- On Tuesday, President Donald Trump signed Space Policy Directive-4, which seeks to create a sixth US military branch called the Space Force.
- Mark Kelly, a retired NASA astronaut who recently announced his bid for US Senate, has said a Space Force “is a dumb idea.”
- That’s because the US Air Force already has the Space Command and a space force.
- Opponents of the Space Force also say it would add billions to government spending without meaningful change in military operations.
President Donald Trump has pushed the US one step closer to establishing the first new military branch in more than 70 years: a Space Force.
Trump can’t create a Space Force on his own; that requires the approval of Congress. So on Tuesday, the President signed a document called Space Policy Directive-4, or SPD-4.
The new memorandum asks the Department of Defence (DOD) to draft legislation for Congress that would ultimately set up a Space Force. Should such legislation pass, the new division would exist alongside the Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marine Corps, and Navy.
“Space Force would be authorised to organise, train, and equip military space forces … to ensure unfettered access to, and freedom to operate in, space, and provide vital capabilities to joint and coalition forces in peacetime and across the spectrum of conflict,” according to the directive.
The directive says the legislation establishing a Space Force should not include NASA. But Jim Bridenstine, NASA’s administrator and a former Republican congressman, weighed in on the document’s signing via Twitter.
“Civilisation is dependent on freedom of navigation in space. SPD-4 ensures our freedom continues. @NASA has billions of dollars of assets and a permanent human presence in space. NASA will not have a direct role, but I support @POTUS Trump’s announcement,” Bridenstine said on Tuesday, adding that he once voted for a similar proposal in Congress.
But not everybody is on board with a Space Force.
Retired NASA astronaut Mark Kelly has been vocal in his opposition to the idea. Kelly is a former Navy captain, pilot, combat veteran, four-time space flyer, and the identical twin brother of former astronaut Scott Kelly. He is also running for a US Senate seat in Arizona.
“This is a dumb idea. The Air Force does this already. That is their job,” Kelly tweeted in June. “What’s next, we move submarines to the 7th branch and call it the ‘under-the-sea force?'”
Kelly reiterated and expanded upon his argument in August during an MSNBC interview.
“There is a threat out there, but it’s being handled by the US Air Force today. [It] doesn’t make sense to build a whole other level of bureaucracy in an incredibly bureaucratic DOD,” he said, according to Reuters. “It is an area where we should continue focus … but we can do this within the US Air Force.”
Kelly and his campaign did not immediately respond to Business Insider’s requests for comment on the signing of SPD-4.
However, some members Congress have also voiced their distaste for the idea of a Space Force, and other critics question its utility, expense, and potential role in weaponizing space, perhaps to disastrous effect.
Why the US already has a ‘space force’
In his criticisms, Kelly was referring to the Air Force Space Command – though the group has had different names over the years.
Space Command is headquartered in Colorado, and its responsibilities include supporting military use of satellites, rocket launches, and cyberwarfare operations. The group also helps track the countless pieces of space junk and debris around Earth that pose a persistent threat to anything in orbit.
Space Command is managed by US Strategic Command, one of 10 groups that direct major pieces of the Defence Department. Its responsibilities include oversight of the country’s nuclear-weapons capabilities, which involves space because long-range, nuclear-tipped missiles fly through space.
In July 2016, Space Command even announced the creation of a Space Mission Force, which military leadership said was akin to an expeditionary force.
This force was created in part to quickly respond to outer-space attacks from adversaries. The main countries of concern are Russia, which continues to publicize new weaponry, and China, which destroyed one of its own satellites in a 2007 test with a “kill vehicle” (essentially a giant bullet launched by missile).
“Despite world interest in avoiding militarization of space, potential adversaries have identified the use of space as an advantage for US military forces, and are actively fielding systems to deny our use of space in a conflict,” Gen. John E. Hyten, the commander of US Strategic Command, wrote in a white paper about the decision in 2016, when he led Space Command.
The Trump administration wants to peel these space-related capabilities from the Air Force, however, and form a new division entirely.
For and against a Space Force
Some members of Congress, especially Republicans in the House of Representatives, have appeared warm to the idea.
“As we get all these briefings about what adversaries are doing, our dependence on space, it’s clear that we have to do better,” Rep. Mac Thornberry, the Texas Republican who chairs the House Armed Services Committee, told reporters in early June, according to Space News. “Organizational changes don’t fix all the problems. But on the other hand, they can sometimes help make sure space gets the kind of priority it should have, like cyber, as a domain of warfare.”
But others in Congress – and apparently some high-ranking military officials – have, like Kelly, questioned and pushed back on the idea of a Space Force.
“The president told a US general to create a new Space Force as 6th branch of military today, which generals tell me they don’t want,” former Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida tweeted in June. “Thankfully the president can’t do it without Congress because now is NOT the time to rip the Air Force apart. Too many important missions at stake.”
In September 2018, the Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said creating a Space Force may cost $US13 billion, and she pushed back on aspects of its creation, according to Defence One. One independent security organisation suggested that money would be better spent on establishing a Cyber Force to better prepare the US for cyberwarfare.
Stationing or testing any weapons of mass destruction in space, including nuclear weapons, is banned by the United Nations’Outer Space Treaty of 1967. Peaceful use and exploration are permitted, however, and smaller-scale weapons are not explicitly banned. Experts fear that militarizing space with such weapons could stoke a costly new arms race.
A war in space might also lead to something called a Kessler event. In this scenario, uncontrolled space debris could collide and create even more uncontrolled space debris, ultimately shutting off human access to space for decades, if not centuries.
Ben Brimelow contributed reporting.
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