The Trump Administration is throwing its full faith and credit behind the idea of creating an honest-to-God, no-holds-barred Space Force. Seriously.
On Thursday morning Vice President Mike Pence addressed a crowd of senior military officials at the Pentagon where he called for creating a Space Force as a sixth co-equal branch of the military by 2020.
“It’s not enough to have an American presence in space. We must have American dominance in space,” said Pence, declaring that a new Space Force would be able to respond to growing security threats presented by Russia and China’s own space capabilities, and “carry the cause of liberty and peace into the next great American frontier.”
According to a plan outlined by Pence, this would happen in stages. First, the administration would create a new Space Command—similar to the military’s current Cyber or Special Operations Command—by the end of the year. This would be followed by the training of “elite war fighters specializing in the domain of space”, the creation of a new assistant secretary of defense position to oversee those elite space warriors, and a new Space Development Agency which would purchase new satellites and space-related equipment without the current “duplicative bureaucracy and red tape.”
Pending authorization from Congress, these would all be folded into a full-fledge Space Force within two years.
Should Trump proceed with this plan of action he would be creating the first new military branch since the Air Force was spun off from the Army in 1947. He would also be acting against the advice of his own defense chiefs who’ve explicitly and publicly criticized the idea of a Space Force as unnecessary, inefficient, and ultimately counterproductive to the military’s space operations.
When plans for a mere Space Corps subordinate to the Air Force were being floated as part of the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, Defense Secretary James Mattis came out strongly and publicly against the idea.
“At a time when we are trying to integrate the [Defense] Department’s joint warfighting functions, I do not wish to add a separate service that would likely present a narrower and even parochial approach to space operations,” said Mattis in a July 2017 letter to Rep. Mike Turner (R–Ohio).
Much the same was said by Trump’s Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson.
“This will make it more complex, add more boxes to the organization chart, and cost more money,” said Wilson of the same proposal in June 2017. “I don’t need another chief of staff and another six deputy chiefs of staff.”
As Trump’s enthusiasm for a Space Force has grown, however, both Mattis and Wilson have muted or retracted their opposition. Yet their criticisms still stand.
It is not like the U.S. military has no space operations currently. The U.S. already has the largest constellation of military satellites in the world—159 according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, compared to 75 for Russian and 35 for China. The Air Force, the service which handles most of the military’s current space operations, spends some $8.5 billion a year on space-related endeavors, and plans to invest another $44.3 billion in space systems over the next five years.
That’s a staggering amount of money, and it would only grow with the creation of a new Space Force. Given that the Defense Department already wastes $125 billion on administrative inefficiencies a year—inefficiencies that folks like Mattis and Wilson warn will only be exacerbated with the addition of a new military branch—there is a high chance that taxpayers would get little return on the creation of a separate Space Force.
This says nothing of the mission creep that would inevitably follow. Without a single branch dedicated to militarizing space, the current branches have to make trade offs between how much they prioritize space over other land, sea, and air operations.
That’s ultimately a good thing, as it constrains the time and energy the government can put toward expanding the reach of an already overpowered, oversized military. A new Space Force, by contrast, would have every incentive to hype any potential space-related threats in the pursuit of more funding, more influence, and more power.
Not only would that impose a burden on taxpayers—who already shell out some $700 billion a year for the largest military on the planet—it could also crowd out investment in the peaceful, private exploration of space.
A huge new military bureaucracy dedicated to space would inevitably have to draw from the same talent pools that our burgeoning private space industry does. Every engineer, scientist, or pilot recruited into the Space Force means one fewer civilian figuring out how to send tourists to low earth orbit, to create research bases on Mars, or to set up strip mines on the moon.
That would be a real loss for those who believe the U.S. is already too involved in terrestrial conflicts, and who have looked forward to the freedom-enhancing potential of private space exploration.