Written by Collin Fifer
If you type “Space Force” into a search engine, chances are you’ll find a trailer for Netflix’s new show. Or perhaps an IMDb or Rotten Tomatoes page on it. Or an entertainment news piece on it. Even if you find anything about the actual U.S. military branch, it’s likely to be a comedic bit or an opinion piece poking fun at the whole idea.
People find this Trumpian brainchild laughable. And you can’t blame them.
I mean, the closest cultural reference we can compare Space Force to are either outlandish sci-fi sagas disjointedly different from the serious reputation the U.S. military wants to put off, or farces of them. Think Star Wars and Star Trek, or Space Balls and Galaxy Quest… Need I go on?
Sure, there is a precedent in serious U.S. affairs in space with NASA. But Space Force brings in a whole new dynamic of galactic warfare; images of dogfights around Mars, laser guns lighting up the vast darkness, and nukes on the moon.
Oddly enough, one of these things was an actual idea proposed by the military. Stay tuned to find out which one.
And, of course, it doesn’t help that this made-for-TV idea was proposed by a reality show president. All of this begs the question: is this all just a space farce?
Well, fire up your curiosity boosters and get ready to beam up some knowledge, Scotty. Today we’re examining the latest U.S. military branch. May the Space Force be with us.
To fully understand anything, we have to first look back at its history.
U.S. military space operations started in the aftermath of World War II. Military space development was underway even before the first space flight was a glint in the Kremlin’s or Pentagon’s eye.
The U.S. Army oversaw the military’s air power. But in 1947, the Air Force gained its independence, becoming the fifth branch of the U.S. military. It would remain the most recent for over 70 years.
With the Air Force now flying under the power of their own wings, the sky was no longer their limit. The Air Force took responsibility for U.S. space capabilities. It wasn’t until 1954, though, that the first official space organization was formed. General Bernard Schriever, seen as the father of the modern Space Force, commanded the Western Development Division.
Over the next decade, U.S. military space forces (though not officially referred to by that name yet) underwent bureaucratic shuffling. The Cold War, Congressional budget allocation, inter-departmental competition among branches, and military strategizing all influenced who was in charge of U.S. space might.
The Space Race brought with it unprecedented government spending on space development and public interest in everything beyond our atmosphere. Countless launches and missions, by both the U.S. and the Soviet Union, saw a dramatic increase in human endeavors in space.
Rockets burned their way out of our atmosphere. Human crafts floated through the vast emptiness. Flags and boot prints marked the moon. For the first time, science left its mark outside our world.
But space was seen as that, a scientific frontier. The notion of militarizing space was one that stayed within Pentagon walls. But military capabilities always seem to piggy-back off scientific development.
The green U.S. space forces saw their first battlefield experience in the Vietnam War. Satellites provided ground and air forces with weather and communications information. However, the Vietnam experience showed how space capabilities spread across different departments led to inefficiencies.
Cue more bureaucratic shuffling.
By the 1980s, space had become a vast domain of human imagination. Star Wars and Star Trek— the blueprints for Trump’s later plans—riveted audiences. Reagan took this sci-fi fascination into the realm of the real world with his own proposed Star Wars: The Strategic Defense Initiative. This $30 billion dream only succeeded in scaring the military spending out of the Soviets.
Under Reagan, though, there were the first whispers of Space Force becoming its own military branch. That’s right, Trump isn’t the first one, he just copycatted Reagan.
Trump: the Flamin’ Hot Gipper.
The birth of space force was not meant to be then. Instead, the Air Force Space Command was formed under the command of the, you guessed it, Air Force.
In 1991, the world witnessed the first space war, at least according to Air Force Chief of Staff Merrill McPeak. The First Gulf War, though not fought in space and with a disappointing lack of light sabers, saw the first effective use of GPS in battle.
Satellites in space relayed accurate location information to ground troops, stealth bombers, cruise missiles, and laser-guided smart bombs alike, allowing them to reach their respective locations. These GPS capabilities, a direct effect of U.S. space capabilities, aided UN troops in making quick work of Saddam Hussein’s forces.
After the success of space capabilities in the First Gulf War, there was a growing movement in the U.S. political realm to form a more independent Space Corps, still under the command of the Air Force, with the goal being an independent space force later on.
Though Space Command developed more autonomy, the hopes of an independent space force were deterred by the events of September 11th, 2001. With all resources now being directed into the War on Terror, the formation of Space Force halted.
U.S. space might once again proved a vital tool in the Second Gulf War. In case the U.S. military forgot where Iraq was after their first invasion, they could now pull it up on a map with the click of a button thanks to more advanced, modern GPS.
The plans for an independent space force continued to sit on the back burner as the 21st century reached its teenage years.
However, that all changed with President Trump.
