Most of President Donald Trump’s attention this week has been occupied by the southern border. But on Monday, he took some time to address his plans for another frontier: the great beyond. He said it’s not only important for the United States to be present in space, but to be dominant.
Trump said the United States needs a sixth branch of the military, a “space force.” The president directed the Pentagon and the Department of Defense to start planning for this new branch immediately. But it will take an act of Congress to officially establish a space branch of the military.
Roger Handberg is a space policy expert at the University of Central Florida, where he teaches political science. He says the idea of a space force is as old as the space age. But what is new about this idea is the level it’s reached.
“This is the first time it’s gotten any political resonance at the level of the president,” Handberg says. “How it would be done organizationally has not been as big a focus.”
If a space force is established, leaders of other branches of the military might not be too happy. They would have to share funding and personnel resources with the new branch. In fact, Dwight Eisenhower created NASA as a non-military organization to avoid this type of rivalry, according to Handburg. But of all the current military branches, Handburg says the air force would be hit the hardest.
“The Air Force would be the biggest loser because the Air Force Space Command is a fairly significant organization in the context,” Handberg says. “This means there’s going to be another service trying to get money from the budget.”
This isn’t the first time a president has expressed interest in putting some form of defense in orbit. While it wasn’t a space force, Ronald Reagan envisioned a colossal dome that could protect the United States from space. Handberg says Trump plan has parallels to Reagan’s, and he’s using it for political gain.
“Trump also buys into this technology thing – this is the next bright, shiny thing,” Handberg says. “It also makes him look to be a very forward looking president.”
Despite the futuristic nature of Trump’s idea, countries have been thinking about weapons in space since the ’60s. Back then, the U.S. and U.S.S.R. signed a treaty that banned putting nuclear weapons in orbit. Eventually, they also agreed that putting any weapons in space was not a good idea, Handberg says.
“The Soviets and the Americans came to an understanding that putting weapons in space was not necessarily very productive in terms of security,” Handberg says. “All those weapons would be very vulnerable to attack.”
Handberg believes that some form of militarized space is inevitable, but it’s going to look a little different from Trump’s space force.
“Right now, there’s no real reason for it,” Handberg says. “Now there’s an argument made that what you really need to have is not a space force but a space equivalent of the Coast Guard – Space Guard.”
Written by Kevin Wheeler.