Does America Need a Space Force?
A new service branch would put more bureaucracy between critical capabilities and the troops who need them.
With the impeachment debate moving full speed ahead, President Trump may be hard-pressed to move forward on his larger agenda in the months to come. But a few key policy issues are likely to continue to be the subject of intense debate. One, of course, is the president’s much-touted and ill-conceived “wall” on the U.S.-Mexico border. Another, less discussed but also close to his heart, is the president’s desire to build a Space Force as a sixth branch of the U.S. armed forces, alongside the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, and Coast Guard.
How quickly the Space Force develops will depend in part on the outcome of this year’s National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, which in the short term at least is focused on parallel proposals to create a “space corps” in the House or a “space command” in the Senate under the supervision of the Air Force, which may or may not be a stepping stone towards a full-fledged Space Force.
As members of the Center for International Policy’s Sustainable Defense Task Force, we have strongly urged that a Space Force not be created, because it is likely to increase bureaucratic waste, encourage the development of costly and unworkable high-tech weapons systems, and to focus attention on the further militarization of space rather than how best to cooperatively manage the risks to America’s civilian and military space assets. It is also likely to be costly—recent reporting by Bloomberg indicates even the limited Space Development Agency would cost nearly $11 billion over the next 5 years.
We’re far from the only ones worried this will turn into another bureaucratic nightmare. The House Defense Appropriations subcommittee expressed concerns about the “many unanswered questions” left by the Department’s proposal. The subcommittee noted that “It is fully within the Department’s current authority to make space a higher priority without creating a new military service,” that would create “additional overhead cost and disruption.”
How did the Space Force rise to its current place on the policy agenda in the first place? There are two answers to that question, one political and one bureaucratic.
On the one hand, President Trump has embraced a proposal that he sees as offering a sweeping military initiative that he can point to, one that will fulfil his fascination with space vehicles while simultaneously exciting his political base. The latter was evident at a series of political rallies that occurred in the wake of the President’s introduction of the Space Force concept, when chants of “Space Force, Space Force,” rippled through the crowds. Trump’s support for the Space Force concept gave a boost to an initiative that members of Congress like Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Alabama, and Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tennessee, had been promoting for several years.
The second driver of the Space Force was bureaucratic – an attempt to ensure that military space priorities were not given second place to highly costly, traditional Air Force priorities like bombers and fighter aircraft. In his role as chair of the National Space Council, Vice President Mike Pence has been a big booster of the Space Force, as was Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan during his time at the Pentagon. Not surprisingly, the concept has also been supported by companies like Boeing, Shanahan’s former employer; Lockheed Martin, whose CEOs sit on the advisory group for Pence’s Space Council; and the companies’ joint venture, United Launch Alliance, which benefited from billions in taxpayer subsidies and a previous space launch monopoly
There are a number of reasons to think twice about building a full-blown Space Force. The first can be expressed in two words: excess bureaucracy. Former Secretary of Defense James Mattis acknowledged this risk in a 2017 letter to Congress on a prior iteration of the Space Force concept, when he stated that “ at a time when we are trying to integrate the Department’s joint warfighting functions, I do not wish to add a separate service that would likely present a narrower and even parochial approach to space operations.” Mattis acquiesced once it became clear that developing a Space Force was the administration’s party line – but he got it right the first time.
Recent history is instructive. Despite a laudatory goal—defeating improvised explosive devices killing American troops—the new bureaucracy created to combat that threat came to be understood to be the Manhattan project that bombed. The Government Accountability Office found that they failed to have a unified strategy, and other military services continued to field programs under their own banner.
The second reason to question the need for a Space Force it is likely to increase the risks of waste. Taxpayers should be wary of proposals to accelerate development through reduced accountability. In the case of the Missile Defense Agency, the Union of Concerned Scientists has indicated that a similar approach meant that major missile defense programs were “shielded from oversight.”
A military-led effort may also undermine our significant civilian concerns in space. The vast majority of our satellites in space are civilian, and we should be wary of efforts to further weaponize the space domain.
Creating a separate service ultimately just adds more bureaucracy between the troops and the support they need. Congress, the administration, and the contenders to serve as Commander-in-Chief starting in 2021 should bear this in mind before jumping on the Space Force bandwagon.