By: Brian Thomas
This past June, the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces submitted an amendment for the National Defense Authorization Act 2018 seeking to create an independent “Space Corps” within the Air Force. This relationship would be similar to the relationship between the Marine Corps and the Navy. The proposal has already faced opposition from the Air Force, with the Secretary of the Air Force, the Air Force Chief of Staff, and even the Secretary of Defense stating that it would hamper the mission of the Air Force, cause internal disruptions, and add unnecessary bureaucracy. In response, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL), the author of the amendment, fired back, insinuating that if the Air Force doesn’t cooperate, Congress will simply remove the Space Corps from the Air Force entirely, creating a new department and secretary. Despite its detractors , however, the creation of a “Space Corps” is an important step in strengthening US national security and in pursuing US national interests.
The US has vast assets, both military and civilian, in space. Countless satellites orbit the planet, including GPS, surveillance, and communications. Without these assets, the US military would not be able to operate; in fact, everyday American life would collapse. Our adversaries, like China and Russia, have already exhibited their ability and willingness to use surface-based ballistic missiles to take out satellites in orbit, constituting a direct threat to the US. Space is already a theater of operations, and its prominence is ever-growing. Additionally, both the Chinese and Russians have created their own space-oriented military branches, giving them a head-start on space operations. Until now, US space operations were conducted by the Air Force at US Space Command in Colorado, a major command of the Air Force. Many now believe that in order to meet the present and future needs of orbital and extraorbital defense, the Space Command must be elevated and expanded into the Space Corps.
The irony of Air Force opposition to the Space Corps is that its creation would be nearly identical to how the Air Force was birthed. Beginning as the Army Air Corps, the Air Force was viewed by traditional military planners in the Army as an auxiliary force, existing only to act as a form of artillery and provide support to ground troops. Leaders in the Navy saw an independent Air Force as a threat to their use of aircraft on carriers, so they also opposed the creation of the Air Force. Thankfully, far-sighted leaders in Congress created the Air Force in opposition to these bureaucracies, and we have seen the fruits of this decision ever since.
The Air Force views the Space Command, its assets, and its mission as auxiliary and secondary to the Air Force proper. Leaders in the Air Force fear a potential loss of money and manpower, as well as the hassle of having to restructure their organization that would both result from creating the Space Corps. The benefits of this could be huge, though. The Air Force gained tremendously from being independent, as it was able to form its own doctrine and culture outside of the Army. The same would be true for a Space Corps: it would gain the capacity to formulate its own mission and see to accomplishing that mission with its own means, unhampered by leaders whose focus and interests lie in a completely different realm. The new frontier of space will inevitably bring with it new conflicts and new threats, which we must preempt. Far too often, the government reacts to challenges instead of being proactive in confronting them before they become unmanageable. Creating a branch of the US military dealing exclusively with space now, rather than later, will aid the country in mitigating threats before they can cause harm.
Aside from the national security benefits, creating the Space Corps would be an economic boon. In 2015, Congress passed the Space Resource Exploration and Utilization Act, which granted property rights to individuals and companies that extract resources, like valuable metals and minerals, in space. This bill has eliminated the legal ambiguity that mired private enterprise in space, given that international law is fairly vague as to what private individuals can and cannot do in space. In the coming years, commercial activity in space will increase, with several companies, such as Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources, planning to send their first prospecting probes within the next two years. As economic activity increases, so too will the wealth of the individuals and states involved in the activity. A space force is needed to protect the rights and property of Americans operating in space from those that would seek to harm or interfere with them.
There are some serious questions that must be asked, however. Will the Space Corps possess ships, personnel, bases, etc. in space? How will it operate? One can easily imagine spaceships and space combat in the future, but under whose jurisdiction does it fall? For example, will these future ships in space be operated by the Space Corps, or the Navy? And are soldiers in space under the jurisdiction of the Space Corps, the Army, or the Marines? Or does the Space Corps just serve a coordinating role and deal with maintaining bases? Typically, science fiction writers speak of having navies in space, and indeed it makes sense to use naval operations as a template, so wouldn’t it make more sense to integrate the Space Corps into the Navy? Do we then even need a Space Corps at all? Or, if a Space Corps is necessary, then does the Navy have a purpose in a future where combat occurs outside the bounds of Earth’s gravity, devoid of liquid water?
To rectify this lack of information regarding existing and future capabilities, Rep. Mike Turner, chairman of the Tactical Air and Land Forces Subcommittee, proposed another amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act to open an investigation to assess the needs and role of the Space Corps. This proposal, however, was defeated. I originally balked at the idea of mandating an investigation, as the need for an actual space component of the military seemed self-evident. However, the more I thought about it, the more I realized just how little we really know about the situation. The nature of human activity in space will change dramatically within the coming decades. It will likely begin with small, automated drones and the use of missiles, which obviously makes sense for the Air Force to have jurisdiction over. But as technology advances, spaceships will begin to resemble the corvettes, frigates, and destroyers of the Navy rather than the small fighters and transports of the Air Force. Would the Space Corps move under the jurisdiction of the Navy once that shift occurs?
The scope of human activity in space is changing and it will become absolutely necessary for the US military to become active in space security. NASA has already planned several missions to the Moon and Mars beginning in 2019, involving the construction of the Deep Space Gateway to serve as a waypoint for future exploration. Elon Musk plans to land 1 million people on Mars within the century. The momentum and money needed to push manned spaceflight beyond the bounds of low Earth orbit are already flowing. It is high time for the military to get in gear as well, and create a force to deal with space exclusively, regardless of whose jurisdiction it falls under.
The space aspects of warfare must be separated from the Air Force at-large, and given its own area to grow and plan. We may discover that there is no need for an independent Space Corps. We may find that a Space Corps is needed, but under a different branch of the military, or by combining and augmenting other branches of the armed forces. Regardless of which occurs, I’d prefer to find out sooner rather than later, while we have relatively few space-related security challenges, as procrastinating might lead to a disastrous outcome for us all.