In an unexpected announcement, President Trump has ordered the creation of a new branch of the US military to ensure “American dominance in space.” The “Space Force” sounds like a campy Saturday morning cartoon, but it could have serious real-world ramifications. Such a military operation could run afoul of international treaties and cause an unwanted escalation of international tensions.
The order signed today doesn’t include any specifics on how the Space Force would operate. It simply directs the US Department of Defense to begin planning for this new sixth branch of the military. Presumably, this would replace the Air Force Space Command, which currently oversees military satellites, space communications, and more.
The current Air Force Space Command is engaged in non-combat space operations that support military action on Earth. For example, it operates surveillance satellites and processes intelligence on the space operations of other nations. One of its primary goals is to support the peaceful international use of space by all governments, and it seems like the Space Force would be a radically different organization.
Trump claims the new military branch will be a “separate but equal” version of the Air Force in space. If that’s an accurate description, the Space Force could end up in violation of international law. As the space race heated up 50 years ago, the US, USSR, UK, and more than 100 other countries ratified the Outer Space Treaty. This document aims to limit the militarization of space.
The treaty specifies that no weapons of mass destruction be stationed in orbit or on any celestial body. This vague language could be read to allow non-nuclear weapons like railguns that could be as destructive as small nuclear warheads. However, the treaty also says that the Moon and other celestial bodies are only available for peaceful exploration and use. The Outer Space Treaty expressly prohibits establishing military bases or conducting military exercises on a celestial body as well.
If the Space Force becomes a reality, it would either be strictly limited or be in violation of international law. We might never find out, though. Lawmakers are already speaking up to point out the president cannot unilaterally create a new branch of the military. That requires Congressional action to create and fund such an organization. The Department of Defense is currently working on a report exploring whether or not the US should have a “space corps.” That report isn’t due out until August.
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