Trump: I wasn't kidding about the Space Force

The American space exploration effort will shortly undergo a dramatic transformation, thanks to a new order given today to put it under military control. “We must have American dominance in space,” Donald Trump proclaimed today, announcing the creation of a new branch of the military dedicated to space exploration and travel. The “Space Force” will be a “separate but equal” branch of the armed forces, assuming the Pentagon and Congress deliver on Trump’s vision:

President Donald Trump is announcing that he is directing the Pentagon to create the ‘Space Force’ as an independent service branch.

Trump said Monday that “we are going to have the space force” which he deemed a “separate but equal” branch of the military.

Trump says the United States will “be the leader by far” in space and looks to revive the nation’s flagging space program.

The president framed space as a national security issue, saying he does not want “China and Russia and other countries leading us.”

Trump’s been teasing this idea for months, although Congress gave it a shoulder cold enough to be from space itself in last year’s budget negotiations. It’s the kind of big idea that all presidents love, and this one probably appeals specifically to Trump because of the scale involved. It’s a legacy move no matter what happens … assuming it succeeds.

That’s a pretty large assumption for a number of reasons. Trump can order the Pentagon to prepare a proposal for the Space Force, but Congress has to authorize both the formation of the new branch and its funding. NASA’s budget is only $19.1 billion a year, so folding it into the Pentagon isn’t going to provide nearly enough money to launch a branch of the military, let alone one “equal” to the Air Force. In order to get that kind of funding, either Congress will have to increase overall military spending or strip the other branches of funding to pay for the Space Force — and advocates of the other branches are not going to sit still for the latter.

Second, the US has entered into agreements that prohibit the militarization of space. The Outer Space Treaty in particular has forbidden military purposes in space for over 50 years, which is why NASA has remained a civilian agency. Putting American space exploration under the control of the Pentagon will certainly raise objections from other signatories of this treaty, which because of its ratification by the Senate in 1967 has the force of law in the US.  The ban applies to military “maneuvers” in space; any maneuvers performed by the Pentagon could reasonably be considered military and therefore a treaty violation.

There are no specific enforcement mechanisms for violations, but the worry would be that a full-blown abrogation of the treaty would lead to an arms race in space. China in particular seems ready to take advantage of that opening. They have a mission planned to go to the dark side of the moon, and they wouldn’t mind making it an expressly military mission. They’re already creating islands in the South China Sea for an extension of their military reach.

Besides, the momentum for space exploration is in the private sector, not the government and certainly not the military. Elon Musk has driven more innovation in the last five years than NASA has in the past two decades. During the Obama administration, we got to the point where American astronauts had to hitch rides on Russian spacecraft to get to the International Space Station. That sorry state of affairs had a lot more to do with shrinking budgets and a lack of focus at NASA, but it proved that the private sector could help make America the greatest space-faring nation regardless of government impediments. If Trump wants to fix our space program, a refocus on exploration and innovation at NASA would certainly help as well as a budget boost — and wouldn’t get lost among the wars on which the Pentagon is understandably more focused than space.

I hate to be Captain Buzzkill, but the Space Force isn’t a very good solution for what ails the American space program. It’s likely to result in less focus and lower prioritization than the opposite. What we need is a central mission, the resources to accomplish it, and the robust participation of a competitive private sector to bring it to fruition. The Pentagon, for all its virtues, is just about the worst choice to put in charge of any of those efforts.