Donald Trump, in two speeches to U.S. service personnel, has suggested that he is considering a space force to become the sixth branch of the military. Given his rambling style of delivering his words to an audience and the chaos of his administration, it is not clear whether this was mere filler or is set to be enacted right after that wall is built, but the idea, while easily mocked, deserves consideration.
As the title reminds us, this is not the first time that the idea of armed forces in space has been proposed. Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative came before, at a time when the technology allowed for special effects versions of combat satellites, but not much else. In the 1950s and 60s, physicist Freeman Dyson and others worked on Project Orion, an idea to use nuclear explosives to propel spacecraft. While that sounds crazy to the uninitiated, it could have worked. But the military took the research over, dreaming of having battleships in interplanetary space until someone realized that neither the Russians nor the Russian-inspired Klingons would be out there to chase.
Well, almost. Cosmonauts have been armed for a while, though not for belligerent purposes during their missions. Russian capsules have a history of coming down off course, and that puts them into the wilds of Siberia with all of its wolves and tigers and bears. That is just a curiosity, but the ability of Russia and China to shoot down satellites is not. And as with pesticide factories and nuclear reactors, anything operating in space is a dual-use technology, since kinetic energy weapons will remain one of the best in the armory until we develop photon torpedoes.
We have one test of the human ability to operate together without resorting to military action in Antarctica, land that is a good simulation of outer space environments down here on planet. The still very much Terra Australis Incognita is the domain mostly of scientists, though tourism there is on the rise, and despite what Hollywood wants us to believe, professionals in that field will engage in spats with each other from time to time, but they do not generally settle things by resorting to arms. But by treaty, only peaceful activities are allowed in the region, and to date, that has been a success, though perhaps this is the result of the difficulty in operating there and the distance from the populated areas that are the usual subject of conflict.
Does the same apply to space? A similar treaty is in effect, something that put an end to the aforementioned Project Orion, thanks to a ban on carrying nuclear weapons out of the atmosphere. This is unfortunately a case of excessive compliance. The language forbids weapons, not explosives or propulsion systems, and the project’s original purpose was exploration.
But the treaty came into being in 1967, before human beings had even left low Earth orbit. As we are nearing a presence on Mars and many other forays into the final frontier, done by governments or by corporations and cooperatives, circumstances are about to go far beyond what the Outer Space Treaty envisioned.
I write military science fiction, among other things. In my Concordia series and in A Draft of Moonlight, I assumed that humans will be humans, wherever they get themselves. It is true that outer space is not entirely analogous to the parts of the world that Europeans found during the Age of Discovery. We will have to cooperate more than compete for a long time to come, and given the expense involved, even if we lay aside the dangers, exploration and colonization by international groups would be more practical than going it alone. This is my idealism as a long-time Trekker, of course, and as I said, human nature will not suddenly change when we expand outward. Yes, the view from on high has caused reactions of awe in the few persons who have been there, but as a more representative sample takes over, bickering is going to happen.
All of this being said, when Donald Trump gets a notion, I am automatically suspicious. But that does not mean that every single thing that he supports is by definition silly, a dotard clock being right twice a day. The peaceful use of space is already a fiction. In addition to the potential to destroy satellites in orbit, we have military cameras already looking down on us and intercontinental ballistic missiles that would pass through on their way to their targets. In an analogy with science fiction, Captain Kirk says he seeks benign contact, but the U.S.S. Enterprise has, as Scotty puts it, a fully activated phaser bank available when needed. Idealism is a fine thing when it has a practical defense, and pacifists last only as long as they have nothing that others want. As the Issac Arthur channel on YouTube discusses, combat in space is not what Hollywood or our instincts about fighting down here make us think, but it is not impossible and alas it is all too realistic, given enough time and who we are.
The problem is the person, not the idea. Trump has mentioned it twice, but that is no guarantee. But dangers that are anticipated lose a good deal of their power, and it makes sense for our military at least to give some thought to the matter, if only to act as a deterrent. By the time this becomes something that we can do in any serious way, Trump will be out of office. Or we will have destroyed human civilization, and the likelihood of that in our current situation is high enough that we should give preventing it some attention as well.