Warfare is no longer limited to air, land and sea — but our military is

With the newly divided Congress preparing to take office, there will be a clear challenge to the president’s recent call to create a new branch of the military, the “Space Force.” While there are a lot of areas of government that are clearly ripe for partisan bickering, our nation’s defense should be spared that indignity. Let’s examine the call for this new uniformed service from a rational, not ideological point of view.

First of all, the Department of Defense is the largest organization on Earth. It has surpassed the $700 billion level, and is larger than the militaries of China, Russia, and all of Europe- combined. Last year’s plus-up, roughly $69B, was larger than Russia’s entire military budget. That’s right, we added the equivalent of Russia’s military, and then some, to our defense expenditures. Given the size of our alarmingly expanding deficit, the defense budget will be faced with contraction, probably sooner rather than later given the harsh realities of debt. This requires that we organize our military as efficiently as possible.

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Some reacted to the call to create a Space Force by immediately calling it a dumb idea. Which is understandable, because ideological partisans will instinctively call anything the other party says “dumb.” But let’s have a rational conversation about this idea. Is it smart to keep space assets in the Air Force? Space is defined by a lack of air. Should pilots, who have never launched a rocket or operated a satellite in their career, be in charge of space forces? The same could be asked of naval or army officers. The reality is that space is completely different than air, land or sea.

The last time the American military underwent a significant reorganization was 1947. Harry Truman was president. People danced to the sounds of big band. There weren’t any jets to speak of. Most Americans lived on a farm. And satellites and human space travel were many years (even decades) in the future. 

Yet, the paradigm our military uses today to organize, train and equip itself is circa 1947. In the 1940s, there were three “domains” of warfare: land, sea, and the new kid on the block, air. In the (seven) decades since then, two new domains have come to prominence- space and cyber. And yet, today we are still organized using Harry Truman’s plan of “air, land and sea.” This worked well during World War II and the Eisenhower years, but things have changed, and it’s time to acknowledge the new realities of the importance of space (as well as cyber). 

Our modern military can’t operate without both. Neither can the civilian economy. Threats to freedom of action in both the space and cyber domains are clear and present, and asymmetric action by small, relatively insignificant actors could seriously disrupt the global economy. A well-planned attack on satellites in low-earth orbit, creating a cloud of debris, would permanently damage our ability to operate there, potentially ending services like GPS.  

In response to the recent directive to create a new branch of the military, the Secretary of the Air Force announced a $15 billion price tag to create a Space Force.  This figure was simply ludicrous, a not-so-thinly-veiled attempt as a poison pill to kill support for it by grossly inflating cost.  

Predictably, a large bureaucracy like the Air Force is fighting to keep dollars and bodies, because that’s what large bureaucracies do. But that’s not in America’s best interest. In fact, by consolidating existing space assets from the Air Force, Army, Navy, and possibly other government agencies, into one new Space Force, it should be more efficient than the current outdated and fractious system.  

It’s time to put aside partisan and bureaucratic bickering and reorganize our military for the 21st century — acknowledging the importance of both space and cyber. Creating a more streamlined and efficient Defense Department, one that will be able to address a different but very real 21st century threat — the ballooning debt. The new Congress should save its partisan battles for other issues and tackle this hugely important issue with vision and thoughtfulness.

Cmdr. Terry Virts is a former NASA astronaut and test pilot (Col. USAF ret.), having spent over 200 days at the International Space Station in 2015. He is only one of 4 astronauts ever to pilot a shuttle, fly on a Soyuz rocket, conduct spacewalks and be commander of the International Space Station. He is the author of “View from Above,” published by National Geographic in October of 2017. Follow him on Twitter @astroterry.