On a Tuesday afternoon in March 2018, President Trump stood in front of a sleek jet in a hangar in San Diego and delivered a wide-ranging, 25-minute address to several hundred Marines. Midway through, he began talking about space. “My new national strategy for space recognizes that space is a warfighting domain,” he told the troops, “just like the land, air and sea. We may even have a Space Force, develop another one: Space Force. We have the Air Force, we’ll have the Space Force. We have the Army, the Navy. You know, I was saying it the other day — because we’re doing a tremendous amount of work in space — I said, ‘Maybe we need a new force. We’ll call it the Space Force.’ And I was not really serious. And then I said, ‘What a great idea. Maybe we’ll have to do that.’ ”
The Marines laughed. He couldn’t be serious. The president moved on to talking about building his wall on the Mexican border.
But the Force was still with Trump that May in the White House Rose Garden, when he presented the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy to the Army football team for its victories over Navy and Air Force. “You will be part of the five proud branches of the United States Armed Forces: Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force and the Coast Guard,” Trump told the cadets. After a short pause he continued: “And we’re actually thinking of a sixth, and that would be the Space Force. Does that make sense?”
By the following month, June 2018, Trump had made up his mind: It made sense. At a meeting of the National Space Council in the East Room of the White House, he said, “When it comes to defending America, it is not enough to merely have an American presence in space. We must have American dominance in space. ... I’m hereby directing the Department of Defense and Pentagon to immediately begin the process necessary to establish a Space Force as the sixth branch of the armed forces.” He scanned the crowd for Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “General?” said Trump. “Got it?” Dunford replied: “We got it.”
Space Force jokes practically wrote themselves. Twitter feeds filled with images of “Star Wars” stormtroopers ready to deploy, debates over uniform styles for the new force — more Captain Kirk or Luke Skywalker? — and cracks about Trump’s far-flung war on “illegal aliens.” “Reporters asked Trump who should lead this Space Force,” Jimmy Fallon said in a monologue on his show. “And he said, ‘That’s easy: Buzz Lightyear.’ ” “Trump throws out ideas like a kid at a birthday sleepover, high on M&M’s,” chimed in James Corden, pantomiming an exchange of ray-gunfire. “ ‘Let’s play Space Force — pew-pew, pew-pew!’ ” “Hello, citizens of Earth,” intoned Stephen Colbert. “And if this is a rerun from two years from now, hello to all our fighting boys in the asteroid belt. Go give the Astro-Kaiser hell. Because tonight there’s big news about: Spaaaaaace Foooooorce!”
Seven months after Trump ordered Dunford into the final frontier, Netflix released a teaser for “Space Force,” a new workplace comedy by the minds behind NBC’s “The Office,” to star Steve Carell and John Malkovich and due to land sometime in 2020. “The goal of the new branch is to ‘defend satellites from attack’ and ‘perform other space-related tasks’ ... or something,” read the text on the screen over a view of Earth, accompanied by the heroic theme from “2001: A Space Odyssey.” “This is the story of the men and women who have to figure it out.”
But amid all the hilarity, the funniest joke of all is that Trump may have the last laugh. Creating a Space Force is arguably an excellent idea, one for which Trump may deservedly go down in history, along with all the other things he will be remembered for. No, really. I’m tempted to laugh at myself as I type these sentences because I, too, greeted news of the Space Force with incredulous guffaws. (I even poked fun at the idea in passing in a 2018 story about the future of war memorials.) What I missed at the time, though — and what everyone else mocking Space Force doesn’t seem to appreciate — is the sheer range of problems that could ensue if other countries are able to establish extraterrestrial military supremacy.
Consider the value of our satellites to our way of life, not to mention our way of war: The United States has 901, more than any other country. Thirty-one of them provide GPS, which we rely on not just for driving, but for banking, agriculture, robotics, maintaining the power grid and much more. Other satellites enable phone calls, track the weather, monitor environmental disasters and help chart the course of climate change. Satellites are there to provide early warning of nuclear attack, coordinate missile interceptors and keep watch on other powers’ adherence to arms control treaties. When U.S. forces are in conflict, satellites provide them with communications, navigation, reconnaissance, tactical missile detection and weapons targeting. Given all of this, it should make us nervous that in recent years China has demonstrated the ability to shoot down satellites with missiles. India did the same this past spring, and Russia is testing such a weapon. China and Russia also are developing methods to disrupt satellites by other means, such as with lasers or electronic jammers, according to U.S. officials.
