Up, Up and Far Away
Terry H. Schwadron
Dec. 18, 2019
It looks as if U.S. government is about to go where no bureaucrat has gone before.
A bipartisan deal for spending reached last week in Congress — yes, apparently even in a divided world, we can still occasionally reach compromises — includes the idea of establishing an independent Space Force as a sixth branch of the military.
Congress and the White House apparently reached agreement to authorize 12 weeks of paid parental leave for all federal workers in exchange for the new military branch — under the Department of the Air Force.
Politically, Donald Trump has wanted such a new military wing for his entire presidency, and first daughter Ivanka has been lobbying for paid parental leave. So, maybe it was an intrafamilial agreement that Congress is just accepting. Under current law, military members get 12 weeks of paid family leave to take care of a new child, while civilians get 12 weeks leave without pay although they can get paid using accumulated annual or sick leave.
The deal could still change as cost estimates are prepared by the Congressional Budget Office, but proponents of the measure say it would set a new standard for the private sector to match in various private satellite businesses.
Nevertheless, announcing that we will have a Space Force hardly dismisses public concerns about whether such a new force is needed or even a good idea. The criticism comes both from the Left and the Right over cost, benefit, and some head-scratching about what exactly would change from what we already do under the direction of the Air Force.
Indeed, the debate has stalled since June, when Trump ordered the Department of Defense to prepare for a sixth military branch. The discussion has been clouded by partial information and partisan rhetoric, without a lot of understanding of what we might be trying to do. Our military has operated in space for 60-plus years, and the proposed Space Force is one of several proposals for how — not whether — to continue operating in space.
According to Wired magazine, “Forget Moon bases, battles for Mars, and dogfights through the asteroid belt. Moot your hot-blooded support, sputtering antagonism, or news-numbed apathy to whatever any politician says. And please, stop chuckling at the name. The Space Force deserves your unclouded consideration. America’s role in humanity’s accelerando of space-based science, exploration, and business depends, in no small part, on its commitment to space-based power.”
Per the Brooking Institution, normally a more conservative outfit, the proposal is likely to billions. And while space is increasingly challenged with adversarial satellites and more, it is not clear what the benefit of a separate service would be. Rather, Brookings supports more trained officers within the current military services who could address rising problems without creating yet another military bureaucracy.
Actually, each of the services has space assets, with satellites playing an indispensable role in nearly every U.S. military operation since Operation Desert Storm. America has the most military satellites right now, but the Pentagon has lessened its launch tempo in recent years, reported Wired. Security experts warn that Russia and China are both catching up and developing anti-satellite weapons capable of tripping up America’s strategic advantage.
Of course, space is not only about technology and geopolitics, it affects the economy as well. According to the Satellite Industry Association, the commercial space industry was worth $350 billion in 2017. From a variety of views, any reduction in American space power could affect dominance in other areas — military, technological and economic.
Space Force proponents say that a sixth branch wouldn’t be forced to take budgetary hand-me-downs from the other services. But that raises larger questions of whether the Defense Department is missing the strategic boat in space?
As Wired notes, Americans first started paying serious attention to space in 1957, with the Soviet launch of Sputnik. If the USSR could put satellites in space, couldn’t it put intercontinental ballistic missiles in American cities? The US fired back with a series of spy satellites, and with them a proto-Space Force. The Air Force ultimately won intra-service battles for supremacy, and today controls about 90 percent of the defense space budget. But it is Navy thinking about space that drives thinking about operating in open waters and the like while denying the same to enemies.
Space power is more than just a military concern. Of the $350 billion spent on commercial space projects in 2017, three quarters went into building, launching, and operating commercial satellites. Many space power strategists argue that both the current state of space commerce, and its future, depend on America’s military dominance in space.
Rep. Mike Rogers, R-AL, is among the most vocal spokesmen for Space Force, believing that the dominant cultural focus in the Air Force is for “flyboy” training. Rogers argues that the U.S. military is, on average, six to eight years behind its geopolitical foes Russia, China, and, recently, India, on deploying
Brookings says, “Congress, which must approve the plan before the new military service is created, should say no to this alluring, misguided idea.
Some arguments against a Space Force, which would be bureaucratically positioned within the Department of the Air Force, just as the Marine Corps is technically part of the Department of the Navy, are largely about economics and efficiency. Others are more conceptual and strategic. Together, they add up to a strong case for skepticism.”
The force would be tiny, but still need expensive hierarchy. More importantly, the mission is unclear: Brookings notes that “after 9/11, we similarly agreed to create a Department of Homeland Security. Nearly two decades later, the verdict is still out about the wisdom of that move.”
The best solution, Brookings argues, is for civilians, and the Joint Chiefs chairman and vice chairman, to take more of a role in promoting officers within the existing services who have a variety of specialties, and for Congress to properly fund the full range of military priorities. “We have seen this approach work in the past, even with less sexy areas of technology such as long-range transport aircraft. It can work for space, too,” said Brookings.
Meanwhile, at least federal employees can look thankfully to the skies for their new parental leaves.