When he met with the National Space Council (an office within the executive branch responsible for space policy), he recommended its formation, in his concise and knowledgeable style. In his words:
I imagine the actual meeting didn’t go too differently.
By December 2019, the Space Force was born. Congress approved the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act and Trump signed it into law. Steve Carell—sorry, General John “Jay” Raymond, former Commander of Air Force Space Command and U.S. Space Command, became the first chief of space operations.
The institution of the Space Force has been the center of debate ever since its founding. Although it may have come out of left field as a combed-over, hair-brained Trump idea, there has been history to this decision and even precedent in previous administrations.
But this hasn’t stopped public discourse from ridiculing it. Even private policy circles have questioned its formation. But not all sides are against the Space Force. Let’s take a look at both sides of the debate:
The mission of Space Force, as stated on their website, is:
“Organizing, training, and equipping Guardians to conduct global space operations that enhance the way our joint and coalition forces fight, while also offering decision makers military options to achieve national objectives.”
That’s right, Space Force members are called Guardians. The army has soldiers, the Air Force has airmen, and the Space Force has Groot and his wise-cracking crew.
Sorry, I know. I said I would focus on the benefits now. Let’s get back to it.
Space is an incredibly important domain. Since the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first human spacecraft in history, in 1957, about 9,000 further satellites from over 40 different countries are now orbiting the earth. Of those, around 2,500 are U.S. satellites, with 57,000 more projected in the future.
That’s a lot of space hardware floating around out there. No wonder there’s a space debris problem.
But it’s not just useless junk cluttering the outer reaches of our atmosphere, either. The U.S. military showed the vital role of satellite GPS in battle during their two Gulf Wars. Nowadays, militaries use them for many other capabilities, too, like aerial intelligence gathering and drone piloting.
But satellites have permeated many other aspects of modern life, too. They power technologies and apps that offer navigation, delivery, and, well, any services that send that location request notification. Without satellites, TV would not be a thing, ATMs and gas pumps would go on the fritz, and the internet would go down.
Without satellites, you wouldn’t be able to stay up to date on the latest MegaProjects posts.
Since so many modern capabilities depend on satellites—U.S. infrastructure especially—the U.S. government sees it as a priority to defend them.
According to Former Secretary of the Air Force, Deborah Lee James:
“[We need to] make sure our satellites are resilient against cyber-attacks, the possibility of jamming, so that we have better detection should there be a weapon that would be coming toward a satellite so that we can maneuver out of the way.”
Experts are already worried about offensive and defensive tactics in space. And they are already seeing the beginnings of this space warfare development.
In 2007, China shot down one of its own satellites. This move, though, damaging only to China’s property, alarmed analysts at the Pentagon. Assumedly directed at the U.S., this was to show that China could take out a satellite in space.
Kind of like punching yourself in the face to intimidate the enemy.
Russia, not wanting to be left out of Space Race 2.0, gave the U.S. a scare of their own. In 2019, a Russian satellite released a second, smaller one. Like an artificial version of Alien.
A couple months later, in 2020, the two satellites had caught up to and were floating next to a very expensive U.S. spy satellite. After some U.S. diplomatic maneuvers on the ground, the Russian satellites floated off on their merry way.
However, U.S. Pentagon officials, mid-sigh-of-relief, received intel of another Russian surprise. The smaller satellite fired a projectile into space. U.S. diplomats raised this issue with their Russian counterparts, marking the first time the U.S. accused another country of a space weapons test.
With the world’s premier space-faring nations embarking on a combined space and arms race—China pulling Fight Club tactics and Russia unveiling their Russian space doll—it’s pretty easy to see the rationale for needing military capabilities to defend U.S. interests in space.
And many people in U.S. policy circles felt that the Air Force was doing a poor job. Those in Congress who were in favor of an independent Space Force felt that the Air Force was prioritizing its air power mission over space capabilities. According to Representative Mike Rogers of Alabama:
“When we asked the Department [of Defense] for an organizational chart so that we could understand who was involved in making decisions in the national security space enterprise and who was in charge below the level of the Secretary and Deputy Secretary, the answer was ‘we don’t have one.’”
After learning about the importance of satellites, both for military and civilian life, the need to protect them, and the ineffective job the military has been doing on this front so far, who wouldn’t support a separate military branch dedicated to just that?
Well, there are many critics of the Space Force’s birth, some of them in inner government policy circles.
The public commentary on Space Force is undoubtedly one-sided. The growing reams of comedians, pundits, and, well, anyone online poking fun at the ridiculous fantasies an actual Space Force conjures up makes it seem like some unfortunate remnant of Trump’s legacy that future presidents will just have to deal with.
And you can’t blame people for thinking that. I mean, the Space Force announcement came from Trump, the same president who revealed Kim Jong-un “wrote me beautiful letters. And they’re great letters. And then we fell in love.”
It’s hard to constantly remember his term wasn’t some spin-off season of The Apprentice.
