With a stroke of a pen, Donald Trump created an entirely new branch of the armed forces last year. It’s the first new branch of the U.S. military since 1947.
The Space Force is not exactly a new idea. It’s a revival of a Reagan-era initiative that had been set up to oversee missile defense, which the George W. Bush administration repurposed after 9/11 to focus on the war in Afghanistan.
Yet what Trump has put together is fundamentally different, and potentially more destabilizing, than the previous incarnation.
Unlike virtually everything else that Trump has touched, this boondoggle has generated almost no controversy. Congress approved Trump’s initiative, which was folded into the annual National Defense Authorization Act, by an overwhelming bipartisan vote at the end of 2019. Not only have very few voices of protest been raised against this extraordinary expansion of U.S. militarism, it has even generated some unexpected praise.
In The Washington Post, for instance, David Montgomery wrote a long encomium in the magazine section in early December entitled “Trump’s Excellent Space Force Adventure.”
Creating a Space Force is arguably an excellent idea, one for which Trump may deservedly go down in history, along with all the other things he will be remembered for. No, really. I’m tempted to laugh at myself as I type these sentences because I, too, greeted news of the Space Force with incredulous guffaws… What I missed at the time, though—and what everyone else mocking Space Force doesn’t seem to appreciate—is the sheer range of problems that could ensue if other countries are able to establish extraterrestrial military supremacy.
This would be an easy-to-dismiss article if David Montgomery were one of the right-wing crazies, like columnist Marc Thiessen, that the Post publishes on a regular basis. But no, Montgomery is a very good journalist who has dutifully covered labor issues and progressive activism even as the rest of the media universe has run screaming in the other direction.
That makes it incumbent to take his article and this topic very seriously. What exactly is this Space Force? And why has Trump’s latest contribution to ensuring America’s “full-spectrum dominance” been such an easy sell?
The next big fight
The new Space Force nearly didn’t get off the ground.
Former Pentagon chief Jim Mattis was so cool to the idea that in July 2017 he wrote a letter to Congress declaring his opposition on the grounds that it would, among other things, create unnecessary military bureaucracy. But the proposal had bipartisan support in Congress—Mike Rogers (R-AL) and Jim Cooper (D-TN) of the House Armed Services Committee—and an enthusiastic booster in Donald Trump as well. So, it rocketed through Congress when so any other initiatives have stalled.
The Space Force will be cobbled together from various existing agencies. Its 400 staff are based temporarily at an air force base. Its second in command comes out of the Army’s Space and Missile Defense Command. It will oversee more than 70 Army, Navy, and Air Force space units. It will soon employ 16,000 people, but all of them previously worked for the Air Force Space Command.
Its budget will be around $40 million. That’s not a lot of money in Pentagon terms, given that the most recent budget provided the Air Force with $3 billion for the B-21 bomber alone and the Navy with a whopping $34 billion for shipbuilding. But expect significant increases in future allocations. After all, the military budget contains around $14 billion for space operations distributed across the various services. When it comes to the Space Force, not even the sky’s the limit.
Like any proper government agency, the Space Force’s first priority is planning, according to its new head, Gen. Jay Raymond: “His command is building integrated planning elements to embed with other commands. Lead staffers have already been hired and the command is preparing to establish the first teams at U.S. European Command, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, and U.S. Strategic Command.”
That also entails coordination with allies. The Space Force is already liaising like crazy with European and Asian partners.
That all sounds benign: planning, liaising. But let’s not forget the purpose of this new branch of the military. It has taken over responsibility from the Strategic Command—in charge of the U.S. nuclear arsenal—for any war-fighting that takes place in space.
As Pentagon head Mark Esper has said, the Space Force will “allow us to develop a cadre of warriors who are appropriately organized, trained, and equipped to deter aggression and, if necessary, to fight and win in space…The next big fight may very well start in space, and the United States military must be ready.”
When it comes to nuclear weapons and drones and cyberwarfare, it’s too late for the United States to turn an initial technological advantage into a global moratorium on production. Since it quite deliberately missed such opportunities for multilateral disarmament, Washington now feels obliged to spend scads of dollars to ensure that it maintains a significant lead over its various adversaries, ostensibly to deter the bad guys from using their weapons.
The same applies to space. “The ultimate goal is to deter a war in space,” David Montgomery writes. “In the Pentagon’s view, space must be considered a warfighting domain precisely to keep it peaceful.”
Well, that’s what the Pentagon always says. It’s why it calls itself a “Defense Department” to obscure what it really is: a bureau devoted to wage war, not simply deter it. As for space, the Pentagon sees a virtually limitless terrain for expansion.
According to the “deterrence” model, however, such expansion requires a clear and present danger. One major vulnerability the Pentagon has identified in space is the U.S. complex of commercial and military satellites.
The fear that other countries would take down U.S. assets in orbit around the earth has been around for some time. During the Carter administration, the United States and Soviet Union began negotiating a ban on anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons. The Reagan administration abandoned those talks, largely because it feared they would restrict the president’s cherished “Star Wars” plan of constructing a massive missile defense system.
Both sides then began building ASATs, and others joined the race. To date, no country has actually used this technology to take down the satellite of another country. Rather, they’ve only used it to take down their own satellites—as a test of capabilities. Four countries have done just that: the United States, Russia, India, and China.
However, it’s actually not so easy to take out a satellite. GPS and communications satellites orbit at altitudes above what an ICBM can reach. A space rocket could do the trick, but that would cost a lot of money and still require multiple hits to disrupt communications.