The Department of Defense has been quietly working on both the potential threat to our satellites and the larger issue of maintaining space superiority during the past couple of presidential administrations, primarily through space experts in the Air Force. Creating a Space Force would elevate and focus those efforts, the thinking goes. It would foster a singular military space culture, which would nurture innovation in satellite strategy and defense, strengthen earthbound forces and potentially help safeguard future spacefaring.
With bipartisan support, the Space Force passed the House and the Senate in early December as part of a broad defense spending bill. President Trump was set to sign it into law Friday. Now America’s extraterrestrial military efforts are poised to accelerate. “We don’t want to wait until we get into a space war and aren’t prepared for it in order to go ahead and recognize those problems,” Douglas Loverro, the Pentagon’s point person for space policy during the Obama administration, told me recently. “Because the first space war may be the first peer-to-peer conflict the U.S. loses.” Indeed, the case for the Space Force is persuasive enough that the real debate isn’t about whether something like it should happen, but rather about what form it should take — and what we here on Earth might expect it to do for us.
Donald Rumsfeld launched the march toward a Space Force with a chilling image. Before he became President George W. Bush’s secretary of defense, he chaired a commission to assess space and national security. The commission’s January 2001 report warned: “The U.S. is an attractive candidate for a ‘Space Pearl Harbor.’ ” The stakes back then sound quaint today: The report recalled how a satellite’s malfunction in 1998 had shut down 80 percent of U.S. pagers. “If the U.S. is to avoid a ‘Space Pearl Harbor,’ ” the report continued, “it needs to take seriously the possibility of an attack on U.S. space systems.”
Ever since, “space Pearl Harbor” has been nightmare shorthand for a sneak attack taking out our key satellites. But there was a sharp detour on the road to a Space Force because, as it happened, eight months after Rumsfeld’s report, on Sept. 11, 2001, the next Pearl Harbor-like blow was delivered by an enemy armed not with space weapons but with box cutters. The space report was shelved and forgotten. A precursor entity called the U.S. Space Command, which had been created by President Ronald Reagan in 1985, was disbanded, too. For the next decade-and-a-half, the principal threat to America was conceived to be a foe living somewhere closer to the Stone Age than the Space Age.
“We got so distracted by the war on terror that we didn’t keep an eye on our solar system,” Rep. Jim Cooper, a Democrat from Tennessee on the House Armed Services Committee, told me. “We’re dangerously close to having slipped behind. We don’t know with certainty because these are the most classified programs in the world, but it looks like these other nations have spent billions creating mischief.” Then Cooper invoked the nightmare — and he was worried about way more than pagers: “Within minutes of the start of a new Pearl Harbor attack, we wouldn’t feel anything on Earth, and suddenly we’d be deaf, dumb, blind, spastic and impotent.”
There were some wake-up calls along the way. In 2007, China shot down one of its own weather satellites from a low orbit — a not-so-subtle demonstration of capability. In 2013, China fired a device much higher — about 18,600 miles into space, uncomfortably close to geosynchronous orbit at about 22,000 miles, where some of our most precious satellites dwell, including ones that provide military communications and others that warn of nuclear missile attacks. China said it was only conducting a science experiment, but the Pentagon was deeply alarmed. Then, in 2017, Russia launched a rocket from which a satellite appeared, and out of the satellite two more satellites emerged. One security think tank called them “Russian nesting satellites.” The satellites began maneuvering and changing orbits. Previously, another Russian satellite had been sidling up to satellites of the United States and allies. No harm was done, but it didn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that one way to attack a satellite is to use another satellite to ram into it, or to get close enough to disrupt it with some type of weapon.
Such events brought the space threat back into focus. “From 2007 to 2014, the DOD made no investment, made no changes, paid no attention to going ahead and solving this problem,” Loverro says. “The first budget we submitted that actually reflected the threat was the 2016 budget, which we submitted at the end of 2014.” Barack Obama, he adds, “is the one who asked us to figure this out.”
Still, few were talking about a Space Force until Cooper teamed up with fellow Armed Services Committee member Mike Rogers, a Republican from Alabama, to begin advocating for the idea in 2016. (They called it a “Space Corps.”) The bipartisan duo, however, didn’t have enough support to get it enacted into law.
