Should the US Have a Space Force?
A MATTER OF OPINION: Bobby Zitzmann and Mark Lu debate over whether the United States should create a Space Force. Bobby begins by arguing for creating a Space Force while Mark rebuts, making the case against doing so.
WHILE I AM CERTAINLY no fan of the President, I also try to recognize a good idea for its merit, regardless of its source. For that reason, I’ve been disappointed recently that the rest of liberal America has dismissed Trump’s proposed Space Force as a joke of a policy. To be fair, Trump has not made it hard to mock his new military policy, with his rally crowds erupting into boneheaded chants of “Space Force! Space Force!”
Nevertheless, having a separate branch of the military dedicated to space is a good idea, and that’s why Trump was not the first politician to think of it. The existence of a Space Force is just the next logical step in the expansion of our military to serve its function in new arenas following the progression of technology. First land forces, then sea, then air, and now space.
Space is certainly important enough to warrant military protection. What little activity we already do in space is vitally important to modern life. Communications satellites enable our telephones. The ninety percent of international trade transported by sea depends on GPS navigation. And our military and intelligence operations are highly reliant on space-based infrastructure. A successful military attack on our existing space infrastructure could send American technology back to the 1950’s, before the satellite age.
Our reliance on space makes it all the more disconcerting that America’s adversaries are bolstering their military capabilities in space. In 2016, the Chinese military used a missile to destroy one of its own satellites, signaling to the United States that it can destroy American satellites as well. Russia and China have both been developing sections of their military to manage operations in space, which security experts warn is becoming an increasingly crowded and competitive space.
All of that only covers what we currently do in space, which will surely expand with advancing technology. In particular, I imagine that travel and commerce in space will require military protection of international laws and norms, just as the US Navy acts a global guarantor of freedom of the seas on Earth. At the very least, it will certainly be in our interests to ensure that American expeditions are not harassed by foreign forces when they engage in asteroid mining, for instance. Wherever there will be competing national interests, we will need credible deterrence to avoid conflict.
With space clearly an important theater, it’s no wonder that the military has already taken an interest in it. Namely, the Air Force has its own division called Space Command. The problem with these subordinate agencies is that they create a system by which space issues will be routinely deprioritized. The mission of the Air Force and the military needs of space are too different to have them both fully administered in the same branch. The Air Force will always be primarily concerned with military planes; that’s just its purpose. Space will remain its secondary concern. The fact that Space Command currently exists in the Air Force is especially fitting because the Air Force itself grew out of the Army into its own independent branch. Just as air power is important enough to separate it from an agency primarily focused on the ground, so is space power important enough to separate from an air-focused agency.
The specific details of how to create the Space Force remain up to Congress and the Defense Department. But this much is clear: America needs a Space Force.
(August 11, 2018)
BOBBY NEGLECTS SOME IMPORTANT POINTS in his argument. First of all, the Air Force didn’t “grow” out of the Army in the same way that Bobby proposes a space-focused subdivision grow out of the Air Force. In 1947, shortly after World War II, Congress passed a major restructuring of not just the Army, but all of the U.S. Military. It’s misleading to use this case to support the creation of a new space agency borne out of the Air Force.
Most of those arguing in favor of a Space Force, Trump-supporting or not, bring up concerns regarding the security of American satellites, which provide crucial reference and resource to public and private activities, including navigation, commerce, military operations, and the Internet. The two biggest and most commonly talked about threats are Russia and China, both of which have incredibly advanced aerospace agencies capable (capability is not a threat) of knocking out these crucial American satellites out during or preceding a war. I think this fear is exhaustively neglectful of the scientific community and inconsiderate of actual political and technological circumstances, and therefore may do more harm than it will good.
It’s important to note that China’s space ambitions, while high, aren’t expressly insidious. Ever since China shot a highly precise missile into space and destroyed one of their own satellites in 2013, an event many saw as a show of force, politicians worldwide have feared the day a Chinese missile downs an American satellite and disables communications across the Western Hemisphere. Driven by speculation over semantics (the most dangerous, conflict-inducing sort of speculation), the fear of Chinese military action is predicated on the idea that because our enemies can do something, we must prepare for the worst. However, many, if not most, American scientists disagree with that demonstrably pugnacious sentiment and “favor a more relaxed approach,” according to an Economist article from earlier this year. It’s easy to see why; historically, preparing for the worst frequently triggers exactly that which we fear.
