The United States Space Force has just published a document entitled “Spacepower” that undertakes to define its doctrine and its role in keeping the peace on the high frontier of space. The document acknowledges the truth that space has moved from being a relatively benign domain, where people and nations peacefully undertake exploration and commerce and avoid conflict, to a potentially war-fighting domain, where nations may attack one another’s space assets and defend their own.
Space has become the fourth battlespace environment, after the land, oceans and air (or the fifth if one includes cyberspace.) The nation that dominates this new battlespace will by definition dominate the planet. Already, the economic life and national security of the world’s nations depend on constellations of communications, GPS and Earth observation satellites. Already, countries such as China and Russia are developing weapons to destroy such satellites. The main mission of the United States Space Force will be to prevent a space version of Pearl Harbor from happening, not only by defending American space assets but also by placing those of a potential enemy under threat.
The Space Force’s doctrine is no different than those of the Air Force, the Navy, the Army or the Marine Corps. The purpose of any military is to deter war by possessing overwhelming force and, should war occur anyway, to prevail as rapidly and as completely as possible. The Roman author Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus said it best when he wrote, “Si vis pacem, para bellum,” which roughly translated reads, “If you want peace, prepare for war.”
Naturally, not everyone is happy with the Space Force’s doctrine or with the idea of a Space Force. Keith Cowing, of NASA Watch fame, sniffed, “It is quite obvious from this document that the current administration's space focus is the undisputed leadership and control of all aspects of space via military means. All other uses – scientific, exploration, humanitarian, commercial, societal — are of secondary importance to the mastery of space that the Space Force seeks to impose.”
One suspects that Cowing thinks all of this talk of military dominance of space is a bad thing. He is also incorrect that NASA and its promotion of peaceful space exploration and commerce are of secondary importance. In fact, NASA, as an instrument of soft political power, is the opposite side of the same coin occupied by the Space Force.
If other nations want to participate in the human exploration of deep space, the moon, Mars and beyond, they can remain on friendly terms with the United States. One of the goals of the Artemis Program and the accompanying Artemis Accords that would govern conduct in space is to bind as much of the world as possible in a coalition to explore and economically develop space. NASA promotes peace and friendly relations in pursuit of a common goal.
On the other hand, countries that choose to be unfriendly (China, Russia and Iran in particular) can expect to meet the full might and majesty of the Space Force. In short, NASA represents the olive branches in the talons of the American eagle. The Space Force represents the lightning bolts.
No discussion of the United States Space Force can be complete without a mention of the ongoing discussion about the rank structure. Currently, the Space Force uses Air Force ranks. However, a provision in the House version of the National Defense Authorization Act would change those ranks to a naval structure.
The main purpose of the proposal is to get the Space Force out of the mindset of regarding space as just an extension of the Earth’s atmosphere. In fact, space is an ocean. As President John F. Kennedy noted in his Rice University speech, “We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people.” As human civilization moves out to the moon, Mars and beyond, Kennedy’s insight will become even more apparent.
The associations with the fictional Star Fleet in the various TV shows and movies in the Star Trek franchise has not gone unnoted. Indeed, the idea, expressed by Elon MuskElon Reeve MuskElon Musk, Grimes split after three years together UN secretary-general blasts space tourism Elon Musk promises upgraded toilets, Wi-Fi on next SpaceX flight MORE, that with the Space Force, Star Fleet begins, is just the icing on the cake. One wonders what the late Gene Roddenberry would have thought.
Mark Whittington, who writes frequently about space and politics, has published a political study of space exploration entitled Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as The Moon, Mars and Beyond. He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner. He is published in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Hill, USA Today, the LA Times, and the Washington Post, among other venues.