This article is part of the Future Agenda, a series from Future Tense in which experts suggest specific, forward-looking actions the new Biden administration should implement. On Wednesday, Feb. 3, at noon Eastern, Future Tense will host an online event to discuss what science, technology, health, and energy priorities the Biden administration should pursue. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website.
As the Biden administration prepares to inherit the Space Force, it has a profound choice to make: Is space a commons to share or a territory to defend?
Yes, the Biden administration could try to convince Congress to formally change where the Space Force fits into the Pentagon’s organization chart, demoting it from its standing as a branch of the military. But the more meaningful action would be to choose to see space as a commons, breaking with Trump’s orbital policies that treated a war in space as inevitable—and America’s to win.
“We must have American dominance in space. So important,” said Trump at the June 2018 press conference where he announced that he’d directed the Pentagon to “immediately begin the process necessary to establish a space force as the sixth branch of the armed forces.”
Trump’s desire for a Space Force did not call it into being so much as it resolved an ongoing debate within the military about the need for such a service. The legislation that created the Space Force was bipartisan, and the congressional debate mostly centered around what would happen if the Air Force lost direct control over satellites used to detect nuclear missile launches.
“The Space Force, as it exists now, is fundamentally a rebranding of the Air Force’s legacy space organizations—specifically the now-defunct Air Force Space Command,” wrote Valerie Insinna at Defense News. “The service currently controls about $15 billion in annual spending, commands dozens of military satellites, and tracks more than 24,000 objects in space.”
The Space Force is unique among military branches in that it has just one (publicly acknowledged) weapon, and that weapon, a reversible jammer, can disrupt a satellite’s communications but does not cause any permanent harm. Nevertheless, creating a new branch of the military for the explicit purpose of war in space suggests to other countries that the United States is planning for more in orbit than it is disclosing. Treating satellites like forts and orbits like territory risks war and, ultimately, the destruction of orbit as a useful space.
While the Pentagon has not adopted Trump’s exact language on the Space Force, in May 2020 Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said Space Force was necessary because “our adversaries in the last several years have weaponized space. They’ve made it a warfighting domain.”
But space is primarily a place of business, science, and communication. The global space economy is worth more than $400 billion, and that is growing, especially with the emergence of constellations of smaller satellites. Satellites do everything from provide internet connections to take pictures of Earth that help with agricultural land management. The global positioning satellites, used by people daily for real-time driving directions, were built to aid military targeting and navigation. A loss of orbit would make it harder for some companies to do business, for spy agencies to spy, and for everyone, including the U.S. military, to navigate and communicate.
“Space war is war on satellites,” wrote Ann Finkbeiner in Scientific American. “And all satellites—bright and moving in predictable, public orbits—are essentially sitting ducks, nearly impossible to defend.”
Satellites will be the targets in any war in space, and the means to destroy or disable them are many and varied. Earth-launched anti-satellite missiles, which have been demonstrated by nations including the United States, Russia, China, and India, are the most straightforward way to destroy a satellite. The debris created by such a detonation would further threaten all other satellites in orbit, risking a kind of snowballing, orbit-denying catastrophe. A range of other weapons, from electromagnetic jamming to satellites deliberately colliding with their targets, could all factor into a shooting war that starts in or spills into orbit.
In light of this danger, part of the Space Force’s stated mandate is to “Deter aggression in, from, and to space.” Yet the history of arms races shows that attempts to deter aggression can be misread as attempts to start aggression, encouraging other nations to develop their own space-oriented weaponry. And even in a nonspace war, the United States’s heavy investment in spy and communication satellites would make space a sensible target for an enemy—destroying orbit as a useful place rather than letting a rival continue to use satellite information to improve how they fight war on the surface below.
But a space war is not inevitable. The best way for the Biden administration to prevent one is to treat orbit as a commons, and the Space Force as a kind of traffic control agent. The more other countries feel they can safely keep satellites in use, the less likely they are to plan a “scorched orbit” approach to a future conflict. To support this, the Biden administration should deemphasize the Space Force’s fighting role and emphasize instead how it fits into the broader, and less offensive, family of Pentagon support services.
The Biden administration has the opportunity to craft a new space strategy, and to do so before the commanders of the Space Force are established enough to define that mission to the public. This means that, despite Congress legislating the Space Force into being as a separate branch, formal strategy and institutional pressures can relegate it back into the support role it had as part of the Air Force.
“The greatest risk is that the Space Force starts thinking of itself as a separate service, and acting in accord with the bureaucratic imperatives that tend to put services in competition with one another,” said Robert Farley, senior lecturer at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce at the University of Kentucky and author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force.* “Right now, everyone in the U.S. military uses space all the time for core organizational functions.”
Staffing can play some part of this. By taking in space professionals from the Army and Navy, the Space Force can build ties to those services, focusing on maintaining existing satellites, managing traffic in orbit, and keeping an eye out for future threats. Treating the Space Force as a support service removes the obligation for it to act like an actual front-line fighting force. The increased pace of commercial satellite launches, where each new satellite raises the overall likelihood of an orbital collision, creates enough of a mission for the Space Force, without also trying to actively plot out a covert war of maneuver visible to observers below.
Besides deprioritizing war in space, the Biden administration should make a concrete bid to actively secure peace in orbit through diplomacy. The first step would be a moratorium on militaristic stunts like commissioning officers abroad the International Space Station. Next would be working on a new international treaty to name, prohibit, and verify a lack of new weapons in orbit. (The 1967 Outer Space Treaty famously prohibits putting nuclear weapons in orbit but is much more open-ended about precision weaponry.)
In 2014, the Obama administration rejected a new “Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space” advanced by Russia as fundamentally flawed. (Observers at the time found the treaty’s focus only on weapons in orbit, and not anti-satellite missiles launched from Earth, underwhelming.) But past rejection of an underwhelming treaty shouldn’t preclude the possibility of any future agreements establishing peace in the heavens. There is plenty of, er, space for Russia, China, and the United States to negotiate new agreements banning the testing of debris-causing anti-satellite tests, and to establish a verification regime for specific anti-satellite satellites. It is harder to come up with rules governing hacking and jamming attacks on satellites, but they are also less likely to immediately result in debris that threatens other objects in orbit.
Unlike the last time a Democratic president inherited a new expansion of the security state, the Space Force poses little threat to civil liberties or the long-term viability of American democracy. If the Space Force can be absorbed as a grandiose rebranding of what the military was already doing in orbit, there’s a chance the Biden administration could use it to establish laws and agreements that keep space from hosting a new cold war, or a disastrous hot war.
The planet below is getting hot enough already. The safest path forward is to make sure the guardians are focused on cleaning up debris in orbit, instead of creating it.
Correction, Jan. 21, 2021: This piece originally misstated Robert Farley’s academic affiliation. He is a senior lecturer at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce at the University of Kentucky, not Patterson University.
Correction, Jan. 22, 2021: This piece originally misstated the Space Force’s known weapons, saying that the Space Force has no (publicly acknowledged) weapons. It does have one, a reversible jammer.