The idea was ripe for mockery. On Thursday, Vice President Mike Pence said that President Donald Trump is hoping to establish a Space Force by 2020 (an idea, of course, that birthed millions of memes.)
Some of the criticisms are thoughtful (see Fred Kaplan’s at Slate). Even if we indulged the idea that warfare of the future will require a space presence, it is debatable that we would need a sixth branch of the armed forces.
But let’s not pretend the idea is patently absurd. By separating from the Air Force, a space force would gain control of its own budget and procurement, and the domain of space would presumably draw more attention from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Additionally, because space activity is scattered throughout the government (not just the Air Force), centralization would require an inventory of our current federal space programs, a process that could ultimately result in increased synergy.
“If this is a reorganizing effort that suggests a change in emphasis, then the idea has some legitimacy to it,” agrees Paul Rosenzweig, a homeland security expert and senior fellow at the R Street Institute.
Still, most commentators were quick to dismiss the idea.
I’m not necessarily championing the idea, but I don’t think we should automatically dismiss it, either. America fought in the air for decades before creating a separate Air Force in 1947. The Department of Homeland Security was created to coordinate “homeland security” functions that were already being done, in a more comprehensive manner. Why is this such a crazy idea?
According to The Heritage Foundation’s James Jay Carafano, a foreign policy and national security expert, there’s no obvious reason why the Air Force would oversee this domain. “The Air Force doing space,” said Carafano, “is like [the difference between] selling a car and washing a car—different activities.”
That’s not to say that Trump’s Space Force is a brilliant idea. Rosenzweig and Carafano (both co-authors of the 2005 book, Winning the Long War: Lessons from the Cold War for Defeating Terrorism and Preserving Freedom) have reservations, even as they concede a potential upside. What bothers me, though, is that, for many elites, the idea is dead on arrival. Why? There are serious threats from our adversaries in space, and this idea that has existed at least since then-Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld recommended it in January 2001. A space force may or may not be a good idea, but let’s not pretend that it is a patently illegitimate one.
Why are so many people treating this idea like a big joke? I think there are three reasons. First, he response reflects an inherent distrust of Donald Trump. Second, any idea relating to space is easy to mock (even Trump’s use of “rocket man” for Kim Jong-un tapped into this comedy gold). And third, big ideas are often met with skepticism.
Donald Trump hasn’t earned the benefit of the doubt on a lot of things. The fact that his campaign is encouraging supporters to help decide on the hypothetical new force’s logo (I like the blue one on the top right) suggests that this might be a gimmick—and an inappropriate one, at that. Is Trump trying to change the subject or just boost ratings in the dog days of summer?
Trump aside, though, I think the cavalier dismissal of this idea speaks to a diminished ambition to do big things. The first and most obvious analogy is to Ronald Reagan’s much-derided Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI).
Lampooned as “Star Wars,” the idea of a defense shield used to shoot down Soviet missiles contributed to bankrupting the Soviet Union. Likewise, investing in a space force could be seen as a symbolic move to ensure peace through strength. “Don’t tell me this doesn't send a message to our strategic competitors,” says Carafano.
Although Reagan’s idea was mocked, the notion of missile defense was both reasonable and ahead of the curve. Today, we see various versions of his wild idea being employed, including a ’Star Wars’-like missile shield in Israel. If North Korea decides to lob a nuke our direction someday, one hopes we are expediting research.
Likewise, it may be that Donald Trump’s “space force” is (for now) a somewhat quixotic idea—but one that may, in time, bear fruit. And once this reorganization is underway, it is unlikely that a future president would be willing to incur the costs associated with reversing this decision.
Speaking of costs, an obvious criticism of Trump’s initiative has to do with money. Small government conservatives might not be keen on creating a new federal bureaucracy with more overhead, and big government liberals might prefer to see the money spent on nation-building at home. For example, the Michigan Democrats are asking, “How is there no money to fix the water crisis in Michigan, but we can afford to fund Trump’s #spaceforce?”
You can substitute any crisis and ask why we would fund a space force and not (insert problem for which there isn’t funding). How can someone support the space force but not support, say, higher teacher pay or universal healthcare? I would argue that the space force fits into the existing national security rubric. If health insurance is a universal right, one could argue that no other expenditure is appropriate or legitimate.
Price tag aside, I think we are responsible for our own diminished attitude toward progress. There was a time when we believed in exploration and dreamed of a brighter future.
Is the space force a good idea? Instead of reflexively answering “no,” let us debate this idea and ask tough questions. Our opinion of Donald Trump should never hinder our ability to look to the stars.