After Trump was elected, then-National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster passed around notecards at his first all-hands meeting so members of his team could recommend top priorities. Air Force Brig. Gen. William J. Liquori Jr., who had been Obama’s White House director of space policy and continued in that role for Trump, scribbled on his card about space security. “I think the biggest difference that was decided in this administration was to be more public about it,” Liquori, now a major general in charge of strategic requirements for the Air Force Space Command, told me. Last year, based on the work of Liquori and others, the administration updated the National Space Strategy to assert for the first time that space is “a warfighting domain.” It reflected the 2017-2018 updates of the nation’s overarching National Security Strategy and the summary of the National Defense Strategy, which was the first unclassified defense document to refer to space that way.
Yet none of the strategy documents mention a Space Force. It’s unclear what prompted Trump to float the idea as he stood before the Marines in San Diego. (The White House did not provide me with details of Trump’s reasoning.) “I think he saw it in a magazine article or on TV, the shiny new object,” Cooper says. “It’s like a fish hitting a lure.” Cooper was tempted both to cringe and celebrate Trump’s endorsement. “It’s good to have attention, but you want it to be good attention,” he says. “And it got so quickly exaggerated and politicized and almost instantly ridiculed that it was really a big diversion.” On the other hand, “suddenly it wasn’t junior congressmen saying, ‘Hey, you really need to do this.’ Suddenly it was the commander in chief.”
Despite Trump’s bombastic edict to Dunford, the president doesn’t actually have the power to create a Space Force by himself; Congress has a say. After intense negotiations between House and Senate leaders, Congress included the Space Force in the broader National Defense Authorization Act. The new service will be contained in the Department of the Air Force, much as the Marine Corps resides within the Department of the Navy. Pentagon planning for the Space Force is already underway, providing for blastoff within months.
Meanwhile, in August, Trump did have the authority to enact an expanded restoration of Reagan’s old U.S. Space Command. This is the Pentagon entity that would deploy the troops of the Space Force. In its new form, the Space Command is a geographic command like the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, U.S. Central Command, U.S. Africa Command and U.S. European Command. The area of responsibility for the U.S. Space Command is 100 kilometers (62 miles) above the Earth and higher — basically to infinity.
But never mind the legislative and bureaucratic plodding. Trump has already permanently supercharged a profound shift of culture and mind-set that had been evolving more slowly among military leaders and space theorists. I first got a sense of it in September at the Air Force Association’s annual Air, Space & Cyber Conference at National Harbor outside Washington. Downstairs in an exhibit hall, the nation’s leading defense contractors were showing off new satellites designed to help make America’s orbiting armada more resilient and defendable. Models of existing orbiters and coming attractions bore labels such as “Future-proofing for the threat evolution” and “Effective, affordable, resilient, secure.” “A lot of new players are entering the space arena,” one salesman told me. Added another: “We’re excited to hear more talk about space.”
Upstairs in a ballroom packed with airmen, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein conjured the new order. Projecting a war-game scenario on a screen, he showed how space-based surveillance and communications would integrate even more closely with forces in air, on land and at sea, all “designed and choreographed to overwhelm the adversary with multiple dilemmas.” Then he described what’s coming: “And it is also our job to bring on this new service” — the Space Force. “The president is actually giving us the gift, as the service that’s passionate about air and space superiority. Here’s the gift. Before his speech, I as chief [of the Air Force] could not stand on the stage and say the words ‘space’ and ‘warfighting’ in the same sentence. Forbidden. Prohibited from talking about it. Prohibited from planning about it. When the president stated openly that space is a warfighting domain, and we have to dominate that domain just like we do with every other domain, it opened the aperture for us to talk about what we as a service have been passionate about for years.”
As I listened, I realized that what’s happening here is that space itself is being redefined — by both the United States and its adversaries. I couldn’t help feeling a bit sorry about that, even as I accepted the priority to keep space safe. Previously, space was what the Pentagon calls “a benign environment.” Now it is “competitive, congested and contested,” in the words of Air Force Gen. John W. “Jay” Raymond, commander of the new U.S. Space Command. When Trump used the phrase “warfighting domain,” as he mused on the Space Force for the first time in San Diego, it had been easy to gloss over as another hyperbolic Trumpian formulation. But his language echoed the way Pentagon planners had begun to think about the final frontier.
