Friday, January 8, 2021

What's in a Name

The new Cape Canaveral Space Force Station sign at Gate 1. Image source:

Vice President Mike Pence visited Cape Canaveral on December 9, 2020 to announce that Cape Canaveral Air Force Station had been renamed Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, and that Patrick Air Force Base (of which the Cape is a part) had been renamed Patrick Space Force Base.

Some people love the name change. Some don't.

The idea has been around for a while.

In 2011, space entrepreneur James C. Bennett wrote an article for The New Atlantis proposing “a 'Coast Guard' for space.” This was at the dawn of what today is commonly called NewSpace.

In the decades since NASA was designated the lead agency for civil-space activities and the U.S. Air Force (USAF) for military space activities, little serious discussion has been devoted to the question of whether those entities in their present forms are well suited for discharging the government’s space interests. The closest we have come to such discussion has been the occasionally recurring proposal to spin off a military Space Force from the Air Force (much as the Air Force was itself spun off from the Army). On the civil side, the model of NASA as a unified agency has been largely immune from scrutiny.

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL) for years has been a leading proponent of a Space Force. In September 2016, Rogers as chairman of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee held a hearing to discuss national security space.

He cited a July 2016 Government Accountability Office report which recommended the creation of a “space force” to “absorb all DOD and NRO space acquisitions and operations functions.” The report found that, “Fragmented space acquisition leadership means that 'no one is in charge.'”

With bipartisan support, Rogers inserted language into the Fiscal Year 2018 National Defense Authorization Act to create the Space Force, but the language didn't make it to the final bill reconciled with the Senate.

Rogers found a willing President in Donald Trump, who issued Space Policy Directive 4 in February 2019 directing the Secretary of Defense to create a “legislative proposal” for the Space Force.

The Space Force was finally approved in December 2019 in the 2020 NDAA. Rep. Jim Cooper (D-TN), who took over as chair of the strategic forces committee after the Democrats regained their House majority, told Space News that Trump deserved little credit:

“This is not a Trump idea. He tried to hijack it long after the House Armed Services Committee voted 60-1 to establish a Space Corps,” he added. “Trump’s blatant support of a Space Force does not make it a Republican idea.”

The recently passed Fiscal Year 2021 defense budget included $15.2 billion for the Space Force, which still answers to the Secretary of the Air Force, just as the Marine Corps answers to the Secretary of the Navy.

When I first heard the idea, my concern was that creation of a Space Force would give our adversaries an excuse to start their own military space branches, but they're already militarizing space anyway.

In September, the Pentagon reported that China is amassing anti-satellite weaponry. In 2007, China launched an anti-satellite weapon that destroyed one of their own weather satellites, scattering debris that posed a hazard to other spacecraft. In December, Russia launched an anti-satellite test.

An October 2019 report on the X-37B landing at Kennedy Space Center. Video source: CBS News YouTube channel.

We do it too, of course. In May, the U.S. Navy announced it had conducted an anti-satellite test using the X-37B spaceplane.

The reality is that this is coming, whether we like it nor not.

The United States had an aviation capability in World War I, but it wasn't until 1947 that the U.S. Air Force was created as its own separate military branch. The Army Air Service began in 1926, and for decades advocates supported giving military air power its own separate and equal branch.

Creating a new military branch has its own speed bumps. In December, Vice President Pence announced that Space Force soldiers would be called Guardians, which I guess is better than Spacemen but it still sounds a bit ridiculous, immediately drawing comparisons to the Guardians of the Galaxy movie franchise.

Our best hope is that the United States, with a new President, can somehow find a way to convince the nations of the world to end their militarization of space. History teaches us that's unlikely, but we did finally manage to contain nuclear weapon proliferation. No nuke has been used in combat since 1945.

I do wonder if, in a hundred years or so, we'll learn of a new military branch called the Time Force to fight the Temporal War.

Vice President Mike Pence at Cape Canaveral on December 9. Video source: Fox 35 Orlando YouTube channel.