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Building a Space Force – a sci-fi plot or contemporary policy?

22 October, 2018

Alexa Reith – Research Assistant

In recent months, it was announced that the US intended to establish a sixth branch of its military – a Space Force. Whilst positively framed as a timely and necessary development in US military defence capabilities, the formation of an independent space military body is not a simple or uncontroversial task.

What is a Space Force?

Space Force hit mainstream headlines in June 2018, after President Trump simultaneously announced the concept and directed the Department of Defence (DOD) and Pentagon to take all necessary steps to establish a Space Force as the sixth branch of the US military.

A report released by the Pentagon on 9 August 2018 defined the objectives and function of the Space Force to be the organisation, training and equipment of forces to protect national security interests in the physical domain of space. The report also outlined the establishment of several component bodies that would form the basis of the Space Force – including a Space Development Agency, Space Operations Force, Services and Support, and Space Command.

Deflating the view that the Space Force would involve astronaut soldiers, such factors indicate the Space Force will be a military branch that focuses upon the protection of space technologies and interests. It is also apparent that components of the Space Force will focus upon the advancement and development of US space related technologies and capabilities.

Whilst uncontroversial, it is important not to over simplify the mandate and objectives of the Space Force. In this regard, the President and Vice President Pence have also tied the Space Force to a number of alternative and divisive objectives inter alia including the return of the US to the moon and establishing a permanent base there; the US managing and regulating commercial endeavours in space through a state-of-the-art space traffic management system; and strengthening the US’ industrial base and delivering cutting-edge warfighting capabilities.

Reality Check

The establishment of a military body that is dedicated to space activities is not a new or unprecedented concept. In fact, the idea has been mooted in the US on numerous occasions.

In 2001, a report assessing the US’ space management and organisation contemplated the creation of a military space department. Whilst recognising the benefits and potential necessity of an independent space body in the future, more conservative reforms were favoured over the creation of such a body. In this regard, the onerous procedural issues and costs – including an insufficient critical mass of qualified personnel, budget, requirements or missions sufficient to establish a new department – were seen to outweigh its benefits.

More recently, in 2017, lawmakers drafted legislation that sought to establish a ‘Space Corps’ within the US Air Force. Whilst marked as a first, but critical, initiative in strengthening the US’ national security, allowances for a Space Corps were not included in the 2018 National Defense Authorisation Act. Echoing the findings of the 2001 report, legislators ultimately favoured changes to existing management and procurement rules over committing to the establishment of a new body.

Undeniably, the increasing presence and technological capabilities of Russia and China (including counter-defence capabilities) have caused the US to review its presence and priorities in space. Such competition has also fuelled a re-evaluation of the costs, benefits, and necessity associated with creating a space military body.

It must also be noted that the President’s association of the Space Force with the likes of a permanent US presence in space and commercial endeavours is obstacle ridden. Whilst aligning with US military doctrines and recent space policies – including a right to self-defence in space and prioritisation of missile defence – such endeavours are likely to challenge the boundaries of established international laws and norms relevant to space.

Contrary to the view that space is an unfettered domain, space and the activities conducted within it are regulated by an array of international agreements and regulations. The Outer Space Treaty (OST) which sits at the heart of the international framework, stipulates the use and exploration of space must be for peaceful purposes and the benefit of all humankind. The treaty also enshrines a number of provisions that seek to avoid the militarisation of space. For instance, the placement and use of nuclear weapons in space is strictly prohibited. The establishment of military bases and installations, and conduct of military manoeuvres on celestial bodies (including asteroids) is also prohibited.

Having signed the OTS in 1967, the US is bound by these provisions and prohibitions. Moreover, any Space Force or US space-related activities – including those foreshadowed by the President in June 2018 – must be in accordance with them.

Looking Ahead

The Pentagon report indicates allowances will be made for establishment of the Space Force in the FY 2020 Presidential Budget and FY 2020 National Defence Authorisations Act. However, a piece of legislation will also need to be passed to officiate the establishment of the Space Force as the sixth branch of the US military – a task which involves the executive (the President) and legislative branches (Congress) of the US government endorsing the concept.

As things stand, the establishment of a Space Force is gaining traction – but further headway is needed to be made to transform it into a reality. In this regard, support for the creation of a Space Force remains mixed amongst lawmakers. However, with competition from rival states being such a powerful catalyst for reform, support is likely to grow.

The Space Force’s early functions and mandate are also likely to respect the foundational principles of international space law. That being said, it is foreseeable that advancements in technology and increased competition within space will give rise to circumstances that challenge or simply fall beyond the scope of the current international framework.

Conscious of such factors, the international community must explore means to strengthen the international space law framework. Whilst not an easy task, the establishment of national space forces serves as a cautionary reminder that space is no longer the unknown, but a tangible domain for human exploration and exploitation.

Image: A USAF X-37B spacecraft undergoes inspection after landing (Source: USAF)

About Alexa Reith

Alexa Reith will shortly complete her Master of Laws with Flinders University, which has focused upon International Law and International Relations. Alexa obtained her undergraduate degrees in Law and International Relations from Griffith University and worked as an Australian Qualified Solicitor prior to commencing her postgraduate studies. Alexa’s research interests include dispute resolution and security studies, particularly in terms of nuclear ethics and nuclear policy and decision making.