But what does it mean, in practice, for space to be a warfighting domain? Part of the answer lies in the new ways of thinking and doing things on Peterson Air Force Base, which is spread out below Pikes Peak on Colorado’s Front Range. There I met Col. Michael Todd, chief of training, weapons and tactics for the Air Force Space Command, which would form the core of the Space Force.
Todd is part of an effort to revamp education and training for space airmen. Two years ago the Air Force held its first Space Flag exercise, modeled on the long-standing Red Flag air combat exercise for fighter pilots. In Space Flag, with a blue team representing U.S. space forces and a red team acting as aggressors, satellite operators are drilled to understand that when they detect a glitch in a satellite, the cause may not be such traditional culprits as space weather or a worn-out part. They may be under some kind of electronic or laser attack, or maybe an unfriendly satellite is getting too close, or an antisatellite missile is on the way. It’s a “culture we’re trying to build with those guys starting very young,” Todd said. “Their fangs are out. … They’re wanting to fight against somebody that’s going to think smarter than them so they can hone their fangs and beat them almost every time.”
Elsewhere on the base, space war theorists contemplate the new doctrines, tactics and equipment that the domain requires, now that it has been reimagined as potentially hostile. The Air Force is rethinking the kinds of satellites it needs. Some planners favor a move toward a larger number of smaller, cheaper, quicker-to-build satellites that can share duties, so that if one is lost, the others can carry on the mission. And more satellites are being put into orbit whose sole job is to watch what satellites from rival nations are doing. “You complicate that targeting scenario for an adversary,” says Col. Mike Manor, director of the Commander’s Action Group for the new U.S. Space Command. “All these things have been done for hundreds of years on land, in the maritime domain and air. This is relatively new to us just because it’s a new domain of space that now we transition from peaceful to warfighting.”
The Air Force won’t discuss “counterspace” weapons the United States may be developing, if any. However, the security-focused publication Defense One reported earlier this year that Pentagon officials have sought funding for research into space-based laser technology that could be used to defend against missiles. And the Secure World Foundation published a lengthy report in April assessing counterspace capabilities of China, Russia and the United States. It said America’s ability to maneuver satellites for defensive or maintenance purposes could be turned to offensive uses, and it also said the United States has ground-based means to electronically jam satellite signals.
The ultimate goal is to deter a war in space. In the Pentagon’s view, space must be considered a warfighting domain precisely to keep it peaceful. “We think the best way to avoid conflict from extending into space is not only to be able to compete in that conflict but to win that conflict,” Manor explains. “To leave no doubt in an adversary’s or potential adversary’s mind that we will triumph.”
The greatest deterrence to a space war may be space junk. When China shot down its weather satellite in 2007, the explosion created 3,400 pieces of debris that will remain in orbit for decades. At the time, that single event increased the number of pieces of space junk by about 30 percent, according to NASA. The problem is so serious that NASA publishes “Orbital Debris Quarterly News” to report on the latest accidental collisions and disintegrations. The Air Force tracks about 25,000 objects orbiting the Earth, and only about 2,100 are operational satellites. The rest are bits and pieces down to the size of a softball. By some estimates, as many as 500,000 smaller scraps are also hurtling around the Earth up to 17,500 mph. At that speed even a paint chip can do damage. A shooting war in space would clutter the zone with bits of satellites, making further operations difficult or impossible. Everyone loses.
That factors into training for the satellite operators as they practice how to assist fighters on the ground while fending off an attack in space — possibly by handing off the ground mission to another satellite and maneuvering out of the way of a missile. “I’m trying to provide those effects [to ground fighters], but I’m also trying to save the satellite and sometimes save the domain,” Todd says. “Because if you create a debris field, that just complicates the scenario for everybody trying to use the domain.”
I left Peterson and headed to Schriever Air Force Base outside Colorado Springs. A sign at the entrance of the headquarters of the 50th Space Wing read, “Master of Space.” Now that such a bold claim is being challenged by rival space powers, the airmen and officers I met went about their jobs with a kind of heightened sense of purpose.
In a secure room off what looks like a regular office corridor, about 15 members of the 4th Space Operations Squadron were sitting at terminals controlling about two dozen satellites orbiting roughly 22,000 miles away. Those satellites facilitate 70 percent of all military satellite communications around the globe. In the past, the squadron’s job was like that of a fancy telephone switchboard operator. Now there’s more to it. Airman 1st Class Brice Brewington, 20, was responsible for relaying encryption keys to troops on the ground. “I’d say it’s still kind of a transitional period between the peacetime space and the wartime space, but I’m intrigued to see how it goes,” he told me. Though he knows the Space Force “is not going to be like some Star Wars-esque giant space army,” the new attitude “makes me feel like I’m pretty important to the warfighting effort.”
