US Space Force plan will end in tears, for everyone
With new space powers rapidly emerging, Trump's military drive will be an act of expensive and dangerous folly
It sounds like something straight out of a bad science fiction movie. Yet American plans for the creation of a laser weapon-wielding Space Force moved a step closer to reality this week when 43 former senior defence department, air force and intelligence officials signed an open letter declaring “strong support” for the idea, first mooted by President Donald Trump in 2018.
Unhappily for Star Trek fans, the purpose of this new force won’t be to fight aliens but to defend existing US interests in space from other Earthlings: the network of global positioning satellites, communications, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems on which its military relies.
The list of signatories in the letter is impressive. It includes William Perry, former secretary of defence, Dennis Blair and Mike McConnell, both former directors of national intelligence, plus a who’s who of former US Air Force chiefs of staff.
Unsurprisingly, the proposals to establish a new armed service for military operations in space within the air force, which will now be considered by Congress, can count on strong support from the arms industry. After all, as an opportunity to squander colossal amounts of taxpayer money, few things could beat an arms race in space.
From Lockheed Martin to Raytheon, missile and aerospace manufacturers will be rubbing their hands at the prospect of juicy government contracts for decades to come. The US Defence Department has already offered a glimpse into its thinking, revealing earlier in 2019 it was studying the possibility of space weapons including particle beams, ray guns, space lasers and orbiting missiles.
But make no mistake, US plans to militarise space are a terrible idea, for everyone.
Ever since the early days of the Space Race in the 1950s, an occasionally tense but broadly stable rivalry existed in space dominated by a handful of national governments. For the first 40 years, of course, that was chiefly the US and the USSR. More recently, however, that uneasy truce, formalised in the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 which explicitly banned the use of space for non-peaceful purposes, has started to unravel, to be supplanted by something else.
From Israel to China and India, new space powers are rapidly emerging. They have been joined by a new breed of technology tycoon including Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, who are bankrolling the privately funded development of space. The falling cost of space travel and the miniaturisation of electronics and satellite technology have ensured that, increasingly, space is no longer the preserve of a handful of rich governments but a busy place of complex, competing national and private interests.
From Washington DC, its easy to see how all of this seems rather threatening. After decades of American dominance, China’s successful 2007 anti-satellite test prompted the start of a shift in US military policy towards space. A similar test by India last month added fresh impetus to US fears that without new technology and weapons to defend itself against attack, its military prowess could be swiftly degraded by a handful of Chinese missiles pointed at the right US satellite targets.
As of now, the US has no weapons in space, nor does it have any trained personnel or concept of how to fight a war in or from space. The letter says the US Space Force will “develop military space culture and ethos; recruit, train, educate, promote and retain scientists, engineers and warriors with world-class space skills and talent; advocate for space requirements and resources; develop space doctrine and operational art; develop, field and deliver advanced space capabilities; and steward resources to sustain America’s strategic advantage and pre-eminence in national security space activities”.
But, in case there were any doubt, any move in this direction would have disastrous consequences by triggering a rush to militarise space by US rivals, above all China, which already has an embryonic space force. It’s a race that it is far from clear the US would actually win.
Inevitable parallels have been drawn with Ronald Reagan’s threat to develop a “Star Wars” space system in the 1980s to defend against Soviet nuclear missiles. The Strategic Defence Initiative, as it was known, was never developed but the mere threat of it served as a powerful political weapon at the end of the Cold War, forcing Moscow to make tough decisions about whether it could really afford to compete. In the end, it realised it could never match US spending plans and Star Wars arguably helped precipitate the collapse of the USSR.
But anyone thinking the US could pull off a repeat stunt with China in 2019 is kidding themselves. Compared with Moscow’s in the late 1980s, Beijing’s economy is in rude health while its technological prowess – in space and in its military – increasingly looks like a match for anybody’s, including the US. China’s ability to funnel vast amounts of state money into new technology has been demonstrated in its commitment to ensuring it becomes a leader in the development of artificial intelligence.
Naturally, an arms race in space would be fantastically expensive for all concerned and a big drain on other public resources, which could be spent on all manner of other things. Who would emerge as the winner ultimately is anyone’s guess but a lot of the smart money would be on China.
There is another possibility, of course. Could it be that the drive to build a US Space Force could serve as a useful political campaign tool for Trump as he gears up for his re-election? His plan to build a wall with Mexico has proved a mixed success, but there is no denying its role as a useful political gimmick that helped him get elected. Next time, he might have more luck with a space force, and an eye-catching logo would look good on a bright-red cap.
– © Telegraph Media Group Limited (2019)