Before you get excited, this editorial about U.S. military endeavors in space will not describe how you can join the Rebel Alliance. It will not detail an imminent jump to hyperspace for bold American pilots, or a new base for Starfleet outside Ronkonkoma. It will not include blasters or humanoid aliens visiting or attacking Earth (for now, anyway). That’s because as much as we love a good space saga, America’s reality in space is not much like science fiction.
That’s not to say our daily life is not deeply reliant on the heavens. Satellites support cellphones, meteorologists’ weather warnings and the GPS systems that help us navigate terrestrial Earth. They guide and direct soldiers and missiles. In the coming years, our reliance on space will only grow. How we organize and operate our space resources will become a crucial question as the precincts of nearby orbit get more and more crowded.
Enter President Donald Trump’s fascination with a Space Force, a “separate but equal” sixth branch of the military, and the first new branch since the Air Force was created after World War II. Trump directed the Pentagon in June to come up with plans for the branch’s creation, despite earlier disagreement on its necessity from Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. By early August, the military had followed orders, and the Pentagon released a 15-page report on how to marshal its space resources into a Space Force. Trump was thrilled, and his campaign sent out an e-mail urging would-be troopers to pick from a series of Space Force logos.
It’s clear that space has become crucial for military capabilities. Not because America or any other nation is openly flaunting Death Star-like weapons or space shuttles that can go on the offensive. International agreements, such as a major one in 1967, have helped sustain space as a largely peaceful place: no colonization of the moon or nuclear weapons in space, for example.
Despite those noble efforts, space has long played host to surveillance missions and other military-like operations. After the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957, the space race was driven by a fear of falling too far behind technologically. And the military-space connection has only grown, with modern militaries like America’s gaining serious advantages through space-based hardware, which underlie GPS-guided missiles and other powerful tools.
But there are threats to those tools from nations like China and Russia, that have tested ways to jam communications or even disable satellites themselves. China successfully shot down one of its own satellites in 2007, particularly unnerving for the United States (no stranger to anti-satellite technology), given our large number of satellites.
Trump is not the first leader to consider how the military might better respond to such threats. For decades, as space has increased in everyday importance, military thinkers and politicians have debated a reorganization of space resources. That’s separate from NASA, the nation’s civilian space agency that would not be involved in military changes. Currently, military responsibilities are spread and often siloed around the armed forces, with much naturally centered on the Air Force. But the situation is a little chaotic.
Some space experts say there could be benefits from reorganization. Having space activities under one roof might help the Pentagon move quicker on space threats. Future space professionals would be clustered to help them train and advance. A more streamlined agency might be able to better work with private space industries.
However, there are dangers from adding bureaucracy. New military endeavors don’t tend to shrink in size as the years go by, and space operations shouldn’t get bloated without purpose. Interservice rivalry could mean more jockeying for shiny toys.
And we need a careful and open consideration of what in space should be military terrain and what is better left to civilians. Trump wants to have the Space Force established by 2020. That’s unrealistic. America’s future in space shouldn’t become even more martial for a brief political win. Trump’s talk of space as a domain where “we must have American dominance” was a startling throwback to the Cold War. His conception of space as a “war-fighting” realm is also unhelpful.
It’s true that space has increasingly become a war-adjacent field, a place that supports war operations. But America should not lead the world toward more militant operations. And in any military reorganizations, thought must be put into what new areas are most necessary for a modern military. Cyber capabilities, for example, should not get short shrift.
Space operations are extremely complicated, extremely bureaucratic, and improving them will surely take mind-bogglingly complex plans and conversations. We should proceed thoughtfully and cautiously, stay away from lightsabers and not belligerently go where no one has gone before.