Down a corridor from the communications center, the Global Positioning System — GPS, which the Air Force provides free to about 4.6 billion users worldwide — is run out of a room just large enough for about a dozen satellite operators in camouflage uniforms to work at terminals. They were controlling 31 satellites orbiting the planet about 12,550 miles up. The unit’s mission was projected on a wall screen, including this phrase: “Provide combat ready space warfighters.”
I asked Lt. Col. Stephen Toth, commander of the 2nd Space Operations Squadron — the one responsible for GPS — when developing “warfighters” was added to the mission. He said about 18 months ago. Of course, the squadron has long understood that it supplied invaluable data on position, navigation and timing to U.S. fighting forces, not to mention fleets of Uber drivers. Ever since the Army executed the famous “left hook” outflanking gambit against Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard during the 1991 Gulf War — sometimes called the “first space war” because of U.S. reliance on satellites for maneuvers and targeting — the GPS squad has been critical to fighting forces in other domains. What’s different now is that the squadron, or its satellites, at least, may come under attack.
“We always know the people on the ground are using our resources and assets to fight a better war, a cleaner war,” Toth said. “We had to flip the switch and start thinking about it from a mental perspective that I could be at war. Someone might be hacking my system, someone might be, you know, doing all kinds of nefarious things to my spacecraft in orbit. And so what does that look like when it’s in space? How do you envision that? How do we train people to think like that?”
None of the satellites has ever been attacked, but there have been cases of GPS signals being jammed as they reach the ground. The squadron is bringing on a new generation of satellites that are three times as accurate and eight times as jam resistant. Members of the squadron are also internalizing the new view of space. “The importance of space has become super-apparent in the fact that they’re creating a separate branch for it,” Airman 1st Class Rio Bais, 29, told me after she completed her shift, which had involved sending commands to maintain the stability of the GPS satellites. “You see that you are a warfighter. … Since space is the final frontier, we have to outpace our adversaries, and creating this branch sort of puts us one step ahead.”
The next day I drove to Buckley Air Force Base near Denver to meet members of the 11th Space Warning Squadron who operate some of the nation’s most critical defense satellites. Their space-based infrared radar system can quickly detect the launch of intercontinental ballistic missiles, as well as battlefield tactical missiles. After being checked through two security perimeters, I walked outside past seven white radomes that resembled giant golf balls, each containing a satellite dish. I met some of the crew inside a lobby decorated with model satellites because I wasn’t allowed past the final gate into their classified operations sanctum. Once upon a time, the sheer remoteness of their satellites orbiting at about 22,000 miles provided much greater security than all the elaborate precautions on the ground. Now they don’t take that for granted.
“Initially coming in [the Air Force] ... I didn’t think of ‘warfighter,’ I didn’t think of ‘space’ — I didn’t put those two together,” said Lt. Derek Deiter, a mission commander. “We’re working toward that. ... We are ensuring that our operators are thinking critically because those threats are adapting and evolving. We have to be able to see the threat and be able to adapt and overcome.”
Recently, for the first time, the squadron held an exercise where a unit on the ground sent commands in a mock attempt to control or disrupt one of the satellites. “Our operators had to identify that and had to figure out a way to overcome that,” said Maj. Scott Wright, the squadron’s director of operations. “It is certainly a mind shift. It is a culture change, and it is something that we continuously work at day in and day out.”
It’s a good bet that everyone I met on the three bases would wind up in the Space Force. So would space units from the Army and Navy. It hasn’t been decided what they will be called — airmen, soldiers, sailors, marines ... spacies? The Space Force would start out with fewer people than any other service, about 15,000 to 17,000. “It would be a small but mighty force,” Stephen Kitay, deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy, had told me earlier. Its goal would be “to unify our efforts on space, elevate them so space is on par to the other domains, and then focus on this unique domain.”
What overall philosophy will guide our efforts in this new domain is a matter of some disagreement — and that disagreement is actually an extension of a much older debate. Once upon a time there were two ways of thinking about the principal value of a navy. The “brown water” school conceived of naval power mainly as support for operations on land, ferrying troops and guarding coasts and rivers in the “browner” water near shore. The “blue water” school realized that a navy could perform other vital missions independent of ground forces, in both peace and war, on the blue high seas. It could support exploration of new lands, keep sea lanes open for commerce, project national power without firing a shot.
