Donald Trump says he’s serious about a Space Force: A sixth branch of the U.S. military to handle America’s off-planet affairs. Nobody knows quite what that force would look like. But we do have the examples of science fiction, which has given us many examples of military organizations in space.
Star Trek: Starfleet
You need good partners in a complicated world
Star Trek hit the airwaves in 1966 with the radical idea that the planet would come together as a single global government and venture forth toward the stars. Roddenberry’s future was certainly idealistic, but the diverse crew of the USS Enterprise pointed the way to a brighter future.
Or did it? The United Federation of Planets found the universe filled with dangerous foes, including the Klingons (who stood in for Soviet Russians) and Romulans (the communist Chinese). The show’s lore tells us Starfleet fought terrible wars against these groups before, leading to a Cold War in space that mirrored the real world of 1966. That’s why the Enterprise, nominally on a peaceful mission of exploration, was armed to the teeth. Military action and multilateralism could be seen in the Korean War, a U.N.-sanctioned effort, and so the presence of photon torpedoes on the Enterprise made sense to viewers. Coalitions have helped shoulder the burden of war and strengthened the idea of collaboration that should come with peace.
The lesson for the U.S. Space Force is to keep the jingoism to a minimum and ensure that allies and other partners have a place at the table. (Or a seat on the bridge, in Star Trek terms.) When it comes to orbit, the global neighborhood is awfully small — battles up there could produce rings of space junk that imperil other satellites and threaten the global community.
Whenever possible, the benefits of the Space Force’s existence should be shared with other nations, in the same way that the U.S. Navy helps to secure international waterways and responds to global natural disasters. Collaboration will be critical and can be used to help cement good ties, especially with nations without indigenous space programs.
Aliens: U.S. Colonial Space Marines
Space is open for business — or else
James Cameron may have made a decent action movie, but his screenplay doesn’t give us much substance when it comes to his space Marines. However, the force’s “colonial” name implies a structure that resembled the Dutch East India Company—that is, a force of government troops that can assist the movie’s all-powerful Weyland-Yutani compnay in controlling its far-flung holdings.
It may be that the force in Aliens has been privatized and that the company owns the Marine Corps outright. At any rate, when a colony gets in over its head, with xenomorphs or (presumably) ideas of independence, the government troops are brought in to restore order. (The “Intergalactic Military of the Planet Trade Organization” from Dragonball Z really encapsulates this idea, and has the most comprehensive name.)
Can we learn anything from Aliens, where the Weyland-Yutani Corp. is so cynical and outright immoral? For one thing, the movie inadvertently argues that the Space Force can help ensure global commerce in space, which in reality is a worthy goal. The U.S. military already does this: for example the U.S. Air Force currently operates the GPS constellation, a massive economic driver. As more players get involved in space and civilian reliance on assets in orbit grow, there will be more of a need for safeguards and situational awareness. The U.S. Navy does this with sea lanes, and the Space Force would be wise to do the same for orbit.
This will be an expensive public service demanding a professional cadre and continuity—the kind of job that the militaries of global powers typically take on for the global good and to futher their own interests. The Space Force should be about radar fences and laser tracking systems—not solely about anti-satellite weapons and spaceplanes.
Independence Day Resurgence: Earth Space Defense
Fight the next war—not the last one.
Can great wisdom come from dumb screenplays? In this case, yes.
In this execrable sequel, the United Nations recognizes the aliens who killed tens of millions of people in the 1996 original remain a threat, and so it forms the Earth Space Defense force to thwart a future invasion. (Given the U.N.’s track record, this may be the least plausible plot point.) The ESD reverse-engineers alien tech and blends those advances into terrestrial weapons, leading to hybrid tech such as modern warplane fuselages carrying alien engines.
Spoiler alert: It doesn’t work. The aliens return and roll through Earth’s new defenses with spectacular CGI ease. Every weapon these interstellar creeps wield is bigger, louder, and deadlier than before.
The mindless movie taps into a great military axiom: Don‘t prepare to fight the last war, prepare to fight the next one. Easier said than done! Examine details of the Crimean War, the role of aircraft carriers in World War II, and the use of unarmored Humvees in Iraq for some grim examples of militaries who went to war with equipment and tactics that didn’t match the battlefield reality, much to their detriment.
