John J. Bastiat / June 22, 2018

A (Space) Force to Be Reckoned With

Do we really need President Donald Trump’s recommended sixth military branch?

There’s an obvious question asked by, well, everyone in the wake of President Donald Trump’s announcement earlier this week that he has directed the Pentagon to create a “Space Force”: Do we really need an independent space force? Furthermore, what drove this decision to create what will be the sixth branch of the U.S. Armed Forces? The answers have several moving parts, including politics, well-grounded grievances and doctrinal considerations.

The political piece is easy: Every legislator or bureaucrat with a space-related industrial sector has a constituent “rice bowl” they want to fill. As always, a good forensic decryption aid for issues like these is this: Follow the money.

As for the grievances and drivers behind the decision, last year, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL), chairman of the Strategic Forces Subcommittee of the House Armed Service Committee, spoke at the National Defense Forum. He flatly stated, “What we have found is that space has not been able to get the attention it needs, culturally or resource wise.” He was taking aim at the Air Force, which — at least in his estimation — gives space short-shrift. “The Air Force’s number one mission culturally is air dominance, as it should be,” Rogers said. “Space is a subordinate mission and that’s no longer acceptable.”

He further noted in the previous year that none of the 37 Air Force colonel promotion candidates to the rank of brigadier general were space professionals, and that out of 450 hours of required courses within the Air Force’s professional military education curriculum, only two are devoted to national security in space. Rogers likened the current state of space power to that of the Air Force in its nascent stage under the Army, saying it requires a similar solution.

From a doctrinal standpoint, opinions about separating space from the Air Force’s mission are all over the map. Some national defense strategists believe space power remains simply a logical extension of air power and thus should remain within the Air Force. Others note space is trans-service: All military branches use space and have a vested interest in space not “belonging” to any one service. Still others believe that development of a truly independent space force is needed to spur the kind of growth that rapidly sprang from the minds of its doctrine developers once the Air Force became an independent service component.

Clearly, doctrine developers and Pentagon planners don’t speak with one voice on the topic, so searching for the answer about whether a separate space force should exist is likely pointless.

One thing is clear, however: America’s adversaries — especially China and Russia — are challenging its dominant role in space. Stealing U.S. technologies, among others, China has made alarming advances in counter-space technology, with the end goal of denying U.S. access to space capabilities if a conflict between the two nations arises. So as Trump wrestles Beijing over trade and North Korean nukes, the Space Force may be one more chess move.

As to the ultimate wisdom of President Trump’s decision, the truth will become known over the long term. We’re almost certain to see a robust body of “space doctrine” and new technologies develop from this initiative. Let’s hope these future assets to our national security outweigh the bureaucracy associated with having another military mouth to feed at the budget trough. For now, however, we can still hear the echoes ringing out from the rally in Duluth, Minnesota, which the president just visited: “Space Force, Space Force, Space Force, Space Force!”

Bastiat is a retired career Air Force officer and pilot.

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