If I showed you my first-ever business card at Bell Labs, you’d see that I was in a technical group called Military and Space Applications. That group was led my first AT&T boss, astronaut Terry Hart, who was a NASA mission specialist on STS-41-C in 1984. (Terry led me into computer security.) And even before my entry to Bell Labs, while in graduate school, I was a developer at Singer-Kearfott, writing navigation software in Fortran for the Space Shuttle.
So, I love space (witness the iconic photo of Buzz Aldrin on the lunar surface that hangs behind my office chair). And I sincerely believe I’ve obtained enough relevant career insight across this (ahem) space to provide some personal commentary on President Trump’s new Space Force proposal. Because we live in unusual political times, I will offer the preliminary claim that if Presidents Obama or Bush promoted the same initiative, my comments would be the same.
To start, let’s begin with Vice President Pence’s recent comments, in which he references a remark made by our President: “Space is, in his words, a warfighting domain.” Now, this claim is neither controversial, nor much debated: The great RAND scholar Martin Libicki reminds us that land was the original warfighting domain, followed by sea, followed a century ago by air, and then followed half a century ago by space. (US Space Command was established in 1985.) So, Pence's claim is neither a small step nor a giant leap.
Ironically, the much greater debate in our national defense community has been around whether cyberspace is, in fact, a true warfighting domain. The primary con argument being that unlike the naturally occurring land, air, sea, and space domains – cyberspace is a man-made object that can be redesigned and redeployed to mitigate threats. In contrast, no defense department could ever redesign the air or sea to their advantage – and this is also true for space.
So, few would argue with the premise that space is a legitimate domain in which the warfighter must contend to achieve that all-encompassing strategic goal of conflict avoidance in the military: Superiority. Stated simply, if you want to avoid wars in space, then you'd better have space superiority. But here is where there are three serious implications to achieving this goal through a new Force which seem inconsistent with the best interests of our country. Let me explain each in turn:
New Government Bureaucracy – The most obvious implication is that the allocation of $8B for a new Space Force would be spent mostly on creating the massively-complex military bureaucracy that would be required to promote US Space Command away from its US Air Force leadership into a new Force. So, if you hate bureaucracy – and our business-oriented President clearly does (and so do I) – then you and he and I should hate the idea of creating a new one.
Very, Very Cold War – Taking a step toward a new Space Force would produce – as you learned in high school physics – an equal and opposite reaction from our international adversaries. Now I don’t know about you, but fighting a very, very cold war (it is -454 degrees Fahrenheit in space) with the likes of China, Pakistan, and Russia does not sound like much fun. And I can promise that you will gulp twice at the endless list of international authors writing impressive technical journal pieces on space technology.
Commercial Uncertainty – The pendulum has obviously swung recently toward purely commercial engagements and operations in space. I can tell you that the entire TAG Cyber operation in New York basically came to a screeching halt as we watched Elon Musk jettison his car off into space. (Damn, that was cool.) A new US Space Force would simply have an uncertain and unsettling effect on our involvement in space commerce. Every future commercial launch would be accused of carrying spy-loads.
Look, I can hear your criticism now: The US is falling behind in space technology, so we should get ourselves aligned with a super-exciting military mission to protect our nation from orbital weapons of mass destruction from above. I agree with the general objective, but disagree with the bureaucratic nature of this announcement from the White House. And sadly, this appears to have now found its way onto Secretary Mattis’ already packed to-do list at the Pentagon.
Instead, if we are serious about US Space Superiority, then I would much prefer to see the following two, more rational initiatives come from the White House: First, we should propose to allocate half of that $8B to advancing engineering and R&D activities currently under the direction of Space Command within the US Air Force. This money would include zero bureaucratic waste, and would produce some super-exciting new technology, testing, and yes – even advanced cyber-woven war-gaming in space. We simply do not need a new Force to do this; we can do it now with our existing military.
And second, the remaining four billion dollars should be used to set up a government-furnished fund for start-ups in the United States to build commercial or military-relevant space technology, services, or products. If we need a model for how this would work, just have a look at how the CIA's In-Q-Tel works (although their budget is many orders of magnitude smaller). Infusion of this type of seed money to US companies would produce a groundswell of innovation in space applications. Thousands of budding space entrepreneurs from Brooklyn to Kansas would submit proposals immediately,
The bottom line is that a more strategic and tactical presence in space will not be accomplished through a new military Force. Rather, in advance of this perhaps-future step, a massive amount of scientific investigation and engineering testing and innovation will be required before we can perform even the most rudimentary military operations in space. And it wouldn’t hurt to research this with our closest allies, as well as with industry. We must focus on space research and innovation – not war.
I will close with a parenthetical comment – one that I hesitate to add, but must: Our nation’s chief executive should be focused on cyber security. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: President Trump’s Administration is likely to be defined by cyber security in much the same way as President George W. Bush’s Administration was defined by terrorism. Diverting his glance up into space (without special glasses, by the way) is neither in Trump’s interest nor ours.