On August 9, 2018, a little under a month after the president met with the National Space Council and announced his intent to establish the Space Force, Vice President Mike Pence gave a speech at the Pentagon. He provided clarity on the road ahead and reinforced an important distinction, much to the dismay of critics: While America plans to lead the way in space, it is not pioneering space militarization. “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 via electronic attacks from the ground,” he said emphasizing the shift in recent years from a peaceful space frontier to one that is contested, crowded, and adversarial. “As their actions make clear, our adversaries have transformed space into a warfighting domain already. And the United States will not shrink from this challenge.”

Among the examples provided were a “2007 Chinese test of an anti-satellite missile; an airborne laser under development by Russia that will be able to destroy space-based systems; Russian and Chinese investments in hypersonics; and other technologies that would allow the two Eastern nations to steer their satellites in close proximity of U.S. assets.”

The answer to the question posed earlier seems clear. The United States is not driven into space in order to militarize or weaponize it. As we have continued to drive deeper into space, it has become clear that the space domain is no longer regarded as benign. U.S. assets and interests in space need to be defended. The military, the Air Force in particular, and now the newly created Space Force, in conjunction with the commercial sector and governmental agencies and departments, are the most apt to oversee this. Space has been militarized for some time with satellites in service of military operations.

Furthermore, discussion surrounding the militarization of space has less to do with aggressive, offensive operations and more to do with threat-focused space operations and minimizing our risk in orbital flight, from deterring positional adversaries who are developing, testing, and proliferating counter-space systems to simply cleaning up space debris that can pose as much danger as any weaponized flying projectile. To say that the Space Force is somehow a first step toward the militarization of space and is breaching a treaty is to turn a blind eye to the history of the military-space relationship and the current paradigm shift of space being a sanctuary from attack to a contested warfighting domain.

Space Force
International Space Station – Space X’s Crew Dragon, shown here with its solar arrays deployed during its first re-flight to the International Space Station for NASA.

Whose Idea Was Space Force, Anyway?

“I think weaponizing space would be a badly premature idea. 

It may be inevitable. It may be impossible to keep space a sanctuary. 

But the United States has no interest in breaking that taboo.”

The Great Space Force NatSec Nip Slip

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– Michael E. O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, 2001

 In a report commissioned to study space militarization, it was concluded that the U.S. had become “an attractive candidate for a space Pearl Harbor.” Such an attack on our satellites and other military and commercial space assets could bring business activities to their knees and blind the Pentagon to the movements of foreign troops and ships. The commission called for an overhaul of the Pentagon’s space programs, large new investments in research and development on military space technology, and the creation of a space force with its own acquisition and training programs. Then 9/11 happened. 

That’s right, the report was from 2001, during the early Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld years. It was eerily correct about a “Pearl Harbor” type attack, only its focus was aimed too high. My point is, the idea for a Space Force is hardly new, novel, or revolutionary. It is not specific to the current president’s administration. As much as the president’s detractors have enjoyed smearing his administration with vitriol since his Space Force announcement, they are wrong to assume it was his idea, and therefore, their credibility on the subject of the Space Force is dubious.

That report from 2001 not only emphasized the importance of defending American satellites from attack, it also called for greater ”power projection” from space, a phrase that is widely viewed as meaning putting offensive weapons into space. ”The present extent of U.S. dependence on space, the rapid pace at which this dependence is increasing and the vulnerabilities it creates, all demand that U.S. national security space interests be recognized as a top national security priority,” the report said.

Pre-9/11, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld proposed a sweeping overhaul of the Pentagon’s space programs, sharply increasing the importance of outer space in strategic planning. The New York Times on May 8, 2001, wrote, “In his first major policy announcement, Mr. Rumsfeld will call for the establishment of a new Pentagon post for a four-star Air Force general to serve as an advocate for what could become a new space force.”

The Times’ article continued: “Consolidating and reorganizing the programs will give them a higher profile in the sprawling Pentagon bureaucracy and make it easier for them to compete for dollars, aides to Mr. Rumsfeld argued. Mr. Rumsfeld and to a lesser degree President Bush have publicly expressed interest in developing costly and complicated space weapons systems, including lasers capable of shooting down ballistic missiles and satellites designed to attack other satellites.”

There were plans being tossed around even then to make the Air Force the lead service in organizing, training, and equipping a space force, which up until then had been split among all the services.

In his first major speech on military policy in February 2001, shortly after his inauguration, President Bush said: “In space, we’ll protect our network of satellites essential to the flow of our commerce and the defense of our common interests. All of this requires great effort and new spending.” At the time, space programs represented only eight billion of the Pentagon’s $310 billion annual budget and were splintered among a hodgepodge of offices. The Pentagon spent billions of dollars more in conjunction with the CIA on space surveillance programs, including spy satellites (those budgets were classified).

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Weaponizing Space
A depiction of Columbus using the eclipse as a ‘weapon’ against Jamaican natives.

The Militarization of Space Is Older Than You Think

There’s been a lot of misinformation put forward in the intervening years, but one thing is clear to paraphrase the narrator of the film Fight Club: the idea (for a space force) had been on the tip of everyone’s tongue, the president just gave it a name. In fact, even giving the president credit for the name is a stretch, despite his anecdote about saying to himself, “Why don’t we call it the Space Force?” Mostly, it is safe to say that he sanctioned it. By signing the four space directives and ultimately issuing the executive order to create the Space Force, he just injected rocket fuel into the gas tank of a vehicle that had already been in motion. “It’s really what we’re already doing but giving elevated status to the mission,” said American University space expert Howard McCurdy.

