​Donald Trump's space force—the dangerous militarisation of outer space

June 26, 2018 by Gbenga Oduntan, The Conversation
From moon landing to space arms race. Credit: NASA/Neil Armstrong

In a recent speech, President Donald Trump announced a new policy for the American space programme. It is time, he argued, for America to create a "Space Force". As ever, the policy announcement was full of glittering ideas but short on detail, largely unspecific and even inaccurate. What we do know is that this would be a new and separate military command, "equal" to the American Airforce. But like much of Trumpian vision, superlative expressions shroud reality and do great injustice to the serious issues at stake.

We should all be concerned by the prospect of the nuclearisation and militarisation of . It is crucial for world, and perhaps even intergalactic, peace that the legality of his plans are subject to the fiercest domestic and international scrutiny. At the moment it is unclear how they could possible fit in with existing international legal frameworks.

Militarised space

America has hardly ever disguised its view of space as an extension of military power. The US already has an Air Force Space Command, created by Ronald Reagan in 1982, which is dedicated to using space-based assets to aid its flights, fights, and to win in air, space and cyberspace. Reagan also introduced the "Star Wars" programme and George W. Bush unsuccessfully tried to resurrect it through the Son of Star Wars project. Both were touted as futuristic space-based ballistic missile interceptor programmes. But aside from the fact that they were technically impossible at the time, they also constituted a frontal assault on a previous anti-ballistic missile treaty between the US and the Soviet Union.

Trump's most recent vision is actually a rehash of existing programmes. The idea of creating a new branch of the military called the "Space Corp" was already in the 2017 National Defence Authorisation Act, which emerged from discussions long predating the current administration. But in the end the plans were dropped because congressional negotiators refused to fund them.

And America is not alone in the quest for a military presence in space. All modern armies rely on space-based applications, such as satellites, and jostle for military advantages in space. Although, military uses of technologies in space may be more useful for domestic conflicts where large swathes of territory fall under terrorist control, such as the Sambisa forest in northern Nigeria, where Boko Haram operates.

China and Russia have space militarisation programmes of their own, much of which take place out of sight. Recently, China attracted suspicion by shooting down one of its own satellites.

But certain aspects of Trump's recent policy announcement should raise serious alarm. Trump said: "It is not enough to have American presence in space we must have American dominance." This deviates dangerously from the historical and legal norm. To ensure America's security interests is one thing. To dominate outer space is another. The former is a legitimate aspiration of any independent state. The latter has already elicited the promise of a "tough response" from Russia.

The risk of contagion

The world accepts the military use of outer space. But it does not accept the unbridled militarisation of space. The moon and other celestial bodies, according to the 1967 UN Space Treaty, must be used exclusively for peaceful purposes. The establishment of military bases, installations and fortifications, the testing of any type of weapons and the conduct of military manoeuvres on celestial bodies including asteroids is forbidden. The UN demands that the exploration and use of outer space should be carried out for the benefit and in the interest of all countries.

There is a complete ban on placing nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction in outer space or around the atmosphere of the earth. Other leading space treaties ban the placement of alternative weapons of mass destruction in space. But there is a loophole in that they do not specifically prevent placement of other types of weapons in space.

Right now, a new treaty has been proposed to prevent an arms race in space. But the US, with its large missile defence programme and the technical advantages in potential space weaponry, has refused to enter into discussion over this new treaty. If a space arms race can't be prevented, there could be a total disruption of the agreed law that outer space is the common heritage of all humankind.

Alternative futures

Past stories of mankind's endeavours in outer space are centred on the theme of scientific brotherhood. In 1959, the UN General Assembly established the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. By 1975, American and Soviet spacecraft docked together in orbit as part of the Apollo–Soyuz Test Project (ASTP), the world's first international crewed space mission. Since 2005 there has been a well-respected agreement of cooperation between China and the UK. China's technological co-operation with Europe puts "science and technology diplomacy" over traditional "economic diplomacy". China owns up to 5% investment in the European Galileo observation satellite network project. And Britain and African states such as Nigeria also cooperate in space.

We should try our utmost to make sure the future carries on this tradition. The cooperation of humankind in space exploration, which exists in every aspect of space science, space law, economics and policy must not be sacrificed because of Trump's dangerous ideas.

Explore further: Trump wants to dominate space, Moon and Mars (Update)

Related Stories

Trump wants to dominate space, Moon and Mars (Update)

June 18, 2018

President Donald Trump boasted Monday of the US commercial space industry's deep wallet and enterprising spirit, and vowed US dominance in exploration of the Moon and Mars, as well as any future space race.

Xi urges China to build up joint space and air power

April 15, 2014

Chinese President Xi Jinping has urged further integration of air and space defence capabilities, in what experts described Tuesday as a response to the militarisation of space by rivals including the United States.

China has a plan to clean up space junk with lasers

January 17, 2018

Orbital debris (aka. space junk) is one of the greatest problems facing space agencies today. After 60 years of sending rockets, boosters and satellites into space, the situation in the low Earth orbit (LEO) has become rather ...

Recommended for you

Tiny 'water bears' can teach us about survival

March 20, 2019

Earth's ultimate survivors can weather extreme heat, cold, radiation and even the vacuum of space. Now the U.S. military hopes these tiny critters called tardigrades can teach us about true toughness.

A decade on, smartphone-like software finally heads to space

March 20, 2019

Once a traditional satellite is launched into space, its physical hardware and computer software stay mostly immutable for the rest of its existence as it orbits the Earth, even as the technology it serves on the ground continues ...

Researchers find hidden proteins in bacteria

March 20, 2019

Scientists at the University of Illinois at Chicago have developed a way to identify the beginning of every gene—known as a translation start site or a start codon—in bacterial cell DNA with a single experiment and, through ...

Turn off a light, save a life, says new study

March 20, 2019

We all know that turning off lights and buying energy-efficient appliances affects our financial bottom line. Now, according to a new study by University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers, we know that saving energy also saves ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

2.6 / 5 (5) Jun 26, 2018
Jesus H. Christ on a bicycle - Trump is like a kid playing with a box of matches, setting everything on fire and shouting "Feel my power!"
1.6 / 5 (7) Jun 26, 2018
Yeah, he is like some cartoon caricature of a power mad president come to life, just even MORE so, and better of course, the BEST in fact, sad.
5 / 5 (1) Jun 27, 2018
Certainly nothing was happening for decades. The only way to get the technology that showed such promise in 1960 in space (thermo nuclear propulsion). We will be all better off because of it.

But contagion? Who else can afford space race? Russia is buried in rubles. China is nowhere close. What's the worry? It would be first time I approve a military program.

Russia lost the first cold war ans now it started another one. Let it lose it too.
5 / 5 (4) Jun 27, 2018
I consider it to be a great idea. America has had a military presence on Earth since before the American Revolution in 1776, so it is time to ensure that no hostile nation will supersede our control in outer space where that nation could conceivably launch ICBMs, etc. right at us or our allies. Heck, I would enlist in the Space Force if I were 20 years younger.
5 / 5 (4) Jun 27, 2018
Even though President Trump has made his announcement to establish a new military force to ensure American security wrt outer space, there is so much more involved before the whole idea can get 'off the ground', so to speak. NASA will have to perform better and more quickly in the area of rocketry; new means of propulsion without chemical rocket fuels; a means of rehabilitation in outer space for military personnel and equipment, etc.
These are certainly interesting times.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.