Take Russia, for example. American astronauts are frequently delivered to the ISS via Russian rockets, despite the disagreements between the two countries. A number of space agencies, including Israel’s and India’s rely on American-Russian cooperation. However, recent sanctions, founded upon the same paranoia that demands the creation of a Space Force, may interfere with that cooperation, which will serve as a hindrance to our own space operations.
With China, however, it’s different, which is why we immediately fear Beijing before we do Moscow when it comes to the theater of space. The reason NASA can’t communicate with its Chinese equivalent, the Chinese National Space Agency (CNSA), is because of a 2011 spending bill that expressly forbids it for fears of espionage. The American diplomatic overcast in this specific respect is rooted in “cold-war thinking,” says Jiao Weixin, a space expert and geophysics researcher at Peking University. He has a point—if America wants to diffuse international tensions, maybe it should stop proliferating them.
The protection of travel and commerce in space is a fairly compelling point. But one thing: there is no commerce in space (yet). And asteroid mining won’t come for a while. When both of these things exist and flourish in a couple of decades, I’d happily support the creation of a Space Force, provided it’s established and operated by a competent administration whose priorities aren’t predicated on fear and diplomacy.
Finally, the source of a policy’s conception does matter. An agency will always stand on wobbly legs in the first couple years of its existence, both operationally and diplomatically and it’s really foolish to entrust an incompetent, abrasive simpleton with leading mankind’s first military agency in space. Donald Trump’s Space Force is likely to be disorganized and fuck up more than it fixes, and even if a number of old, seasoned generals and Chiefs-of-staff manage to keep it running smoothly, the underlying intentions for the Space Force—what are they, anyway?— could and most likely would trigger another race to space (if only Ronald Reagan were alive today to see how Star Wars really started).
Most importantly, the notion that we should mobilize the military simply because there is something a foreign nation could do to us (something that we can do to them tenfold in half the time) really embodies the sort of unproductive, fear-based, and diplomacy-avoiding reputations of Republican administrations throughout modern U.S. history. I can’t help but quote Steve Rogers—also known as Captain America (somewhat fitting)—from Captain America: Civil War, my favorite MCU film: “Every time someone tries to win a war before it starts, innocent people die.” My interpretation of this line is that the U.S. has a knack for acting on impulse (oftentimes popular impulse), seeing conflict before it happens, regardless of whether it was going to or not. This leads to rushing forth with tanks, planes, and ballistic missiles as a quicker, easier alternative to diplomacy, which eventually serves as little more than just propaganda fuel for the very countries we thought were dangerous to start with. Ronan Farrow, in his book War on Peace, writes extensively about this very problematic pattern in American foreign policy. In terms of this Space Force conversation, we’ve already started on the aforementioned track. “As many people in China see it,” the Economist writes, “America’s behaviour is further confirmation of a long-held belief that America wants to create impediments to China’s rise.” We’re stuck in a cycle of fear, mostly as a result of dangerous speculation, and we’re making enemies while exponentially growing anxiety festers in our international strategy.
The number of missiles China and Russia may—or may not—have pointed at our satellites, we have the same number, if not significantly more, pointed at theirs. Don’t forget the perspective of our opponents—and don’t rule out that when it comes to space exploration, they might not be our opponents at all—because historically, American shortsightedness carries terrible consequences.
(August 13, 2018)
MARK BEGINS HIS REBUTTAL with points on the development of the Space Force, arguing that history and current events show that the creation of a Space Force would not be as simple as I indicated. I take issue with Mark’s characterization of how I relate the Air Force’s origins to a Space Force. I never suggested that the creation of the Air Force (or the hypothetical Space Force) was simple. Congressional reorganizations of the military, as happened to create the Air Force and would create a Space Force, are admittedly complex undertakings. However, this does not change the fundamental point that what is now the Air Force — a distinct, coequal branch to the Army and Navy — arose from existing aerial units in the Army, just as the Space Force would arise from existing spatial units in the Air Force. The Air Force did indeed “grow” out of the Army. Just like elements of the Army were promoted to an independent Air Force, I support promoting parts of the Air Force to an independent Space Force. My point in using the history of the Air Force is to demonstrate that the military can benefit from elevating certain units to become their own independent entities, even if they currently exist in another branch. This point remains; because space is such an important theater, it deserves to be represented at every table.
