What's the rationale behind an American space force?

By Sumantra Maitra
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail China.org.cn, September 8, 2018
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U.S. Vice President Mike Pence speaks during an announcement of the Trump Administration's plan to establish the U.S. Space Force by year 2020 at the Pentagon, Virginia, the United States on Aug. 9, 2018. [Photo/Xinhua]

From the dawn of Pax Britannica, immediately after Britain saw off the Napoleonic hegemony, there was peace. In the book, "Empire of the Deep," Ben Wilson charts how technological advancements helped the Royal Navy promote not just British power, but also advancements in science which speeded up societal development. 

Of these, the telegraph, railways, and steam were of course important, but nothing was more important than ships. The Royal Navy, was so powerful and unrivaled at one point, that it distributed navigation charts that it made during explorations and discovery voyages to other great powers, for free. 

The Navy was not only useful to show how powerful Britain was but to explore and understand the world for scientific purposes. The age of sails gave way to Ironclads, and then to steam battleships and Dreadnoughts. Britain was ahead of the curve all the time. 

Donald Trump's space force follows that pattern. "I'm hereby directing the Department of Defense and the Pentagon to immediately begin the process necessary to establish a space force as the sixth branch of the armed forces," Trump said in June promising that American dominance in space would be maintained. The space force was duly inaugurated by Vice President Pence, as a sixth branch of the U.S. armed forces, a separate but equal force comparable to the army, navy, air force, marines and coast guards. 

One might wonder, what is the need for a space force? After all there are no aliens to battle, at least so far. Moreover, with all of the latest scandals, the Trump administration is looking shakiest to date. What the is the rationale for a space force? 

First of all, the optics. Trump likes shiny new toys, and it is one of his fundamental ways of dealing with his domestic appeal in an insane news cycle. Trump remains in perpetual campaign mode, and while travelling, he constantly attends rallies. For Trump's die-hard Republican supporters in heartland America, without any understanding of the broader direction their country is taking, these types of newsbytes are a surefire method to garner support. 

Also, the American strategic community is determined on legacy platforms. For example, if Russia or China made a weapons system which is cheaper, two generations behind and cost effective, Americans would spend 20 years researching and developing a platform which by the time it comes to battle is already obsolete. The F-35 project is similar to that, built for an all-out great power war, which will never come to fruition. 

The second and more important aspect is however geopolitical. Trump has repeatedly mentioned in his speeches that it is a long-term American strategy not to let rivals like China and Russia dominate new frontiers. Space remains the final one. Recent studies suggest that panic is running in the American strategic community about Russian spy satellites, or Chinese hypersonic missiles.

From American GPS, to banking, to satellite communication, the space force will be tasked to defend American interests from rival great powers. 

But more importantly, this is not a short-term process. Space is by definition, the future of a species which has so far only had one planet to live on. This is an unlikely process to change, and someone or the other will take this opportunity to lead. 

Consider the European powers looking for new territory to colonize and find resources. The earthly resources are finite, and eventually in 50 or even hundreds of years, there will be a need to venture out. That, added with the advancements of artificial intelligence means that the space race is on, whether one wants it or not. 

Therefore, to consider the American space force as a short term gimmick is wrong. Trump, or no Trump, on the frontier of space, the U.S. is just trying to stay ahead of the curve. 

Sumantra Maitra is a columnist with China.org.cn. For more information please visit:


Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors only, not necessarily those of China.org.cn.

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