Neil deGrasse Tyson

“On National Security” appears in every issue of SpaceNews magazine. This column ran in the July 30, 2018 issue.

Neil deGrasse Tyson
Neil deGrasse Tyson

Celebrity astrophysicist (and member of the Defense Innovation Board) Neil deGrasse Tyson recently told that the idea of a U.S. Space Force isn’t crazy or particularly new. It does generate a strong reaction, however, because people associate it with President Trump.

Tyson supports having a separate military branch for space. Among other reasons, a Space Force one day might be needed to save the planet. “What happens when the next asteroid comes to take us out? I want the Space Force to bat that thing out of harm’s way.”

So this is what it’s come to.

Since Trump ordered the Pentagon to create a Space Force, the topic has captured the public’s imagination while Washington policy wonks and defense insiders struggle to explain exactly what a space force is or what it will do.

Tyson’s crack about the Space Force one day preventing Armageddon illustrates why Trump’s directive has thrown the Defense Department — and especially the Air Force — for a loop.

“It is sucking a lot of bandwidth inside the Pentagon,” said an industry consultant who works with space industry contractors. At a recent Washington gathering, the confusion was palpable. Even space enthusiasts don’t understand what the debate is really about. Some actually wonder if the Space Force will one day fight alien civilizations in Battlestar Galactica. Most people seem to believe this was Trump’s idea, while in reality it has been talked about a lot for years, and proposed in legislation that the House passed in 2017 but the Senate voted down.

The actual process of breaking off a piece of the Air Force and turning it into a Space Force is not very exciting. “It’s organizational, resource driven,” the consultant said. “It’s not Trump militarizing space, which is what people are inclined to think.” The day-to-day duties of the Space Force will be performed mostly on the ground, monitoring satellites, preventing spacecraft from colliding with debris and other functions that the Air Force has performed quietly for decades.

Just cataloging what the Air Force currently does in space — and how much it costs — has become a major assignment that is draining a lot of energy out of the building. But these are the initial steps that are required in order to start reorganizing the military as Trump directed.

Congress has the final word, however, as it has the legal authority to organize and equip the military. A House-Senate conference report for the fiscal year 2019 defense policy bill does not mention the Space Force. Many in Congress support it but more time will be needed to go through the sausage-making process. And by most accounts it’s going to be a long haul. “We are in month one of 24 to 36 months of debate,” the consultant said.

Former Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said the Pentagon will need to provide a lot of data and options to the president and Congress. The Air Force in the past has fought back against attempts to break it up but it is now in a corner. “This was not coordinated,” James said. “This was very personal to the president, this is his style, he seizes the moment, makes news, and takes his own team by surprise.”

Many in the Air Force leadership are not happy about all the disruption but will soldier on. They really don’t have much of a choice, said James. “They value their jobs and want to continue in their current capacities. They need to somehow make this real.”

Sandra Erwin

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

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...