No Space for Weapons

When I first heard that President Trump wanted to establish a fifth branch of the United States Armed Forces, a “Space Force,” I assumed that it was one of those over-the-top ideas for which he has become famous. It would be here today, gone tomorrow. But the latest Time magazine shows that I was wrong: there’s an eight-page article entitled, “Yes, There Really is a Space Force.” Apparently, certain other nations (Russia and China chief among them) have begun to establish anti-satellite satellites in orbit, and the president (and now the Congress) think that a distinct branch of the military needs to be in place to counter the potential threat to technology on which not merely national security but everyday life depends (think GPS).

Still, I for one think that this step is madness. Why ever would the United States want to weaponize outer space any more than it already is? Even the perception that we are doing so (which can only be reinforced by having a separate branch with this name) will only undercut our already-tenuous moral authority among nations. And even if there is a credible threat to essential technologies like satellites, cannot the Air Force be tasked with caring for our security, even lacking the “air” part? The Time article notes that the 2021 cost of the new branch is for now a mere $15.4 billion (plus $2.6 billion more over the next five years) out of a defense budget of $740 billion. Nevertheless, the warning of President Eisenhower about the entrenched interests of the “military-industrial complex” comes quickly to mind (together with the more humorous but equally real remark of the late Senator Dirksen: “A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon, you’re talking real money”).

What has puzzled me from the start of the discussion of this new, fifth branch has been the utter lack of a national debate on the topic. Yes, we’ve all been preoccupied with the pandemic at the cost of numerous other essential topics, chief among them climate change (although at least that got a cover article in Time’s last issue). And yes, I am aware of the satirical series on Netflix, starring Steve Carell. But to quote another American statesman (this time Senator Bob Dole, as he was campaigning against President Clinton in 1996), “Where’s the outrage?” I am deafened by the silence.

Or have I just been listening in the wrong places?