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Trump Administration Advances Controversial Space Force Plans

The National Space Council moves ahead with plans to establish a new branch of the military, but a prominent Democratic congressman voices opposition.

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Warning of increasing adversarial threats to the nation’s satellites and other space capabilities, U.S. vice president Mike Pence reiterated on Tuesday that the Trump administration hopes to establish a Space Force as a sixth branch of the nation’s military by 2020. In addition, the National Space Council, which Pence chairs, on Tuesday approved a series of recommendations that provide a road map for establishing such a Space Force.

Critics, however, including a leading Democratic congressman, lambasted the Space Force idea as too costly and the wrong way to advance U.S. national security. Others have blasted the initiative as a dangerous step in militarizing space.

The space council’s recommendations, which the White House noted that President Trump had received, include forming a militarily integrated U.S. Space Command to “develop the doctrine, tactics, and procedures of space warfighting in the 21st century.” Another recommendation calls for creating a Space Development Agency to provide “cutting-edge warfighting capabilities.” The space council also recommends that Congress authorize the Space Force’s establishment and provide funding for the Space Command.

Threats to U.S. Space Assets

The space environment “is increasingly crowded and confrontational,” and this poses a significant threat to U.S. space assets, Pence said at the council meeting, held at the National Defense University at Fort Lesley J. McNair in Washington, D. C.

“Today, other nations are seeking to disrupt our space-based systems and undermine our economic and military might as never before,” he said.

“For many years, nations from Russia and China, to North Korea and Iran, have pursued weapons to jam, blind, and disable our navigation and communications satellites through electronic attacks from the ground,” Pence continued. “But recently, our adversaries have been working to bring new weapons of war into space itself. From antisatellite weapons and airborne lasers, to highly threatening on-orbit activities and evasive hypersonic missiles, both China and Russia have been aggressively developing and deploying technologies that have transformed space into a war-fighting domain.”

He said that “while the last administration too often failed to meet the growing security threats in space, President Trump has stated forcefully a truth that the leaders of the National Defense University have long understood: that space is ‘a war-fighting domain, just like the land, air, and sea,’ and America will be as dominant there as we are here on Earth.”

Trump initially announced his Space Force proposal at an 18 June council meeting. According to Air Force Magazine, a 14 September memo from the Air Force to the Department of Defense (DOD) estimates that a Space Force would cost $3.3 billion in its first year alone.

Criticism of Space Force

Pence noted that only Congress can formally establish a new department of the military and that the administration is working on the issue with members of Congress from both political parties.

But although the Space Force idea has garnered some support in Congress, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee opposes the administration’s initiative.

“I am opposed to President Trump’s proposal for a ‘Space Force.’ I am concerned that his proposal would create additional, costly military bureaucracy at a time when we have limited resources for defense and critical domestic priorities, and I do not believe it is the best way to advance U.S. national security,” Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) told Eos.

“Space is an essential aspect of nearly everything we do today, and I am the first to argue for a renewed focus on its importance. We have spent a good deal of time in the House Armed Services Committee figuring out how to make the best use of what resources we have in order to improve the organization, culture, and focus of DOD space efforts so that we can achieve better results,” Smith explained. “We must do a better job of dealing with space as a national security priority. I will continue to work toward a smarter, more effective approach.”

Others who oppose a Space Force include U.S. astronaut Mark Kelly. In an 18 June tweet, he wrote, “This is a dumb idea. The Air Force does this already. That is their job. What’s next, we move submarines to the 7th branch and call it the ‘under-the-sea force’?”

Space Will “Require a Military Presence”

At a public forum at the Washington Post on Tuesday prior to the space council meeting, Pence acknowledged the United Nations’ (UN) Outer Space Treaty’s restriction on “nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction” in space. However, Pence noted that the treaty does not ban military activity, and he did not commit to saying that nuclear weapons should be banned from outer space in the future.

“First and foremost, that treaty—which I think we signed in 1967—does ban weapons of mass destruction in outer space, but it doesn’t ban military activity. It actually is a—it gives nations a fair amount of flexibility in operating for their security interests in outer space,” he said. “And at this time, we don’t see any need to amend the treaty. But, you know, as time goes forward, the hope that we could continue to see outer space as a domain where peace will reign—it will require a military presence. But we’ll continue to aspire to President Kennedy’s vision of a ‘sea of peace’ as opposed to a terrifying domain of war.”

Asked at the forum whether nuclear weapons should always be banned from space, Pence said that “what we need to do is make sure that we provide for the common defense of the people of the United States of America. And that’s the president’s determination here. I think it’s in the interest of every nation to continue to ban the use of nuclear weapons in space. But what we want to do is continue to advance the principle that peace comes through strength.”

“The Wrong Way to Look at the Problem”

The Trump administration’s declaration that space is a war-fighting domain “is precisely the wrong way to look at the problem,” said William Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy, a Washington, D. C.–based nonprofit research and advocacy organization that promotes cooperation, transparency, and accountability in global relations.

“Activities carried out in space are essential to our economy as well as to national security, as traditionally defined. But the satellites that enable these activities on Earth are vulnerable to attack. The last thing we should be doing is encouraging the notion that space is a ‘war-fighting domain,’” he told Eos. “What we should be doing is building on past efforts to establish rules of the road in space.”

Hartung offered the UN Outer Space Treaty as an example of an effort that reinforces principles such as a global norm against the deployment of antisatellite weapons. “Cooperation is the only way to make space a safe place to operate,” he noted.

“At best, a Space Force will create an expensive new bureaucracy that will cost tens of billions of dollars to sustain in the years to come,” Hartung added. “At worst, the Space Force and the likely militarization of space that it will encourage could open the door to the deployment of space-based missile interceptors and antisatellite weapons. And once a ‘sixth armed force’ is up and running, it will create upward pressure on a military budget that is already at historic levels.”

A Space Force runs counter to peaceful international goals for space, Hartung noted. “The watchword for space should be peaceful cooperation, not war fighting,” he said. “Unfortunately, our current administration seems to think that international cooperation is a dirty word.”

—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer

Citation: Showstack, R. (2018), Trump administration advances controversial Space Force plans, Eos, 99, https://doi.org/10.1029/2018EO108543. Published on 25 October 2018.
Text © 2018. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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