Donald Trump, who will go down in history as the most reviled president of all time, has just won a major victory in the creation of a sixth branch of the military: Space Force. Trump will be able to claim credit for a serious milestone—with the smooth cooperation of both major parties.
On Dec. 20, Trump signed the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act after both chambers of Congress passed the bill. A major provision of the law was the creation of Space Force, a military unit the president was openly seeking. His achievement was apparently won in exchange for conceding to Democrats’ demands for paid parental leave for federal employees. But for the Democrats to claim this as a victory is curious given that paid parental leave is an issue that Trump’s own daughter and adviser Ivanka Trump has strongly supported.
Just as the idea of nuclear weapons was sold to the American public as a safety mechanism—a “nuclear deterrent”—to discourage other nations from acquiring nuclear weapons, Space Force is being explained as a way for the U.S. to prevent rather than promote conflict.
The idea for Space Force started out as a joke by Trump when he flippantly said, during a 2018 speech in San Diego, Calif.: “I was saying it the other day because we’re doing a tremendous amount of work in space. I said, ‘Maybe we need a new force, we’ll call it the Space Force.’ And I was not really serious. Then I said, ‘What a great idea, maybe we’ll have to do that.’ ” A year ago, when Democrats won enough congressional seats to claim victory in the House, the fate of Space Force was in serious doubt. The Atlantic speculated that “[w]ith the House of Representatives flipped and Congress split, the Trump administration’s Space Force will probably never get off the ground.” But just 13 months later, Democrats and Republicans together gave the most unpopular president in memory the approval he needed to fast-track his idea into reality.
In 2018, Democratic Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island expressed his opposition to Space Force, saying it was “not the way to go.” A year later, Reed capitulated when he voted for the latest NDAA encompassing the creation of Space Force, saying the bill was “a responsible compromise that strengthens our national defense capabilities.” Regardless of the liberal party’s feigned opposition to warfighting, militarism has always been a bipartisan project, and it is no surprise that the militarization of space is as well.
As with the U.S. border wall with Mexico, Trump has been obsessed with the idea of creating Space Force for several years. During his first year in office, he was reportedly fixated on space, and according to an Axios report, the president “would ask random questions about rocket ships and marvel to hear about satellites and the junk floating around in space. His questions were unfocused, like a student trying to learn about a new subject.”
Now, with his political victory in hand, Trump will likely tout Space Force as one of his crowning achievements. Trump’s campaign manager, Brad Parscale, last year asked Trump supporters to vote on a Space Force logo for the branded gear the campaign planned to sell, and Trump’s reelection website now offers Space Force-themed T-shirts, hats and bumper stickers for sale.
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Decades of exposure to seductive science-fiction storytelling in movies and TV shows have romanticized the idea of space, space travel and the militarization of space. Hollywood has depicted countless scenes of war with laser-like beams destroying rival spaceships and the “good guys” prevailing in the end. The genre has remained deeply popular, with millions of Americans eagerly devouring Disney’s Star Wars-branded TV series, “The Mandalorian,” this fall and sharing Baby Yoda memes online. The new Star Wars franchise film, “The Rise of Skywalker,” made its theatrical debut Dec. 20—coincidentally, the same day that Trump formalized the creation of Space Force.
Whether or not science fiction directly promotes the idea of Space Force, there is a strong conflation between fiction and nonfiction when it comes to space. DefenseNews.com triumphantly announced the creation of the new branch with a Star-Wars-referencing headline, “May the Space Force be with you.” The Washington Post’s David Montgomery took it a step further into popular culture with his laudatory article, “Trump’s Excellent Space Force Adventure,” in which he claimed that the president’s “proposal for a new military branch really could make America safe again.” Netflix even explored the idea of a TV show called Space Force starring Steve Carrell. Reinforcing the fusion of reality and fantasy, the new website for Space Force uses a font strongly reminiscent of the popular “Star Trek” TV series in its headlines.
Perhaps many of us imagine that as in the movies, a military presence in space is justifiable for the noblest of reasons. Just as the idea of nuclear weapons was sold to the American public as a safety mechanism — a “nuclear deterrent” — to discourage other nations from acquiring nuclear weapons, Space Force is being explained as a way for the U.S. to prevent rather than promote conflict. In an op-ed published in The Washington Post last March, Vice President Mike Pence — with a heavy dose of revisionism about the U.S.’ military role—wrote, “The United States will always seek peace in space as on Earth, but history proves that peace only comes through strength. And in the realm of outer space, the Space Force will be that strength.”
Brig. Gen. Thomas James, director of operations for Space Command, reinforced this notion, explaining his objective to Foreign Policy as, “No. 1 is to deter conflict to extend into space.” He added, “Then, if it does extend into space, are we able to defend our assets?” Finally, he expressed what is likely the U.S.’ main objective: “And the third is our ability to defeat an adversary, and that could be through any means, not just in space but through multidomain operations.”
Gen. John E. Hyten, one of the originators of the idea of Space Force, spoke in far more honest terms when he said in March 2018, “We must normalize space and cyberspace as warfighting domains.” In his recent speech before signing the NDAA, Trump echoed that hawkish desire, saying, “Space is the world’s new war-fighting domain. … American superiority in space is absolutely vital.”
Currently, Congress has appropriated $40 million to jump-start Space Force as a part of the existing U.S. Air Force. That is just over half of what the Trump administration asked for, and although it is a relatively modest amount, the ensuing costs will likely be higher in line with the steadily increasing budget of the entire U.S. military. At the same time as raging debates over how taxpayers can afford lifesaving programs like “Medicare for All” or food stamps, Congress and the president blithely threw even more money at the military and its newest branch.
As the devastating impacts of our endless wars in Afghanistan and Iraq continue to unfold, lawmakers have casually, without much debate, expanded the arena of war into space.