Add this to the list of things you never expected to be able to say in 2018: “Screw it, I’m joining Space Force.”
On Monday, President Donald Trump signed an executive order that seeks to establish Space Force as a “separate but equal” sixth branch of the military, a move he framed as a strategic, preemptive play in the inevitable militarization of space.
Space is “going to be important monetarily and militarily,” Trump said. “We don’t want China and Russia and other countries leading us. We’ve always led—we’ve gone way far afield for decades now.”
The Pentagon responded to the directive, which still needs congressional approval, with a statement:
“Our Policy Board will begin working on this issue, which has implications for intelligence operations for the Air Force, Army, Marines and Navy,” Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said in the statement. “Working with Congress, this will be a deliberate process with a great deal of input from multiple stakeholders.”
Trump’s vision of a discrete, militarized space force isn’t entirely new. In June 2017, the House Armed Services Committee proposed the establishment of a new branch of the military calls space corps, which would have boosted the capabilities and operations of the Air Force Space Command, currently the chief organization of military operations in space.
But Secretary of Defense James Mattis shot the idea down with a suggestion to Congress that it was “premature.”
“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,” Mattis said in a memo to the Senate Armed Services Committee.
On Monday, Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, tweeted that now is not the time to create a new military branch.
The president told a US general to create a new Space Force as 6th branch of military today, which generals tell me they don’t want. Thankfully the president can’t do it without Congress because now is NOT the time to rip the Air Force apart. Too many important missions at stake. https://t.co/uYzqg1W8nE— Senator Bill Nelson (@SenBillNelson) June 18, 2018
But some analysts think militarizing space is a necessary move.
In an interview with CNN, retired U.S. Lt. Col. Rick Francona said it’s commonly understood that a military presence in space would give the U.S. an advantage over competing world powers.
“I hate the term ‘the final frontier’ but (space) is the ultimate high ground. Space doesn’t dominate one small geographic area—it dominates continents, oceans,” said Francona. “Most military thinkers know this is the battlespace of the future.”
He added: “The U.S. military relies heavily on space-based operations, including communications, command and control, intelligence, surveillance, and all facets of operations... It’s essential that the U.S. military has not only access to, but dominance of space.”
It’s still unclear what Space Force (and its uniforms) would look like, but it’s reasonable to assume it would pursue military capabilities and weaponry in three main categories: land to space, spacecraft to spacecraft, and space to land.
Russia and China are also ramping up space capabilities. Putin has claimed his military is developing a hypersonic glide vehicle that can be launched into space, evade detection from U.S. defense systems, and, potentially, deploy a nuclear warhead.
Meanwhile, China has been developing anti-satellite systems that could take out U.S. spacecraft, according to a 2015 report from the U.S. Department of Defense.
“These systems consist of a satellite armed with a weapon such as an explosive charge, fragmentation device, kinetic energy weapon, laser, radio frequency weapon, jammer, or robotic arm,” read the report.
Whether the president’s push to militarize space will balance out these global efforts or escalate tensions remains to be seen.
In any case, China, Russia, and the U.S. have all agreed to the Outer Space Treaty, which prohibits putting weapons of mass destruction in space or militarizing celestial bodies. However, the U.S. declined to sign onto a 2014 Chinese-Russian treaty proposal that would have banned space weapons, deeming it “fundamentally flawed.”
Trump also signed a Space Policy Directive that seeks to establish new protocols to monitor and manage space debris and satellites in low-Earth orbit. Two previous directives from the administration have called for humans to return to the moon and a reduction in bureaucratic red tape for commercial space activity.