Do We Need a Space Force?

Back in the early days of what was then called the Space Race, when the USA and the USSR were vying to see who could get to the Moon first, we signed a ‘Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies’.

There was a lot of talk about restricting activities in Earth orbit and beyond to strictly ‘peaceful’ uses. The Wikipedia article on what was called the Outer Space Treaty describes its principles this way:

The Outer Space Treaty represents the basic legal framework of international space law. Among its principles, it bars states party to the treaty from placing weapons of mass destruction in Earth orbit, installing them on the Moon or any other celestial body, or otherwise stationing them in outer space. It exclusively limits the use of the Moon and other celestial bodies to peaceful purposes and expressly prohibits their use for testing weapons of any kind, conducting military maneuvers, or establishing military bases, installations, and fortifications (Article IV). However, the Treaty does not prohibit the placement of conventional weapons in orbit and thus some highly destructive attack strategies such as kinetic bombardment are still potentially allowable. The treaty also states that the exploration of outer space shall be done to benefit all countries and that space shall be free for exploration and use by all the States.

astounding-science-fiction-rocket-shipScience-fiction writers had of course long since proposed military bases on the Moon, but the Moon and ‘other celestial bodies’ could be safely considered off-limits, for practical if not idealistic reasons. By 1967, however, with precursors to the GPS system already in orbit, it was clear that orbital satellites had become an invaluable aid to the Navy (enabling ballistic-missile submarines to determine their exact position) and the Air Force (for bomber and ICBM targeting), and even the Army: satellites were better than aircraft for Army reconnaissance, not to mention the Intelligence agencies. While the Outer Space Treaty forbids nations from claiming their own ‘air space’ beyond the atmosphere, it implicitly acknowledges that the orbital realm will inevitably become a free-for-all playspace—or battleground.

Of course the peaceniks among us are still full of visions for ‘the peaceful uses of space’. As so often happens, technology developed for the military often becomes a boon for civilians as well. The GPS system is a prime example. But note: while we allow everyone in the world to use it, our Defense Department controls it, and has the means to deny GPS use to our adversaries. And naturally, they are busily developing their own.

Back in 2003 the George W. Bush administration rejected Chinese requests for negotiations on a new treaty restricting military uses of space. China had just put its first man in orbit, and was only beginning to challenge American dominance in commercial space activities. Instead the Pentagon was reviving Reagan-era ideas of ballistic-missile defense and other ‘high frontier’ orbital technologies, aiming at US pre-eminence in space. This prompted left-wing Boston Globe columnist James Carroll to warn that we were “forcing China into an arms race it does not want.”

“Where,” wrote Mr Carroll dramatically, “is the defense of the idea, once sacred to Americans, that outer space marks a threshold across which human beings must not drag the ancient perversion of war?”

This impassioned but fanciful question inspired me to write a letter to the Editor of the Globe. As it turned out, they did not print it, so here it sees the first light of day:

To the Editor of the Boston Globe:

Arguing that the US should keep the military out of space, James Carroll (“Bush’s battle to dominate in space”, Oct. 28) neglects to mention that the military is already deeply committed to, and dependent upon, space operations. Satellites have become the eyes and ears of modern warfare, making possible instant communications worldwide, GPS-targeted munitions, detailed reconnaissance, and much more.

The inescapable conclusion is that the satellites must be defended. The corollary is that we must have the means to attack an enemy’s satellites, if need be. The genii is already out of the bottle.

Mr. Carroll also neglects to mention that the ‘peaceful’ Chinese space program is run by the Chinese military, and that China has poorly-concealed ambitions to drive the USA out of Asia and the Pacific. A side benefit of our defense operations in near-Earth orbit will be the ability to defend our forces–and our cities–against short- and long-range guided missiles.

Space is already the high battleground. As of now, the United States dominates it, and it will be far better for the world if we continue to do so, especially when you consider the array of nasty ideologies and brutal state tyrannies the past century conjured up. A Pax Americana will be an era of prosperity, democracy, and, most importantly, respect for the individual.

What Mr. Carroll forgets is that we are the good guys.

Fifteen years have passed since I wrote that, yet I cannot think of a single word that I would change. The idea of a ‘Pax Americana’ is out of favor now, even among conservatives, many of whom denigrate the ‘neo-conservatives’ of the GW Bush era for their naiveté in supposing that the USA could easily convert the Middle East cauldron, if not the entire world, to peaceable democracies. But Ronald Reagan’s maxim of ‘Peace through Strength’, especially in the face of emergent foes and contentious adversaries, is once again our policy, as well it should be.

On 9August18, Vice-President Mike Pence joined Defense Secretary James Mattis at the Pentagon to announce the President’s intent to create a new branch of the Armed Services, the United States Space Force:

In 1939, at the start of the Second World War, the U.S. Army Air Corps was still a fledgling organization. But as Nazi air forces bombed their way from Warsaw to London, our military commanders took decisive action then to meet that new threat head on.

By 1945, the American military had nearly 30 times the number of planes, and 85 times the number of pilots and support crews compared to just six years earlier.
America and our allies emerged victorious from World War II because of the strength of our armed forces, and because our armed forces adapted to meet the emerging threats of the day. We knew that airpower had forever changed the nature of war, so we marshaled the resources and the will to build the most powerful air force the world had ever seen.

And just two years after that terrible conflict, our nation created a new branch of service to secure American dominance in the skies for generations to come with the creation of the United States Air Force.

Now the time has come to write the next great chapter in the history of our armed forces, to prepare for the next battlefield where America’s best and bravest will be called to deter and defeat a new generation of threats to our people and to our nation. The time has come to establish the United States Space Force. . .

Video and full text HERE.

So do we need a Space Force? Well, we already have one, a branch of the Air Force. It’s called the Air Force Space Command, with some 38,000 people at 88 worldwide locations: see HERE, and HERE. Still, I wonder if at this point we’ve enough space hardware and manpower needs to justify a whole new service, with all the attendant bureaucracy that will engender—and a Space Academy, too?

Heinlein-Space Cadet

Cover art by Steele Savage.

As it is, I assume the Air Force Space Command is in charge of most space-related military activities (do the other services have their own satellites?). A Space Force is a sensible long-term objective, but in the short run it might suffice to change the name of the Air Force to the Air and Space Forces, just as the civilian NASA has both Aeronautics and Space in its name (it’s still in the aviation business, too—currently developing a supersonic airliner). Remember, the Air Force did not split off from the Army Air Corps until well after World War II, when as the Vice-President said, it had vastly expanded over the course of the war.

At the very least, we should wait until we can get Space Force pilots off the ground and into ships they can fly into space. But then, yes, we will need the United States Space Force, and the Robert A. Heinlein US Space Academy. And those lucky enough to qualify shall be known as Space Cadets!


2 thoughts on “Do We Need a Space Force?

    • Thanks, Dr W. Readers will be interested to peruse your prescriptions for the missions and organization of the Space-Force-to-be. I still think that the creation of a separate Force should wait until we have a corps of pilots and crews flying a fleet of reusable ships, and the bases to support them (contrary to your blog posts, we can have bases in space). The appeal of martial romance to cadet candidates and the public should not be discounted. /LEJ

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