This week Congress dealt a blow to President Donald Trump’s idea for a Space Force, authorizing just $15 million to fund the operation. Critics in Congress believe that the administration hasn’t made a good enough case for a new form of military service. But as both the government and civilian space sectors ramp up to more ambitious, even interplanetary plans, a space version of the Coast Guard could prove more useful.
The U.S. Space Force was first mentioned in March 2018 by President Donald Trump. Trump, who at the time admitted the idea started as a joke, told an audience of service members, “We may even have a Space Force, develop another one, Space Force. We have the Air Force, we’ll have the Space Force.”
Okay. A February 2019 document does a slightly better job of describing the roles and missions of a space-based arm of the Pentagon, stating that, “The DoD must be prepared to assure freedom of operation in space, to deter attacks, and, when necessary, to defeat space and counterspace threats to the national security interests of the United States and its allies and partners.” The Department of Defense requested $72 million in fiscal year 2020 to stand up the Space Force.”
Congress’ enthusiasm for the Space Force has been tepid, to say the least, with the big question being whether a military arm solely devoted to space is a worthwhile improvement over the splitting of space missions among the existing armed services.
The House of Representatives responded to the Defense Department funding request by approving just $15 million while explicitly stating that it was not for the establishment of a Space Force. Furthermore, as Defense News reports, the head of the House Armed Services Committee has stated his Space Force proposal will be, “different from what the White House proposed.”
The U.S. could eventually need some kind of Space Force—it’s the timing that people disagree on. Is a Space Force something we need to spend money on right now? If we’re going to establish an armed force for space, maybe a purely defense-focused military force isn’t quite what we need—at least right now. Maybe we need a cosmic version of the Coast Guard.
The United States Coast Guard was established in 1790 as an anti-smuggling law enforcement agency under the Department of the Treasury. Now part of the Department of Homeland Security where it’s been since after 9/11, the Coast Guard consists of 87,000 men and women stationed around the world. Over the last two centuries, the Coast Guard’s mission set has shifted to emphasize port and waterway security, establish aids to navigation, search and rescue, maritime safety, and law enforcement. (We should add that the Coast Guard also has its own problems with being underfunded.)
Now, take that mission set and imagine it in space. Orbits, such as low earth orbit and other locations, are the “ports and waterways” of space, and they’re often threatened by space debris, radiation-emitting solar flares, and other natural and man-made threats. As humans venture more frequently into space eventually some poor astronaut, cosmonaut, or taikonaut is going to run into trouble, and space search and rescue will be a necessity.
Space is extremely dangerous and in order to establish confidence in the safety of spacefaring, the U.S. will need a government agency with the authority nail down the rules of space safety and investigate major accidents.
Finally, although Senator Ted Cruz’s concern about “space pirates” is a step too far at this point, we will eventually need an arm of law enforcement to operate in the space realm.
Unlike the Space Force, the U.S. government and private industry could use a Space Guard right now. On Earth, commercial and recreational sailors enjoy the peace of mind knowing they can rely on the Coast Guard if they run into trouble. The U.S. government has pledged to return to the moon by 2024, while commercial space entities SpaceX, Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic and others have plans to put humans into space—but no one is out there in depths of space if these manned missions need help.
A Space Guard could even be tasked with the ultimate mission: defending the Earth against giant, civilization-ending asteroids, comets, and other space objects.
A Space Guard and Space Force aren’t mutually exclusive: America needs both a Navy and a Coast Guard. There is justification for both a Space Guard and Space Force, and a Space Force is only a matter of time.
The question is, which do we need first? If the Congress decides we don’t need a Space Force just yet, maybe it should look at establishing a Space Guard.