Since the House Armed Services Committee announced the proposal to separate orbital operations from the U.S. Air Force and instead establish a separate military branch tailored specifically to space, there has been a fair amount of debate among law makers and defense officials as to whether or not such a change is necessary, or even beneficial. Intelligent men and women on both sides of the aisle have weighed in, with many important leaders in America’s defense infrastructure arguing against the change.
Most notably, in my mind, are the arguments levied against the formation of a “Space Corps” by both Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson and Defense Secretary James Mattis. It’s no secret that I have a deep respect for Mattis in particular, so when the man claims the establishment of a space branch could hinder America’s defense efforts, you can be sure I’ll sit and listen. In a letter Mattis wrote to Ohio Rep. Mike Turner, the Republican Chairman of the House Tactical Air and Land Forces Subcommittee who also opposes the change, he explained his concerns that another branch would add a burdensome “additional organizational and administrative tail.”
“At a time when we are trying to integrate the Department’s joint warfighting functions, I do not wish to add a separate service that would likely present a narrower and even parochial approach to space operations,” Mattis wrote.
The man isn’t wrong. America’s already whopping defense budget is in dire need of another influx of cash in order to maintain the massive military footprint our nation has throughout the world, and another military branch will, without question, add to the cost of administration.
Unbeknownst to many outside the various administrative facets of our country’s military, each branch seeks its own contracts when it comes to the software and hardware employed to track and manage personnel and equipment. While the Marine Corps uses a system called MCTFS (the Marine Corps Total Force System) that can be accessed through various portals like ODSE, UDMIPS, 3270 and probably a handful of other random number and letter combinations, none of those systems can export data in a manner that is congruous with the Army’s, Air Force’s, or even the Navy’s administrative suites. In effect, each branch uses its own software platforms, its own data storage and access methodologies, and its own population of administrators and disbursers just to maintain records and pay service members. It’s a massive, inefficient, and expensive undertaking that would need to be duplicated once again by the formation of another branch.
Add to that the eventual need for physical assets like buildings, bases, and all of the stuff you need to occupy and maintain them, alongside a command structure that would require establishment… and you can begin to get a slight sense of just what Mattis means when he says a Space Corps would create a new “tail” to have to chase.
The thing is… I still think we need to do it.
America is hopelessly under protected in space, but we haven’t been forced to address that concern throughout the last sixteen years of war fighting because we’ve been engaged in a fight against groups that can’t muster air support, let alone orbital attacks… but the ensuing short sightedness in our budget allocations could mean real disaster for us in a conflict with another space-fairing nation: such as China or Russia.
We have already confirmed that China has the ability to shoot down satellites in orbit above us, and both nations have fielded orbital equipment capable of maneuvering in space in a manner that would allow them to engage and even destroy satellites we rely on for communications, location tracking, and the like. Even those who oppose the formation of a Space Corps agree that the assets above our heads are not just important, they’re essential to not only our current way of life, but to the way we fight wars.
But much like America’s nuclear arsenal, our focus has been (rightfully) placed on funding programs that help win the fights we’re in. Unfortunately, that is often at the expense of programs that help keep us from getting into fights we may lose. Our nuclear deterrents are, in themselves, nuclear weapons – weapons that have gone without updates or, in some cases, even proper maintenance as we’ve stopped looking to military powers as the villains in our stories and started looking to terrorist cells.
Now, in a world where the right ingredients for a large-scale conflict with a nation that has a formidable military and orbital presence are already finding their way into the pot, it’s time that we started looking to the future, rather than the present, in terms of our defensive capabilities.
“The Air Force doesn’t have enough space personnel, and the space personnel they do have, unfortunately, have the lowest promotion rates in the Air Force,” said Republican Rep. Doug Lamborn last month. Lmaborn’s Colorado district includes the Air Force Space Command at Peterson Air Force Base. “Not enough people, who don’t get promoted enough, and who are also way underrepresented in Air Force leadership.”
While the cost of forming a new branch would be formidable, and I don’t argue that money could be better spent in other places initially, the benefit of having a branch whose entire existence focuses on orbital security could greatly outweigh the cost of investment.
Budget considerations are often a matter of being able to effectively argue your organization’s need for funding, and the Air Force has not demonstrated a marked ability to emphasize the importance of space ops while also arguing for more traditional combat-related programs like fighter jets and strategic bombers.
Alabama Rep. Mike Rogers, chairman of the House armed services strategic forces subcommittee, believes the Air Force opposes the formation of a space branch on strictly budgetary grounds, alleging that they’re primarily concerned with losing their space funding.
“They use space as a pay for,” Rogers told CNN. “And if we segregate the space professionals away from the air dominance professionals, that money pot goes with the space professionals. That’s what this all boils down to.”
Our four military branches will likely see a combined trillion-dollar investment into the questionable F-35 program by its completion, but don’t yet have a strategy in place to rapidly replace a downed military satellite, or to mount any type of defensive effort to prevent them from being targeted in the first place. Offensive operations in space could prove just as valuable in the years to come, as other nations begin populating the space above our heads with more and more of their own assets – but our current infrastructure is in no position to even consider that possibility. We can’t protect ourselves, let alone go after others.
So, while I respect and admire some of the opponents of the formation of a Space Corps, and can even agree with their arguments, my concern about our serious levels of vulnerability outweigh my complaints about high taxes or bloated budgets. Their arguments, while reasonable, feel to me like we’re avoiding inconvenience at the expense of our security.
You may support or reject the idea of a border wall with Mexico, either of which is your prerogative, but the threat posed to American service members, and indeed, American civilians in the dark reaches of space far outweigh the benefits such a wall could provide. If our satellite infrastructure were to go down, it wouldn’t just be inconvenient, it could be the sort of catastrophe we struggle, as a nation, to recover from.
So if we don’t want a Space Corps, that’s fine – I’m too old to get in now anyway – but let’s start forcing Air Force officials to take the security risks above us as seriously as they do the ones directly in front of us. Let’s learn from our mistakes, and work to ensure life-shattering attacks on our country don’t happen, instead of responding to them once they do.
Let’s not let our stares to the horizon blind us to the threats looming above us. Whether it’s a Space Corps, Starfleet, the Air Force, or a rag-tag group of oil drillers led by Bruce Willis, we need someone pulling for space defense in budget meetings, and if that has to come from the formation of a new branch… so be it.
Image courtesy of the U.S. Air Force