Buck Rogers. Starship Troopers. Space Marines. Orbital Drop Shock Droppers. Space Command. Dropships. Starfleet. Master Chief. Pulse rifles. All the fond memories of the science fiction that I have grown up with and love are encapsulated in those two simple words.
Despite not being a U.S. citizen, I almost donned my spandex, one-piece uniform, set my phaser to “Kill” and nearly went to the nearest U.S. armed forces recruitment office, demanding to be a space shuttle door gunner, which would have proved difficult as it was across the Atlantic and I had work the next morning.
In his plain language, President Trump has said that:
“I’m hereby directing the Department of Defense and Pentagon to immediately begin the process necessary to establish a space force as the sixth branch of the armed forces”
He is also known as an enthusiastic supporter of US space exploration, stating that:
“This time, we will do more than plant our flag and leave our footprints. We will establish a long-term presence, expand our economy, and build the foundation for the eventual mission to Mars.”
However, starting a sixth branch of the US armed forces is a bit more complicated than President Trump believes. First, he has to get congressional approval. Not insurmountable in itself. However, there will be inevitable issues with budgets and there will be a significant financial outlay in setting up a new branch of the U.S. military.
An inter-service rivalry will almost definitely play a part, in particular with the Air Force, which already operates a number of space programs, including the X-37, a scaled down, automated space shuttle, capable of long-term flight in low-earth orbit, jointly operated by the U.S. Air Force, NASA and Boeing. Indeed, the U.S. Air Force already has a “Director of Space Forces” and according to Air Force Basic Doctrine, Organization, and Command published in 2011, “Space presents another form of military operations”, so quite how willing they will be to cede to a “junior” potentially upstart service remains to be seen. The Air Force already operates an entire command to space operations as well, essentially duplicating the potential work of the nascent Space Force.
The U.S. Navy may also try and hamper the formation of the Space Force, although not quite to the same extent. They also operate the Naval Network Warfare Command which also has a space division within its structure. Again, how much leeway would they be willing to give to a newly formed service?
What will happen to the personnel from the other armed forces? Trump’s statement that the new force would be ‘separate but equal to the Air Force’ implies the setting up of an entirely new force without the need for secondment from existing U.S. armed services.
A brief glance through history also reveals that the U.S. has been in this situation before. Historically, a parallel could be drawn with the formation of an independent U.S. Air Force in 1947. Until that point, the Air Force was under the command and organisation of the U.S. Army despite operating as a largely independent force throughout World War Two. However, it was the U.S. Navy that was opposed to the formation of an independent Air Force as it effectively undermined their role as the “first line of defence”. The Naval chiefs also feared that the formation of an independent Air Force would strip them of their naval aviation assets in a similar fashion to 1918 when Britain’s Royal Navy Air Service was amalgamated with the Royal Air Force.
Adm. Ernest J. King, Chief of Naval Operations was so concerned for his own service that he stated:
“If the Navy’s welfare is one of the prerequisites to the nation’s welfare-and I sincerely believe that to be the case any step that is not good for the Navy is not good for the nation.”
Either way, there will be significant issues and President Trump doesn’t appear to have the diplomacy skills of former President Barack Obama (Although his opponents have underestimated him in North Korea). This may hamper progress as a lot of bruised military egos may need to be soothed. High-ranking Air Force generals and Navy Admirals will need to be courted and wooed before the Space Force even gets off the ground.
Trump also certainly isn’t the first President to explicitly state such lofty space exploration goals or advocate for the militarisation of space. Since the time of President Eisenhower, U.S. civilian and military space exploration has been one and the same thing in many regards, with significant overlap between civilian and military organisations. President Trump may have moved far from his predecessor, President Kennedy who stated that: “We go into space because whatever mankind must undertake, free men must fully share”, but not that far from what has been established U.S. policy for decades.
The early U.S. space exploration programs were built off the backs of military rocket technology derived from the German V2 “Vergeltungswaffen” (retaliatory weapons). The Atlas rockets that launched the first Americans into space were modified Intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). The first American in space, Alan Shepherd, was a former U.S. Navy pilot. The crew of Apollo 11 were all military pilots as well. NASA only ever sent one civilian to the moon; Harrison Schmitt on Apollo 17, the last of the Apollo missions. Frankly, this is reasonable enough given the physical strains and mental exhaustion that even a short stint in space in a confined environment could bring. Only a select few would have the “right stuff” for such hazardous and taxing journeys and such a group would be readily found in the military.
But again, the militarisation of space as another war-fighting domain is not new, Trump might have just made it more explicit now, but the U.S. and other nations have been tentatively experimenting with potential space warfare for decades. President Reagan’s Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI), where Soviet ICBM’s would be obliterated by a series of space-based anti-missile defences never came to fruition, but it demonstrated the seriousness with which the U.S. has devoted to the militarisation of space. Even before this, in the late 1950’s the U.S. military considered using orbital bombardment satellites and the Soviet Union soon followed its superpower rival with its own plans for space-based weapons.
The Soviet Union also allegedly experimented with firing a cannon (Unfortunately, it was rumoured to be a normal ballistic cannon, not a laser one) from one of its Salyut space stations in the mid-1970s. China has the capability to destroy satellites in orbit from as it proved in 2007 when it destroyed one of its own defunct weather satellites. The targeting technology will have undoubtedly moved on since then.
The U.S. think tank RAND (Research ANd Development) has researched the use of orbital bombardment weapons and their findings were later adopted by the US military into a doctrine of “Space force application.”
It also doesn’t take a honed military strategist to envision some sort of “area denial” weapon releasing tonnes of space debris into orbit, destroying any satellite that is in the trajectory of the debris field, crippling our communications, both civilian and military. Such a “doomsday” scenario could see our modern globalised world brought to its knees. This could be done relatively cheaply by even a regional superpower, so the defence of space can be considered through the lens of other more traditional geopolitical considerations.
Instead, President Trump is essentially viewing space as another area for the American hegemon to exert its influence as it has done over the land, sea and air at least since World War Two. As he said himself it’s a “warfighting domain” and this has been the case for some time. The U.S. has also always been reluctant to sign up to any international treaty that constrains its behaviour as President George W Bush demonstrated:
“The United States will oppose the development of new legal regimes or other restrictions that seek to prohibit or limit U.S. access to or use of space.”
The formation of a Space Force could also become yet another point of contention with Europe who can unfortunately still barely field a force, let alone a space one. But, ultimately, such a Space Force can only really be aimed at China, the only nation that could counter U.S. technological and space dominance in the medium to long-term. No other nation has the planned capability or resources to be a threat to the U.S. in space. Again, this fits into the overall direction of U.S. foreign policy which has been slowly pivoting away from Europe and the Middle East towards Asia and particularly China over the last decade.
Politically, the use of space in this regards with talk of a manned mission to Mars, returns to the Moon and Space Forces are always about thirty years away from each administration. Considering a U.S. president can only stand for two, four-year terms, planning for something thirty years in the future garners some publicity, provides a rough intent, but nothing more substantial, allowing timelines to gradually slip, year after year.
Whether the Space Force will truly operate as an independent branch remains to be seen. Whether it will merely be a change of uniform and insignia for existing personalised is unknown at the moment. Partly it may be America flexing its “hyper-power” muscles projecting the “New American Century” into the current millennium and into the final frontier. We’ve been here before.
Either way, “Service guarantees citizenship.”