“I said maybe we need a new force,
we’ll call it the Space Force,
and I was, not really serious,
and then I said, ‘What a great idea,
maybe we’ll have to do that.'”
– excerpt from a speech by President Donald Trump, March 2018
Stop me if you’ve heard this one. Five military veterans walk into a bar. A Soldier, a Sailor, a Marine, a Coast Guardsman, and an Airman. They all order a drink. The Soldier orders a German beer, raises his stein, and says, “Prost.” The Sailor orders a shot of rum, raises his shot glass, and says, “Fair winds.” The Marine orders a tequila, salts his thumb, and says, “Semper.” The Airman orders a blue ice bomb, elevates his plastic cup, and says, “Aim high.” The Coast Guardsman orders a dark and stormy, clinks glasses, and says, “Down the hatch.” A sixth veteran arrives, a Space Guardian, and the Airman buys him a shot of Jim Beam bourbon whisky. The Space guy raises his glasses and says to the others, “Beam me up.”
Get it? It’s a bad joke that I just made up. It was ill-conceived, poorly timed, and expensive in terms of the time it took me to think it up. It was just a dumb idea. These are all adjectives that the new Space Force has been called as well. Ill-conceived, prematurely timed, created at the expense of more important priorities. A dumb idea. A bad joke. Absurd. Another in a series of punchlines that critics of the current administration feel have pockmarked the last four years. In a year that’s been hard to laugh at, a lot of “humor” has derived from making fun of the administration. Here’s something more lighthearted: The late 2000s gave rise to the popular trend known as “gender reveal parties.” Those being the touchy 2000s, these parties couldn’t avoid being the subject of controversy. Critics argued that it’s the baby’s sex, not gender, that is being revealed. Gender is a social construct, not tied to biological characteristics. After a pyrotechnic device at a gender reveal party in Yucaipa, CA started the El Dorado Fire in September, the fad has thankfully faded. Not because it is said to heavily reinforce stereotypical gender roles, but because it’s just plain dumb.
On June 18, 2018, the Space Force, still a fetus, was given, what could be called, its gender reveal party. On that day, President Donald Trump spoke in front of the National Space Council. “My administration is reclaiming America’s heritage as the world’s greatest space-faring nation…our destiny, beyond the Earth, is not only a matter of national identity, but a matter of national security.”
Three months earlier, on March 13, the day before Stephen Hawking died, the president teased the military’s sixth child at a speech aboard Marine Corps Air Station Miramar. “My new national strategy for space recognizes that space is a war-fighting domain, just like the land, air, and sea.”
At the National Space Council meeting in June, he continued, “When it comes to defending America, it is not enough to merely have an American presence in space. We must have American dominance in space.” Remember that line; a lot of press did. Then came the reveal: “I’m hereby directing the Department of Defense and Pentagon to immediately begin the process necessary to establish a space force as the sixth branch of the armed forces… We are going to have the Air Force and we are going to have the Space Force — separate but equal.” Addressing the chairman of the Joint Chiefs he said, “General Dunford, if you would carry that assignment out.” Marine General Dunford replied, “We got it.”
No fires were started with the president’s reveal that day in March 2018. Unless you count the one started in the press, or all the laptop fires started by bloggers, writers of various online magazines and publications, columnists, journalists, amateur or professional, Twitter users, and internet trolls, as they furiously pounded keyboards, drumming up mocking headlines, retorts, and rebuttals that called into question the declaration’s timing, sanity, legality, and everything in between.
Jokers Gonna Joke
Do an online search for the words “space” and “force” and the first result is www.spaceforce.mil. Then the official Space Force Wikipedia page, and third, Space Force, a new TV series The Office creator Greg Daniels and actor Steve Carell. The collaboration, ordered by Netflix, capitalized on the president’s June 2018 announcement, which must have been catnip to comedy writers. The show was announced on January 19, 2019, seven months later. In the show’s promotion, the words from an August 2019 speech by Vice President Pence are used: The Space Force’s mission is to “defend satellites from attack and perform other space-related tasks… or something.” The “or something” was their clever and completely groundbreaking addition.
In a review of the show by Sophie Gilbert for The Atlantic, Gilbert seems to have made a judgment on the merit of the Space Force (the military branch, not the show) without having done any real digging:
“The show was supposedly dreamed up a few years ago when President Donald Trump announced the founding of a sixth, extraterrestrial branch of the armed forces, a project so absurd that most people just carried on living their lives without really processing that it was real — barring occasional reminders in the form of Star Trek badges and Scientology-vague recruiting ads. A grandiose, totally unnecessary, obscenely expensive militaristic monument to one man’s porcelain-dainty ego!”
