Last week, Vice President Mike Pence declared that the creation of a new military service for outer space—a Space Force—is an “idea whose time has come.” But what will the new service do exactly? And is it necessary?
While last year there was a proposal for a “Space Corps” within the U.S. Air Force—similar in structure to the U.S. Marine Corps’ position with the Department of the Navy—the job description of Space Force recruits will not be executing the outer space analogue to the Marines’ amphibious warfare doctrine. Nor will Space Force personnel be engaging in exoatmospheric dogfights.
Space is a supporting domain. It plays a crucial role in American’s national defense. For example, the U.S. military’s command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) capabilities are reliant on satellites. The job of Space Force personnel will be to develop those capabilities.
There is a problem though: satellites are vulnerable. As Paul Scharre of the Center for a New American Security recently explained:
Space is “congested, contested, and competitive” — as many have pointed out — and the U.S. advantages in space are waning. But responding by creating a Space Force is building a castle on a foundation of sand.
Space is an inherently vulnerable and offense-dominant domain. Satellites move through predictable orbits. There simply aren’t many good options for space hardening/defenses.
Defenders can add fuel to a satellite to make it mobile and move and change orbits, but more fuel adds weight and there is no easy way to refuel the satellite once in orbit. The same applies for defenses or armor. Defenders pay for all of that weight in launch costs. Defenders can make satellites stealthy-ish, but if even amateur observers can find secret military satellites, surely nation-state adversaries can. And even if satellites remain hidden, they’re still vulnerable to debris in low earth orbit, a growing problem that isn’t getting better.
Some of these challenges are simply insurmountable. A new uniform cannot change the laws of physics. As Scharre notes, due to the vulnerability of satellites, the military would be better off developing new C4ISR capabilities that are complementary to its satellites—rather than standing up a new services whose parochial interest will be served by the continued development of increasingly vulnerable platforms.
The new service does seem to have some momentum behind it, with Secretary of Defense James Mattis—who was staunchly opposed to the idea a year ago—saying he is now on board. However, the proposal seems to have little support in the Senate. Moreover, the plan the Pentagon has submitted to Congress—which calls for the creation of a new functional combatant command comprised of personnel from the existing services—seems more likely to ensure the status quo. With each service having something at stake in the new command, there is little incentive for innovation. Whereas innovation creates winners and losers, “managerial jointness” among the services leads to cartelization that ensures none of the services loses—even if it requires watering down proposals or creating “Rube Goldberg”-like contraptions to satisfy every interest at the table.
Instead of creating a new service or a joint command, policymakers and legislators worried about space would be better served allowing the existing services to compete over missions like C4ISR. A number of scholars have found that competition is often key to military innovation. Creating more competition for existing and future space missions is more likely to produce the advances Space Force advocates want than standing up a new bureaucracy.