When President Donald Trump first expressed his intention to form a Space Force as a separate service branch of the armed forces that would be equal to the Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, Army and Air Force, my initial reaction was, “Whoa, that’s actually kind of cool.” Perhaps growing up watching the original Star Wars trilogy on VCR had conditioned me to associate cosmic militarism with unproblematic heroism and the innocence of childhood. However, when I began to look more deeply into the proposal, my thoughts on Space Force grew more complicated. Although a Space Force might one day be necessary to safeguard the interests of the United States, it would be, at the moment, a wasteful expenditure. The billions of dollars that would be spent on upgrading the U.S. Air Force Space Command into its own department could be better spent on the civilian agency-led projects of NASA.
There are legitimate issues with how the United States conducts its space-related operations. While the Air Force receives 80 percent of unclassified space funding, there are numerous other organizations in the military and intelligence services that control key elements of space acquisitions and space-related infrastructures, such as ground control systems, satellites and personnel. No single agency has a definitive say on space-related matters, which slows the pace of decision-making and leads to incoherence in space policy. Furthermore, because space is not the primary responsibility of any armed service branch, none of them will prioritize space capabilities in their funding. Advocates for a Space Force claim that only through centralizing all space organizations and personnel can a coherent and successful space policy finally take shape (Center for Strategic and International Studies, “Why We Need a Space Force,” 10.03.2018).
Nevertheless, there is a risk that this proposed solution may create more problems down the road. Fred Kaplan, focusing on the importance of satellites to the operations of individual branches of the US military, writes in Slate, “Placing these vital assets under the command of a four-star general in a separate service—and imbuing its officers and enlisted personnel with the élan of an elite force that doesn’t answer to the other services of the armed forces and that, in fact, competes with them for resources—would run counter to the nation’s needs” (Slate, “Space Farce,” 06.21.2018).
The creation of a separate branch of the military, which would require thousands of personnel and the construction of its own offices and facilities, would cost billions of dollars and add further bureaucratic complexity to an already gargantuan entity. In 2017, then Secretary of Defense James Mattis voiced his objection to a new Space Force, writing, “I oppose the creation of a new military service and additional organizational layers at a time when we are focused on reducing overhead and integrating joint warfighting functions” (The Hill, “Pentagon: Mattis originally opposed creating space force over budgetary concerns,” 08.10.2018). Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson estimated that the government would need at least 13 billion dollars—not including pre-existing space expenditures—to establish the Department of the Space Force and fund it for a five-year period (Space News, “Wilson: $13 billion Space Force cost estimate is ‘conservative,’” 09.18.2018).
In addition, the deepening and loudly signaled militarization of the United States’ space operations risks antagonizing China and Russia, countries that are both developing their own space-fighting capabilities. Space militarization does not only encompass the creation of the Space Force but also the proposal—championed by the likes of Senator Ted Cruz—to develop space-based missile defense systems of questionable effectiveness (Politico, “How Trump’s ‘Space Force’ Could Set Off a Dangerous Arms Race,” 06.22.2018). A space arms race would waste our resources and provide yet another risk factor in an increasingly unstable international order.
Taking into account the aforementioned problems, it would be more advisable for the U.S. government to adopt a more incremental approach to the possible development of a space force. Kaitlyn Johnson of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) suggests reestablishing the U.S. Space Command (SPACECOM), an interagency command that would consolidate operational space authority and promote skilled space personnel without the massive expenditures of establishing a new branch. She writes: “Rushing to establish a Space Force by 2020 does not give ample time to test and synchronize SPACECOM with the rest of the combatant commands and the Services’ space infrastructures. It may well be that another organizational construct fits the bill better than a Space Force, but without first testing—and providing ample time to test—a re-established SPACECOM, policymakers will not be able to make an informed decision on how to move forward” (Center for Strategic and International Studies, “Why a Space Force Can Wait,” 10.03.2018).
While policymakers examine the merits of a Space Force, they should not neglect the opportunity to fund non-military space ventures, particularly NASA. The United States’ peaceful exploration of the cosmos has been a great source of national pride. In addition, it has spurred numerous innovations like the camera phone, wireless headsets and CAT scans, many of which have influenced our daily lives (NASA, “20 Inventions We Wouldn’t Have Without Space Travel”). Congressman Ralph Hall writes, “Many Americans may be surprised to learn that NASA’s budget is only a fraction of 1 percent of the overall federal budget, currently hovering around 0.6 percent. Arguably, this relatively small investment provides a greater dollar-for-dollar economic and strategic return than any other civilian government program” (The Hill, “Increased funding for NASA would stimulate economy,” 03.11.2009). Perhaps the U.S. government should seek to increase the return on this investment rather than tack more billions on to the world’s largest military budget. Better to go to Mars than to go to war!