Also on the logistical development of Space Force, Mark appeals to President Trump’s erratic incompetence as an argument against the proposed branch. While there is no guarantee that if the Space Force did come into existence that it would happen in time to be lead by the Trump administration, the fact that it might is still not an argument against having such a branch in the first place. I will concede that almost any other American political leader would be a preferable first leader of Space Force, but that has nothing to do with my arguments: space is an important military stage, American interests are served by military capabilities there, and the military should recognize this importance by elevating Space Force to a distinct branch. This is true in a world where Trump is president and one where he is not. It’s just that in this world with Trump, it will be relatively more chaotic.
Departing from difficulties in the creation of a Space Force, Mark moves on to discuss the international relations impact of Space Force and whether he thinks current global politics warrant its creation. The first point here is that Space Force proponents should heed the advice of scientists who research satellites and space. He says American scientists aren’t very concerned about Chinese missiles and that Chinese scientists regret America’s “Cold War thinking.” While I respect the expertise of these scientists in astronomy and physics and whatever else they have made a career of, I see no reason to recognize their authority on matters of international relations. We aren’t informed on the merits of the Trans-Pacific Partnership by the world’s leading expert on Pacific rim seismic activity. A brief perusal of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s public statements is enough to prove that eminently capable natural scientists don’t necessary have much insight to provide on politics.
The next point Mark makes is that American military strategy should not be based on preparing for hostile acts that our adversaries are able to do. He disputes “the idea that because our enemies can do something, we must prepare for the worst,” and he warns, quoting Captain America, that “every time someone tries to win a war before it starts, innocent people die.” On this point, I think Mark has it all backwards. It seems self-evident to me that if a country has the resources to prepare for credible threats, the only responsible course of action is to prepare. Otherwise, the government is at fault for whatever harms do result if that threat is realized. This is the whole logic behind militaries in the first place. We know that certain adversaries can threaten us, so we prepare to repel such threats. In space, we know that China in particular threatens our critical infrastructure, so we can either prepare for the worst case scenario or continue along just hoping that it doesn’t happen. The existence of a Space Force would not be “proliferating international tension” as Mark characterizes it; we can definitely be prepared to protect our interests and safety without taking additional provocative action.
And I must say that the history of American foreign policy proves Captain America wrong. As David French has explained using the example of NATO, the reason we no longer fight in Europe is because we have signaled our resolve that we would if need be. This resolve deters hostile powers from risking conflict with the United States, preventing the conflict in the first place. By having unparalleled strength, we ensure that we won’t have to expend it. History shows that adversarial countries exploit perceived weakness, so that we always end up fighting the most brutal fights precisely because we did so much to avoid any conflict at all. So perhaps Captain America would be more accurate if he said “every time we swear that we won’t retaliate, innocent people die.”
Finally, I would like to address Mark’s point that while he does think travel and commerce will need military protection eventually, he still opposes the contemporary creation of the agency that would provide this protection. This “we’ll get to it later” attitude is severely irresponsible. First of all, there already is a great deal of commerce that relies on space. But more importantly, the intersection of government and technology in recent years proves that technological advances can easily outrun government’s attempts to manage them. By the time there are travel and commerce in space, it will be too late to begin creating protection for them. Threats in space have begun to emerge, and the time to develop protection is now. The United States needs military capability in the theater of tomorrow, and its needs to give those forces the same weight as land, air, and sea.
(August 13, 2018)
I THINK BOBBY'S POSITION can be summed up in one sentence: we must protect ourselves in space from potential attacks. It’s more of a “we should” than a “should we” because it looks purely at a supposed need without really understanding the tradeoffs or external effects, without really being critical of its implications, all of which make it a rather short sighted claim. In other words, it’s a shallow point built upon ideals instead of practicality. If there’s any principle comparable to the international relations scene, it would be the butterfly effect. Every single decision made by any nation, much less the most influential and powerful in the world, can result in insignificant to catastrophic consequences which, oftentimes, are unpredictable even with hundreds of experts working on crafting policy. Therefore, each foreign policy decision purposed with tangible economic, military, and/or geopolitical change must be scrutinized to the highest degree. It’s one thing to argue why we need something—it’s another entirely to wonder how it may backfire. Bobby and I are arguing on two planes currently and I’d like to move the conversation over to the scrutiny, away from the simple need. And I think that if the U.S. launches a space force too soon, it may signal danger to other countries—backed by propaganda that we’ve already foolishly helped to develop—in the same way they are seemingly signaling danger to us.
