Space Force: A Serious Article About A Silly Idea
When President Trump announced his intention to create a new branch of the military called a Space Force, the jokes and criticism came quickly. The Air Force already has a Space Command based out of Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado and are busy launching all sorts of spy satellites and tracking potentially threatening foreign assets in Earth’s orbit. Likewise, an actual military presence in space would run afoul of the Outer Space Treaty, which prohibits weapons in orbit and claims on territory beyond the Karman Line, the official beginning of space, since 1967. Finally, weren’t there more pressing concerns to take care of before drafting space marines? Like making sure Americans have healthcare? Or addressing yawning income inequality that’s changing our society and politics?
Now, setting this criticism aside for a moment, America does need to invest in situational awareness in space and the means to get there quickly and efficiently. China has been extremely active when it comes to mastering space travel and exploration and has hinted at a desire and capability, to take action against orbiting objects it considered dangerous. In fact, in 2007, it shot down a satellite, and in 2008, the United States did the same, claiming that it was destroying an object that was posing a hazard and the shot was not at all a weapons system test. Future tit-for-tat tests of anti-ballistic missile and anti-satellite defenses seem inevitable as both nations reach further outside of Earth while their relationship remains best described as “friendversarial.”
With private industry poised to build habitats on the Moon and Mars, and turn space exploration into a business in the coming decades, we’ll also face some very complicated legal issues posed by preemptively marking territorial claims outside of Earth off limits. Their outposts will essentially exist in a legal No Man’s Land and subject to inspections from other nations, which would be an open invitation to corporate and economic espionage. We may need to revisit the Outer Space Treaty, written to stave off an apocalyptic war between nuclear space-faring powers at a time when space travel was still heavily cloaked in scientific and aspirational utopianism, and allow territorial claims on alien worlds with certain provisions to ensure and enforce both non-proliferation and sovereignty.
It’s at this juncture when simply launching and monitoring assets in space under the command of the Air Force will be insufficient and a new generation of soldiers, very likely working alongside machines, would have to be trained to conduct warfare in alien environments, literally. But until we find ourselves having to figure out how to protect a city on another world from foreign powers interested in space domination instead of exploration, a space force would be little more than a bureaucratic exercise recasting current priorities and programs as their own branch of the military. Although to be fair, it could yield additional investment into existing Air Force efforts just by virtue of being its own entity on paper, which may be why Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis supports the idea.
He may see value in advancing and acting on the conversation starting to float around the issues posed by the effects of the Outer Space Treaty on modern space travel, how to best deal with future violators, and prepare for a future in which we might just have to send our armed forces to protect our assets on Mars or an asteroid. It could also spur efforts to create jobs for engineers, scientists, and researchers who would work on creating new tools for safe, fast, efficient, and user-friendly space travel, with all the economic benefits that would entail. Imagine something in the same spirit as the Apollo program but with guns, kinetic kill vehicles, and lasers instead of cameras and sample collection tools.
But any resulting positives can only come about if we take the idea of a space force seriously and implement it with an eye on the future, and without ignoring current pressing problems back on Earth. Otherwise, instead of a small step in preparing for a potential new future for humanity, it will become a political stunt that sounds grandiose, but really just reshuffles some officers and creates more paperwork with new seals, and new patches to put on uniforms. We won’t be able to build all the technology required or recruit enough people with the skills to use it if we completely neglect the economic and social state of the country.
We will need a space force at some point, but we can’t simply rush into it just because it made for an attention-grabbing sound byte from a speech. And considering that President Trump is already using the idea for fundraising and a logo design contest before any official plans have been unveiled, and before Congress approves the creation of a new branch of the military as the only governmental body with the authority to do so, it’s not a stretch to imagine that the Space Force we’re talking about now will end up as little more than a political stunt that “sounds cool” to his supporters instead of an actual step towards planning for our space-faring future as a country and as a species.