The Space Force is now one year old. Yet, the idea for its creation and the military-space relationship stretch so much further back that it’s hard to really pinpoint when. Christopher Columbus, that much-maligned Italian explorer, used his knowledge of a lunar eclipse in 1504 to intimidate natives of Jamaica. Far from reaching China, Columbus and his men were stranded on the island and in need of a continuous food supply, which the natives were happy to provide for six months. When they stopped, Columbus consulted an almanac and told the natives they had angered God, who would give a sign of his displeasure – the fiery red moon of the lunar eclipse. The natives relented, Columbus and his men received six more months of food until rescue arrived, and just like that, space was weaponized. 

Some four hundred and forty-odd years later, German graduate student Wernher von Braun’s research into the military use of long-range rockets resulted in the Vergeltungswaffe 2, or V-2 rocket. Post-war, both the Allies and the Soviets captured V-2 hardware, the U.S. poached von Braun, and the space race was on. A V-2 rocket was the first artificial object to travel into space. In 1946, the first photo of earth from space was taken from a V-2 rocket. The V-2 paved the way for the first artificial earth satellite, Sputnik 1, which was launched by the Soviets in 1957. The military-space relationship continued to grow.

The next year, Eisenhower sent a note to Congress calling for a civilian-led National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA). Interestingly, he chose not to assign space to the military because he believed a civilian agency would be more effective. Perhaps due to his own military experience, he believed inter-service rivalries would stand in the way of launching a satellite. Out of that era grew the origins of space policy, specifically, the principle of “freedom of space.”

From there, it’s a lengthy list of space milestones, both major and minor. The Outer Space Treaty of 1967. The moon landing in 1969. Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, aka Star Wars. Laser-guided smart bombs in the Gulf War. China and the U.S. both firing rockets to shoot down respective satellites in 2008. Strung together, they begin to sound like alternative lyrics to Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire:” We didn’t start the space war / It was always ragin’, since the world’s been gazin’ / No we didn’t light it, but we’re gonna fight it.

Space Force
Cellphones, GPS apps and messaging software would be interrupted by an attack on our satellites. (REUTERS/Charles Platiau)

Turning a Blind Eye

Return to the near present, in 2017, when the president had been in the White House for a year. In Congress, Rep. Rogers saw the space corps idea once again encountering resistance, stripped from the fiscal year 2018 defense authorization bill. Not to be deterred, he vowed to continue fighting. He and other like-minded members of Congress believed that a separate force was needed to focus on space dominance, unhindered by a slow bureaucratic acquisition process and given its own funding stream. While some in Congress and the military opposed the creation of a separate space corps, including then-Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, almost all agreed that the process of acquisition was sluggish at best and U.S. space-based weapons technology was stagnating as a result.

Had the White House’s plan for a space corps been approved by the Senate and included in the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2018, the Air Force would have been required to establish it before January 1, 2019. As recent history proved, that date came and went without a space force. Perhaps what helped in the next year’s push were some of the now well-known turnovers in the administration.

On December 20, 2018, then-Defense Secretary Mattis met with the president and handed him a letter, in which he tendered his resignation effective February 28, 2019, citing “no choice but to leave.” His decision to depart was not due to anything associated with space, but rather over a disagreement on foreign policy, specifically Syria. A Mattis quote from June 2017, during an Oval Office meeting of administration personnel, inadvertently gives a good reason to get behind the case for the Space Force: “We are grateful for the sacrifices our people are making in order to strengthen our military, so our diplomats always negotiate from a position of strength.” While he also felt that a Space Force would add “additional organizational and administrative tail” to the military, it cannot be denied that it would assist in allowing diplomats to negotiate from a position of strength, given the increasing relevance of space.

Just as war is said to be “the continuation of politics by other means,” is not space the next expansion of the warfighting domain? To maintain our “position of strength,” it is necessary to have dominance in air, land, sea, cyberspace, and space. The fact is that creating the Space Force was no more the president’s idea than it is possible to show strength as a country without a formidable force in space. It was inevitable. The American military was on a course set for the stars long before the president teased the Space Force in the summer of 2017.

On March 13, 2018, the online magazine Intelligencer ran the headline: “Man-Child President Calls for ‘Space Force’ to Fight Wars Beyond the Skies.” Underneath it was a photo from the film Starship Troopers with the oh-so pithy caption, “Maybe the president saw Starship Troopers back in the day.” Not to be bothered with going much deeper than that, the article, like so many other pieces that have been published since, would have readers believe anything that comes from the president’s mouth is inherently wrong, bad, or insane. The Space Force among them. But who can blame them? They have what I call “intellectual scotoma,” like normal scotoma, in which a person experiences a partial loss of vision or a blind spot in an otherwise normal visual field. Yet, intellectual scotoma affects the mind.

To be clear, this is not a blanket defense of the president or his administration’s decision-making or policies. The fact is that Space Force is needed, and its origins stand apart from any political ideology that seems to have driven so many writers to sacrifice facts at the altar of feelings. 

This is Part II of a multi-part series on the United States Space Force. You can read Part I here. Read Part III here