For President Trump, the sky has always been the limit. Until now.
Trump’s moonshot idea
Trump shared his moonshot idea of a sixth military branch for the first time in March during a speech in San Diego.
“My new national strategy for space recognizes that space is a war-fighting domain, just like the land, air, and sea,” Trump told a crowd of Marines during a March speech, according to reports. “We have the Air Force. We’ll have the space force.”
He recently rekindled the idea while welcoming the U.S. Military Academy’s football team to the White House. Aside from the basic concept of putting the military in space, little else is known about Trump’s proposed “Space Force.”
The military in space
While the president, at first, insisted that the idea was a joke, it’s unclear how serious he is about sending troops past the stratosphere. While outer space has traditionally been NASA’s domain, the military does have a history with the heavens.
“We have the Air Force. We’ll have the space force.”
Starting in the mid-1980s, the Air Force Space Command, also known as U.S. Space Command, has been the military’s primary conduit to extraterrestrial operations. That mostly includes the launching and operation of satellites.
If the U.S. has anything resembling a “Space Force”, then this is it—though it lacks rail gun-toting space soldiers and orbital howitzers. U.S. Space Command has probed the idea of a “Space Mission Force,” which would “prepare and present space forces as a ready force capable of operating in a contested, degraded and operationally-limited environment.”
Aside from that, the only known military space operations involve the Air Force’s one known spaceplane, the X-37B, which is unmanned and has only flown a handful of missions.
Houston, we have a problem
There are a few reasons Trump’s plan may have trouble getting off the launch pad.
First, the U.S. signed the Outer Space Treaty in 1967, which attempts to prevent countries from using outer space for “military purposes.” The treaty acts as a basic legal framework for international space law, and 105 countries are currently parties to it.
Second, the idea has to jump Congressional hurdles. The concept was actually included in the 2018 Defense authorization bill—it would have created the U.S. Space Corps, taking over the Air Force’s current space-based missions—but was given the thumbs down by lawmakers.
Finally, the Air Force has to be on board, which at the moment, it is not. When reporters asked Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson about the idea, she said that “The Pentagon is complicated enough.”
Sky-high costs, astronomical profit
Perhaps Trump’s biggest obstacle is finding a way to fund a new, space-based military branch. We don’t know what it would cost, but building an entire branch geared for zero-gravity combat would require an incredible amount of investment.
The closest thing we have for comparison is probably the creation of the Department of Homeland Security in 2003, which launched with 180,000 employees and a budget of $37.7 billion. The DHS’ most recent budget is around $70 billion.
The operating budget for a military branch is much higher, however. The 2019 budget request from the Air Force, for example, calls for more than $150 billion.
Who would benefit from a “Space Force?”
In the end, though, the creation of a “Space Force” would be a windfall for military and defense contractors—and, in turn, their shareholders.
The Department of Defense awards hundreds of billions of dollars in contracts to private corporations every year, for research, developing, and producing weapons. Companies like Lockheed Martin and Boeing are usually among the biggest recipients.
And a new branch of the military would require a lot of equipment—much of it incorporating new or yet-to-be developed technology to address the needs of extraterrestrial combat.