On National Security | Space Force fans, be careful what you wish for

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“On National Security” appears in every issue of SpaceNews magazine. This column ran in the March 12, 2018 issue.

A branch of the service dedicated to space warfare is a titillating prospect. And ever since the topic of a “Space Force” was brought up by President Trump, congressional hawks can’t stop talking about it.

Trump and other proponents of a stronger military posture in space argue that this is necessary to counter and deter what other countries are doing to “deny” the United States unfettered access to space and freedom to operate there.

The Pentagon has started a congressionally mandated review of how to organize the military space apparatus for an era of “great power competition.” Despite political pressure from the House Armed Services Committee, the review is supposed to be impartial on whether the solution is a space force, aka space corps.

Everyone loves a shiny object. But it’s hard to imagine the Pentagon will want to yank space authorities and functions from the Air Force and create a completely new organization.

Some experts worry that this has become too much of a distraction. In fact, the Trump administration has yet to put out a National Space Policy. That would be a necessary first step for the military to figure out its future responsibilities with regard to space.

“If they want to move forward with a space force, it will take a lot of years and a lot of effort,” said Michael Dodge, assistant professor and director of graduate studies at the University of North Dakota’s department of space studies.

The administration and Congress have to decide, first and foremost, whether the space regime truly needs a separate force. And if the answer is yes, can they justify the headache that they would have to go through in order to create one?

“If they were going to do it, I would recommend proceeding cautiously,” Dodge said. “In particularly, I would want to hear the opinions of the Air Force on how they think this might impact national security. That can’t be taken lightly.”

Separating a military portfolio that a service has had for decades and putting it into something that doesn’t even exist yet certainly should give policymakers pause, he said. Beyond the Washington turf battles and national security issues, there are international concerns as well. “Are we giving the perception that we are escalating the peaceful environment of space?” Dodge asked. Even if the United States doesn’t put any weapons in space, standing up a space force could be interpreted as escalation.

“We need an official national space policy to come out first before we start talking about a significant and substantial change to the legal structure that creates service branches in the United States,” said Dodge.

Although there is strong momentum in the House for a space corps, the Senate has been quieter on the subject. NASA overseer Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) told Gen. John Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, that he is “not too keen on ripping space out of the Air Force.”

Speaking last week at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Hyten said he is enthused by the conversation on space as a domain of war. But he believes more time will be needed to study a reorganization of the service. “Someday, we’ll have a space corps or space force in this country. But I don’t think the time is right for that right now.”

Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) pressed Hyten to explain what potentially could set off a war in space. What rules must countries follow to avert a conflict in space? Hyten said he could not discuss that topic in an open forum. “All I can tell you is that they are being very aggressive in establishing what they perceive as norms.”

The reality, he said, is that “there are no such things as norms of behavior in space.”

On that note, here’s a thought: The United States does need competent space warriors, but also diplomats who understand the international web of treaties and laws, and can help the military plan for whatever crisis in space comes next.

Sandra Erwin

 

Sandra Erwin covers military space for SpaceNews. She is a veteran national security journalist and former editor of National Defense magazine.