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President Donald Trump speaks at the National Space Council meeting at the White House June 18, where he called on the Pentagon to establish a Space Force. (credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

American dominance in space and the Space Force


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On June 18, President Trump announced his desire to create a space force as an independent military command to the Air Force, Navy, Marines, and Army. Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has been tasked to oversee the creation of the Space Force, although the creation of a separate military branch will require congressional action.

The Washington Post says that Trump in March initially referred to it as a joke. It is a joke no more.

Trump in March initially referred to it as a joke. It is a joke no more.

Thus far, the Defense Department had resisted the idea of a Space Corps as a unit within the Air Force, let alone a separate Air Force, on grounds that it would create unnecessary costs and bureaucracy. Clearly the idea has evolved within the Trump Administration, apparently under the leadership of Vice President Pence as head of the National Space Council. Administration thinking may have been influenced by the June 8, 2018, article “Space: The New Strategic Heartland” by Jerry Hendrix:

America’s Space Command is largely focused on supporting military operations within the air, maritime, and land domains on Earth. It is less prepared to defend the nation’s interests in Earth’s orbit or beyond. Sensing that the nation’s space community has been myopic, Congress has repeatedly asked the question: Is now the appropriate time to set up a Space Force? The answer from the Department of Defense, despite the president’s suggested support, has been underwhelming: requests for more time to consider the problem.

Hendrix raises concerns that China may be prepared to violate the Outer Space Treaty by placing sensors and anti-satellite weapons on the Moon.

Leadership of outer space development has been a US goal from before the time of President Kennedy and played a role in the US plans to launch satellites as part of the International Geophysical Year in 1957–58. The present US space policy to have dominance of outer space, rather than just American leadership, raises concerns about the US policy towards the militarization of outer space.

The militarization of outer space is a growing concern. US negotiations with the former Soviet Union regarding strategic weapons were built upon understandings and confidence-building measures that emerged over a span of several decades. No comparable mechanisms exist for negotiations with China and other emerging space powers like India.

A central concern is the Outer Space Treaty. Last May, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) held a hearing regarding whether the US should withdraw from or modify the Outer Space Treaty. The industry representatives voiced their strong support for the treaty that it had served the US well. However, the idea of US domination of outer space appears counter to the spirit of the treaty, notably Articles I and II:

I. The exploration and use of outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries, irrespective of their degree of economic or scientific development, and shall be the province of all mankind.

II. Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.

The generations of effort invested in creating instruments and institutions to prevent widespread war should not be cast aside as useless relics of the past.

We can hope that any advocates within the administration for exiting the Outer Space Treaty do not gain the upper hand. Hendrix appears to have played to the administration’s apparent desire to be viewed as dominant, not just as leading. The many problems raised by idea of dominance of space, with no thought to confidence-building measures and arms control, may be a greater danger to the U.S. and to the world than the possible threats alluded to by Hendrix and other advocates of militarizing space.

The weapons that already exist could destroy all life on Earth and foreclose all options for becoming a multiplanetary species forever. The generations of effort invested in creating instruments and institutions to prevent widespread war should not be cast aside as useless relics of the past. There may be value in a Space Force with deep experience and expertise to assure national security. However, if dialogue with China, India, Russia, and others is not urgently addressed, the existence of the Space Force may amplify the genuine threats more than add to the security of the United States.


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