On Monday, President Donald Trump directed the Pentagon to create a sixth branch of the Armed Forces: a Space Force. But the process of creating a new military service is more complicated than simply telling the Pentagon to make it so.
Trump’s announcement came during a meeting with the National Space Council, shortly before he signed Space Policy Directive-3. The directive aims to keep satellite, space stations, and debris from careening into each other as they orbit the Earth at tens of thousands of miles per hour. It’s not something the US can do alone. In fact, the directive acknowledges that “spaceflight safety is a global challenge” and pledges to emphasize “the need for international transparency and [space traffic management] data sharing.”
So the real reason Trump was talking about space had nothing to do with a Space Force. But he nevertheless took the opportunity to direct the Pentagon to create one, citing national identity and national security. “When it comes to defending America, it is not enough to have an American presence in space. We must have American dominance in space,” he said. He told the Defense Department “to immediately begin the process necessary to establish a Space Force as the sixth branch of the armed forces. That’s a big statement,” he said.
To effectively coordinate space traffic requires international cooperation. So bombastically declaring America must dominate space sent mixed messages to the international community, according to Brian Weeden, director of program planning for a space policy NGO called the Secure World Foundation. “I’m worried that the impromptu Space Force announcement has overshadowed the space traffic management release and is going to hinder US ability to do international outreach and cooperation on the space traffic management.”
Trump didn’t exactly pioneer the idea that America must dominate space; that’s what the original space race was about. More recently, George W. Bush revived space nationalism in his 2006 national space policy. “It prompted a lot of angst because it took a very unilateral and nationalistic tone about what the US intended to do in space,” says Theresa Hitchens, a senior research associate at the University of Maryland’s Center for International Security Studies.
And Russian and Chinese tests of what may have been anti-satellite weapons prompted a shift towards thinking of space as a warfighting domain near the end of the Obama administration, Weeden says. “Senior US military leaders started talking about space no longer being a sanctuary and conflict on earth extending into space,” Weeden says. “That happened before Trump came into office.”
Space is embedded in pretty much everything the military does, says Weeden. Drones are a prime example: GPS satellites guide the missiles they fire. Surveillance satellites keep watch and assess the damage. Without satellites, the military wouldn’t be able to use drones, “which are a huge part of the US military’s counter terrorism operations,” Weeden says.
But a Space Force wouldn’t necessarily change US military presence in space — it would just change who’s in charge, and how it’s funded. “Many of the people commenting on this immediately assume that a Space Force means they intend to go develop a whole bunch of offensive space capabilities,” he says. “Creating a Space Force or a Space Corps does not mean that the US is going to develop more space weapons. It merely changes the organizational structure.”
Right now, Air Force Space Command is mostly in charge of national security in space. They supervise launches, DoD satellites, and determine what to buy for military space. The National Reconnaissance Office also oversees surveillance satellites that are key for targeting weapons, and assessing the damage they inflict, according to the NRO website.
Shifting those responsibilities, personnel, and budget to an entirely new military service would be a massive undertaking that would require Congress to change Title 10 — the code that says which services do what. That would mean shifting money under the overall defense budget, or appropriating new funds — which budget caps could complicate, Hitchens says. “So it’s not as simple as President Trump seems to think it is.”
In a press briefing Monday, a reporter asked White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders whether the president believed that this could be done without approval from Congress. “We’re in the beginning stages of it and we’re going to work with the DoD and the other relevant parties to put it into place,” Sanders replied.
The thing is, the DoD has already started looking into a space corps, at Congress’s request. Last June, the House Armed Services Committee tried to form the Space Corps. But key Defense officials were against it — including Defense Secretary James Mattis, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, and Joint Chiefs Chairman General Joseph Dunford, according to The Hill. (Trump directed Monday’s announcement at General Dunford, saying: “General Dunford, if you would carry that assignment out, I would be very greatly honored.”)
The proposal was eventually scrapped, and the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018 ordered a study, instead. The report, which is due in August, should “provide Congress with a roadmap to establish a separate military department responsible for national security space activities of the DoD.” Ordering the study may have been a stalling tactic, Hitchens says. “There is such a thing in Washington as death-by-study — where a study begets another study begets another study until eventually nothing happens,” she says. “My bets are on death-by-study winning in this particular situation.”
In the meantime, the Space Force is a distraction, says Kingston Reif, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy at the Arms Control Association, in an email to The Verge. There are real security challenges when it comes to space, and conflict there is possible. What we should be doing instead of wasting energy on the Space Force is talking — both domestically and with other nations, Reif says. “At the very least we should be having a dialogue about what types of conduct we will and will not pursue in space and what we expect others to do and not do, and try to find common ground on these principles.”
In fact, while Trump’s rhetoric about US dominance in space wasn’t anything new, it still could have international ripple effects, says Robert Farley, a professor at the University of Kentucky Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce. “It will justify the fears and warnings that people have in Beijing and Moscow about US dominance of space,” he says. “You’ll see them continue to work on stuff like anti-satellite weapons, and other sorts of capabilities that can disrupt the US ability to use space for its military.”
That’s why developing rules of war for space is more important than a Space Force, Hitchens says. Right now, there’s too much we don’t know about how conflicts in space might unfold. “There isn’t a lot of understanding amongst countries who are getting into this game about what will cause a country to go to war, and what will cause it to escalate up the ladder all the way to nukes,” she says. A Space Force wouldn’t necessarily be destabilizing, but “we have an almost more dangerous situation now than in the Cold War,” she says. “And this is not going to help matters.”