A Grain Of Saul: Trump’s ‘Space Force’ May Sound Stupid, But It Addresses A Real Threat

I initially laughed, too. But don't be so quick to mock the idea.

A Grain of Saul is a weekly column that digs into some of the biggest issues we face as a nation and as an international community in search of reliable data, realistic solutions, and — most importantly — hope.  

When I first heard about President Donald Trump's proposed Space Force, I scoffed along with millions of other Americans.

"Really?" I thought. "A new branch of the military for a government that already spends billions of dollars on the military? A new endeavor for a Pentagon that is wasteful and unaccountable? A new sinkhole of cash while children in Flint still don't have clean water, while health care prices skyrocket, while schools struggle to keep the heat on?"

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These concerns should give everyone pause, but they also overlook a legitimate threat that many Americans seem to be laughing off because of the Space Force's silly-sounding name. I first remember becoming aware of these threats in April of 2015, when I watched a CBS: 60 Minutes special on "The Battle Above," which detailed the fight for real estate in space already happening between China and the United States. 

Marines set up a satellite system in Sendai, Japan as part of Operation Tomodachi. Marine Corps photo by Gunnery Sgt. Leo A. Salinas/Released

Most Americans know that if an adversary were to successfully shoot an American satellite out of the sky it could have the effect of disrupting communications for millions of people. What fewer Americans know is that the military relies on those very same satellites, too: they are used to gather intel, fly drones and fighter jets, communicate to soldiers on the ground and even predict weather patterns for flight. The potential of losing those capabilities is a very real threat and it's a worth addressing.

The United States has 500 satellites in space, and the Pentagon — as of 2015 — was already spending $25 billion on space, more than NASA or any other space agency. 31 of those 500 satellites were active GPS satellites that rely on each other to function. They provide free GPS satellite capabilities, courtesy of the Air Force, to most of the world's population. But if one was shot down, destroyed or damaged, it could affect the GPS that we all rely on. And the prospect is far from impossible.

In 2007, China shot a dead weather satellite out of the sky with a missile, according to The Washington Post. China has also shown they can reach satellites far deeper in orbit where the U.S. military has many of its most important "space assets."  It appears the U.S. military believes the threat to be a very real possibility: During that 2015 CBS: 60 Minutes special, Gen. John Hyten explained that Iran and North Korea, along with 11 other countries, are now capable of launching objects into orbit. Last year, the military ran an exercise to simulate how they could attribute an attack on U.S. satellites, POLITICO reported. It also conducted war games where troops undergo training on how to survive in the field without GPS signals. There are no current defenses in place to stop an adversary from shooting down a U.S. satellite. 

"This is a system the whole world depends on, costs a small fortune to put it up there, and it's a sitting duck," CBS correspondent David Martin said.

An American service member sets up a satellite link at Sendai. U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Samuel Morse

So, what are our options? On Thursday, Vice President Mike Pence called for a joint U.S. Space Command that employs resources and people from all branches of the military as an interim step while Congress explores the idea of creating a new military branch for space. A new branch would require thousands of new employees, deliberations about uniform and codes of conduct, recruitment, and a new budget. The White House is already pushing to get another $8 billion invested in national security space systems over the coming five years, The Washington Post reported.

Practically, sticking to what Pence laid out as the interim plan may be the best idea: expand the Air Force's responsibilities, get them more resources from the other branches of the military, and simply focus more on space defense. That seems like a far more reasonable and prudent step than creating an entirely new bureaucratic mess that will come with a new branch of military. Especially when you consider how wasteful and unchecked the Pentagon's spending already is.

It's also totally reasonable to criticize the Trump administration's rollout of the potential new branch. Initially, his Secretary of Defense James Mattis seemed resistant to the idea. Others in the military expressed consternation about the prospect. The president's obsession with it has, at times, seemed "child-like." And his curiosity of space, though admirable, does at times reach a level of parody that his most ardent detractors embrace. 

All that aside, though, the Space Force idea addresses a real vulnerability Americans should be concerned about: securing our technology in space from harm. We should all support the commander in chief in that endeavor, even — and especially — when it's an easy target for mockery.

Cover photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images.

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