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Op-Ed: A force for the final frontier

You’re enjoying a sunny afternoon stroll through White Plaza, having actually decided to attend your CS lecture, when flashy posters catch your attention. Uncle Sam mouthing, “We want you!” and wagging his patriotic finger? Not interesting. But wait, what’s he wearing? A white spacesuit in place of his navy blazer, above the slogan, “Join the Space Force, see the galaxy!”

We’re one step closer to this reality, since the signing of the Space Policy Directive-4 (or SPD-4) on February 20, 2019. According to the newly published document, “[t]he term ‘United States Space Force’ refers to a new branch of the United States Armed Forces to be initially placed by statute within the Department of the Air Force.” Translated, not only is the Space Force actually happening, it will be a subset of a larger military branch, much as the Marine Corps is part of the Navy, or the Air Force began as a component of the Army.

Although the formation of the Space Force may seem to have moved quickly throughout these past few months, space has been constantly militarized since the 1940s. Space first claimed the attention of military and political leaders as a potential war zone when the German military launched a V-2 rocket, the same used in the London Blitz, into space. After WWII, both superpowers pushed to improve this missile technology. From the USSR’s 1957 launch of Sputnik 1 (the first artificial Earth satellite) to the U.S. moon landing in 1969, space programs were an easy way to demonstrate the lethality of these missiles and build national prestige. By the 1980s, technology for intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and satellites was mature enough that the U.S. military saw it necessary to establish a Space Command (1985-2002) as a unified combatant command.

While this Space Command was disbanded when the U.S. military switched focus to anti-terrorism after 9/11, the idea lingered in corners of the government. In 2001, for example, the Rumsfeld Space Commission proposed a “Space Corps” as a subdivision of the Air Force. This idea garnered few followers. The Cold War was over, the U.S. seemed to be the only superpower, and satellites seemed invulnerable.

This is no longer the case. As early as 2007, China test-fired anti-satellite weapons, while advanced cyber attacks made the U.S. reevaluate the security of their networks. As a result of this shift, in 2017, Alabama Representative Mike Rogers re-popularized the proposal. President Donald Trump was already interested in space reform — in the same year, he reestablished the National Space Council, an advisory body of government officials and space experts. By March of 2018, Trump voiced his determination to create a Space Force. By the end of last year, at the urging of Vice President Mike Pence, the Defense Department was already making funding allocations for the new organization.

But where does this fall in a global context? The idea of a military contingent focused solely on dominance in space is not an idea original to the United States: Russia has had its own space force since 2015, the same year that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army created their Strategic Support Force, which deals in space, cyber warfare and electronic warfare. India created their own Space Command analogue last year, in response to the same growing Russian and Chinese anti-satellite threats that justify the U.S.’s reform, and just conducted their own successful anti-satellite test. For all that news about the fledgling Space Force dominates our discussion in the U.S., this country is not leading a new space arms race — it is working to rebuild an old set of capabilities, striving to catch up to a worrying trend among other great powers.

— Troy Lawrence, SSI

Contact Troy Lawrence at troylaw ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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