In space, no one can hear you thank them for their service. In that sense, and probably no other, enlistees in the United States Space Force — an actual thing we Americans are doing now — will be making a big sacrifice.
On Thursday, Vice President Pence confirmed in an extremely live-tweeted speech that President Trump’s long-rumored Space Force will form by 2020 as the sixth independent branch of the U.S. armed forces. Veterans of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force and Coast Guard will no doubt be excited to make another service the butt of their jokes.
Like most things America produces in 2018, the Space Force is merely a marketing concept for a futuristic product that, contrary to what Pence says, may or may not ever exist. Think Theranos, the now-disgraced Silicon Valley firm whose “Edison machines” were poor at blood-testing, but terrific at pumping billions out of investors — largely on the endorsements of their celebrated board members, including retired general James Mattis, who resigned from Theranos’ board only once he was tapped to be Trump’s secretary of defense. Mattis will now oversee the Space Force’s creation. Having already proven he can sell grunts and civilians alike on multiple indeterminate wars across the Asian landmass, he’s just the Don Draper for this job.
What, exactly, does one need to create an entire military branch?
The United States hasn’t added a service since the Air Force in 1947, and that wasn’t out of nowhere: It was built wholesale out of the Army Air Corps and by drawing officers from the other services — and by taking a hard look at the war America had just waged. By then, aircraft had been used by militaries in war for more than three decades.
But spacecraft? Not so much. We have managed for half a century to marshal missiles that travel through space on the way to earthly impacts, as well as satellites that gather intelligence, wage “electronic warfare” and coordinate military action in myriad ways. These assets are spread throughout the Air Force, Navy, U.S. combatant commands, the National Security Agency, the National Reconnaissance Office and several other agencies. The least bad argument for creating a Space Force is that it would somehow unify all these efforts.
This is precisely what Pence laid out in his Thursday speech, and it doesn’t sound like an independent military branch, much less anything novel or revolutionary. Space Force service members will come mostly from existing DoD and intel ranks; they’ll be housed in a “a unified combatant command for space operations led by a four-star general or admiral,” like the Tampa-based Central Command that runs U.S. assets across all the services in Middle East and Asian conflicts. (If “U.S. Space Command” sounds familiar, that’s because there was one, doing essentially what the Space Force is proposed to do, until 2002.) This space command would be led not by a civilian “space secretary” in line with most of the other services, but by “a new assistant secretary of defense for space,” Pence said.
Adding bureaucracy to reduce bureaucracy is another boiler-room pitch without a plan, even if it has plenty of precedents in the DoD. If that’s the problem that the Space Force purports to solve, it seems an easier fix would be rearranging some office chairs in Fort Meade, Cape Canaveral and the E-ring of the Pentagon, not creating a service with a distinctive uniform. What will those uniforms look like? In all the months since Trump raised the Space Force as a possibility, that question — along with virtually every other question Pentagon reporters have asked about the service — has gone unanswered, or deflected with boilerplate responses.
Underlying all these questions is a reality no one wants to say out loud: There won’t be many Space Force troops going to space. The Space Force will not be like the Navy, where the vast majority of its 328,267 active sailors go to sea at some point, even if only briefly. It may be more like the Air Force, where only 4 percent of all airmen are rated as pilots — though that’s still 12,363 pilots. Only about 550 human beings have ever been in space.
But Trump is and always has been onto something. If you’re in it for pure kitsch — not to support and defend the Constitution, not to protect human rights, not even to serve conventional “national interests” — you only need two things to make a military force: a capacity for organized violence, and the right people to see it.
On that front, two details stuck out on Thursday. First, Pence assured listeners that the “backbone” of the new Space Force will be “an elite group of joint warfighters specializing in the domain of space” — lethal and highly specialized, like Green Berets or Navy SEALs. (On the plus side, once there are special operators who’ve been to space, no mere Navy frogman is ever getting another book or film deal.)
Second, the Trump Make America Great Again Committee — a joint super-PAC for the president and the RNC that’s hosted on the “Certified Website Of President Donald J. Trump” — offered donors a chance to vote on six emailed Space Force logo designs for “a new line of gear.” One is a straight lift of a NASA design; another says “Mars Awaits,” though no one has actually mentioned the possibility of the Space Force going to Mars. “Mars Awaits” feels hilariously narrow in scope, when considering the sheer vastness of space, but it sounds tailor-made for the phone-screen smallness of American imaginations these days.
Trump campaign asks supporters to vote for the new Space Force logo pic.twitter.com/rIvd8AcHEh
— Kasie Hunt (@kasie) August 9, 2018
Spotlighting space SEALs and hocking swag patches on the Internet: These are not signs of a healthy society. But they sure do drum up attention for the product, which will be built and delivered in the next two years, we swear. The administration’s tax cut took a trillion-dollar bite out of the American common weal, and there’s no money for universal health care or a higher minimum wage or mandatory paid leave, but seizing control of the infinite expanse of outer space for American interests? This we can do.
Space Force probably won’t happen. The creation of a new service branch requires congressional approval. Space Force didn’t make the cut last session; it’s not likely to be high on the agenda for the Congress that’s seated next January, either. All of this is largely academic. Some new hiring lines will open in the DoD; perhaps some of the bureaucratic consolidation will work out. The uniforms and boot camps are a longshot. Legions of actual American-bred warriors traipsing asteroid belts? Forget it.
Still, it is possible to imagine a world in which a second-term President Trump is happily speechifying at a Space Force Academy graduation, where hundreds of cadets await their opportunity to become officers, get assigned a desk job, sit there for years and think about space.
But, of course, they’ll be considered Real American Heroes by virtue of the uniform they wear. Just think: In a few short years, America could not just turn Donald Trump into a president, but convert “space cadet” into an honorific. Who says we can’t do big things anymore?