A mistaken notion of dominance
In addition to its army, its navy, the Marines, the Coast Guard and the Air Force, the armed forces of the United States will now also have a branch of the military beyond our planet — Space Force. US President Donald Trump announced, on June 18, a sweeping new space policy that will focus both on reducing satellite clutter in space as well as creating a specific “Space Force” as the newest branch of the United States military. While the creation of a Space Force has been debated for several years, the move has been opposed by the military, which has instead begun restructuring the Air Force Space Command to better address threats in space.
In June, US President Donald Trump surprised the world with his orders to establish a sixth branch of US armed forces – a “space force”. “It is not enough to merely have an American presence in space. We must have American dominance in space,” said an ambitious Trump, commenting that he wished to revive the US’ flagging space programme that has been bogged down by rising costs and a lack of political will because he did not want “China and Russia and other countries leading [US].”
While exact details on the Space force are still a bit fuzzy, Vice President Mike Pence laid out an ambitious plan on August 16 that would begin creating a military command dedicated to space and establish a “Space Force” as the sixth branch of the US military as soon as 2020, the first since the Air Force was formed shortly after World War II. Mr Pence has claimed that the new force will likely focus on matters such as defending spacecraft and procuring military satellites. In a speech in early August, Pence claimed, “Just as in the past, when we created the Air Force, establishing the Space Force is an idea whose time has come … [t]he space environment has fundamentally changed in the last generation; what was once peaceful and uncontested is now crowded and adversarial.”
For some, it is reminiscent of Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, nicknamed “Star Wars” by the media. Critics, on the other hand, are concerned about the militarization of space. The international cooperation exemplified by the International Space Station (ISS), for example, could fall by the wayside, and with it the peacemaking function of civil space research. Militarization, mistrust and espionage would be the order of the day in space travel.
Expanding the war-fighting capacity of the US military into a new domain increases the likelihood of conflict in that domain. And any one nation’s attempt to establish space supremacy will ignite a disastrously expensive arms race. Although the United States is the world’s leader in space, China and Russia have made it clear that they are not willing to accept that as status quo. The Trump administration has, thus, hyped the threats while ignoring factors that would likely restrain Russian and Chinese behaviour in space. Both these countries already have access to weapons that threaten American assets in space, either by destroying them in orbit or by crippling ground control through cyberattacks or radio jamming. The most aggressive option available to Russia and China would be the destruction of US satellites. The primary risk of such an attack would be the debris created by it that could inflict collateral damage on Russian or Chinese satellites. In fact, China’s growing military ambitions increase its vulnerability to space debris because it must place more satellites in orbit to facilitate military operations farther from its shores. In an Op-Ed published in the Gulf News, a former NASA astronaut and a colonel in US army, Terry Virts, recalls, “While I was commander of the International Space Station in 2015, we had to manoeuvre our spaceship to avoid debris left over from a 2007 Chinese anti-satellite-missile demonstration.”
But the monumental task of establishing a new military department, which would require approval by a Congress that shelved the idea last year, may require significant new spending and a reorganization of the largest bureaucracy in the world. And the idea has already run into fierce opposition inside and outside the Pentagon, particularly from the Air Force, which could lose some of its responsibilities. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said last year that he opposed a new department of the military “at a time when we are focused on reducing overhead and integrating joint war-fighting functions.”
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The second basket of costs associated with establishing a new military branch is bureaucratic. Trump cannot create a new branch of the military without congressional approval. Legislation to create a Space Corps within the US Air Force passed the House in 2017 but failed to get through to Senate and was resisted by several high-ranking officials at the time, including the secretary of defense and the commander of Air Force Space Command.
Suggesting against the creation of a US Space Force, Eric Gomez, a policy analyst for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, says:
“Creating a Space Force as a separate branch of the US military is not a wise decision. It is an overreaction to the threats facing the United States, and its costs outweigh its dubious benefits. Instead of sticking to the current plan, which promises to generate more sensational headlines than sensible policy initiatives, the Trump administration should focus its efforts on improving existing military organizations that handle space.
