The Buzz

The U.S. Needs a Space Force (To Win the Wars of the Future)

“TRUMP LAUNCHES SPACE WAR,” intoned Politico Morning Defense last week. Journalist Greg Hallman was not-quite-quoting colleague Bryan Bender’s article “Trump advisers' space plan: to moon, Mars and beyond” in Politico itself of the same day. According to documents filched from the White House, he wrote, the administration is considering “a 'rapid and affordable' return to the moon by 2020, the construction of privately-operated space stations, and the redirection of NASA's mission to 'the large-scale economic development of space’.” In all fairness, that’s no war at all, and good on that. One needn’t watch a Sandra Bullock movie to understand how space wars could get out of hand quickly. But as Paul Shinkman recently wrote for US News & World Report, those using space the most will have the most to lose. That lesson is not lost on the Russians and Chinese, so if the rest of us are using space, we’ll want to defend what we put there. Who should do that for us is another question—of whether the US needs a dedicated military force to defend its interests in space, and its use of space from here.

The question is not new. In the spring of 1999 (“The Challenge of Space Power”), then-Senator Bob Smith of New Hampshire argued in Airpower Journal for a separate Space Force or Space Corps. The Congress then demanded that the Clinton Administration investigate the possible need for a separate service. In January 2001, the Commission to Assess United States' National Security Space Management and Organization returned a negative recommendation, finding that the costs of reorganization outweighed the benefits. In July 2004 ("Will We Need a Space Force?"), Richard Moorehead of the Air Force argued in the Army's Military Review that a separate service wasn’t necessary just then, but would be eventually. After all, the US had no weapons in space, or even weapons pointed into space. Nothing of that ilk has changed in the past 13 years. But as Malcolm Davis wrote last fall for The Strategist, “both Russia and China are continuing to ignore US efforts to prevent the weaponisation of space.” The Air Force's new “Spaceplanes on the High Frontier”—starting with the X-37B—may soon provide—and need to provide—“close-in escort capabilities” for exposed American satellites.

Today, however, military space is rather like what NASA called in the 1990s its “Mission to Planet Earth”—looking down from space to influence activities on the ground, at sea, and in the air. From 1985 through 2002, all these space operations were consolidated under US Space Command, which reported directly to the defense secretary and the president as one of the ten regional or functional commands. Donald Rumsfeld shut that down, and folded Space Command into what’s now the antiseptically named Joint Functional Component Command for Space within US Strategic Command. The Air Force’s separate Space Command survived this reorganization, though it’s but one service-specific organization feeding formations into the JFCC Space.

This whole command-within-a-command thing shows a painful lack of imagination about nomenclature, and a callous disregard for the importance of military culture. As long as I am complaining about language, I will note that what Strategic Command does is not all that is strategic. It’s a nuclear weapons and space and cyber command. The amalgamation of those functions into a single command has suffered from some path-dependency, for not all permutations of those functions obviously fit together cleanly, and there are certainly strategies that meaningfully stand apart from them.

Using slightly less clinical language, US Air Force Chief of Staff General David Goldfein recently said that he wants to make his service the Defense Department’s “lead agency” for space activities. The USAF already controls most of the procurement; Goldfein wants all of it, and the training as well. The benefit, he says, is that the military as a whole will then have a “clear decision-maker” for all space matters. The general has been most polite, and he has a reasonable argument. But otherwise, the insistence that it be the Air Force reminds me of the airpower debates of the 1920s, when Billy Mitchell told the New York Times in 1922 of the “incompetency, criminal negligence, and almost treasonable administration by the War and Navy Departments” of military aviation. The United States needed an air force because ground and sea forces couldn’t be trusted not to repeatedly fumble the ball. An air force was necessary, we were told, simply because it wouldn’t be an army or a navy.