After a long and confusing bureaucratic process, the U.S. Space Command finally launched last month. Though a “Space Command” may sound sleek and futuristic, the difficulty the administration is having in establishing the related Space Force does not bode well for America’s future in the new space race. Policy incoherence regarding space will have serious consequences. A wrong vision could be detrimental to the future of the United States and the entire planet.
President Donald Trump has appeared enthusiastic about military space strategy since assuming office. He floated the idea of a Space Force in March 2018 and directed the Pentagon to establish one in June that year. But unlike immigration or crime, issues he returns to repeatedly, Trump has ceded the establishment of a separate Space Force as a new branch of the armed services to a raucous public debate.
That’s a shame, because the new space service has a vital role to play. Thinking of space as air, just higher up, is a mistake. In the future, as styles of warfare emerge in this realm, the United States will need a distinct culture and expertise focused on this domain to maintain its military preeminence, guard itself against new kinds of attacks and develop the skills that will make possible future exploration.
An independent space service is essential to maintain U.S. primacy in space. A separate service will gather space professionals from their parent services to start a unique culture focused on the frontier, empowering them to think of space — including recruitment, training and subsequent promotions — on its own terms. Such a service is critical given the growing importance of space, not just from a national security perspective, but also to secure the growing industry of space commerce.
But the administration’s quest to establish this service has been plagued by bureaucratic meddling and policy confusion — and it hasn’t been confined to the White House. Back in May, the Senate Armed Services Committee approved legislation that would establish a separate military service for space standing alongside established services such as the Army and Navy. But in July, the House Armed Services Committee passed a decidedly more limited vision, establishing a Space Corps within the Department of the Air Force. That leaves both houses of Congress far apart on their sense of what the military’s approach to space should be.
But if Congress is confused, lawmakers are at least trying to get something done. The Pentagon, tasked by Trump to work on a separate space service proposal, was against the establishment of a separate service from the beginning. Top leadership stifled a serious policy debate within the Air Force on how the service should be constituted, issuing a “gag order” on advocacy for a space order. The directive, which came in the form of an anodyne-sounding “restrictive public affairs guidance,” prevented those within its ranks with the necessary military space expertise from weighing in publicly.
The result? Discussion of a subject with historical consequences was ceded to those, including late-night comedians, who neither understood how military space thinkers conceptualize space power nor possessed a historical sense of what a separate service would mean for space policy in the long run. Those Air Force officers who chose to speak up publicly about space were forced to retire.
Without healthy democratic debate, we are left with strategic incoherence regarding U.S. space strategy. This is an unfortunate reversal at a critical moment, muddying bipartisan legislation that President Barack Obama signed in 2015, which gave the Defense Department a vital role in securing the public’s interest in space and protecting national security space assets.
Now the United States appears at best reactive, and at worst unable or unwilling to understand that the space environment is changing. Space, according to dominant U.S. strategic thinking, is limited to a domain to be exploited for “winning a war that extends to space.”
Countries such as China and Russia are changing their conceptions of the utility of outer space. Rather than treating space just as a military-force multiplier providing satellite support to their major military services, these nations see space for its own merits. This includes the promise of a multi-trillion-dollar economy that awaits those who develop the capacity to extract resources on the moon and asteroids. In 2015, China established its PLA Strategic Support Force as a separate service equal in grade to its army, navy, air force and rocket forces — and loyal solely to the Communist Party.
Trump may be afraid of falling behind China, but his trade wars pale in comparison to the ambition of President Xi Jinping’s China space dream. If the Trump administration leaves space strategy in the hands of vested bureaucracies with little interest in understanding this radical new future, space may be less free, and the United States may be poorer and less free as a result.
Namrata Goswami is an independent analyst and author of “Outer Space and Great Powers.” This column was originally published by The Washington Post.