Why you should care
The White House’s push for a sixth military branch is not a bad idea, but it faces harsh political realities.
In 1982, Ronald Reagan established a Space Command within the Air Force. He announced it in a speech to mark a successful space shuttle mission, saying that his goal was “strengthening our own security by exploring new methods of using space as a means of maintaining the peace.” Nearly two decades later, a congressional commission headed by once and future Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld argued for a new Space Force branch of the military in a report that warned of a “space Pearl Harbor” for an ill-prepared nation. And that was before we had come to rely on satellites as much as we do for just about everything, using a military-derived technology called GPS.
So when Vice President Mike Pence formally proposed last week a restructuring of the military that would long outlive this administration, it was not a Trumpian whim — though it did override the military brass. The Space Force has been studied and debated for decades, and it comes down to settling a turf war. And money. It’s always about money.
In fact, Thursday’s announcement could easily have been made in a galaxy far, far away, the alternate universe where America has a normal president. Yet based on the snark and memes floating around, you’d have thought this was 2012 and Newt Gingrich was proposing a moon colony.
When do we nuke that cuck moon. https://t.co/V5SH82AKy5— Dan Zak (@MrDanZak) August 9, 2018
In recent years, support for the idea on Capitol Hill has been bipartisan, if not enough for a majority. The argument in favor of a Space Force rests on fears of increasing investment in military space technology by China and, to a lesser extent, Russia. China has a Strategic Support Corps overseeing the space and cyber domains. America’s Space Force proponents argue that its current position within the Air Force makes it a backwater, with airplanes gobbling up a disproportionate amount of the budget pie. Last year, the Government Accountability Office found that fragmented leadership led to rampant delays and cost overruns in space programs.
Foes say a sixth branch would only add to the military’s legendary red tape. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson told lawmakers last year she wanted to “simplify space, not make it more complicated and bureaucratic.” But she’s been forced into an about-face by the commander-in-chief, who started musing about a Space Force earlier this year, ordered it up in June and sent Pence to the Pentagon on Thursday to lay out the details — including a five-year, $8 billion ask.
Trump is probably right, but execution is another story. Senate Republicans have long resisted this move and are less likely than House Republicans to uniformly ask “how high” when POTUS says “jump.” And Trump’s vocal support will harden Democrats against the idea. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., taunted the president on Twitter: “Stop wasting money on useless walls and intergalactic armies.” And yet the Trump campaign couldn’t resist trying to wring a potential new Space Force logo for political gain.
Trump campaign asks supporters to vote for the new Space Force logo pic.twitter.com/rIvd8AcHEh— Kasie Hunt (@kasie) August 9, 2018
Gingrich’s argument for a moon base was that a robust, ambitious space program is good for the country: Make Apollo Great Again. Trump’s vision is a far more sensible way to confront real threats. But in this political climate, it feels like a moonshot.