The whole point of a Space Force is to anticipate the next war, one in which a near-peer nation could threaten American satellites with weapons fired in space or into orbit from the ground. But mistakes can happen when military bureaucracies get into spats about who gets to do what. That’s why any version of the Space Force must recognize what the U.S. Air Force already does well and not throw out or slow down that progress during a bureaucratic reorganization. The development of space situational awareness hardware, the drive to adopt reusable rockets and create new spacecraft like the Orbital Test Vehicle spaceplane—these efforts are ongoing and successful.
The force must also resist the temptation to chase after a shiny new thing so doggedly that other threats fall off the radar. The enemy gets a vote, as military people are fond of saying. The United States can spend untold amount of money on new satellites, but lose them all with a single nuclear warhead launched into orbit by, says, a foe that doesn’t rely on space hardware to win on the ground. A space radar facility in the Pacific could fall victim to a surprise cruise missile attack. The Space Force could do little to stop an asymmetric attack with a biological weapon.
The lesson, then, is to think of the full spectrum of threats and not pursue only the hardware that the U.S. knows it can build, or the kind that makes Congressional delegations happy.
Battlestar Galactica (2004): The Colonial Fleet
Humans are the weak link
The BG reboot has an experienced, badass Colonial Fleet fully capable of fighting space wars. But within the first episode, the fleet is punked, destroyed, and unable to prevent a near-genocidal mass attack.
What the hell happened? Seeing that the enemies are Cylons, it would be easy to rattle on about the risks of artificial intelligence. But that would be missing the point. The problem starts with people.
Dr. Gaius Baltar, genius, is writing a navigation program that the Cylons take as a direct threat to the peace. (There’s Space Force lesson one: Consider the other side’s reaction.) Cylon agents hack into the system and add some backdoor algorithms that, at zero-hour, enable the Cylons to disable warships and entire fighter squadrons.
The lesson of Battlestar is not about AI, but cybersecurity. The show shrewdly spotlights the real risk of hacking, which isn’t always about shadowy agents in a basement. The weak point in cybersecurity is people, In this case, there’s a honey-pot scheme where an enemy agent uses sex to gain access to Baltar, and through him the defense mainframe.
As the Air Force learned in its troubles keeping morale high in the nuclear missile silos, the way military members view the Space Force will define how well it operates. Many Americans and comedians view it as a joke. Without a clear vision of why it exists and why it’s important, the new command could be in for a tough time. That opens up problems with frontline behavior — including adhering to security protocols.
Starship Troopers: Federal Armed Services
We’re gonna fight, and we’re gonna win! And then write the history books.
The 1997 big-budget adaptation of Robert Heinlein’s novel is one of the most widely misunderstood movies of the last 25 years. Viewers at the time saw a violent celebration of militarism in this “why we fight”-style exploration of the United Citizen Federation’s war against an insect-like species. They seemingly missed the savage parody of propaganda films lurking within Paul Verhoeven’s vision.
The very fact that Starship Troopers is so widely misinterpreted is in itself a lesson for the Space Force. Perception is the key to any endeavor, especially one as radical as a new military branch. This is not a great geopolitical time to send mixed messages about space, since there is a war of words over space weapons between Russia and the United States that reflects differing realities over the future.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova the Space Force shows that the United States “is hatching plans for putting weapons in space with a view to the possibility of conducting combat operations there.” This seems to be true enough, and given the fact that the Outer Space Treaty only forbids the deployment of nuclear weapons in space, the U.S. maintains it has a right to create spaceplanes and steerable spacecraft that can “monitor” objects orbit. Anything than can maneuver can dazzle an enemy sat with a laser, disable it with grappling arms or a destroy it in an outright collision.
Right now, China and Russia are developing ground-based weapons to attack U.S. sats while, with a straight face, claiming they back the ban of weapons in space. Creating the Space Force will be used to justify this research. “As for those who wish to know more about Russia’s military-space force,” Zakharova said. “I’d like to stress that its nature is purely defensivea.”
So the lesson may be to make the Space Force seem less, well, militaristic. The Trump administration’s goal has been to make the U.S. the leader for private space investment, an effort that seems to open space to more non-government players. One oft-forgotten thing about the American private space industry is that it will depend on many international customers.
If U.S. spaceflight vendors offer other nations a future in space, one that is enabled by the Space Force, this view of the shared benefits can help blunt the negative rhetoric. Even better, it will be true. No one turns on their satellite guidance system and feels that it’s a reflection of American imperialism. They’re just happy it works.