US President Donald Trump announced plans on Monday to establish a new branch of the armed forces to operate in space. Dubbed “space force” by Trump, opponents of the president were quick to ridicule the plan. But with space becoming increasingly crowded, there are some that believe Trump’s space force is the right answer.
James A.M Muncy, founder of space policy consultancy PoliSpace and previous White House Office of Science and Technology policy adviser told Verdict that the US Air Force isn’t the best “home” for improving US military space capabilities.
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“A lot of options have been talked about,” said Muncy. “The President has chosen a separate space force. That’s the right answer in the long term, and probably it forces the fastest change on the Pentagon bureaucracy.”
Why is Trump’s space force the right answer?
Since the early days of the space race, Russia and the US have competed for supremacy above the Earth. But what began as a symbol of technological prowess is now a military necessity. There are hundreds of military satellites in orbit around the Earth—sabotage or destruction of these could wipe out vital communications and intelligence.
According to the Defense Intelligence Agency, Russia believes their presence in space will give them the edge in future warfare. China has long been making moves in space, too. In 2007 it shot down one of its weather satellites to test their anti-satellite missiles. More recently, in late 2015, China created the Strategic Support Force to improve its space, cyber and electronic warfare missions.
With over a thousand commercial and military satellites in orbit, hostile actions could have a devastating impact on the ground below. In the not too distant future, there could also be a risk to civilian life as space tourism becomes a reality.
While space purists firmly believe that space should remain free of military presence, Muncy points out that the militarisation of space is nothing new.
“Astronauts were military officers,” he said. “Intercontinental ballistic missiles travel through space. Bad space actors could cause real problems for private companies.”
Military operations in outer space currently fall under the remit of the US Air Force, and critics of Trump’s plan have pointed out that this is an adequate arrangement. However, Muncy believes that a separate space force is “an improved way of organising what the US government already does.”
“It’s not a revolutionary change in what we are doing in space, but it may lead to breakthroughs in how we use space militarily,” he said.
Will Trump’s space force be approved by Congress?
Congress will have to approve Trump’s space force before the US government can create it. If given the go-ahead, it will be the first new branch of the US armed services since the US Air Force was formed in 1947. But how likely is it that a space force will be approved?
There is some history. In November, Congress rejected the House’s plan to create a US “Space Corps”. The $700m bipartisan defence policy bill, called the National Defense Authorization Act, would have seen the Space Corps fall under the umbrella of the Air Force.
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However, Pentagon leaders and the White House argued that the idea needed to be studied further. One critic was US Secretary of Defense James Mattis. In an open letter to congressional defence leaders in October he said:
“I oppose the creation of a new military service and additional organisational layers at a time when we are focused on reducing overhead and integrating joint warfighting efforts.”
While the details about the space force are scarce, it appears that Trump’s space force shares a similar objective to that of space corps. However, Trump’s declaration that a space force would be “separate but equal” to the Air Force suggests that this new proposal is a fresh model to the rejected November bill.
It will no doubt face many hurdles and require further discussion and debate. But ultimately, Muncy believes Congress will approve something “like a space force”.
How long will it take to create a space force?
Trump has signed a directive ordering the Department of Defense to create a space force. If the plans were to be approved by Congress, how long would it take?
We know few details about Trump’s space force. But we do know that he is enthusiastic about space. In June last year, he re-established the National Space Council, appointing Vice President Mike Pence as its chairman. And in December, he signed a directive for the US to return to the moon.
“The essence of the American character is to explore new horizons and to tame new frontiers. But our destiny, beyond the Earth, is not only a matter of national identity, but a matter of national security.
White House spokesman Raj Shah said in a statement that the president wants the Pentagon to immediately begin the process to organise a Space Force:
“The president’s National Strategy for Space calls for American leadership, preeminence, and freedom of action in space, and he sees a separate service focused on space as a critical piece of that end state,” said Shah.
“The National Space Council and other White House offices will work closely with the Department of Defense on successful implementation of the president’s direction.”
Nasa already has some cooperation with the US Air Force and Navy. According to Muncy, there could be a similar collaboration between Nasa and a space force. A space branch of the military could also work closely with private space companies. It could purchase services from commercial space companies, much like SpaceX’s relationship with Nasa.
“The basic elements already exist inside the Air Force,” said Muncy. “Hopefully the new structure could be defined and established within a couple years, and then existing people and organisations transferred to that new structure within 4-5 years.”
Is a space force legal?
The details of Trump’s space force are vague. But based on what he has said, there is nothing to suggest that a space force isn’t legal. There are various international treaties that outline the laws in space, such as the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. The treaty bans states from placing weapons of mass destruction in Earth orbit, but Trump has made no indication the US would do so.
“Many other countries already use space militarily and have already demonstrated anti-space weapons capabilities,” said Muncy. “Space isn’t a sanctuary and it never has been. What we need to ensure is that no one takes weapons of mass destruction into space.”