War Stories

Space Farce

Space defense will be a major concern for the U.S., but Trump’s “Space Force” is not the answer.

Trump dreams of space.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images and Thinkstock.

President Trump’s proposal to create a Space Force—a sixth branch of the U.S. military, like the Air Force, “separate but equal,” as he put it in a speech on Monday—is not as zany as it may sound, but it’s the wrong solution to a real problem.

The problem is this: The U.S. military depends on satellites for everything—for intelligence, surveillance, navigation, communications, even for the accurate guidance of its weapons (GPS satellites make “smart bombs” smart)—but these satellites are vulnerable to attack and disruption.

This became dramatically clear in 2007, when China conducted its first anti-satellite test, destroying one of its own orbiting satellites with a weapon launched by a rocket. Many sounded the alarm, but no one in Washington did anything about it.

In 2011, President Obama, alerted to the problem, quietly made a series of decisions—involving procedures, promotions, and the deployment of new sensors and devices in outer space, most of them highly classified—that began to address the problem. Meanwhile, in the years since, China and several other countries have built up their capabilities—with traditional and cyber weapons—against not only satellites but the ground stations that receive and transmit the data.

It’s not as if the military was unaware of the issues or ill-equipped to deal with them. The Air Force Space Command, founded in 1982 and headquartered in Colorado Springs, has 36,000 personnel and budget this year of $8.5 billion. The National Reconnaissance Office, or NRO, an extremely secretive branch of the U.S. intelligence community created in 1961, has a budget that some estimate at about $15 billion.

One might think that the directors of these organizations would have an interest in defending their extremely expensive satellites, but they appear not to.

This neglect is what has led some, well before Trump, to propose an autonomous Space Force. The idea is that, rather than being stacked with—and reporting to—traditional Air Force officers, most of them fighter pilots with a drive for offensive combat operations, the specialists of the Space Force would be attuned to the needs, properties, and vulnerabilities of satellites and the systems connected to them.

But in fact, this is not likely what would happen—and it’s certainly not what should happen. The special thing about satellites and the organizations that control or operate them (Air Force Space Command, the NRO, and other smaller outfits) is that they are, by nature, subordinate to other branches of the armed forces—to wars that are fought not in outer space but on Earth or in the atmosphere. Space assets service air, naval, and ground forces by providing them with intelligence, communications, and guidance for missiles and smart bombs. Placing these vital assets under the command of a four-star general in a separate service—and imbuing its officers and enlisted personnel with the élan of an elite force that doesn’t answer to the other services of the armed forces and that, in fact, competes with them for resources—would run counter to the nation’s needs.

That was the point that Secretary of Defense James Mattis made last fall, when a few members of Congress pushed for a separate Space Force. In a letter to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Mattis wrote, “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.”

The key here was Mattis’ emphasis on “joint warfighting functions”—the need for more interservice cooperation rather than building new fiefdoms—but Trump might also want to heed his words about “reducing overhead.” A new service would mean a new headquarters, another seat on the Joint Chiefs of Staff (and a few hundred more Pentagon-based staff), more three- and four-star generals (with their attendant pay and benefits), another military academy (with faculty, grounds, scholarships, etc.), more and different uniforms, probably a Space Band, and all the rest. If Trump thinks that U.S.–South Korean military exercises are too expensive, those costs are trivial compared to the infrastructure of a sixth service.

More than that, it’s not at all clear what a Space Force would do. Long before the National Security Act of 1947, which laid out the distinct roles and missions of each branch of the U.S. armed forces, the basic functions of an Army, Navy, and Marine Corps had been well established. By contrast, in the decade since China’s first anti-satellite test, the United States has still not even declared a policy for deterring and fighting that kind of conflict. That is, we have neither firmly stated what we would do in the event of an attack on our vital satellites nor created (and visibly deployed) the means to carry out that response.

Yes, we need to set that policy, and soon, but that should be the job of the political and military leaders who rely on the satellites—not on the officers of a special Space Force, who might have different priorities.

There’s an analogy to this in modern military history. The 1947 act created, among other things, a new and separate Air Force. (Before then, warplanes and their pilots belonged to the Army Air Corps.) World War II ended in 1945 with those planes bombing Germany and Japan, the latter with incendiary explosives and, at the very end, atomic bombs. So the main mission of the new Air Force was to drop bombs on enemy targets with more atomic (and, a few years later, much more powerful hydrogen) bombs, as part of a doctrine that the generals of the new service called “killing a nation.” For the next few decades, the Strategic Air Command—the branch of the Air Force that controlled the bomb—dominated the Air Force. Not until the 1970s did the pilots of tactical fighter jets, armed with conventional bombs and air-to-air munitions, rise to the fore; in other words, not until the 1970s did the Air Force pay much attention to missions that involved supporting Army troops and Marines on the ground. And not until the last 15 years, with the development of smart bombs and drones, did the Air Force have any interest in buying airplanes dedicated to those missions. (The best air-to-ground attack plane of the 1990s, the A-10, would have been killed—the Air Force chiefs zeroed it out of their budgets each year—had it not been built in the home district of the chairman of the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee; after he died, the chiefs shunted the A-10 fleet to the Air National Guard.)

It is not known what the chiefs of the Space Force would want to do and buy, but it’s a decent guess that they would push for shiny, offensive weapons over defensive measures—and that they wouldn’t spend much time or money on the other service chiefs’ wish lists.

John Hamre, a former deputy secretary of defense and an outspoken advocate of doing more to protect the U.S. military’s space assets, told me that his big worry about a Space Force is that “we will spend the next 5-10 years on bureaucratic arm-wrestling and will fall even further behind our adversaries.”

Trump’s wishes notwithstanding, a Space Force will not materialize all at once. Congress would have to authorize and fund its creation; the Joint Chiefs would then have to make room for it among the other services. Mattis and Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are on record opposing the idea. So are the seniormost Air Force officials as well as many retired generals and senior officials. (In talking with a number of these people, I couldn’t find any who support the idea—or know any colleagues who do.)

Then again, Trump announced his proposal for a Space Force at a White House meeting of his Space Council, where Gen. Dunford was present. Turning to Dunford, Trump said, “If you would carry that assignment out, I would be very greatly honored … Got it?” Dunford replied, “We got it.”

The Pentagon is currently conducting a congressionally mandated study, due Dec. 31, of the whole gamut of space-defense issues. If Trump gives Dunford this “assignment” a few more times between now and then, the general—who, like Mattis, rose through the ranks as a Marine—might have to do something.

At some point in the future, it might be a good idea to create a Space Force (or perhaps a Space Corps, which would have the same semi-autonomous relationship to the Air Force that the Marine Corps has to the Navy). But many other things need to be done first: A policy has to be stated; doctrines, strategies, tactics, and training manuals have to be written; specialists need to be given richer incentives—career paths, with steady promotions—to join the existing services’ space commands; all the services would need to work jointly on these tasks.

One senior aerospace executive, with a military background, said, “What the Air Force Space Command and the NRO need to do, right now, is to boost the number of soldiers, sailors, aircrews, artillery officers, and so forth—people with operational experience—to be part of the process, who can tell the senior officers what AFSC could do to help, say, the 18th Airborne Division. There’s no one at senior levels who’s doing this now.”

In other words, what the officers involved in the space commands need is the opposite of a separate Space Force.