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Space Force: Going Where No Lobby Has Gone Before

Words: William D. Hartung
Pictures: Brett Ritchie

The Pentagon’s announcement earlier this month that it will seek to create a Space Force was met with mixed reviews, derided by late night comics, ridiculed in the Twitter-sphere, and denounced as an exercise in bureaucratic excess by taxpayer advocacy organizations like Taxpayers for Common Sense. It was also marked by a remarkably rapid change of heart by Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who apparently decided to save whatever limited political capital he has with the president for other fights down the road.

But the creation of the new force is popular with the president, who has been message testing it at rallies and speeches, with cries of “Space Force!” serving as a go-to applause line; and within the military-space-industrial-complex, which has been pressing for the plan through its preferred point men in Congress and the administration. As David Cloud and Noah Bierman documented in a recent piece in the Los Angeles Times, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL), who heads the House Armed Services Committee’s strategic forces subcommittee and has been the recipient of hundreds of thousands in contributions from weapons contractors since 2017, led the charge in winning Trump over to the Space Force concept. The most enthusiastic advocate within the administration is Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, a former Boeing vice president who presided over the company’s missile defense division, which was responsible for the disastrous Airborne Laser (ABL) project, an ill-advised scheme that chewed up over $5 billion in tax money with nothing to show for it. If the Space Force achieves lift off – no sure bet given the need to get Congressional approval and funding – the $5 billion wasted on the ABL project may end up looking like chump change.

The Trump administration’s loudly expressed enthusiasm for the militarization of space could give new life to spectacularly bad ideas that were shelved years ago.

The fact that the move towards what Trump has called the sixth armed force is a political maneuver rather than a carefully thought out strategic decision is underscored by the fact that the Trump 2020 campaign has started a farcical — but potentially lucrative — contest to pick the Space Force’s logo. The most fitting suggestion so far has come from the comedian Jimmy Kimmel: “a picture of money being shredded and thrown at the moon.”

The Trump administration’s loudly expressed enthusiasm for the militarization of space could give new life to spectacularly bad ideas that were shelved years ago. A case in point is Pentagon Undersecretary for Research and Engineering Michael Griffin’s claim that it would be “relatively easy” — and affordable, at least by Pentagon standards – to construct space-based interceptors that could shoot down nuclear-armed ballistic missiles in their “boost phase,” shortly after they have been launched. But it could take hundreds or possibly thousands of space-based interceptors to take out even a few ballistic missiles in their boost phase. And a 2012 study by the American Physical Society has estimated that it could cost $300 billion to build a system of space-based interceptors able to counter even a handful of North Korean missiles. Shooting money into space, indeed.

But there’s much more at stake than money. Putting interceptors in space could lead other space powers to assume that their satellites are at risk, sparking an arms race in space that could make global war more likely. We don’t need a Space Force or weapons in space, we need a diplomatic strategy to establish rules of the road that will protect legitimate security and commercial uses of outer space for all nations. This is not a likely direction for the Trump administration, but Congress can set the right tone for future progress by blocking the new Space Force and drawing a firm line against the development or deployment of weapons in space. This is one fight the military-industrial complex cannot be allowed to win.

William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy.

William D. Hartung

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