Now there’s a brown-water school and a blue-water school in the debate over the purpose of the military in space. The former sees space forces as dedicated to supporting warfare and commerce on Earth. The latter argues that the military must also prepare for a role in the coming age of exploration and space commerce. Blue-water space operations are still years in the future, but blue-water theorists warn that if the Pentagon does not begin planning, investing and technologically innovating for that future now, it may be a Chinese Space Force or a Russian Space Force that gains sway over the space economy.
“Warfighting is very important, but it’s honestly less than half the battle, and it isn’t the biggest strategic problem,” Peter Garretson, a leading blue-water thinker and a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, told me. “The biggest strategic problem is what if our competitors gain an industrial-logistical advantage in space? We won’t be able to match them. That will decide who is the power for the next century. And so within that, those have subtly different but important flavors in terms of what missions you ask the Space Force to do. What technology is right? And it’s a different vision of conflict and warfare. The brown-water school is terribly worried that tomorrow we might have to contend, you know, with China in the Taiwan Strait, or Russia somewhere, and we’ve got to make sure that our satellites are going to enable our unmanned vehicles and our bombs and everything to work. And that’s absolutely compelling. But there’s another problem, which is: What if China is able to secure the logistical advantage of the south pole of the moon?”
Wait, the south pole of the moon? As Garretson explained to me, it turns out that the moon’s south pole has highly coveted properties. Sunlight doesn’t reach the bottom of the craters there, which contain water ice. The hydrogen and oxygen in water can be transformed into rocket fuel. Meanwhile, the terrain around the craters is bathed in near constant sunlight, ideal for solar power. Since gravity is much lower on the moon, it would be an efficient base from which to send cargo for further operations. In fact, for all of these reasons, China has announced plans to build a research station near the lunar south pole by about 2030.
“The future of international power is going to be written on the critical geography that allows you to access the resources and wealth of space,” Garretson continued. “And if you want that future to look like the South China Sea and the [Chinese] Belt and Road Initiative, then it’s okay to be asleep at the wheel. But if you want it to be an open international system as the U.S. has maintained in the naval domain, then you’ve got to get busy. ... This argues for a whole-of-nation strategy, and the military has two roles. They secure that commerce, and in order to do that they have to be developing their thinking so that they will be there on time.” The military’s other role, Garretson said, is to help develop relevant technology.
The appeal of the blue-water vision is that it sees a purpose for the Space Force in preserving space as something more than a warfighting domain. Garretson even foresees this sixth branch of the military possibly taking on a Coast Guard-like mission, performing universal public services such as defending against asteroids and keeping space travel safe. In this conception, the Space Force would play a supporting role in helping to usher in a peaceful, prosperous future in space, one that would be spearheaded not by military might but by NASA, the Commerce Department and private spacefaring companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
I was curious what the billionaire space enthusiasts think of the Space Force. A spokesman for Musk said he was unavailable, and Blue Origin did not respond. However, a year ago in an interview for the “Recode Decode” podcast, Kara Swisher asked Musk what he thinks of the Space Force. “Well, this may be a little controversial, but I actually like the idea. I think it’s cool,” Musk said. “People today may not realize … it was widely panned as a ridiculous thing to create the Air Force, but now everyone’s like, ‘Obviously you should have an Air Force.’ And I think it’s going to become obvious that we should have a Space Force, too.” Musk also conjured a vision of a Space Force serving more than military functions: “It’s basically defense in space, and then I think also it could be pretty helpful for maybe expanding our civilization. You know, expanding things beyond Earth.”
Brown-water thinkers believe the blue-water school risks distracting from the mission at hand by focusing too far in the future. Loverro told me he considers Garretson a “great theorist” but disagrees with him: “Talking about today and the next 40 or 50 years, the importance of space power to America has to do with its impact on terrestrial warfighting and terrestrial commerce, not on its impact elsewhere. People so often quote that we have a $300 billion space economy. All of that economy happens on the ground. None of that economy happens in space.”
