The military is heavily reliant on space, but its approach now is dysfunctional.
President Donald Trump’s desire to add a “Space Force” to the U.S. military has elicited plenty of mockery and puzzlement. But don’t dismiss the idea. If undertaken prudently, it could represent a substantial and forward-looking reform.
Although Trump offered few details, Congress has been mulling a similar concept for years. The idea would be to create a new military branch, or a new service within the Air Force, dedicated to overseeing operations in space. Trump said this week (in unfortunate language) that he envisions the new entity as “separate but equal” to the Air Force.
If nothing else, such a shift would recognize military reality. Space is an increasingly critical battlefield. Across its five branches, the U.S. military uses space-based technology for navigation, reconnaissance, weather forecasting, intelligence collection, communications, command and control, precision targeting, and much else. Its reliance on satellite-guided munitions has increased with each new conflict in recent years.
This growing dependency also creates risks, however. Satellites are vulnerable to attack, as are the ground systems that support them. By treaty and convention, countries have long avoided conducting strikes in space, but U.S. adversaries have been investing heavily in anti-satellite weapons for years, and with good reason — without adequate defenses, space could become an “Achilles’ heel” for America’s high-tech forces.
Yet no one is fully in charge of U.S. space operations. Notionally, most responsibility falls to the Air Force. But in practice, authorities are fragmented across some 60 different entities. Among other problems, this has made acquiring new technology a painfully slow and expensive process, which results in the U.S. chronically sending obsolete stuff into orbit. It has made it harder to set coherent priorities and pursue a broader strategy for space. And plenty of critics have argued — persuasively — that the current arrangement is impeding much-needed change and innovation.
Could Trump’s Space Force, or something like it, do better?
Several studies, dating back to 2001, suggest that it could. If organized with care and forethought, such a force could clarify accountability, accelerate decision-making, rationalize the procurement process, improve recruitment, and ease pressure on the broader Air Force, which is heavily burdened with more traditional responsibilities.
Done rashly, though, such a reform could simply enlarge the bureaucracy and create catalogs of new expenses. More alarmingly, it could signal to other countries that the U.S. is taking a more belligerent approach to space, and thus encourage a new arms race or otherwise worsen tensions. For these reasons and others, much of the Pentagon’s senior leadership — not least, the president’s own defense secretary — opposes the idea.
Some skepticism, then, is clearly in order. Creating a Space Force would be the most ambitious reorganization of the military since 1947. And getting it right would require extreme diligence, farsightedness and attention to detail — virtues that are not exactly hallmarks of this administration.
Even so, the idea is worthy of serious debate. Congress, which would have to authorize and fund any new military branch, is considering it with due care. The president has drawn needed attention to long-simmering flaws in U.S. space policy. And the Pentagon now has renewed incentive for reform. All that should count as progress — whether the Space Force takes off or not.