In a move that sent shockwaves through the defense policy world, the House Armed Services Committee last month committed to the creation of a new uniformed armed service: The Space Corps.
It’s the first time such an action has been taken since the creation of the Air Force in 1947. The basic idea is to split up the Air Force, and let the Space Corps handle all United States military activity beyond earth’s atmosphere. It would be an independent service under the Department of the Air Force, in much the same way the Marine Corps functions under the Department of the Navy.
The news provoked much mockery and chuckling on social media. Is it such a crazy idea? The Air Force seems to think so, and its top officers vocally oppose the change. Of course, service chiefs can always be counted on to jealously defend their turf.
Missile defense interceptors and the X-37
Does U.S. military activity in space really justify a separate branch of the military? The Navy and the Air Force, and a constellation of civilian intelligence agencies, have long maintained unmanned satellites for navigation and reconnaissance. Both the Navy and Air Force have worked on ground-based missile defense interceptors, including an acknowledged and tested anti-satellite capability.
The Air Force has also built and used its own miniature unmanned space shuttle, the X-37. Its lengthy stays in orbit have attracted little notice. Its exact purpose is classified, beyond a vague admission that its mission involves “research.”
So while the United States has some military presence in space, the scale of all of these activities is dwarfed by the size of the other branches of the service. A Space Corps would be by far the smallest.
Will we send the space Marines?
To state the obvious, the United States has no space marines. International treaties to which we are signatories preclude the maintenance of unmanned weapons platforms. There is no military base in space, and there are no servicemen stationed in low-earth orbit.
In short, our unmanned military capabilities in space all revolve around providing support to forces on the “ground” – or on sea or in the earth’s atmosphere.
So what purpose would be served by severing them from their parent services, creating a new bureaucracy, new uniforms, new officer and new enlisted corps? The population of human beings in space is in the single digits at any given time. Almost all of them are exclusively aboard the International Space Station, which is non-military.
Important note: Our only current access for astronauts to the space station is provided by Russia.
Moreover, the armed services work better together than they once did, due in part to the passage of the Goldwater-Nichols reforms in 1986. Joint task forces and operations are common, particularly in specialized areas like intelligence and space operations.
And international military trends are against creating new services. Instead, many nations have unified their armed forces, ditching entirely the traditional division into separate services.
Entrenched traditions may keep the U.S. from ever going that far. The Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines – and sometimes the Coast Guard is included in the mix –have very distinct traditions, titles and uniforms, but their goal is to fight together.
It’s time for privatization, not militarization
Part of President Dwight Eisenhower’s goal in creating NASA in 1958 was to ensure a peaceful and civilian-lead exploration of space. That’s why this warm and fuzzy civilian agency got the plum assignment to man the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions. Most of the early astronauts were themselves military test pilots. But they presented and conducted themselves as civilians in the public eye. Mission control was full of pocket protectors and slide rules, and usually the only military uniform in sight was the Navy liaison for the recoving capsules after splashdown.
Given mostly non-weapons-related activity of the U.S. military in space, the creation of a “Space Corps” would be a symbolic move in the wrong direction. As the first service of its kind, a Space Corps would proclaim America’s intention to militarize space, and might well be followed with similar international rivals, prompted a far more destructive race in space.
While there may come a time when we need a major military force in space, it isn’t here yet. And that’s why, in all likelihood, the House of Representatives will strip this amendment out of the National Defense Authorization Act before passage.
(Photo of Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Keith Klassy conducting maintenance on an MV-22B Osprey tiltrotor aircraft by Cpl. Christopher Q. Stone; and illustration of the Air Force Space Command’s “Neighborhood Watch” satellite by the Air Force; and photo of Master Sgt. Rich Davis at Command Center Alpha of the Air Force, by the Air Force.)