The Space Review: A Space Service in support of American grand strategy

Americans have dreamed of going to the stars for generations. The Apollo missions were thought to be the starting point for the United States to be a spacefaring people, but this dream drifted to the backstage as the political class allowed itself to be captured by the winds of pop-culture and perceived expediency.

In June 2018, President Trump resurrected this dream when he called on the military to create a new service branch, which he calls the Space Force. Although this gave new life into the dream, it also reignited the debates about Americans and space, and especially the purpose of a new branch of the military.

While there has been ample discussion of the political, bureaucratic, budgetary, logistical, and technical challenges this poses, few have focused on how such an organization would fit into national security strategy, especially American grand strategy.

Grand strategy, at its core, attempts to harness military, economic, and political power to advance the nation. It is created organically, over decades and centuries, and for it to be successful must be forward-looking, peering across the horizon into the centuries uncounted. Grand strategy is the most critical form of statecraft. It implies the use of force to promote these interests. Grand strategy is married to hard power and military force; unlike domestic policy, it creates the conditions for either total triumph or total destruction. Grand strategy is often ignored because it is inconvenient, hard to change, and subject to the tyranny of the status quo. Its development requires a formidable depth of knowledge. No electoral constituency holds a president accountable for not having a grand strategy even though having one is the raison d’êtreof the presidency. To ignore grand strategy is to engage in ad-hoc policy anchored by nothing, moving nowhere. Grand strategy is further burdensome since it requires constant adaptation. American grand strategy is fundamentally based on military primacy, and space dominance will determine which nation is in that position.

Space policy is dominated by camps. One consists of the scientists who have little interest in the political-strategic equation and, in a few cases, work against it. A second camp is dominated by the traditional military, suspicious of ideas such as space domination and the need for a separate service. A third features the political class who may understand the immediate value of the space program, but fail to prioritize the right programs. A fourth and final camp includes some of the astronauts who see space exploration only in the context of exploration for exploration’s sake. Rarely has anyone articulated where the USA needs to be in five, ten, fifty, or one hundred years—and beyond—to ensure it is the premiere spacefaring nation.

The real priority is to fully integrate all these aspects of space into current and future national security and grand strategic thinking. The only way to accomplish any of this from a grand strategy perspective is to create a separate military service.

Admittedly, there are other proposals that would get us to where we want to go, at least partially. One idea is that of a Space Guard, modeled on the Coast Guard who would oversee civil and commercial space activity and ultimately deal with problems ranging from search-and-rescue to planetary defense. This is a softer, somewhat subordinate role than other proposals. In the middle is the ideas of a Space Corps, modeled on the Marine Corps: the Marines are technically subordinate to the Navy, but it is an autonomous service. A Space Corps would likely be under the US Air Force. This is the current thinking by many advocates from the Trump Administration. However, although both of these plans are much better than the environment of today, they are far from integrating space strategy into national security strategy and grand strategy. This could only be achieved through a separate military branch, which should be titled the Space Service.

One of the main arguments against any of these proposals is the opinion that this will militarize space. The problem with this argument is that space is already militarized, and in some sectors, the Russians and the Chinese are ahead of us in both the military and civilian sector. This incudes China’s proposed work in Space-Based Solar Power (SBSP) and testing of anti-satellite weapons, as well as Russia’s hypersonic missiles. The great powers realize that geopolitical imperative obeys no master. Interestingly, Russia and China, far from hiding this fact, are quite open about it when one examines what China says about its Strategic Support Force, or Russia, about the Russian Space Forces.

Another argument, primarily in liberal political circles, is that we could mitigate all of this with international law. They cite the 1967 Outer Space Treaty and, in a few cases, a new more restrictive treaty: PAROS, the Prevention of An Arms Race in Outer Space. This side does have a point, in that the United States is the leading nation in the world and is the touchstone of international law. Thus, America should follow the mechanism for withdrawal from the Outer Space Treaty just as President Bush withdrew from the ABM Treaty and President Trump’s withdrawal from the INF Treaty. These are treaties that our adversaries did not follow, which only resulted in a reduction of national security for the United States.

A final argument against this proposal centers on budgetary issues. Needless to say, there is going to be a cost to a new branch, although a cost dwarfed by the non-budgetary cost of America losing the strategic ground to its adversaries. However, money would also be saved by all the funds from the current uniformed and civilian services that have a small piece of overall space-related budgets. It also prevents the US Air Force from raiding the space budget for other items.

To achieve the grand strategic goals of space dominance, the United States must support President Trump’s March 2018 call for America to be “First among the Stars.” Trump wants to reinvigorate not only human space exploration, as described in Policy Space Directive 1, but also to ultimately create a separate branch of the military.

It is incumbent on advocates of such a service to recognize the need to integrate the electorate into the debate. Voters need to be educated about the current value of space technology, such as GPS, weather forecasting, communication, and military surveillance to name a few, as well as the need for space dominance for their protection and those of generations to come. Without advocacy from the electorate, this effort is a non-starter. Fortunately, the American people’s spirit is built upon going forward to the final frontier, and this can be an easy case to make.

Many analogies are made to the creation of the US Air Force by the National Security Act of 1947. This analogy, though, misses the beat. The better analogy is that the National Security Act of 1947, which was a complete shift to the professionalization of the national security system because America was at an unprecedented, existential crossroad. We are at that kind of crossroads today.

The benefits of a separate branch are myriad. It would be the tip of the spear for space-based missile defense, the only true future for protecting Americans from the threat of nuclear annihilation. By removing it from any branch already in existence, the Space Service would have a single task, not burdened by the baggage and other missions vital to the US Air Force and US Navy. It would, therefore, integrate all elements of national security into space policy and space strategy without the bureaucratic fragmentation and chaos. This would also include a Space Intelligence Service that aided the mission of this branch without adding to the data crush suffered by the uniformed military intelligence organizations and CIA already. The Space Service would possess total responsibility and total accountability for America in space without hiding behind other priorities. It would require its own training, and promotion system not burdened by preconceived notions in the other services.

Finally, the creation of the Space Service would signal to America’s adversaries the seriousness in which we take grand strategy beyond rhetoric. The Space Service would therefore be the foundation for American grand strategy of the 21st century and beyond.

This piece originally ran on The Space Review on 25 February 2019.