One path forward would be to emulate Cyber Command, which is not a separate branch of the military but a unified command. Instead of being its own branch, Cyber Command incorporates cyber-focused units from across all the branches of the military. Creating a unified command for space would help the military focus its resources and push for more investment in new capabilities without creating the economic and bureaucratic headaches.”
Considering the kind of person Trump has proven himself to be, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that he is considering aggressive military action or at least posturing in space. And that could very well prompt a new arms race; traditional adversaries such as China and Russia may feel pressured to engage in a belligerent response. Even the name, Space Force, carries with it a connotation of violence and hostility. If we want a chance at preserving the neutrality of space and securing a brighter future, then we should avoid its militarization unless there is no other option. Rejection of the Space Force as an entity is, therefore, the best option available to us.
What does the International Law Say?
All major space powers, including the US, Russia and China, have signed the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. The pact says that nothing in space can be claimed as a single country’s territory, and it bars countries from stationing nuclear weapons or weapons of mass destruction anywhere in outer space, including in orbit around Earth.
The treaty gets stricter when it comes to “celestial bodies” such as the Moon and the Mars. Parties can’t build military bases, conduct military manoeuvres, or test weapons of any kind — even conventional weapons — on another world.
But, the Outer Space Treaty does give countries some wiggle room. Dodge says that the Cold War-era treaty doesn’t explicitly forbid intercontinental ballistic missiles, which enter and exit space on their way toward their targets. The treaty also doesn’t specify whether conventional weapons can be used in open space or on space stations. And they have, at least once: In January 1975, the Soviet Union secretly test-fired a modified cannon on its Almaz space station.
“Space is like the high seas, it’s like Antarctica — it is a global commons. And that means it is governed by international law,” says Joanne Gabrynowicz, a space law expert and professor emeritus at the University of Mississippi. “In addition to the Outer Space Treaty, the whole body of international law applies to space, and that includes humanitarian law [such as the Geneva Conventions] and the law of armed conflict.”
SPACE FORCE: AN EXPLAINER
What is the Space Force?
Space Force is a proposal by President Trump to reorganize the United States military’s space activities into a new branch of the the armed forces. This is more of a bureaucratic reshuffling of the Department of Defense than a significant change to how the country uses space for national defense.
What would a Space Force do?
A Space Force would have its own bureaucracy and command structure. According to a Defense Department report, a Space Force would focus on:
1. Persistent global surveillance for advanced missile targeting,
2. Indications, warning, targeting and tracking for defense against advanced missile threats,
3. Alternate positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) for a GPS-denied environment,
4. Global and near-real time space situational awareness,
5. Development of deterrent capability,
6. Responsive, resilient, common ground-based space support infrastructure (e.g., groundstations and launch capability),
7. Cross-domain, networked, node-independent battle management command, control, and communications (BMC3), including nuclear command, control, and communications (NC3), and
8. Highly-scaled, low-latency, persistent, artificial intelligence-enabled global surveillance.
This is defense-speak for having the infrastructure to maintain operations, communications, and intelligence gathering capability anywhere on Earth, regardless of a direct or indirect attack on those systems.
A Space Force would not:
- Explore space
- Send humans into space
- Send anything to Mars
NASA does these things, and would not relinquish any of its human or robotic exploration activities to the Space Force.
How much will it cost?
The United States currently spends more than $20 billion per year on national security-related space activities, with the funding split roughly evenly between the the secretive “black budget” activities related to intelligence gathering (spying) and the Department of Defense (communications, navigation, early warning systems). All of these are uncrewed, autonomous spacecraft.
The national intelligence agencies’ space activities are not included in the Space Force proposal, so the activities relevant to Space Force account for $12.5 billion of the Defense Department’s $686 billion budget proposed by the White House for 2019.
According to Vice President Pence, the Administration is preparing to request $8 billion over the next five years to stand up the Space Force. It is unclear if this will be new money, or moved from existing accounts.
More details will be available when the White House releases its budget request for fiscal year 2020 in February of next year.