Let’s start with geopolitics, or more accurately, spacio-politics. What regions of space belong to us? Is Iran going to be cool with several megatons of U.S. military several miles overhead (I’m sure the space force isn’t just going to consist of long-range missiles and high-altitude planes)? Is there going to be a geometric “projection” (I am not a Math major so I may be using that incorrectly; I’m referring to when regions of a sphere’s surface area are expanded onto the surface of a larger but geometrically similar sphere) divvying up certain regions of the atmosphere as it corresponds to land mass? Maybe that’ll cause geopolitical problems somehow? I could go on and on. My point is this: it’s foolish to go forth with a separate military branch for space when empirical evidence does not expressly warrant it. Scientists may not be well-versed in international politics, but that doesn’t mean they can’t give their input to governments who are still significantly incompetent in scientific areas that impact policy and its effectiveness.
I also want to continue the Captain America point, because Bobby seems to miss half of the history he is citing. Bobby first cites David French, saying that “by having unparalleled strength, we ensure that we won’t have to expend it.” A more sensible way of putting it would be this: by having unparalleled strength and using that strength when we’re not compelled to—the cases of which equal that of compulsory actions—we build hate against ourselves in foreign countries, which drive them to innovate to equal our “unparalleled strength”—which leads to innocent lives lost.
I agree with Bobby on the point of American hegemony, something that is very separate from having unparalleled strength. The United States does have a role and a responsibility in all this. Nixon’s Secretary of State Henry Kissinger wrote about the pejorative nature of the United States “world police” label: “in a broad sense the balancer of power is a kind of policeman, whose responsibility is to prevent peaceful countries from feeling impotent and aggressors from becoming reckless. It is a responsibility we cannot avoid.” Granted, he was talking about Iran (which is in itself a case study on how American arrogance and negligence of diplomacy in favor of military action can proliferate global tensions), but regardless, a space force—if it were signed into law before, say, commerce and travel entered space—would derail both of the qualifications that Kissinger presents. It would emasculate smaller countries, especially crucial allies in politically important regions like Africa or Asia. More dangerously, it would drive up tensions with influential giants like Russia or China, which I described in my first rebuttal to be two countries that likely may do exactly that which we fear—another race to space, coming with an increasingly hostile rusting of economic and commercial ties.
Bobby also states that “we can definitely be prepared to protect our interests and safety without taking additional provocative action.” Foreign policy is much larger and crucial to our domestic condition. Our interests and our safety depend on the interests and safety of others, which is precisely why American-First policies don’t work. The idea that global politics be indirectly dented because of some fear rooted in our self-inflicted inability to conduct diplomacy is more irresponsible than waiting to see whether or not concerns are explicit or simply self-induced.
If space is a theater, the playwright hasn’t been born yet. Well, maybe they’ve been born (the idea has been conceived). But they certainly haven’t learned how to write plays.
(August 14, 2018)
FOR THIS LAST INSTALLMENT, I will address a few remaining points before giving my final word.
First, Mark has confusingly implied throughout this debate that the creation of a Space Force somehow means that the United States will rely less on diplomacy. This is misguided. A reorganization of the military to promote space capabilities has no bearing on what foreign policy tools are prioritized. Take again the example of the Air Force. The promotion of air capabilities to an independent branch in 1947 did not lessen America’s use of diplomacy. Rather, it coincided with some of the greatest acts of American diplomacy, including the overhaul of the global economic system and the creation of the United Nations, an unparalleled hub of diplomacy. We should definitely strengthen our diplomatic resources as part of a capable “3D foreign policy.” But in no way are the strengthening of defense and diplomacy mutually exclusive or zero sum. Indeed, as is shown with the example of NATO, a strong defense provides conflict deterrence that makes diplomacy possible.
I’m glad that Mark brought up the butterfly effect because it encapsulates fallacious thinking widespread among those who advocate for a passive foreign policy. Mark points out that even the smallest actions we take can end up snowballing into huge, unforeseen effects. With so much that we don’t know, the logic is that we should minimize these unforeseen errors by constraining our foreign policy. In this case, don’t make an independent Space Force. The problem with this line of thinking is that it only looks at half of the equation. To use the example of Catholic theology, Mark is more concerned with sins of commission than sins of omission. He wants to avoid negative consequences that result from our actions but says nothing of those that result from our inaction. With any situation there will be consequences if we do something and those if we don’t. We have no way of knowing which consequences will be worse, so we have to do the best we can with the information we have. Mark says he wants to move the debate away from need toward scrutiny, but that’s just the nature of a debate. He articulates the scrutiny, I explain the need.
