Earlier today, President Donald Trump said he'll be directing the Pentagon to create the US Space Force, which would become the sixth independent branch of the US military. The move is meant to help the US keep pace with its rivals, but experts question the need for an entirely new military wing.
Donald Trump at today's meeting of the National Space Council in the East Room of the White House. Photo: AP
Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, Coast Guard and now, maybe, the Space Force.
As the Associated Press reports, Trump made the surprise announcement around 2:30AM AEST at a meeting of the National Space Council, saying, "we are going to have the Space Force," which he described as a "separate but equal" branch of the US military.
With Vice President Mike Pence, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, and former astronaut Buzz Aldrin in attendance, Trump said he intends to revive America's flagging space program and make the US "the leader by far". Citing growing security concerns, the US president said he didn't want "China and Russia and other countries leading us". The creation of the sixth US service branch will be overseen by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford.
Very little information was shared today about the new US Space Force, including budgetary allocations, timelines, or how the new order will be implemented. It also isn't clear if any of the statements made today by the president are actually binding.
And in fact, as Quartz reports, the directive signed by Trump at the conclusion of the meeting made no mention of the Space Force. What's more, the creation of a new service branch needs Congressional approval. This newly announced Space Force is far from a done deal.
The president told a US general to create a new Space Force as 6th branch of military today, which generals tell me they don’t want. Thankfully the president can’t do it without Congress because now is NOT the time to rip the Air Force apart. Too many important missions at stake. https://t.co/uYzqg1W8nE
— Senator Bill Nelson (@SenBillNelson) June 18, 2018
While the idea of a military service branch dedicated exclusively to space may seem futuristic and superfluous, it's an idea that's been floating around Washington for several decades now.
Several military officials have urged the White House to do something along these lines, saying the US needs to start preparing for a space war, and that it will only be a matter of years before American forces find themselves fighting from space.
But this opinion isn't universally shared, with some military folks saying a dedicated space service is completely unnecessary.
The US Air Force, given its intimate involvement with space and space security, figured it would eventually get the tap on the shoulder - and the required funds - to secure US interests in space, but given Trump's announcement today, that doesn't appear to be the case. Safe to say, the decision to create a sixth uniformed service - the first in 70 years - will not go over well with USAF officials.
"We are the service that must lead joint war fighting in this new contested domain," said Air Force Chief of Staff David L. Goldfein back in Feburary. "This is what the nation demands," adding that the Air Force can "embrace space superiority with the same passion and sense of ownership as we apply to air superiority today".
Democratic Florida senator Bill Nelson has already expressed his concerns, telling US Strategic Command head General John Hyten, "I'm not too keen on ripping space out of the Air Force and creating a space corps."
By "ripping space out of the Air Force", Nelson is likely referring to Air Force Space Command (AFSPC), also known as US Space Command. This subset of the Air Force currently supports US military operations through the use of satellites, launch vehicles and cyber operations. Given the ambiguity and confusion surrounding today's announcement, the Air Force may continue to fight for what it believes is rightfully its domain.
Currently, the Outer Space Treaty, which went into effect in 1967, prohibits nations from placing nuclear bombs and other weapons of mass destruction in space or on the Moon or other celestial bodies. The same goes for "establishing military bases, installation, or fortifications; testing weapons of any kind; or conducting military maneuvers".
There's nothing in the treaty to prevent the establishment of a Space Force, so long as its activities don't violate the terms of the agreement. Conventional weapons, such as anti-satellite satellites, are permissible under the current terms of the treaty.
Unfortunately, space is becoming a hugely vulnerable place, as well as a potential future battlefield. In the event of a serious conflict, rival nations will work to jam or destroy an opponent's space assets, including surveillance, GPS and communications satellites.
China has already expressed interest in using lasers to remove space junk - a technology that could also knock out enemy satellites. Earlier this year, China demonstrated its ability to shoot down missiles in space. Russia is also working on anti-satellite weapons, saying it now has lasers to shoot down satellites.
Trump's Space Force may or may not become real, but it isn't immediately clear why a separate branch is even necessary, given that the US Air Force seems to be an obvious choice to lead in this area.
Peter W. Singer, a fellow at New America and author of Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War, agrees that space is crucial to US national security, but he says the decision to create an independent US military service for space is "utter wing-nuttery".
"The aliens from Alpha Centauri haven't arrived yet," Singer told Gizmodo.
"To create a new service, the first new one since 1947, is a massive waste of time money, and energy that could be spent on actual military readiness issues. It is a joke. Indeed, even in the space sector, the need isn't a corps of Buck Rogers, but simply more cheaper satellites to create resilience from Russian or Chinese interference."
Gizmodo will continue to follow what is clearly a developing story.
[AP via Financial Post]