The Space Force Is Trump’s Least Bad Idea
America’s satellites are its Achilles’ heel
Not even President Trump’s most fervent supporters would mistake him for a policy wonk. As a leader, Trump has a preference for tangible, easily understood ideas that double as not-so-subtle branding exercises: Fort Trump is good; walls are good. As such, it’s readily understandable why the president would leap at the chance to sponsor a new arm of the military — a Space Force. It’s equally understandable that the president’s critics might conclude that Trump’s interest is largely driven by his ego. (This is a man who prostrated himself to ensure battle tanks would be present at his Independence Day parade.)
However, dismissing the Space Force because of the hubris of its leading cheerleader would be a mistake. This is not your run-of-the-mill Trump branding exercise. In stark contrast to something like the Mexican border wall, a medieval solution to a shrinking problem, the Space Force would see America playing catch-up to a new geopolitical trend: the militarization of space.
Satellites are infrastructure for an interconnected world.
Recently we’ve seen a range of countries demonstrate their ability to project force into space, in the most explosive fashion possible: destroying satellites. In March of this year, India surprised defense experts by successfully launching an anti-satellite missile, striking an abandoned Indian satellite in orbit and turning it into a cloud of debris. In doing so, India became the fourth country with the capacity to destroy satellites (after the United States, Russia, and China). The Indian weapon was a “kinetic kill” missile, designed to destroy the satellite by physically colliding with it.
For all the visceral impact of the Indian demonstration, China and Russia are developing more sophisticated arsenals for space warfare. Pentagon research released this year reported that both countries are developing weapons with the capacity to take satellites down from the ground. This smorgasbord of new technologies includes energy weapons, long-range jamming, lasers, and microwave emitters. The report predicts that China will have the power to literally shoot down enemy satellites with laser weapons by 2020. China also has a broader technological agenda, working on developing “repair satellites” to help fix damaged friendly satellites.
China’s technological drives are in service of the country’s wider goals for the cosmos. Beijing has been open about its ambitions in space, setting out a 30-year plan to lead the world in space-related industrialization, involving space-based solar power and a permanent lunar colony. It makes sense that China would develop its military resources in line with these goals.
But it’s not just the world’s largest powers that are focused on space warfare. In July, France unveiled a new Space Command, with a plan to arm its satellites with defensive lasers to protect against anti-satellite weapons. While hypothetical discussion about space as a war zone has been ongoing since the Cold War, the last two years have seen a boom in space-orientated military spending.
To understand why the world’s major militaries are so focused on satellite-orientated conflict, the key thing to understand is how important satellites have become to modern society. Satellites are infrastructure for an interconnected world: Cell towers, electrical grids, and financial markets all work through satellite connection. It is not much of a stretch to say that the world’s economic system is reliant on satellite-enabled GPS. Even a temporary shutdown of GPS could cost billions of dollars. In 2017, former NASA Administrator Michael Griffin told the U.S. government: “When we talk about economic infrastructure, I don’t think the general public realizes the extent to which the Global Positioning System’s timing signal is critical for these ATM transactions and every other point-of-sale transaction conducted in the United States and throughout most of the world.”
The transformation of satellites into this foundational infrastructure has all but guaranteed that large militaries will include space warfare in their strategic planning, whether from the perspective of defending their own satellite assets or attacking an adversary’s. War in space will never again be a speculative thought experiment, as it was in the Cold War.
What makes these global developments in space particularly interesting from a military perspective is that this is a sphere in which the United States lacks its usual overwhelming superiority. Of the considerable resources and force that the U.S. military can project around the globe, few can be put to use defending a satellite from direct attack by a Chinese laser. And of all the world’s countries, the United States has the most satellites to defend — 830, many more than the next largest, China, with 280 — and so has the most to lose from a conflict in space.
The other critical risk for the United States is that an adversary may target America’s array of satellites as a means of crippling its conventional military. If their satellite connection were lost, American ships and planes would lose navigational and communication capabilities — both obviously vital in military operations. Spy satellites are used for reconnaissance and mapping, and the advent of satellites with A.I. will only make them more important to military planners. Even jamming American satellites, not necessarily destroying them, would have the potential to disrupt strategic operations. (The U.S. military is now trying to launch “jam-proof” satellites.)
The world is not destined to continue on a path of militarization when it comes to space.
While the United States also has anti-satellite weapons and a research program on more advanced satellite defense systems (including a neutral particle beam), the evidence suggests that America is falling behind new space powerhouses like China. This wider geopolitical context is the key to understanding the drive for a dedicated Space Force to increase and coordinate resources toward defending satellites as the critical infrastructure that they are. And Trump is far from the first to advocate for such an entity — consider that a group of 43 former Defense Department, Air Force, and intelligence officials signed an open letter earlier this year in support of a Space Force.
The world is not destined to continue on a path of militarization when it comes to space. While outer space is essentially unregulated from a military perspective, there is agreed-upon international law in the form of the Outer Space Treaty, signed in 1967. The treaty sets out that the moon and other celestial bodies can’t be claimed by any country and can only be used for peaceful purposes. However, apart from banning the placement of nuclear weapons in space, it has no mention of other military activities. Satellite-destroying lasers were clearly still science fiction in 1967.
More recently, the United Nations has supervised the drafting of new international laws to regulate against modern warfare in space. The Proposed Prevention of an Arms Race in Space Treaty promises to ban countries from threatening or using force against objects in space and preventing weapons from being carried in space. However, progress on that treaty has stalled — in large part because of American opposition. It would be in its own strategic interest for the United States to reconsider its position and back a global coalition working toward disarmament in space.
It is likely hoping for too much to expect President Trump to join a broad multilateral effort, let alone one to reduce the weaponization of satellites and protect space as a conflict zone. In lieu of new regulations, it would not be wise to leave American satellites at the mercy of a more technologically advanced adversary. In these circumstances, perhaps astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson puts it best:
“I’m an academic; I analyze everything. Just because it came out of Trump’s mouth doesn’t automatically mean it’s a crazy idea… the Space Force is not a crazy idea.”