In a column for NBCNews.com, Brian Weeden, director of program planning for the Secure World Foundation, wrote: “Unfortunately some of the biggest proponents of the Space Force feel its primary mission should be supporting speculative activities in space, such as defending commercial mining on the Moon, developing space-based solar power or other similar endeavors, instead of supporting military operations on earth. That creates the risk that the Space Force would put too much effort into these unsubstantiated activities instead of addressing and fixing the actual military challenges that exist right now.”
When I asked Air Force generals whether they see a blue- or brown-water role for the Space Force, they always fell back on the mission they have been given, which is essentially a brown-water one: to deter war in space, to defend American space assets, to deliver space power to forces on Earth, and to develop a cadre of space fighters. Liquori, however, pointed out that the Space Command has started integrating commercial partners into its operations center — one small step toward a blue-water future. “Our missions will evolve with the rest of the nation,” he said.
Indeed, one of the most cogent blue-water documents ever published quietly emerged in September from the Air Force, of all places. It was the result of a workshop involving the Defense Department, NASA, NATO allies, industry and academia. Called “The Future of Space 2060 and Implications for U.S. Strategy,” the report concludes that the United States must recognize that “space will be a major engine of national, political, economic, and military power for whichever nations best organize and operate to exploit that potential.” The military, it argues, “must define and execute its role in promoting, exploiting, and defending the expanded military, civil, and commercial U.S. activities and human presence in space.”
The report sketches six possible scenarios for space progress over the next 40 years. The most optimistic is dubbed “Star Trek”: “The U.S. coalition retains leadership over the space domain and has introduced free-world laws and processes that have led to significant global, civil, commercial, and military expansion in space and resulted in large revenue streams. Thousands of humans live or work in space.” The most pessimistic scenario is called “Zheng He,” named after a 15th-century Chinese naval explorer: “An alternate nation exercises leadership over the space domain and has introduced laws and processes that promote their interests or limit the actions of rivals.”
Of course, if you’re generally skeptical of the military, even blue-water optimism about the Space Force may not sound particularly idealistic or appealing. That’s the view of Bruce Gagnon, coordinator of the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space. Based in Brunswick, Maine, the network of about 150 affiliated groups was founded in 1992, just when military space power was taking off after the first Gulf War. It organizes international conferences and protests against the militarization of space.
“As the day comes near where it will be possible to ‘mine the sky’ for profitable resources, the Pentagon long has planned to develop the capability to control who gets on and off the Earth,” he wrote to me in an email. “So the Space Force is part of an effort to create a ‘military front gate’ allowing the U.S. to determine which nations, which corporations, which wealthy individuals are allowed to go out and mine the sky. This is part of the ‘privatization’ of space.” He continued: “So the U.S. is moving to re-create [the] 15th-century global war system where the European powers were sending their ships around the world to secure resources and markets in the New World. Before long they were fighting one another, and we live today with the legacy of that reality. I call this the ‘bad seed’ of war, greed and environmental degradation that has been planted into the depths of the soil and consciousness of the Earth. The Space Force would be the planting of the bad seed in the heavens.”
I pressed Gagnon on the Air Force’s contention that civilians and the military depend on space, that our space assets are vulnerable, and that China and Russia are already moving ahead with exploiting and weaponizing space. He responded in part: “The China threat is the new fear-making strategy to justify massive U.S. funding for ‘domination’ of space. ... China and Russia have warned for years that they will not allow the U.S. to be the ‘Master of Space.’ Thus we are off to a new expensive, dangerous and destabilizing arms race in the heavens. But let’s not let Washington put the blame on China. Any objective analysis of the space militarization issue since the Reagan years has to note that the U.S. has been, and still, leads the pack.”
Gagnon also suggested that the United States should take seriously proposals by China and Russia to ban the weaponization of space. Currently, the only treaty on the subject goes back to 1967 — the Outer Space Treaty, adopted by about 100 countries, including the United States, China and the then-Soviet Union. It forbids the placement of nuclear weapons in space but is silent on other types of weapons. China and Russia have proposed banning the placement of any weapon in space. The United States has rejected their approach, saying that there is no verification mechanism and that it would not forbid the stockpiling of antisatellite weapons on Earth.
“It only bars things that [China and Russia] can’t do, so it is a very bad deal,” Joan Johnson-Freese, professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, told me. However, speaking for herself as a space analyst and not for the Defense Department, she raised other cautions about the Space Force. At the bureaucratic level, is creating a separate force the best way to elevate the importance of space, foster a culture of space and make sure it is integrated throughout the military? Since the Air Force is already training space warfighters, she asked, “do we need a new organization, a new bureaucracy, to do that?”
