Space Force Seems…Sort Of Real?

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Space Force!

You like making fun of Space Force. I like making fun of Space Force. Everyone likes making fun of Space Force. It seemed the only people who didn’t were die-hard Trump supporters, who gleefully embraced it with the fervor of new, thinking it showed a kind of real-world toughness, and loved the idea of whizz-banging around it starcrafts to own the libs.

A crowd chanting “Space Force! Space Force!” after a phony President said we’re “reopening NASA” (?) because our “beautiful ancestors” (?) won WWII is extremely on-brand for 2018. 

Indeed, when the President first announced it in June, it seemed almost like a tossed-off joke.

“We must have American dominance in space,” Trump said during a speech at the National Space Council meeting, held at the White House on Monday. “I’m hereby directing the Department of Defense to immediately begin the process to establish a space force as the sixth branch of the armed forces.”

“We are going to have the Air Force, and we are going to have the space force,” Trump said. “Separate, but equal. It is going to be something so important.”

Only Trump could create a new branch of the military that seeks to control the vastness of space and manage to invoke Jim Crow, before benedicting it with the elegance of “so important.”

I think most people assumed this was a Trump nonsense statement that would go away, but that’s not really how it works. We’ve seen time and time again that Trump says something, we all laugh and cringe, and then a few weeks or months later it turns into policy. Because it isn’t that he has a short attention span. He has no personal follow-through to do anything, but he demands his words become, if not real, at least a simulation of reality.

And this wasn’t just a Trump idea. It seems like it is, because the off-hand creation of a new force coupled with the grandiose-yet-tacky name of “Space Force” is perfectly Trump. But it wasn’t his idea, and there have been a lot of people agitating for a new branch of the military, with all the procurement, office space, badges, ranks, and awards that would come with.

So when the military plan for Space Force was leaked yesterday (absent the approval of Congress, who are supposed to see it today), it seemed…almost normal? Considering the circumstances, anyway.

The military would move quickly, creating a US Space Command by the end of 2018 that watches over space operations across the armed forces. The Pentagon would recommend that the leader of Air Force Space Command also head up this new division. Simultaneously, officials would establish a Space Operations Force that would include personnel (including civilians) from the whole military. It’d be ready quickly — “space experts” would go to the European and Indo-Pacific Commands by summer 2019.

The proposal, crafted by Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, would also lead to a major overhaul in how the military buys, develops and launches satellites, including (surprise) a larger role for private space companies. A new Space Development Agency would gradually take over the acquisition processes that are currently handled by individual branches. As their existing programs wrapped up, their resources would shift toward the new agency.

This isn’t new starfighters. These aren’t units designed to conquer Mars. These aren’t even really combat units, as we understand them. It’s giant new equipment-based bureaucracy based nearly entirely on the acquisition and deployment of technology.

But there is something real here, and in his own way, Trump stumbled upon it. He said America must “dominate” space, which is really the ultimate in colonialism and great power conflict. There are areas of space where there is tension, especially in the deployment of satellites, both civilian and military, spy technology, and missile/futuristic weapons systems.

There is also the need for international cooperation, since any debris that can come from these weapon systems can destroy our entire technological infrastructure. Indeed, the amount of junk floating in near orbit, the smallest piece of which can destroy, say, the world’s existing GPS system, demands that space not be an area of conflict, but one of mutually-assured success.

I don’t think Space Force, as conceived by the pros, is designed to be rapacious. But as we leave a very short window of cooperation among powerful nations, and as new leadership in Russia, China, and the United States seeks to revive power politics, space is becoming, well, a new frontier in this. It’s the next arena. Creating a defense of space, but one that seeks just to protect American interests, will inevitably promote conflict, especially if it is based largely on procurement. Quick gains for some, huge losses for everyone else, as we get stuck in moral entropy.

That’s why Space Force is more than a farce. We see new conflict brewing in a melting Arctic Circle, as Russia, the US, Canada, and others seek to exploit a thawed fortune (before, I guess, disease from the permafrost kills us all). That’s a result of our inability to sacrifice short-term gains for long-term stability and a livable climate.

And we see the same thing in space. It’s not just that it is grotesque to look into the stars and want to militarize them, although it is certainly that. It’s that this is an arena that needs intense cooperation and the ability to think beyond our lifetimes. Unfortunately, all signs point to us as a country, and a species, completely unable to do so.

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