How Trump's New Space Force Could Go Horribly Wrong

"An explosion in space... never really ends."

Aug 9 2018, 11:38pm

Mike Pence as our alien overlord | Image by Eve Peyser via SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images and Wikimedia Commons

Vice President Mike Pence detailed plans for a new military branch called the Space Force at the Pentagon on Thursday. "As President Trump has said, in his words, 'It is not enough to merely have an American presence in space—we must have American dominance in space. And so we will," he intoned, adding, "History proves that peace only comes through strength, and in the realm of outer space, the United States Space Force will be that strength in the years ahead."

Unsurprisingly, given the current administration, the concept of adding a space division to America's already massive military started as a something of a joke. "I said, 'Maybe we need a new force, we'll call it the Space Force,' and I was not really serious," President Donald Trump explained in a speech this past March. "Then I said, 'What a great idea, maybe we'll have to do that.'"

Now the Department of Defense is inching closer to making Trump's fever-dream a reality, releasing a 15-page report to accompany Pence's speech that describes how the Pentagon could—assuming Congress played along—create a new branch of the military in space. In his speech, Pence noted that "our adversaries [like Russia and China] have transformed space into a war-fighting domain already, and the United States will not shrink from this challenge."

But does the United States of America really need a Space Force? Why is Pence's rhetoric surrounding the potential new military so aggressive? Are Russia and China's space presence really a threat? Are we headed for some kind of star space war? Or is this more mindless Trump administration blather?

I called up Chris Johnson, a space law advisor at the Secure World Foundation, which "promotes cooperative solutions for space sustainability and the peaceful uses of outer space," to get some answers:

VICE: What is a Space Force going to look like in practice? And do we need one?
Chris Johnson: The phrase “Space Force” is certainly more concerning than other phrases or conceptualizations or approaches that the US could’ve taken towards space. Having a Space Force as a specific branch of the military [means it] will have the authority to conduct war fighting capabilities and war fighting tasks. We could’ve gone with the Space Guard, which is more like a Coast Guard. If the US announced we’re going to have a Space Guard, I think that that would have been less alarming to a lot of people in the international community.

If you dig deeper into what other countries have done and what the outer space domain looks like, you can find that Russia and China both have established branches of their militaries that would be tasked with fighting conflict in space. We’re not the first country to [do that]. The fact that we’re also doing it certainly has kind of a negative effect, in that it's escalatory. And it seems to determine that conflict in space is inevitable.

When you watch Vice President Pence’s speech this morning, he used the phrase, "our adversaries." What does he mean “adversaries”? Are we at war right now?

You talk to folks in the military and they say: Every domain that humankind has ever been to, there’s been conflict. And it's inevitable that conflict will happen in space and the US does not intend to lose any type of conflict, so we better start setting up our Space Force to fight conflict in space and win that conflict. That’s a pessimistic and defeatist approach.

Does a Space Force make international conflict more likely in the abstract?
The more that the military relies on space and the more attractive they make these targets the more likely [space war is] going to happen. It’s not seen in a good light, especially by people who would infer some type of nefarious purpose by the US; they see this and go, “Oh, they’re going to be doing something bad—they’re going to be violating international law.”

I don't think the US has any intention of violating international law.

The Department of Defense report said Space Force operations would include “space warfighters." What does that even mean? I’m imagining Starship Troopers.
It will not involve people in space because it would not make any sense to put people in space to fight conflict. More likely what they’re envisioning is defending assets in space that are being messed with or attacked or using space assets as part of a ground operation by the US military. So much of that is going to be cyber—I can imagine that cyber is a major component.

OK, now I’m imagining more of an Alien situation. Do you think there’s a lot of eye-rolling over the idea of a Space Force among the general public because of science fiction?
Maybe by the non-space community. They don’t understand how much we rely on space. How much GPS, your transactions, your phone, actions at an ATM, satellite communications, live news from the rest of the world, how much we rely on space for everything.

What would happen if there really were a space war?
An explosion in space... never really ends, it’s always there. Satellites would have to fly through it and get hit by things. There’s particular orbits, in the polar orbits, where there have been collisions and just a debris cloud that is colliding with itself, pieces of debris colliding with themselves, creating more debris and expanding. That’s the reality of the space domain.

There’s elements of it that are beyond common sense. It’s an explosion that stays there, rotating around the Earth, and now we have to take that into account when we want to launch something. Because of that particular fragility of the space domain, it means that we really, really want to not have conflict happen in outer space.

So basically, having a conflict in space would be environmentally disastrous?
Yes, for particular orbits. We have the International Space Station orbiting between 330 and 435 kilometers high. Because of that, you don’t want debris… It’s going to be this ongoing concern of creating debris in space or the fact that space hardware or space assets are permissible targets in times of conflict. This is all lamentable. It’s not inevitable. Some people think conflict is inevitable, that it’s going to happen in space, but that’s kind of admitting governments are not in control of themselves.

Isn’t that true, though?

I mean, as per the tone of Mike Pence’s speech, it’s a very aggressive stance to take with space technology.
From the international space-law perspective, states have sovereignty over their land and over their airspace, and when airspace ends, their sovereignty ends, so no state can control space or have dominance over space. That’s forbidden by international law. It’s also impossible because of physics—the Earth rotates, so everything above your territory in space is always changing.

You can’t have dominance over space. That’s absurd. Having one state in the world that says it’s going to be dominant over the space domain—this is easily shown to be illogical and not in conformity with international law.

Is the worst-case scenario for the Space Force nuclear war in space?
No, the worst-case scenario would not be war in space, it would be war on Earth.

We have the UN charter that prohibits the threat of force or use of force between states on the ground, and we know from the Outer Space Treaty that prohibition on the use of force extends to space. So the US is well-aware that it is prohibited under international law from waging aggressive war in space.

This is a very aggressive defensive posture [for the US to take]. They may say, 'We don’t intend to start a war but if one starts, we intend to finish it.' That’s how people justify arming themselves.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

This article has been updated to reflect that the International Space Station orbits between 330 and 435 kilometers above Earth.

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