Johnson-Freese also said the intensified focus on developing military prowess in space could cause other countries to augment their efforts. “I and others have advocated a posture of strategic restraint where you have kind of a dual approach,” she said. “You certainly keep ahead in your research and development. You develop capabilities. You do not overtly weaponize.” And, she said, you pursue diplomacy — not along the lines of the flawed Chinese-Russian treaty, but by offering genuine transparency and confidence-building to potential adversaries. “If space diplomacy got a quarter of the time and attention that space warfare fighting does, I think we would be a lot better off,” she said. “But that doesn’t go along with great power competition and kind of chest-thumping announcements.”
Still, Johnson-Freese does support the new Space Command, and she allows that even a Space Force could make sense in the future: “You know, a decade from now we may look back and say this was a good idea,” she explained, while noting that, before then, more careful planning is needed.
Analysts on the other side of the debate respond that it’s a mistake to wait: “You could do this without creating a separate force — we have just failed at it for the last 30 years,” Loverro says. China and Russia, for their part, don’t seem to be waiting. In 2015, both nations reorganized their military space cadres to make them more effective.
To be sure, even as all sides seem to be stepping up their military efforts in space, everyone continues to say they want peace. The Russian Embassy in Washington referred me to comments by President Vladimir Putin at a meeting in October of the Commonwealth of Independent States, where he discussed “the prevention of an arms race in outer space,” and said: “We are witnessing a very dangerous trend. The U.S. side has certain capabilities, I mean spacecraft and shuttles, which provide opportunities and advantages, including those in the military sphere, if space is militarized. However, first of all, all this will be cancelled out and Russia will soon acquire the same competences.” A spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy said in an email: “Outer space belongs to all mankind. China upholds the peaceful use of outer space and opposes weaponizing outer space or an arms race there. ... The U.S. had described outer space as the ‘new warfighting domain’ and announced ... a ‘space force’ to regularly conduct outer space exercises, which makes it more likely to turn into reality the risks of weaponizing outer space and making it a battlefield.”
For its part, the Pentagon does value space diplomacy, according to Kitay, the space policy coordinator. He cites gestures of transparency such as Space-Track.org, a website open to all where the United States catalogues the position of satellites and debris. Multiple times, the United States has warned the Chinese and Russians that debris was on a collision course with one of their satellites, according to Air Force officers. “I’m convinced that we need to keep the domain safe for all to use,” Raymond, the head of Space Command, told reporters when the command was established in August.
Meanwhile, as all this unfolds in the real world, jokes about space warfare show no sign of abating. Netflix recently announced character backstories for “Space Force.” Carell plays Gen. Mark R. Naird, who has been “tapped by the White House to lead a new branch of the Armed Forces with the goal of putting American ‘Boots on the Moon’ by 2024.” Malkovich portrays Adrian Mallory, the head science adviser who is “brilliant, arrogant and hoping to prevent space from becoming the next great international battlefield.” Diana Silvers is the general’s daughter, Erin, “popular and an A-student in Washington”; she feels like an “outcast” after the family’s transfer to the remote Space Force base in Colorado, so she “turns to delinquency.”
When Trump discusses space, he sometimes sounds like he could be delivering lines for the Netflix series. The role of an impulsive president is not yet part of the comedy, so far as is known. But if one were cast, the scriptwriters could borrow lines from Trump in 2017 when he relaunched the National Space Council with astronaut Buzz Aldrin at his side.
Trump: “Space. A lot of room out there, right?”
Aldrin: “Infinity and beyond.”
Trump: “This is infinity. It could be infinity. We really don’t know that. But it could be. There’s got to be something — but it could be infinity, right?”
Yes, it all sounds like a massive farce. Yet Trump also instinctively understands the magic of space, as both a political tool and a national motivator. He excels at striking garish chords in an aspirational key, and space fits right into his repertoire. “So important for our psyche, what you’re doing,” he told the assembled space professionals just before he ordered Dunford to create a Space Force. “It’s going to be important monetarily and militarily. But so important for right up here” — he tapped his temple — “the psyche. We don’t want China and Russia and other countries leading us. We’ve always led.”
This story has been updated.
David Montgomery is a staff writer for the magazine.
Designed by Twila Waddy. Illustrations by Danny Schlitz for The Washington Post Magazine.