The Space Force has been the subject of much ridicule in the media. The release of Netflix’s Space Force earlier this year and several comedians picking the force as a comedy bit have added to this mainstream conversation and have painted a rather odd picture of what the Space Force is designed to achieve. But, the reality is that most of us have only heard about the Space Force through these channels.
The Space Force, as established in December of 2019, is designed to serve as the 6th branch of the United States military. But so far, it has been an enigma with an unclear and ill-defined purpose.
Despite the ridicule, the Space Force and its implications should be carefully considered based upon military and scientific need. However, there are drawbacks to introducing the force and they almost certainly outweigh the pros.
What exactly is the purpose of this force?
First and foremost, it is important to understand what exactly the Space Force is designed to accomplish. If you have watched Space Force on Netflix or heard about it through other entertainment channels, it is easy to paint a frivolous picture of what the Space Force is and what it is trying to achieve. Perhaps the most common misconception is that the Space Force is trying to put soldiers on the moon or have an active personnel in Space. Although the idea evokes Star Wars or Star Trek, it is blatantly incorrect. Instead, the Space Force aims to achieve a few tactical tasks.
The space force would consolidate space-related military into a singular branch. Currently, space-related military is split amongst the branches of the military, much of it held in the Air Force. A Space Force would centralize control of space-related military. However, more broadly, the Space Force’s responsibilities, according to its website, “will include developing military space professionals, acquiring military space systems, maturing the military doctrine for space power, and organizing space forces to present to our Combatant Commands.” Essentially, the Space Force intends to create a centralized hub for all space related military and develop a space-focused strategy. But even with a stated purpose, we must dig deeper to understand the historical motivation for the force.
What is the precedent for the Space Force?
Aside from the scientific feats that accompany it, space flight has long been a display of hegemony and a source of national pride for countries and individuals alike. So, it begs the question: what happens when we politicize our relationship to space? We first saw this politicization begin in the 50s, 60s and 70s when the US and USSR deliberately used the Space Race as a political strategy to reestablish their dominance in the post-war period. In an effort to boost morale and rebound from the consequences of the war, the Space Race effectively politicized science on a global scale. It turned the quest for scientific advancement into a component of the Cold War.
While the Cold War led to significant technological developments, it was motivated by the creation of long-range nuclear missiles as both the United States and Russia hoarded missiles for the purpose of maintaining mutually-assured destruction, the effects of which we still see today. At the same time, the money, time, and resources invested in space exploration led to some of the greatest scientific advancements of the century, including remote satellite technologies. The Space Force re-energizes the conversation regarding the balance between beneficial and potentially perilous scientific invention. For the first time in decades, the government is taking concrete steps to project openly their intent to weaponize space.
But we must not conflate the deliberate creation of the Space Force and the beginning of space-assisted warfare, as such warfare has long been an integral part of military conflicts. The Strategic Defense Initiative, conceived in the early 80s, attempted unsuccessfully to use space as a countermeasure to long-range nuclear weapons. Since the 50s, space technology and the military have been deeply intertwined. The Gulf War, in large part, relied heavily on satellite technologies. The Global Positioning System (GPS), which has led to over a trillion dollars in economic benefits, is owned and controlled by the Air Force, a branch of the military which was created a mere 70 years ago for a technologically-advancing style of warfare.
Does the Space Force deserve the ridicule it has received?
It’s clear that discussions around the Space Force shouldn’t be taken lightly. As technology advances, it is not unlikely that space will become a battlefield in spite of treaties governing Space.
Although the US currently spends more on space than any other country, it is no secret that global adversaries are making political moves in space. China’s increase in space spending by almost 350% over the last 15 years and Russia’s recent claim over Venus are two examples. While the latter seems straight out of some dystopian future, it sends a deliberate message about not only Russia’s technological capabilities, but its ambitions. In fact, every action that a country takes in space sends a calculated and purposeful message. Each rocket launch, satellite destruction, and yes, planet-claiming, showcases technology and military capabilities. Even disregarding any potential US offensive strategy, the military needs a concrete way to respond to such implicit threats. The Space Force could become the hub for this response, able to strategize about space-military needs.
Is the Space Force the best choice for addressing these needs?
With all military strategy, there runs the obvious risk of escalation, and instead of sending a purely defensive or philosophical message, a Space Force may send an adversarial one. The major risk is that we push war into space and trigger a chain-reaction or wartime expansion in space similar to that of a Cold War. It could be catastrophic for the world to enter a scenario where countries are stockpiling satellites or rockets for the purpose of a space war. In fact, the world should avoid military escalation at all costs and the US should make it its mission to push for space to be solely an arena of global collaboration and peaceful exploration. The idea of a Space Force undermines this.
Perhaps a less dire drawback would be excessive military bureaucracy and spending. Currently, a large part of the space military is controlled by the Air Force and its leadership does not feel the need to split the Space Force into a different branch. As long as the task of space operations remains manageable to the Air Force, there is no reason to split off and add to an already long bureaucratic process; splitting into a separate branch may complicate and meddle with an already sound system. Secretary Debbie Lee James, the secretary of the Air Force under President Obama argues that the Air Force already invests a significant amount of money and resources into space and several military experts champion the idea of integration within the military instead of establishing several separate branches.
In light of these trade-offs, it becomes clear that the US needs to have a long and productive conversation about the future of the military. Instead of wasting dollars on an already over-funded military, the US needs to rethink its strategy and prepare itself for a modern world. There are definitive drawbacks to the Space Force, and it should not be unthinkingly or unequivocally championed. However, we must take this idea seriously while considering the technologically-advancing reality that we live in today.
Featured Image: CNBC