Say the words “Space Force” to anyone who’s seen Star Trek, and an intergalactic armada—outfitted with colorful uniforms, sophisticated technology, and massive spaceships—may come to mind. And who could blame them: The term is, seemingly, ripped from the annals of science fiction.
But those same people might be disappointed by the reality of Space Force, which is about as far from Star Trek as Pluto is from Earth. The Trump administration has often touted the proposed Space Force as a combat-heavy military branch, one that would dominate our upper atmosphere and beyond the Kármán line. “My new national strategy for space recognizes that space is a war-fighting domain, just like the land, air, and sea,” President Donald Trump said during a 2018 San Diego, Calif. rally.
The administration first announced its pursuit of a Space Force in March 2018—and a year later, the Department of Defense submitted to Congress a legislative proposal to establish it.
That proposal would direct the Space Force to “organize, train, and equip forces to provide for freedom of operation” in space, according to Space Policy Directive-4, the document that mandated the Department of Defense to submit its Space Force proposal. It would also “provide independent military options for national leadership” and enhance the lethality and effectiveness of the Joint Force” within the U.S. military.
And at the 70th International Astronautical Congress in October this year, Vice President Mike Pence said the Space Force “will be a vanguard to defending our nation, defending our freedom, and defending the rights of all freedom-loving nations in the vast expanse of space.”
That sort of language is exactly what inspires those inaccurate, Starship Trooper-esque, visions for Space Force.
RETURN TO EARTH
Today, space is the jurisdiction of all branches of the military to some degree—though the Air Force holds more responsibility than the others, says Brian Weeden, Ph.D., a space policy expert and director of program planning for Secure World Foundation. But, “there's been a growing belief that the Air Force probably isn't the best home for this space stuff, because it's fundamentally different from flying aircraft,” Weeden tells Supercluster. “So, that is the underlying driver to do something different—and one answer is to create a whole new department in the Pentagon called the Space Force.”
As the proposal is written now, the Space Force would be a lean organization—one wrapped into the Air Force, much like the Marine Corps operates inside the Navy. And its service members will be the military and civilian personnel already involved in supporting U.S. space operations.
The current plan would see Space Force "organize, train, and equip" military space forces, and work in concert with Space Command, a combatant division that was de-established in 2002 and then resurrected in August.
Space Force would one day be to Space Command what the Army is to Central Command—the service counterpart to a warfighting force. “The true point of Space Force,” says David Burbach, Ph.D., associate professor of national security affairs at U.S. Naval War College, “as opposed to Space Command, isn't so much the mission of protecting U.S. space satellites and possibly attacking other nation's space assets, but creating a service whose sole mission is train people and develop equipment for space operations.
“The hope is that the greater focus and space-first culture within Space Force will lead to more innovative thinking about the role of space, better management of space programs, better partnerships with industry for research and development, and to a corps of officers who understand how space assets fit into larger military operations,” Burbach explained to Supercluster.
A Space Force Planning Task Force team has developed an initial work plan that lays out a five-year timeline for establishing the Space Force, says Maj. William Russell, U.S. Air Force spokesman. Early estimates show that Space Force could cost as much as $500 million a year.
Congress will need to approve or spike the Space Force with its fiscal year 2020 legislation. The future of Space Force could be decided soon—it’s reasonable to assume legislators will make a decision either way by Thanksgiving, Weeden says.
BACK TO LIFE,
BACK TO REALITY
“My own view is that this is a solution desperately searching for a problem—a very elaborate solution and very bureaucratically complex solution searching for a problem,” Sean O’Keefe, Ph.D., distinguished senior advisor for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, tells Supercluster. “You could go about raising the visibility, priority, and importance of certain capabilities … if you simply put the concentrated attention to it. By picking this kind of alternative, it creates all these parodies about it, this conception that we're going to have Battlestar Galactica out there, when the reality is we're dealing with folks on the ground. They're doing things that are not nearly as glamorous as what fighter pilots with white stars do. That's the whole stinking trick.”
Admittedly, the Space Force is all-too-easy to mock—and many people have, including Steve Carell, who will star in and produce the Netflix original TV series Space Force, a comedy about President Trump’s vision for what may become the sixth branch of the U.S. military.
In fact, the TV series will show Space Force cadets protecting U.S. space interests in space—something members of the real Space Force won’t and, more importantly, can’t, do. “What most people know about space comes from Hollywood and science fiction,” says Weeden. “But that's not the reality. Nearly all the technologies used in those things are complete magic and they don't exist. They require some massive re-understanding of physics that is currently well beyond us.”
Instead, for now, from Earth, the Space Force will monitor and protect satellites that provide information on everything from GPS to weather reports, make acquisitions, and manage space traffic. In other words, according to Burbach, “it will mostly look like a bunch of smart men and women sitting at desks doing highly technical jobs. That may disappoint people who imagine Space Force means spaceships with laser cannons, and Space Marines floating though zero gravity to board enemy space stations.” Their boots will be very firmly planted on the ground, and the only space armor they’ll likely don will be new patches on their Air Force-like uniforms.
In fact, Space Force cadets may never see space from space. “In reality, it's not clear that Space Force will need to send any people into space at all,” says Burbach. “Today all the services ‘loan’ some officers to NASA as astronauts participating in NASA's non-military, scientific and exploration missions, and no doubt Space Force will do the same. But there probably will not be any Space Force ‘ships’ with filled with Space Warriors, probably not any Space Force space stations, and Space Force bases on the Moon or Mars—not within the next several decades.”