WASHINGTON — As Congress debates a contentious proposal to create a military “space corps,” some of Washington’s top experts say the U.S. government should promote more civility and less bellicosity in the cosmos.

Shifting the management of military space programs from the Air Force to a separate space corps is an idea that has long been talked about but never acted upon until this year, when the House Armed Services Committee inserted language in the House version of the 2018 defense policy bill.

The Senate did not include the provision in its version of the bill so the outcome of the space corps is still uncertain. Air Force leaders oppose it, claiming that such a drastic reorganization would be disruptive and counterproductive. Some space industry insiders worry that it will send the wrong message at a time when a war in space seems more likely than it has in decades.

“It’s a touchy subject to say the least,” said Michael Neufeld, senior curator at the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum.

Congress should weigh this legislation carefully and consider unintended consequences such as a dangerous space arms race, Neufeld said Oct. 4 at a Washington conference commemorating the 60th anniversary of the dawn of the space age, when the Soviet Union launched the world’s first artificial satellite Sputnik.

There is no question that the United States has to protect its access to space, Neufeld said. “We can’t take it for granted, but it can go away if you don’t deal with this properly.”

A 1967 treaty bans the deployment of weapons in space. Neufeld nevertheless sees fundamental threats to U.S. access to space — particularly low Earth orbit — that the nation should be able to address without overly militarizing what has been largely a peaceful domain.

One daunting challenge is the proliferation of space junk as more satellites and other objects continue to create clutter, said Neufeld. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates there are 1,459 satellites currently orbiting Earth.

Another concern is the possibility that other nations will deploy weapons in low Earth orbit. Neufeld said this could be destabilizing and endanger the wide array of commercial and civilian government activities that fuel the space economy.

“More civility and deterrence” are needed in space, said Bruce MacDonald, adjunct professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

“What is troubling to me is the prospect of a rapid escalation in space once a certain ‘red line’ is crossed,” MacDonald said Oct. 4 at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The think tank unveiled a new study titled “Escalation and Deterrence in the Second Space Age.”

To better protect its satellites, CSIS analysts suggest, the United States needs new and improved technology to identify and locate sources of radio frequency interference and cyber attacks. The nation also should invest in more resilient systems to reduce or deny the potential benefits of an adversary’s attacks. For example, rather than continuing to buy small numbers of large and expensive satellites for critical missions such as missile warning and nuclear command and control, the U.S. military could transition to flexible constellations of smaller, less expensive satellites in a variety of orbits.

The United States also should consider greater use of alternative commercial and non-space systems in order to augment or replace degraded military space systems, the study proposed.

What constitutes a red line that, if crossed, could set off a conflict is another issue that needs further attention, the study said. The answer today depends on whom you ask. One country may take the dazzling of a satellite as an act of war, without necessarily knowing if it was intentional or an accident. As it becomes easier to disable satellites with cyberattacks, these questions are getting tougher to answer.

The odds of a war in space are increased by the United States’ reluctance to engage with other space powers, said Theresa Hitchens, a senior scholar at the Center for International & Security Studies at the University of Maryland.

“We have failed in this country to learn how to talk to China,” she said. “We need a greater understanding of capabilities and intent.” China is a rising space power, Hitchens noted. “We are shooting ourselves in the foot by our inability to open those doors.”

The business of setting policies for military use of space is complicated by the fact that many agencies are involved from the Defense Department and the intelligence community. “We don’t understand what the red lines are because we haven’t had a conflict in space,” said Todd Harrison, director of the CSIS Aerospace Security Project.

Military commanders have different views on what constitutes a hostile attack against spacecraft, for instance. Having a space corps may not necessarily solve these problems, although it would give space a bigger voice in the national security debate, Harrison said. Having a chief of space on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he said, would be significant.

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...