The idea behind a sixth military branch called the Space Force was first floated by President Trump back in June 2018. And by floated, I mean announced — what was taken initially to be a joke turned into the real thing, and on Dec. 20, 2019, the Space Force was signed into law.
The last time an entire military branch was created was when President Truman pushed the National Security Act of 1947, and out came the Air Force; so now, more than 70 years later, it seems as if the birth of a new service branch would be, for lack of a better term, a really big freakin’ deal.
However, the nation has been preoccupied with other things since December — namely, the global pandemic and subsequent economic shutdown.
But recently the Space Force popped into the news for a completely different reason. After the release of a new Netflix title called “Space Force,” it came to the military’s attention that the streaming giant was placing a big fat copyright on it. Essentially, what this means is that Netflix could profit off of merchandise with the words “Space Force” on it, even if people thought they were buying military apparel.
The issue is that legal trademarking is usually a first come, first serve kind of gig, and Netflix kicked off the process in Jan. 2019, well ahead of the U.S. government — stay tuned for the ensuing court battle.
A bigger question that the satire-comedy “Space Force” has raised among viewers is… what does the Space Force even do? So, let’s take a look at everything Space Force (the military branch, not the show) and what taxpayers can expect to see in the coming years.
The Reasoning Behind the Space Force
Before talk of the Space Force ever began, U.S. military space operations were managed by the Air Force Space Command. This command’s responsibilities mainly centered around developing and operating military space technology, such as spaceplanes, satellites, and rockets.
Aside from launching information-gathering rovers and satellites, the Air Force Space Command ran more menial, but vital programs — including the U.S. Global Positioning System (GPS) and the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program.
But according to President Trump, an Air Force command is not enough. His goal behind the Space Force is to preserve American superiority in space, as well as protect American space technology from countries like Russia and China.
“Space is the world’s newest war-fighting domain,” he said in December. “Amid grave threats to our national security, American superiority in space is absolutely vital. And we’re leading, but we’re not leading by enough. But very shortly we’ll be leading by a lot.”
What Will the Space Force Do?
Structurally, the Space Force falls under the Department of the Air Force, like the Marine Corps does the Navy. It’s expected to be the smallest of the six military branches, with around 16,000 personnel from the former Air Force Space Command; though other active duty airmen and civilians may be considered. Gen. John “Jay” Raymond was already sworn in as the first member of the Space Force in January.
As far as what it will actually do — well, that’s up for speculation. Todd Harrison, director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, said the Space Force will continue the work of the Air Force Space Command.
“It’s about, you know, all the different types of missions our military already does in space — just making sure that we’re doing them more effectively, more efficiently,” he told NPR.
The Space Force’s official website doesn’t clarify things much more. Its mission statement reads: “The USSF is a military service that organizes, trains, and equips space forces in order to protect U.S. and allied interests in space and to provide space capabilities to the joint force. USSF responsibilities include developing military space professionals, acquiring military space systems, maturing the military doctrine for space power, and organizing space forces to present to our Combatant Commands.”
What can be surmised is that the Space Force is basically a more refined, more expensive version of what was there before, with specific focus on U.S. power in space. It feels like a throwback to the space arms race of the Cold War; which is precisely what critics are afraid of.
Since Trump’s announcement in 2018, there have been many vocal critics against the creation of the Space Force. In fact, the Air Force Association immediately announced its opposition to the sixth military branch, saying that it would drive unnecessary costs for not much benefit.
All in all, the Space Force’s budget is estimated to be around $2 billion over the next five years. Certainly nothing to sniff at, but a drop in the bucket compared to the $740 billion total defense budget.
But the more pressing problem people have with the Space Force is in the name itself, which implies that force will be involved. It issues a narrative that the U.S. is championing the weaponization of space, which could be seen as a threat to non-allies.
“At best, a space force is a distraction from what is necessary to ensure security in the face of rapid technological and geopolitical changes,” Laura Grego, a senior scientist in the Global Security Program of the Union of Concerned Scientists, told Space.com.
“At worst, it would prompt a space arms race that would threaten satellites, not protect them. Diplomacy, not bureaucratic reorganization, is urgently needed.”
Peter Martinez, who directs the Colorado-based Secure World Foundation (SWF), takes a bit of a kinder approach to the Space Force. Although he doesn’t believe it’s inherently bad, Martinez questions the motives behind the sixth military branch and what it will actually accomplish. He asserts that the Space Force could have a positive international impact if the U.S. properly communicates its intentions. To recycle Grego’s wording, “diplomacy” is perhaps what is most needed, and what is sorely lacking now.
“Of course, we would much prefer to see space preserved as a domain for peaceful use and exploration, for the benefit of all nations. Indeed, space is one of the few areas of human endeavor that brings us all together, and we should strive to preserve that characteristic,” Martinez said.
The Future of the Space Force
At such an early stage, it’s hard to predict what the Space Force will look like in the coming years. For now, it will likely be used as a means of intelligence more than anything else — employing satellite data to help the military hit precise targets, detect missile launches, and gather other defense information.
“Whoever has the best information and can get it the fastest wins – and space provides a lot of that information,” said Joan Johnson-Freese, a space security expert at the U.S. Naval War College.
Unfortunately, this need to “win” in space could inflame already-high tensions with Russia and China, and escalate into a war-like situation that has never been seen before. Mark Gubrud, a physicist and professor in Peace, War and Defense at the University of North Carolina, outlines two possible outcomes of the Space Force.
“The question is, will we continue this course toward destabilization and nuclear war,” he said, “or will we renew our pursuit of arms control, disarmament, and the vision of a world free from this terrible danger?”