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Last week President Trump officially established the U.S. Space Command, a move he said was a crucial step in establishing “America’s superiority in space.”
Space Command will coordinate the various space-related functions within the existing branches of the military. Creation of the command is an early step toward Trump’s ultimate goal of establishing a Space Force, which would be its own military branch alongside the Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marine Corps and Navy.
Trump called space the “next warfighting domain.” He first announced his intention to create a Space Force in early 2018. Its role would be to protect American satellites and spacecraft from foreign attack.
Why there’s debate:
Trump’s initial suggestion of creating a Space Force was cause for mockery among his critics, who suggested the president — known for making grand pronouncements — envisioned extraterrestrial battles straight out of science fiction.
The reality of a Space Force, its proponents say, is a much more practical, earth-based operation to protect critical U.S. infrastructure in space from attack or hacking. Modern American society relies heavily on satellites for everything from GPS to banking systems to cellular service and a number of crucial military processes. The risk of these systems being compromised represents a significant national security threat, supporters of a Space Force argue.
Skepticism about the need for a Space Force goes beyond jokes at the president’s expense. There are pragmatic concerns as well. Most, if not all, of what the Space Force would do is already being done by the other military branches. Having a separate Space Force, some argue, would create a bureaucratic burden that would hold back the mission of protecting American interests in space. Some also say establishing the force would be much more expensive than the $2 billion estimate the Pentagon has produced.
Others argue that space should be a place for cooperation and innovation and that basing U.S. space operations within the military would make conflict more likely.
Trump is free to reorganize various military functions into Space Command as he sees fit, but he would need congressional approval to make the Space Force its own branch of the military. Both the House and Senate have provisions that would establish a Space Force in their military defense spending bills. An effort to reconcile the differences between the two pieces of legislation may begin as early as next week, when Congress returns from recess. If successful, the Space Force could become a reality by 2020 or 2021.
The Trump administration has nonmilitary ambitions for space as well. NASA has announced a plan to send humans back to the moon and potentially to Mars.
A Space Force is needed to protect against adversaries like Russia and China
“Aside from the need for the American government to help set a course for building a successful future in space, there is also the very real danger of potential adversaries gaining an enormous advantage over the U.S. in this final frontier if we do not properly prepare.” — A.J. Bruno, Washington Examiner
If America’s satellites were compromised, it would be devastating
“The stakes are high. Much of our 21st-century economy and lifestyle — from bank transactions to weather forecasting to television service to the GPS directions guiding you on your vacation road trip — depends on satellites functioning round the clock and without interruption. The military depends on them too. But space right now is a bit like the Wild West, with a wide-ranging mix of government and commercial satellites, all of them sitting ducks.” — Eric Mack, CNET
Other military branches can’t be expected to have space expertise
“One of the main concerns is being able to develop a military space cadre who understands the space domain and understands threats to U.S. military space systems and some of those threats are developing already.” — Space security expert Kaitlyn Johnson to NPR
The Space Force will also protect U.S. economic interests in space
“Our nation is not taking the unprecedented step of setting up an independent space service just to provide better protection of our military satellites and improve space acquisition. That mission is too small to justify a separate service. Rather, the national leadership has an expansive view of America’s economic future in space.” — Peter Garretson, Politico
Concerns about conflict in space are already happening
“Today, we are at war every day in space. ... Today, the potential of a space attack is as dangerous to us as a nation as the threat of a nuclear attack was in the 20th century. And we have no part of our military establishment represented on the Joint Chiefs of Staff that focuses exclusively on this very real threat.” — Robert Walker, The Hill
A new military branch would just create red tape that gets in the way of the mission
“The experience of building other new governmental organizations should make us wary of bureaucratically reorganizing our way to a new national priority.” — Michael O’Hanlon, Washington Post
Placing space operations inside the military makes war more likely
“If concentrating authority in a Space Force creates an incentive for nations to build space weapons that increase the likelihood of conflict, it would be a profoundly bad idea.” — Scientist Laura Grego to New York Times
A separate Space Force would be bogged down by politics and infighting
“If we create this new bureaucracy, its first goal is going to be protect its own existence. A secondary goal will be to justify its existence. Only after that it’ll start focusing on the mission at hand.” — Military expert Dan Grazier
A Space Force is unnecessary
“We already have an Air Force and a National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The logical way to pour more money into space exploration, or even to colonize the moon, would be to increase their budgets.” — Stephen Kinzer, Boston Globe
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Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images