Visions of warfare in space have both haunted and piqued the imaginations of the public, policymakers, and the United States military for decades. President Trump ignited the conversation again this week when he announced that he is directing the Department of Defense to create a new “Space Force” branch of the military. While it might seem a smart move to some, Trump’s proposal would both undermine America’s current position in space and potentially threaten the future of peaceful space exploration.
The U.S. Army, Navy, and Air Force have all become highly dependent on their own space systems to fight on the battlefield since the Gulf War. These systems provide for command and control, critical communications, navigation, and surveillance. Responsibility for these functions is spread across the three services and various defense agencies, such as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency or National Reconnaissance Office.
Many of them are directed by the United States Strategic Command, but they functionally remain part of their parent services, such as the Air Force Space Command or the Army Space and Missile Defense Command. The creation of a Space Force as a co-equal service branch, as Trump proposed, necessitates juggling and combining these various agencies, which would likely lead to confusion and rivalry due to differing organizational cultures and allegiances.
History is instructive in this regard. The United States Space Command, which existed from 1985 to 2002, only consolidated its control over military space programs in the mid-1990s due to bureaucratic infighting. This meant, for example, that the Command was unable to quickly update its doctrine or operational plans until the late 1990s.
The creation of a Space Force would reproduce the same tensions and more because of the scale of organizational change. It would undermine the effectiveness of military space operations and lead to a loss of the flexibility necessary for a rapidly changing world.
Some have pointed to the successful creation of an independent Air Force as a new military branch following World War II as a logical comparison. Indeed, President Trump compared the role of the new Space Force to the Air Force in his announcement. However, this ignores the fact that the Army Air Corps, which preceded the U.S. Air Force, was largely independent prior to its creation with a distinctive culture and organizational style much like the Marine Corps. In fact, it was this existing distinctiveness that drove and enabled the creation of the Air Force.
Moreover, the Army and Air Force spent the next 15 years as fierce rivals—leading to duplication, waste, and the failure of the United States to launch a satellite before the Soviet Sputniks.
This is not to criticize the armed services, but rather to highlight that, in a world governed by tradition, loyalty, and competition over budgets, the creation of an entirely new military service and budget competitor would detract from military space readiness and cause unnecessary tensions.
It is also important to consider that the United States is highly dependent on a potential space adversary—Russia—for rocket engines and human access to space. The Atlas V, which is the most powerful rocket considered safe by the U.S. government, depends on engines imported from Russia. Likewise, NASA has had to contract with Russia’s space agency for regular access to the International Space Station.
While there are programs under development to produce these engines domestically—and new ventures such as SpaceX are quite promising—these programs have been yet to reach the reliability necessary to be consistently relied upon for the foreseeable future.
Embarking on an ambitious military space program cannot happen without a proven domestic capacity for the construction of heavy space launch systems. Consider the risks that naval aircraft carriers would face in times of war if they were dependent on Russia for their propellers.
What’s more, President Trump’s proposed Space Force could undermine the status of space as a place of exploration and cooperation. Powerful states develop military systems in a tit-for-tat fashion, and a Space Force would trigger a response from other space-faring nations, potentially leading to the weaponization of space. Space cooperation between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War served as a crucial pressure release valve in times of high tensions.
It is certainly true that United States space systems need to be defended. However, this mission would be best served by consolidating only space system defense functions, which constitute a minority of military space operations. While dogfights between spaceships are still a far-off possibility, the risks of a Space Force are significant—and the time to recognize the danger of moving forward is upon us, here and now.
Bryan Nakayama is a visiting lecturer in international relations at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., whose research focuses on the relationship between technology and warfare.