Guest Editorial: ‘Space Forces’ grounded in national security

  • Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, from left, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and U.S. Strategic Command Commander Gen. John Hyten, testify before a House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology Space Subcommittee and House Armed Services Committee Strategic Forces Subcommittee joint hearing on ‘Space Situational Awareness: Whole of Government Perspectives on Roles and Responsibilities’ on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., June 22. AP Photo

Published: 7/10/2018 6:12:46 PM

Many Americans gaze at the sky and see only a vast uncharted frontier for exploration. But President Donald Trump reminds Americans that there’s another potential reality in space: It could become a military battlefield, a place where this nation’s independence is protected or lost.

The point isn’t to repel an alien invasion from deep space. We’re not worried about Klingons. But Americans do have reason to be concerned about technologically advancing adversaries here on Earth. China and Russia have ambitious satellite programs. Such satellites can be used for improving telecommunications, internet coverage and weather forecasting. Or they may be weaponized to shoot down rival satellites, disrupt a nation’s land-bound electrical grid, and stake a claim to space (and hence ground) superiority.

A war in space could be swift and devastating. “We could be deaf, dumb and blind within seconds,” said Rep. Jim Cooper, a Tennessee Democrat. “Seldom has a great nation been so vulnerable.”

Trump’s solution: Create a “Space Force” to defend this nation’s security against adversaries that could gain military superiority on the ground via military dominance overhead, in space.

Trump recently ordered Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford to take on the mission. “Our destiny beyond the Earth is not only a matter of national identity, but a matter of national security,” Trump said.

No argument there. Trump didn’t offer details, but Congress decides whether and how a sixth branch of the military could be carved out and what its aim would be. The administration’s first mission: selling the idea to skeptical lawmakers. Last year, Congress grounded a plan to create a new “Space Corps” as part of the U.S. Air Force. Many lawmakers and defense officials opposed the move, arguing that it would create an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy and boost friction among branches of the military. Translation: Existing military budgets might be pinched to make way for a new space service. Congress ordered a study instead, due by year’s end.

Trump’s Space Force may never fly. But he’s right to remind Americans that this nation’s adversaries pose a threat to national security. It’s a fitting recognition for the holiday when we celebrate liberation from another country’s domineering rule. No going back.

The space race isn’t just about war, but about resources. In 2007, Russia, the nation of Sputnik and illegal territorial expansion, planted a flag 3 miles beneath the North Pole to stake a claim to the polar region’s vast oil and gas deposits. We imagine Russian President Vladimir Putin would love to shove the U.S. flag aside on the moon — or beat the U.S. to colonizing Mars — and proclaim them the bounty of his rapacious expansionism.

All of this brings to mind the long-running debate over a former president’s fears of spacebound warfare — President Ronald Reagan’s oft-maligned Strategic Defense Initiative, aka Star Wars.

In 1993, we pointed out that SDI had already outlived the threat for which it was intended — the Soviet Union. President George H.W. Bush scaled it back and declared its purpose was to guard against a handful of missiles launched by a Third World dictator or renegade unit of the now-defunct Soviet Union. We saw the appeal then, given the omnipresent threat of nuclear proliferation.

If anything, the case for a defensive posture in space has strengthened. Nuclear proliferation, particularly to terror groups, is a greater threat today than 25 years ago. So is the possibility that some U.S. rival will learn how to paralyze — from space — this nation’s digital and other electrical systems.

Space is supposed to be the new, limitless frontier for peaceful endeavors. But a geopolitical tussle on Earth could easily morph into an arms race in orbit. Whatever you call it, the U.S. needs a smart, robust defense — and offense — in space.

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