Mark returns again to the security dilemma, a phenomenon that sees countries build up their own militaries as a result of other countries doing the same. While such a turn of events would be regrettable, it should not weigh on America’s decision here.That’s because one of two things could happen here: either the security dilemma will be triggered, or it will not be. There is certainly no guarantee that we can’t use diplomacy and other tools to avoid arms races. But if there is an international buildup of space military capacity, this would be an unfortunate event that still shouldn’t prevent American development of its space forces. Let’s be clear: America is not unilaterally triggering a reciprocal buildup situation. As I explained at the beginning of this series, our adversaries are increasing their own capabilities. In the face of this, the United States can either prepare to protect its interests or it can let the advances of our adversaries go without response. But in any case, there will be space military capabilities increasing around the world. The question is what we are going to do about it.
That brings us once again to the need for a Space Force. It all eventually comes down to two facts. We have vital interests in space, and a Space Force would allow us to protect them. Mark has never directly disputed the importance of space, but he did say that protection of space interests can wait until they grow further. This attitude ignores both the fast, unpredictable advance of technology and our vast existing space infrastructure. Rather, the government should be proactive about their defense. That finally leaves the need for Space Force as an independent branch, rather than the assortment of offices we currently have. This is an aspect of the debate that I had wanted to talk more about. Leaving the space capabilities of the United States to be managed by agencies with other primary focuses will leave space systematically under-prioritized. This setup should change. Space operations are distinct from land, air, and sea ones. They are vitally important, and this importance will only grow with time. An independent Space Force would ensure that the newest arena gets the attention it deserves. Space interests would be represented at every table, protecting American interests and keeping space peaceful.
(August 14, 2018)
MILITARY EXPANSION IS, by its existence, a thesis against diplomacy. Kissinger, who was on the (metaphorical) frontlines of the Cold War, said about easing geopolitical tensions with the USSR that “it isn’t possible to have both détente and expansion.” The two approaches to foreign policy may not be mutually exclusive, but they do hold individual weight that bounces off of each other in practice, oscillating in ways that will undoubtedly affect the way in which we conduct international relations. One hinders the other.
Bobby’s point on the sins of omission is interesting. On one hand, America seems to have no shortage of sins of either kind—omission or commission—in its history. On the other hand, the notion that America needs to step in everywhere we have the “capacity and a nudging from the Holy Spirit to do so,” according to the website cited by Bobby, is included in this “sins of omission” definition. I am not in touch with the Holy Spirit. But I do know that half the time we act out of fear of being inactive, it comes back around to bite us in the ass, which force us to act again to fix our mistakes, which, if executed poorly, may start the cycle anew. In other words, all actions we take as nations and individuals are objectively sinful (which make religious principles hard to base an argument upon). Foreign policy is a matter of distinguishing between sins that have mostly—emphasis on mostly—positive consequences or mostly negative consequences. The world deals in grays, not blacks and whites. Therefore, any anticipated turn of events should weigh on America’s decision, especially here. A concept that demands our presence abroad just because we can and because Jesus tells us to shouldn’t be the same concept from which we base our desire to expand our military into space.
Just a clarification: if I articulate the scrutiny alone, there is no conversation to be had, unless we engage the root on the argument. On Bobby’s part, discussing scrutiny means to explain why the ends justify the means, and whether or not there are more benefits than costs to a certain program, not just to link article after article about the importance of GPS. I know that GPS is important, and I concede that space is an important theater. But we’re not arguing whether or not space is important. We’re arguing about whether or not expanding our military into space is a good idea.
Therefore, taking into consideration the minutiae of my last two pieces, I believe that the greatest question we should be asking ourselves is fairly abstract: do the potential negative consequences of a space force, if it were to be established tomorrow, outweigh the potential positives? I say yes, they do, and a major factor in that notion is the time: it’s way too early, and too early means that the decision could and likely would a) jeopardize our increasingly shaky relationship with growing opponents like Russia and China, and/or b) destabilize foreign politics by putting the military into space, where geopolitics is sparse, if not absent completely. These are the costs.
One final thing: Bobby makes very compelling points about a competent space force, as do I about the absence of one (right now, at least). The reality of the situation is, both of us are fairly disinterested in Donald Trump’s Space Force, which, given the scientifically ignorant and administratively incoherent administration purposed with running it, may be even more detrimental given the already insecure state of American foreign affairs. Jingoistic nonsense masquerading as thoughtful policy based on paranoia at the expense of our relations with allies and opponents alike should be shunned and buried in the ground.
(August 15, 2018)
Photo Credit: ISS Expedition 31 Crew, NASA, Public Domain