But the Space Force is that constant reminder. The constant message that his presidency was real and is leaving behind tangible results. And if you sift through the all-too-easy comedy of the coverage, you will find that the biggest of these results is the red tape.
Experts say that creating another military branch out of thin air adds an unneeded layer of bureaucracy with no accompanying, justifying benefits.
Bureaucracy, according to critics, serves to keep itself alive and justify its existence.
On paper, the goal of the space force is to streamline space capabilities and command in the interest of better aiding air and ground operations. But the critical assumption is that the Space Force will, instead, use its resources to serve itself and develop its power solely in its realm of space.
This assumption has historical precedence. After the formation of the Air Force, its leaders soon began butting heads with Army command.
The purpose of the Air Force was to streamline air command and capabilities in the interest of better aiding ground operations. But Air Force command valued decisions and resources that benefitted the Air Force above all else.
The A-10 plane is an example of this. Army leadership cites this plane as a great air support option for ground operations. But the Air Force commanders saw little benefit to risk assets only to see the Army score a win. The A-10, a low-flying craft, saw Air Force personnel take the risk, Air Force planes take the damage, and Air Force budget absorb the impact of maintenance just so Army forces can achieve their objectives. Air Force leadership has tried many times to retire this aircraft, something the Army is very much against.
Bureaucracy: if someone has to look good, why not me?
The fear is that this same phenomenon will repeat itself, only in space. After all, divisions only create more divide, and it’s hard to cooperate across divides.
This bureaucratic labyrinth will see the beginning years of the Space Force full of power grabs, resource allocation, and personnel transfers. In short, they’ll be busy establishing their identity on the ground rather than their capabilities in space.
Deborah Lee James, the same Former Secretary of the Air Force who stressed the importance of space power, has expressed her opposition to the formation of the Space Force. Her reasons are the same bureaucratic reasons I just mentioned.
Now, you may have been sitting there watching, thinking, “Well, we’re already in space, aren’t we? After all, NASA took us to the moon.”
And you are right. But that’s just another dimension of bureaucratic overlap and competition stemming from Space Force’s birth.
The militarization of space means a more war-based focus. In tangible terms, that could mean the appropriation of NASA funding and resources for Space Force missions that fringe on NASA’s, hostile enemy attention on civilian missions just from association with Space Force’s military focus, and less of a focus on NASA’s scientific work.
This, too, has historical precedent. When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik and scored the Cold War victory of first craft in space, instead of focusing on efforts to take U.S. astronauts to space, the Air Force proposed a top-secret retaliation plan. Their highly strategic and well-thought-out response? Nuke the moon.
That’s right. Dropping a nuclear bomb on the moon was a legitimate idea put forth by real people in the actual U.S. military.
Nukes really were the answer to anything during the Cold War.
If a section of government with a trigger finger that itchy, and who now has an offshoot with an intrinsic interest in proving its power and worth in space is given precedence over the scientific work of NASA, it’s scary to think about what will happen in the future.
But let’s take a look, anyway.
With its formation, Space Force was gifted a $15.4 billion budget with a predicted increase of $2.6 billion over the next five years.
The only actions of note the Space Force has undertaken since then is to group together the space capabilities currently spread across the Army, Navy, and Air Force.
A $15-billion military equivalent of a “that’s mine!” sibling quarrel.
This resource allocation is projected to see 16,000 personnel transfer to what General Raymond calls a “lean and agile” Space Force.
But this isn’t all leaders and military strategists have in plan for our new space Guardians.
Although the Space Force was created without a developed theory of war fighting in their theater (something the Marines and Air Force both demonstrated effectiveness at before their formation) experts are having a field day proposing what space warfare will actually look like.
It’s clear that one of Space Force’s primary missions will be to protect U.S. satellites. But what does that look like, exactly?
One theory proposes that the Space Force launch more satellites into orbit. This would make the loss of a satellite or three less detrimental to military operations. In this same vein, the development of smaller and cheaper satellites would make replacing lost ones easier.
Another method would be to physically defend satellites from weapon and cyber attack. This method, besides being very tricky (imagine attaching armor or installing hardware on old satellites in orbit around earth) is legally questionable and politically dangerous.
But the struggle to go where no military branch has gone before continues. Space Force leadership is hard at work developing a theory of space warfare and how it will contribute to U.S. National Security.
It’s no question that space is becoming an increasingly important realm, both militarily and in everyday life. But the formation of Space Force begs many questions.
Is the financial burden worth it?
Will the bureaucratic toe-stepping trip up other departments’ objectives?
Is Space Force just a self-fulfilling prophecy, creating the militarized environment in space that it was created to protect against?
Our new space Guardians are trying their best to answer those questions. But, until we get those answers, it’s just too much fun to not have a laugh at Space Force’s expense.