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Why Trump’s ‘Space Force’ Won’t — and Shouldn’t — Happen

6 minute read
Jeffrey Kluger is an editor at large at TIME. He covers space, climate, and science. He is the author of 12 books, including Apollo 13, which served as the basis for the 1995 film, and was nominated for an Emmy Award for TIME's series A Year in Space.

Good government is often unglamorous stuff—fixing pot holes, plowing snow, collecting trash. At a White House event on June 18, President Trump was supposed to deliver a brief address on the trash-collecting part. Yes, the junk in question is in space—the growing belt of debris that has been accumulating in Earth orbit since the very beginning of the space age and poses an increasing risk to satellites and other spacecraft. But it’s still just trash, and managing it was the focus of Trump’s latest Space Policy Directive—the third he has signed since taking office.

As Trump has been known to do, however, he riffed a bit in his address, veering off-script to a topic he has raised before: the establishment of a “Space Force” as a separate branch of the military, joining the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force and Coast Guard. Signing an executive order, Trump announced, “I am hereby directing the Department of Defense and Pentagon to immediately begin the process necessary 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, separate but equal.”

For observers who got past the regrettable “separate but equal” phrasing, redolent of the Supreme Court’s noxious 1896 Plessy v. Furgeson decision which legalized racial segregation, there was a lot to ponder in the idea of a Space Force. And none of that pondering leads anywhere good.

Let’s start with the fact that a Space Force, authorized by the President, already exists. Only the President was Ronald Reagan and the force was activated on Sept. 1, 1982. It is formally known as the Air Force Space Command, and, as its name suggests, it is not a co-equal branch of the military, but a division of the Air Force—which itself was once a division of the Army, Navy and Marines. But the Space Command’s somewhat lesser status doesn’t mean it’s not a robust organization, with more than 36,000 service people stationed at 134 locations worldwide.

Space Command’s work involves Earth surveillance, weather forecasting, communications, command and control of ground-based weapons and satellite security. And it has the money to execute that mission: The Air Force’s space-related budget request for 2019 included $8.5 billion for acquisition and development of new Space Command systems, which is itself just part of a $44.3 billion space hardware bill over five years. None of that includes the cost of personnel, logistics, deployment, and all of the other expenses associated with keeping an operation of 36,000 people running. It’s an impressive enterprise. So what would you get out of spinning it off into a Space Force, which would require a completely separate command structure, Chief of Staff and bureaucracy, all of which would exponentially increase its budget? The answer is: not much.

When the Air Force was formally established in 1947, the need for such a freestanding operation was clear. Aerial warfare was a relatively new but increasingly important part of all modern militaries, and it required specialized personnel with specialized skills, not the least being the pilots themselves, who had to learn how to fly complex, high-speed machines that didn’t even exist fifty years earlier.

Military space technology has not progressed nearly as far as aviation had by the middle of the last century. The hardware does not remotely exist for solo pilots to fly heroic dogfights in low Earth orbit. It doesn’t even exist for the kind of robotic space war that Reagan envisioned with his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), which burned through $30 billion from 1983 to 1993 trying to come up with x-ray lasers, sub-atomic particle beams and electromagnetic rail guns, all to shoot down incoming missiles—and came away with nothing at all that actually worked.

That doesn’t mean that the technology the Air Force Space Command has to develop and manage isn’t exquisitely complex and doesn’t take extraordinary skill. It does. Hardening those assets against potential attacks by competing powers is also critical. China has not been coy about its drive to develop an offensive satellite destruction capability, while Russia has been nothing but clear about its hopes to regain superpower status—on the land and the sea, and in the air and in space.

The Space Command could clearly use even more funding to manage all of that, as well as to upgrade and replace existing satellites systems. But it can do that within its current Air Force billet. “Creation of a separate military service as a ‘Space Force’ is a solution in search of a problem,” said Sean O’Keefe, former Administrator of NASA and currently a professor of citizenship and public affairs at Syracuse University, in response to the President’s announcement. “There’s no reason to believe that space-related programs would fare any better than they do today under the U.S. Air Force recognizance.”

Finally, and not insignificantly, as TIME reported last spring, a Space Force is arguably against International law. A 1967 international accord, “The Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies,” explicitly establishes that “States shall not place nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in orbit or on celestial bodies or station them in outer space in any other manner” and that “the Moon and other celestial bodies shall be used exclusively for peaceful purposes.”

Certainly, even a first-year space law student could slalom through those rules. Nothing the U.S. would be proposing for its Space Force would include—at least for now—nukes or WMDs in space. And no military assets at all would be on the moon or other bodies. But there is the spirit of the law and the letter of the law. Reagan’s SDI program stayed within the limitations of the 1967 accord, but that didn’t stop the then-Soviet Union from warning that the plan threatened both the existing Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) and Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT), which did regulate nukes. Even in zero-g, all slippery slopes lead only downward.

Humanity’s savage and yet ingenious nature being what it is, there may well be a time when we have the tools for actual warriors to do battle in actual space. A space force then would then be a very good thing. But that time isn’t now. And a Presidential executive order, no matter how great the flourish with which it was signed, won’t change that. Meantime, while we’ve all been distracted by star wars, someone still has to take out all that space trash.

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Write to Jeffrey Kluger at jeffrey.kluger@time.com

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