Why is it so absurd, grandiose, totally unnecessary, obscenely expensive, and a militaristic monument to one man’s porcelain-dainty ego? We’ll never know because she doesn’t back up any of those claims with facts. She just provides some links to affiliated content and the Space Force’s recruiting video on YouTube. Comparing it to Scientology is like comparing a Marine Corps recruiting video to the NXIVM cult because Marines sometimes get eagle, globe, and anchor or USMC brandings and tattoos. Her journalism in this regard is emblematic of the epidemic that has plagued supposedly objective journalism in the past few years. Feelings have taken the place of facts and unconscious bias has been replaced by an angry and very conscious one. To weigh the idea of the Space Force on its own, apart from the president, would be too much and risk the possibility that not all things he says are bad, a thought that would send some writers, reporters, and journalists into a catatonic state.
On September 18, 2018, three months to the date after the president’s announcement, Stephen Colbert yukked it up on his late show with guest Neil deGrasse Tyson. Colbert simply invoked the words “space force,” twisted his mouth into a wry grin, and looked into the camera. He was validated by the audience with a mixture of equal parts incredulous laughter and contemptuous cackles. It has since become a worn-out comedy shtick, a crutch for comedians with little else to offer but to say what the audience wants to hear. Speak the name of the president or one of his “crackpot ideas” and win the crowd, their clapping, and laughter, or clappter,” offered up in agreement, not as a response to anything said being funny, clever, or original.
“People make fun of it, I among them,” Colbert went on. “I like space exploration, I’m excited about us conquering space scientifically and through knowledge. Why do we need the Space Force?” The audience, satisfied with another skewering of the president, lapped it up.
“Just ‘cuz it came out of Trump’s mouth, doesn’t require that it then be a crazy thing,” responded Tyson. More chuckles in the crowd. The implication – that everything the president says and does is a hair-brained scheme of some sort – tickled all the pleasurable nerve endings in their high blood sugar bodies.
“It don’t help,” Colbert replied drily, and the audience’s clappter crescendoed. Colbert beamed, then got down to business. “But why do we need a Space Force?”
More Than an Absurd Idea
It’s a question necessary to answer if we’re ever to get past the ignorance and idiocy of such lowbrow comedy shows like the Colbert-created Our Cartoon President and a thousand other virtually identical satires with identical premises that have capitalized on the prevailing sentiment of the last four years: orange man equals bad.
While Chinese and Russian space operations have been cited by the president and backers of the Space Force as a rationale for the move, countries aligned against the West are not the only reason. Like the other warfare domains – land, air, sea, and cyberspace – America continuously strives to achieve and maintain dominance. Space, now recognized as a crucial and contested domain, is no different. The creation of the Space Force is not a publicity stunt, it is not a calculated move for political gain or Emperor Nero playing the fiddle while Rome burns, it’s more than fodder for late show monologue jokes or, apparently, even a good premise for a Netflix comedy series. (Ms. Gilbert did not give the show a favorable review). It is the evolution of the military-space relationship long in the making.
It might help critics if they understood the difference between going to space in order to arm it, and arming space because we are, inevitably, driven into it. And we’re not alone in our aspirations. Anti-west sentiment doesn’t end in space. The opposition has decried the Space Force as a continuation of Reagan-era rhetoric, saying it hurls war into space like Red Bull Flugtag where competitors launch homemade flying machines off a pier into the water for no other reason than to excite the audience with a fun, slightly dangerous spectacle. But is that really the case, or is that just the lazy observation to make when one disagrees with a president and his administration?
The word “spacepower” is not in the Merriam-Webster online dictionary. Neither is the word “warfighting.” Like the Space Force itself, spacepower is newly minted. On August 10, nearly eight months after the birth of the Space Force, the same time when infants transition from rocking on their bellies to crawling, the Space Force published its doctrine titled Space Capstone Publication, Spacepower (SCP). Dedicated to past, present, and future spacepower pioneers, the Space Capstone Publication sheds light on and provides clues to several of the questions critics have been asking.
The 60-page document, with a foreword penned by General John W. Raymond, Chief of Space Operations, begins with a preface and a quote from the 35th president of the United States, John F. Kennedy: “The eyes of the world now look into space, to the moon and to the planets beyond, and we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace.”
The quote is echoed in the first guiding principle for military spacepower, which calls for a “peaceful, secure, stable, and accessible space domain.” Let us not forget that oft-cited Roman general Vegetius quote, “Si vis pacem, para bellum.” (If you want peace, prepare for war). China certainly has not, neither has Russia. Aerospace experts and legislators in Congress, notably Representative Jim Cooper (D-TN) and the chairman of the Subcommittee on Strategic Forces Representative Mike Rogers (R-AL) have said the Air Force needed an immediate congressional push to match the “potentially threatening progress from China and Russia.”
“One thing we can all agree on is that space superiority for our nation is critical, so we appreciate the attention the issue is getting right now,” said an Air Force spokesman.
