Space Force: An Explainer

Casey Dreier • Aug 23, 2018

We don’t usually cover national security space issues, but we have received many inquiries from our members about the recent Space Force policy proposals. We’ve also noticed that there is a lot of bad information out there regarding the content of the proposal and its implications. So while The Planetary Society does not have an official position on this issue, we thought it would be of use to address a number of common questions regarding Space Force to assist in the overall public discussion.

What is the Space Force?

Space Force is a proposal by President Trump to reorganize the United States military’s space activities into a new branch of the the armed forces. This is more of a bureaucratic reshuffling of the Department of Defense than a significant change to how the country uses space for national defense.

So a Space Force would look more like this:

Does having a Space Force mean that the U.S. is militarizing/weaponizing space? Is that legal?

While the Outer Space Treaty forbids weapons of mass destruction in space, military considerations (particularly for intelligence gathering, secure communication, and navigation) have driven global space policy and investment since the beginning of the space age. Having these activities organized into a Space Force would not fundamentally change this.

However, some critics are worried that the elevation of space to its own armed service may induce a space arms race around the globe, and could contribute to an increased level of hostility and likelihood that conflict could spread to space-based assets.

What would a Space Force do?

A Space Force would have its own bureaucracy and command structure. According to a Defense Department report, a Space Force would focus on:

This is defense-speak for having the infrastructure to maintain operations, communications, and intelligence gathering capability anywhere on Earth, regardless of a direct or indirect attack on those systems.

A Space Force would not:

  • Explore space
  • Send humans into space
  • Send anything to Mars

NASA does these things, and would not relinquish any of its human or robotic exploration activities to the Space Force.

Why does the United States need a Space Force? Doesn’t the military already have a space program?

This is the essence of the debate at the moment.

Proponents argue that the current military space activities are treated as secondary issues by the Air Force, which naturally is more oriented towards, well, things that fly in the air. A Space Force would allow the U.S. to react more nimbly to emerging space threats, particularly in response to increasing aggression and anti-satellite technology developments from China and Russia. A Space Force could more effectively work with industry to rapidly develop and deploy new capabilities, advocate for itself and its specialities internally within the Defense Department, and focus on training a workforce with the necessary expertise to meet the needs of space security and defense.

Opponents argue that the threats are overblown, the Air Force is doing a fine job, and there does not need to be a new, expensive bureaucracy layered between the needs of the existing armed services and their space assets. Additionally, a Space Force would almost certainly be a relatively small branch of the armed services compared to others, and would not have the bureaucratic and budgetary heft to effectively advocate for itself. There is also the significant cost, both in time and money, of standing up a new branch of the armed services that could (opponents argue) be put to better use.

Who came up with the idea? How long has it been around?

The idea has existed for decades, though it has most recently been promoted by two members of the House of Representatives, Mike Rogers (R-AL) and Jim Cooper (D-TN), both of whom serve on the Armed Services Committee. They have been arguing for a “Space Corps”—a more restrained reorganization similar to how the Marine Corps is structured within the Navy. The 2018 National Defence Authorization Act, which is drafted by the committee that includes Rogers and Cooper, called for a study of the space corps concept.

From what we can ascertain, Rogers mentioned the idea to the President last year. The President latched on to the concept but pushed for it to become a new branch of the military, not just a corps within the Air Force.

Can the President just create a new branch of the military?

No, it requires an act of Congress. However, in the recent report from the Department of Defense on this issue, there are steps it can take to reorganize itself internally without congressional authorization.

The Department of Defense’s proposed internal reorganization would:

How much will it cost?

The United States currently spends more than $20 billion per year on national security-related space activities, with the funding split roughly evenly between the the secretive “black budget” activities related to intelligence gathering (spying) and the Department of Defense (communications, navigation, early warning systems). All of these are uncrewed, autonomous spacecraft.

The national intelligence agencies’ space activities are not included in the Space Force proposal, so the activities relevant to Space Force account for $12.5 billion of the Defense Department’s $686 billion budget proposed by the White House for 2019.

According to Vice President Pence, the Administration is preparing to request $8 billion over the next five years to stand up the Space Force. It is unclear if this will be new money, or moved from existing accounts.

More details will be available when the White House releases its budget request for fiscal year 2020 in February of next year.

What was the deal with those Space Force logos?

Those logos were released by the Trump reelection campaign, not the Department of Defense or the White House. They are not official and will never become official should a Space Force actually come to exist. Basically, the campaign was trying to raise some cash off of the announcement.

What does a Space Force mean for NASA and science funding?

Very little, at least directly. Space Force will pursue no science or exploration initiatives; those are NASA’s prerogatives. NASA may benefit from increased investment in research and development for space hardware and techniques, but that is hard to say one way or another.

What happens to NASA funding in the future depends on if and how Congress chooses to rein in its spending. Both NASA and the Department of Defense are considered “discretionary” accounts within the budget, i.e. Congress exercises its discretion every year when it chooses how much to fund them. National security always receives strong political support, so much so that discretionary funding is functionally divided in two:. “Defense” funding, which accounts for about $700 billion per year, and “non-defense discretionary” funding, which comes in at around $600 billion per year. Non-defense discretionary accounts fund pretty much everything else that the federal government does except for Social Security, Medicare, and interest on the national debt (those are all “mandatory” programs, for those of you keeping track at home). NASA’s account lives within the non-defense discretionary side of the budgetary accounting.

During the first years of the Trump presidency, Congress has significantly increased funding for the Department of Defense. So far, Democrats in Congress have insisted on applying similar increases to non-defense side. But as time goes on and the deficit grows, more pressure will be placed on the size of those discretionary accounts, and NASA could find itself competing within a shrinking pool of funds.

Is the Space Force a good idea?

This is a complex issue with well-reasoned arguments for and against. The Planetary Society, focused on the scientific exploration of the cosmos, has no official stance on this issue. Below are a number of articles and op-eds that give weight to a variety of viewpoints.

Will the Space Force happen?

While the Department of Defense intends to pursue some internal restructuring right away, Congress must approve the creation of a new branch of the armed services through legislation. There are many details to work out.

The White House will include a formal Space Force proposal in its 2020 budget request—to be released in February of 2019. Congress then must include legislation in its annual national defense authorization legislation and then fund the initiative in its annual appropriations legislation.

As we have seen, there are strong supporters of the idea in the House of Representatives, but so far the idea has received a chilly reception in the U.S. Senate. Additionally, recent polling has found that anywhere from 55% to 42% of the public is against the idea of a Space Force, and that the issue has become highly partisan, with Republicans generally demonstrating far stronger support than Democrats and Independents. This induced polarization is almost certainly a consequence of President Trump’s strong embrace of the issue, a topic that I wrote about more than two years ago.

No one likes to make predictions about politics anymore, but if the Democrats capture the House of Representatives in November, it is very hard to see how Space Force legislation would ever make it to the President’s desk. If the Republicans retain the House and grow their majority in the Senate, chances are much more likely that, over time, a Space Force will happen.