In a speech delivered last week at the Pentagon, Vice President Mike Pence announced progress by the Defense Department in establishing a U.S. Space Force to stand as a sixth branch of the armed forces. The initiative requires congressional approval, but in the meantime, the Pentagon will stand up a U.S. Space Command to be led by a four-star; establish a Space Operations Force to advise combatant commanders; and create a Space Development Agency to accelerate innovations in space technology.
Ironically, the endorsement of a Space Force by the president has proven its most challenging obstacle. The idea isn’t a bad one, but the president’s reflexive need to personalize every initiative means that Trump opponents axiomatically become Space Force opponents. Pence’s placement as point-man on the issue should help. Pence is no space dilettante; since becoming vice president, he has made space the the centerpiece of his portfolio. Last year, he re-established the National Space Council, an advisory group within the White House for issues of space policy, and his hand appears to have been on the wheel when NASA shifted direction away from Mars and toward the Moon.
WHY a space force NOW?
Previously, ClearanceJobs discussed America’s long road to a Space Force. The problem with the prospective branch is the lack of a compelling cultural reason for it to exist. When the Air Force was established, it wasn’t simply because air power has some inherent need for independence or autonomy, or because special vehicles deserve special status. (We didn’t create the U.S. Tank Force after World War I.) By the time Truman signed the National Security Act of 1947, the Army Air Forces had become, culturally, an entity unto itself. From jargon to uniforms, it had diverged from the Army in fundamental ways. Even its positioning of officers and non-commissioned officers on the battlefield had been effectively the opposite that of the Army.
When the Air Force was made a fourth service branch, it stood up with relative ease because, as a practical matter, it already was one. Moreover, at the time, air power was not simply a tool in the U.S. arsenal; it was the tool. It had broken Hitler’s back, and erased Japanese cities from the face of the Earth. It was easy to imagine a world in which you wouldn’t even need soldiers on the battlefield.
The Space Force has none of this going for it. There is no unique space culture in the U.S. military. Indeed, it fits quite nicely in Air Force and Naval Aviation culture. (There is perhaps a more compelling cultural case to be made for a cyber branch of the military, though even then, it is a tough sell.) To the extent that space has its own special war-fighting purpose, it’s basically just cyber-security and missile launches. And that’s it! Its job will be satellite warfare: hacking into things, or blowing them up.
WHY a space force NOW.
The more compelling case for the Space Force is its utility as a space corps of engineers. In the early eighties, the Strategic Defense Initiative looked at creating a missile defense shield by populating Earth’s orbit with anti-missile satellites. The Russians launch nukes, and the satellites would shoot them down. But such satellites would need to be protected, and the armor necessary was too expensive to launch. (In the space business, weight equals expense.) There was another option, though. The moon and the asteroid belt had all the raw materials necessary to build the armor. Developing the technology necessary would be expensive, but you would eventually reach a crossover point where it was actually cheaper to mine the moon and manufacture armor off-world than it would be to launch it from Earth. You could then add shielding to the satellites from orbit.
While America never got its space shield, it did sink thirty billion dollars into development of space technologies. It was the single largest military research and development effort of the eighties, and that technology directly benefited NASA in the nineties. The reason NASA could mount its famed Faster-Better-Cheaper initiative was because the expensive R&D was already paid for; new propulsion, navigation, and communications technologies were just sitting on a shelf waiting for use.
Today, the Defense Department’s overall space budget is about the same as NASA’s budget. But service branch money isn’t even in the same galaxy. Last year, NASA’s budget was about $20 billion. The Air Force budget was about $120 billion. If America infused its space budget with another hundred billion dollars, there is no limit to what we could do. Remember: we were going to mine the moon to build armor in the eighties. You can justify just about anything once you make national defense the driving factor. Developing cis-lunar space? Definitely. Lunar colonies? Mars bases? All of these things are national defense issues. (Mars, indeed, is a species defense issue; we are one asteroid away from extinction, as the dinosaurs would have been happy to tell you.)
NASA is never going to get the money it needs to colonize Mars. Presently, it can’t even afford to build a lunar lander. That’s why our big Back-to-the-Moon plans call not for a moon base (or even a lunar surface excursion!), but rather, a “Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway”—a space station that orbits the moon. After that, the money runs out. A Space Force, though? Especially during its spin-up years, the well of dollars would never run dry. NASA could offload an awful lot of R&D costs to a service branch in search of a purpose. The Space Force could build deep space infrastructure the same way the U.S. Army ran everything from the construction of the Panama Canal to the Manhattan Project.
A Space Force will be an aerospace industry bonanza. There’s a long way to go, and very likely a hostile Congress come November, but if this thing happens and is handled properly (i.e., if it doesn’t cut into NASA’s already meager budget), the American space program—military and civilian alike—could achieve Apollo-era results in a very short time. That’s a pretty good goal in an otherwise dysfunctional political age.