“Killer satellites,” orbiting weapons that can take out neighboring satellites, are another option. The United States has accused Russia of deploying four such potential weapons. Russia has responded that these small satellites serve an entirely different purpose: to repair other satellites that have suffered malfunctions. In truth, it’s hard to discern from the outside the ultimate purpose of such repair vehicles: remedy a friendly satellite or ram an unfriendly one. Such are the inherent dangers of dual-use systems.
Then there’s the threat of hypersonic vehicles that can deploy satellites, killer or otherwise, as well as potentially conduct operations in space. China is working on a hypersonic glider, as is Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin made a big splash at the end of 2019 when he announced a new Russian missile that can fly 27 times the speed of sound. Such systems make any missile defense systems, which already face major challenges in taking out conventional missiles, absolutely (as opposed to mostly) useless.
The United States has tested its own hypersonic missile. Lockheed Martin is developing a new hypersonic SR-72, which would be a combination drone and stealth bomber. DARPA has teamed up with Boeing to get a hypersonic plane into operation, which would fall somewhere between a traditional airplane and a rocket. The Pentagon has also developed its X-37b military space plane, which it insists is not designed for military purposes but only to test out new satellite technologies (a frankly dubious contention).
War over the worlds
A third realm of space conflict—in addition to weapons that enter space on their way toward terrestrial targets and weapons that aim at each other in space—is over the territory and resources of nearby moons and planets.
That might seem far-fetched, since no country seems close to setting up anything like a base on the moon or on Mars. But militaries are voracious in their ambitions. And they’ll always have their visionary—read: kooky—boosters like Newt Gingrich, who wants to team up with Trump on his colonizing space idea, “occupying the moon, developing the moon, and continuing to Mars.”
Just as powerful nations are scrambling to claim territory in the Arctic that has become accessible due to climate change, these space cadets are looking to stake claims to an even larger set of commons that lie beyond this planet.
Just listen to Maj. Gen. John Shaw, the leader of Space Force’s Space Operations Command: “I’ve been telling the team, ‘Don’t think about a warfighting service for the next decade. Create a warfighting service or the 22nd century. What is warfighting going to look like at the end of this century and into the next?’”
In other words, let’s ask Congress for a blank check to spend on any crazy idea we might have about the future of war.
In an Air Force report published in September, military personnel and academics considered various space scenarios for 2060. The “positive” scenarios—titled Star Trek, Garden Earth, and Elysium—all assume that the “U.S. coalition retains leadership over the space domain and has introduced free-world laws and processes that have led to significant global civil, commercial, and military expansion in space and resulted in large revenue streams.”
Sounds like extraterrestrial colonialism to me, though for the time being without the indigenous populations to exterminate first. Not surprisingly, in these scenarios the United States maintains its leadership through overwhelming military power deployed in the stratosphere and beyond.
The “negative” scenarios—titled Zhang He (sic), Xi’s Dream, and Wild Frontier—assume either an “alternate nation” leads in space or no clear winner emerges from a vigorous national competition.
It’s no mystery what this “alternative nation” is.
Zheng He was a great explorer of the fifteenth century who might have established China as the preeminent colonial power in the world if the emperor at the time hadn’t decided to focus on affairs closer to home. Xi is, of course, Chinese leader Xi Jinping and his dream of a prosperous and powerful China.
The report makes no mention of arms control, international negotiations to preserve the commons of space, or even the dangers of a military space race. Instead, these blue-sky thinkers could only imagine a battle between the United States and the up-and-coming hegemon over all the marbles.
And that’s where they intersect with Trump as well. At a meeting of the National Space Council in 2018, he said:
I want to also say that when it comes to space, too often, for too many years, our dreams of exploration and discovery were really squandered by politics and bureaucracy, and we knocked that out. So important for our psyche, what you’re doing. It’s going to be important monetarily and militarily. But so important for right up here—the psyche. We don’t want China and Russia and other countries leading us. We’ve always led.
And so the United States has. We’ve always led the way in devising destructive technologies and, for a good many decades, using them to wage war across the planet.
The first attempts to extend arms control to space came in the 1960s. The Limited Test Ban Treaty banned nuclear tests in space. The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 banned weapons of mass destruction from space, but all attempts to ban conventional weapons have failed. China and Russia have proposed something along those lines. The biggest naysayer? The United States, which argues that the treaty only forbids technologies that China and Russia currently don’t possess.
Perhaps—but that doesn’t prevent the United States from starting negotiations on various mechanisms to demilitarize space. Restarting negotiations to ban anti-satellite weapons would be a good start, but that might be too ambitious for the current moment.
So, cooperation among the principal space powers could begin with a suitable confidence-building mechanism, like a joint initiative for dealing with space junk.
The Europeans are out there trying to harmonize the various national initiatives for dealing with all the debris circling the earth. There are 14,000 pieces of garbage larger than 4 inches across (pieces of satellites, rocket stages), and even smaller items can do irreparable damage to a spacecraft. The United States could take a proactive approach to the commons by working with others to clean up space—and not just catalog the problem as it is doing now.
Alas, cleaning up trash is also probably a stretch for the Trump administration, given how blind it is to environmental problems, even if that trash is a national security hazard.
But what the United States is doing now with the new Space Force is the worst kind of response to the problem of the increased militarization of space. It is creating an imaginary “space gap” that the United States has to pour money into closing, just like the various missile and bomber gaps of the late twentieth century. It will increase the risk of conflict in space, not reduce it.
The Space Force is a huge white elephant, worse than the Reagan-era missile defense system dubbed Star Wars. In fact, it’s Star Wars without end, sequel after sequel hitting military theaters near you. Even in the unlikely event that all is quiet on the terrestrial front, the new Space Force and its promise to keep the universe safe from bad guys will serve to justify astronomical Pentagon budgets for decades to come.