Like Vegetius witnessing the deterioration of the Roman army’s quality, Mr. Cooper cited “eroding dominance” in U.S. satellite and related technology in comparison to China and Russia. Both countries are developing anti-satellite weapons that could threaten U.S. satellites. This concern is a real one, say Defense Department officials and aerospace experts. In June 2018, shortly after the president’s announcement, the New York Times reported that in February, “a U.S. intelligence threat assessment warned that Russia and China would be able to shoot down American satellites in two to three years, potentially endangering GPS satellites as well as military and civilian communications satellites and the country’s spy satellites.” China made history on January 3, 2019, by achieving the first attempt at and successful landing of an unmanned robotic spacecraft on the “dark side” of the moon, which is never visible from Earth.
Where Space Force and Global Security Collide
The U.S. military is reliant on space. From satellites that “help guide aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf, drones in the skies above Yemen and fighter jets over Syria, to American ground troops on patrol in Afghanistan using GPS coordinates to track their movements, and intelligence officers at C.I.A. headquarters depending on spy satellites to gather information on adversaries.”
The Air Force itself was also highlighted as a reason America needs a “separate but equal” Space Force. Representatives Cooper and Rogers argue that the Air Force does not pay enough attention to outer space. Other critics of the Air Force say that it will never make space its top priority when it also has pilots and warplanes to worry about.
“We keep buying these big expensive satellites that are juicy targets for our adversaries,” said Todd Harrison, the director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Meanwhile, our existing space forces are fragmented across our military.”
“Over the years, the Air Force has used space programs as a money pot to reach into and subsidize air-dominance programs when they feel like Congress hasn’t given them enough for tankers, fighter jets, whatever,” Representative Rogers said. “Congress has not given any of the services enough, but that doesn’t mean you starve to death one of your subordinate missions.”
U.S. military officials have acknowledged that America’s adversaries have caught up to it in space. But classified reports paint an even more troubling picture, the lawmakers said. Rogers called the over-classification of such information “disturbing.”
“There would be a hew and cry in the American public to fix this situation if they knew how bad things were and what we’ve allowed Russia and China to do,” he added.
Brian Weeden, the director of program planning at the Secure World Foundation, a nongovernmental organization that studies space policy, emphasized the military’s reliance on space assets. “Take drones, for instance. Their signals are routed over satellites. Data is routed over satellites. Intelligence satellites do the B.D.A. [battle damage assessments] after strikes.” Mr. Weeden continued, “In the early 1990s, after the fall of the Soviet Union, the American military exercised restraint on anti-satellite weaponry.” But other leading powers did not follow in America’s footsteps, and Russia and China “have not decided to exercise the same restraint.” As those countries continue to develop ways to disable American satellites, they could interfere with U.S. communications in potential future conflicts.
For the past two decades, it seems the main arguments against creating a Space Force have been money and bureaucracy. In 2017, White House, Pentagon, and Air Force leaders pushed back on a proposal from the House Armed Services Committee to create a “Space Corps” (its name chosen to reflect that it would be what the Marine Corps is to the Navy). They argued that it would add unneeded bureaucracy. Despite Rep. Rogers’s championing efforts in Congress, the provision faced opposition in the Senate, and the 2018 defense policy law forbade the creation of such an organization.
However, the law did give Air Force Space Command “authority over space acquisitions, resource management, requirements, warfighting, and personnel development — viewed as a start for the potential creation of a Space Corps in the future.” And it required that an independent organization develop a roadmap to start a separate military department to encompass “national security space.” To the charge that the Space Force would “create unnecessary bureaucratic responsibilities for a military already burdened by conflicts,” the SCP states that it embodies the Department of the Air Force’s continued commitment to “establishing the Space Force in a manner that minimizes cost and bureaucracy and maximizes focus on space doctrine, training, and capability.”
Public opposition to the Space Force has included grievances over the needless militarization of space, specifically citing the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, some going so far as to claim that the Space Force is a blatant violation. There’s been a resurgence in popularity in the public space for citing this treaty, seemingly without actually giving it a close read. The treaty provides a basic framework for international space law. Some have written that 90 countries signed the treaty, others say 106 countries. Wikipedia states that as of June 2020, 110 countries are parties to the treaty, while another 23 have signed but have not completed ratification. Signatory countries are barred from “placing weapons of mass destruction (nuclear, biological, and chemical) in Earth orbit, installing them on the Moon or other celestial body, or otherwise stationing them in outer space.” Of course, this can all become subject to interpretation, and orbiting space debris and satellite disabling technology likely do not qualify as weapons of mass destruction, nor conventional weapons, such as ballistic missiles. Generally speaking, the treaty is meant to control arms in space and maintain the peaceful, shared use of outer space. But the militarization or weaponization of space is not prohibited. Article IX, however, states:
“A State Party to the Treaty which has reason to believe that an activity or experiment planned by another State Party in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, would cause potentially harmful interference with activities in the peaceful exploration and use of outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, may request consultation concerning the activity or experiment.”
And according to the Space Force’s Space Capstone Publication, “In keeping with international law, the United States acknowledges that the use of space is for peaceful purposes while preparing for the reality that space must be defended from those who will seek to undermine our goals in space.”