From Sputnik to Star Wars, the international race to space has been fueled by Cold War and post-Cold War rivalries that have threatened to fill the vacuum surrounding the Earth with weapons of frightening capabilities — nuclear, laser, hypersonic, guided asteroids and who-knows-what next.
When the Russians sent Sputnik, the first man-made satellite, into orbit, it sent America into a panic. Then-Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson warned that whoever controlled the “high ground of space” would control the world; a New York Times editorial said the U.S. was now in “a race for survival.” As one commentator put it, the average American was “convinced that the Soviets would send up space platforms from which they could drop nuclear bombs at will, like rocks from a highway overpass.”
It eventually became clear that Soviet technology was not nearly so far ahead of the U.S. as Sputnik made it seem (actually, not ahead at all), and in a few years NASA was outdoing the Kremlin’s so-called “chief designer” with its own series of showy launches, orbits and splashdowns.
But even if the “high ground” wasn’t as easy to control for evil purposes as some had imagined, the military potential of space continued to cast its shadow over every successive civilian program.
President Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” (officially named “Strategic Defense Initiative”) was at least as much budget braggadocio designed to outspend the Russians into economic oblivion than actual military technology. But it caught the contumely of every peacenik in the polity. President George W. Bush’s 2006 National Space Policy had more to do with administering space — keeping things from bumping into each other — than weaponizing it, despite the clamor against it.
So, when President Donald Trump on June 18 directed the Department of Defense to “immediately begin the process necessary to establish a Space Force as the sixth branch of the armed forces,” it was not surprising that it quickly sparked a new controversy.
“This is a horrible proposition,” exclaimed Peter Wismer, an international legal consultant based in Europe, in the Washington Post. It contravenes America’s own policy that space is considered a “province of mankind,” according to the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 — to which the U.S. and over 100 countries are signatories.
“This treaty lays out the principle that space is a domain that belongs to us all, not just to some states,” he wrote. And contrasted it with a statement of the president’s in March, that “space is a war-fighting domain, just like the land, air and sea.”
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova warned that Mr. Trump’s proposal suggested a militarization of space that “could be fraught with consequences no less harmful than the nuclear arms race.”
The Los Angeles Times derided it in a headline as simply “Ridiculous.”
Yet, further down in the same article the LAT itself, and others as well, conceded that the idea of a Space Force is not at all ridiculous. Nor is the perception of space as a military battleground something cooked up in a populist fantasy.
The threat is real. Russia and China, despite their more-peace-loving-than-thou rhetoric, are known to be developing space weapons that could be aimed at U.S. targets.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence warned this week that “if a future conflict were to occur involving Russia or China, either country would justify attacks against U.S. and allied satellites as needed to offset any perceived U.S. military advantage derived from military, civil or commercial space systems.”
“They’ve been building weapons, testing weapons, building weapons to operate from the Earth in space, jamming weapons, laser weapons, and they have not kept it secret,” Gen. John Hyten, the head of Strategic Command, said recently.
And that’s why President Barack Obama — not exactly your typical cosmic warmonger — refused to sign the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS) treaty. He understood that the U.S. needed to be in a stronger position before any such undertakings.
In fact, the Air Force has been secretly ramping up its own space weaponry for years. Among other things, an unmanned space plane and hypersonic weapons are in the works that could be used to stare down threats from Russia or China.
The key words in that last paragraph are “Air Force.”
For the chief opposition to a Space Force to date comes not from the traditional enemies of any new defense initiative on the liberal left, but from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, especially that part of it known as the Air Force.
That’s because until now, “star wars” has belonged to the Air Force, and off limits to all others. The president’s Space Force would shoot a mighty executive laser beam right through that happy monopoly.
And, in the more earth-bound metaphor of John Hamre, a former deputy defense secretary who heads the Center for Strategic and International Studies, “This will mean nonstop bureaucratic arm-wrestling for the next five years” over who runs the Space Force.
In fact, President Trump’s directive will have more bearing on the bureaucratization, not the militarization, of space. A new Space Force, the creation of a sixth service branch, would be a huge administrative project that would redo budget lines, redraw chains of command and no doubt populate some majestic new offices in the Pentagon.
Whether President Trump has fearsome new space weapons in mind, too, is almost beside the point. The Pentagon is already there. The question is whether Washington is ready for the kind of interservice conflagration that is almost certain to ensue.
The Pentagon’s desire for the whole idea to just go away is no secret. After announcing it, President Trump turned to Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and to make sure the chiefs would get to work on it immediately, said: “Got it?”
Dunford answered: “We got it.”