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Hold off on the Space Force

| Monday, October 7, 2019

As explained in my last column, America’s greatest military and civilian asset — its satellite and space capabilities — is becoming increasingly vulnerable to an attack that would inflict disastrous consequences both at home and abroad. Recognizing our acute dependence on space, America’s enemies are rushing to craft cheap asymmetric responses to our space technology that render our satellites a collection of multibillion dollar “sitting duck[s].”

Protecting our space assets will therefore undoubtedly be one of the greatest tasks of our generation, but the current system simply can’t keep up. Any response we may have has been hamstrung by a hierarchy known to put space on the backburner and wracked by, per a 2017 GAO report, delays on space programs of up to nine years and cost overruns growing nearly 300%, not to mention the “long-standing fragmentation in space leadership and consequent challenges … in synchronizing [the Department of Defense’s] extensive space enterprise.” Needless to say, substantial and meaningful changes are desperately in order.

Enter the Space Force: Trump’s proposed sixth military branch he aims to establish by 2020. This is the wrong solution at the wrong time. It would be far from the quick-fix solution the President makes it out to be and would only further handicap our space capabilities and accelerate our decline.

But what is the Space Force? That’s precisely the problem, nobody really knows. This isn’t just because of the policy itself but because the U.S. has for far too long lacked a clear, coherent space policy and doctrine. We still have so many questions to answer: What military capabilities would we bring into space? Should we ever engage in space warfare, and what would that even look like? How should we view other powers and free enterprise? Until we as a country figure out how our military should see space and the role it should play in it, a Space Force wouldn’t just be useless, but harmful because we’d drain, according to a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, “lots of time in the early years simply building it” — siphoning off resources and distracting our attention from addressing the rapid advances of our enemies.

Even the idea of establishing an independent Space Force is equally imprudent. First of all, it just doesn’t make sense. The whole purpose of our current space capabilities is, as one journalist writes, “subordinate to” the current military branches because “[s]pace assets service air, naval and ground forces by providing them with intelligence, communications and guidance for missiles and smart bombs,” making the whole idea of a separate space entity odd and even dangerous.  Specifically, constructing an entirely new bureaucracy “that doesn’t answer to the other services” yet provides the cornerstone to every single military operation is not smart policy and would cripple our nation’s readiness not just in space but across the board. The divisive intensity of inter-branch rivalry would only further exacerbate bureaucratic infighting and secrecy rather than promoting the teamwork and transparency so desperately needed today.

The dire consequences of compartmentalizing space cannot be understated. It would severely handicap the flow of pressing information and our ability to respond to threats and protect American interests, precisely why Air Force Chief of Staff David Goldfein said, “If you’re saying the words ‘separate’ and ‘space’ in the same sentence … Now is not the time to build seams and segregate and separate — now’s the time to further integrate” — a sentiment shared by almost every other current high-ranking military official. That’s because they understand the Space Force is not a smart move for America, and it’s time the President understood that, too.

What’s much more promising, however, was the President’s reestablishment of the U.S. Space Command this August. U.S. Strategic Command, which until recently dealt with space operations, has long been forced to juggle too many problems at once, leading WMD and cyber operations to break from Strategic Command in the past and create their own combatant commands. Space can finally get the attention it most desperately needs by following this example. Space Command will be able to bring together expertise from various military branches and focus solely on the problems of space. Far from constructing a bureaucratic fiefdom that will impede the flow of information, an independent Space Command will, in the words of Mike Pence, promote “[integration of] space capabilities” and “develop … space doctrine, tactics, techniques and procedures.” And, being headed by a four-star general, space will finally get an effective, accountable leadership structure for tackling space issues and drafting policies. This blueprint, along with the President’s suggestion for a separate entity in dealing with the purchase of space technology, which could help reduce debilitating delays and cost overruns, seems like the best way forward.

Now, is it possible, even likely, that some time down the road the military landscape in space will have changed to such a degree as to necessitate the creation of a Space Force? You bet. Does that mean we should rush to a Space Force before trying much more promising, cost-efficient and gradual reforms? Certainly not. There’s so much that will need to happen before a Space Force can even be seriously considered. Space weaponization would have to substantially escalate to justify an entire different fighting force, and we need to establish a coherent space doctrine and everything that flows from that, something that’s required Space Force or no Space Force.

Ideas like reestablishing U.S. Space Command and creating a new system to buy space technology are certainly promising and deserve to be considered and implemented before we rush to such monumental changes like a Space Force. Maybe they will work, maybe they won’t, but we’ll never know without having tried them out first. As researcher Kaitlyn Johnson posited, it’s even possible that none of the conventional solutions we think of will work — maybe what’ll work best is something we haven’t even thought of yet. We need this kind of “incremental approach” to crafting these solutions or we risk not finding what best serves our space capabilities and nation. If the President gets his way, we will have sacrificed long-term dividends for false promises of quick-fix solutions and flashy new programs.

It may take a while before we discover how to best handle space, but such conversations and deliberations will be worth their weight in gold. If we resist the temptation to jump to conclusions and focus on promoting inter-branch integration, space leadership and the things that genuinely matter, our nation can finally move forward towards creating an enduring, efficient and effective space program that will protect our national security and combat the threats of our enemies. It won’t be easy, but we know what it takes to actually move forward. Is Washington up for it? It better be.

Andrew Sveda is a freshman at Notre Dame from Pittsburgh intending to major in political science. Besides politics, Andrew enjoys acting, playing the piano and tennis. He can be reached at [email protected] or @SvedaAndrew on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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