Militarizing space could open the door to an arms race and excess spending.
President Donald J. Trump has made the news with his proposed Space Force—a military space organization on par with existing services like the Air Force and Navy. This undertaking will be an expensive, rushed intensification of the militarization of space.
Militarization aside, what particularly concerns me is that President Trump’s enthusiasm for making the initiative as splashy and dramatic as possible will undermine regulation of costs and will consequently drive the cost figures much higher than people realize—into the double digits of billions of dollars.
President Trump is the first President to call for a Space Force, although the current Congress has taken a much less dramatic step in this direction by authorizing a space combatant command. Arguments in favor of the Space Force emphasize that the increasing strategic importance of space satellites and missiles warrants greater resources and reorganization to boost space warfare efforts.
The whole enterprise of the Space Force is open to broad criticism based on cost concerns. Former Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James reportedly said that “it is a virtual certainty that it will be a huge undertaking that will consume a lot of time, effort, thinking.” She is reported to have stated bluntly, “I do not believe we should have a separate space force.”
Even a former astronaut and an enthusiastic supporter of the Space Force admits that “there would also be significant initial costs to standing up a new Space Force.”
And President Trump’s insistence upon having “American dominance in space” does little to alleviate concerns about the cost of the project. Politico reported that “the President says he wants to dominate the cosmos. But China and Russia are not just going to stand by.” In particular, “if the U.S. missile defense proposal moves forward, it could be the beginning of a full-scale satellite war,” particularly if China should feel threatened.
This kind of arms race is a formula for both excessive militarization and open-ended expenditure.
Although it is true that China was testing an anti-satellite weapon eleven years ago when it blew up a dead weather satellite in orbit, no country with space capabilities has repeated such a test, limiting the demonstrated escalation of space war capability that President Trump’s rhetoric now calls to mind.
“The fear is that rhetoric like that coming from those raising the inevitability of space war will fuel a race to the bottom, as all major space powers dedicate even more energy towards an arms race in space,” one professor explained in a recent article.
Currently, the nation has a robust center of space defense procurement in the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center, a 6,300-person, recently restructured organization. Like the rest of the current U.S. Department of Defense, the Air Force makes an effort to hold down the costs of expensive weapons systems through competition. For lucrative contract awards, it requires contractors, such as Lockheed Martin and Boeing, to bid competitively.
President Trump made no mention of holding down costs in setting up a vast Space Development Agency within the Space Force to oversee the purchase of new satellites. The signals from Space Force enthusiasts have been to let costs rise. President Trump wants his Space Force up and running by 2020. The way to meet such a fast-approaching deadline, unfortunately, is to skimp on competition and give away high-cost contracts to favored contractors.
Recently, an Air Force analysis estimated a Space Force budget at $13 billion. This budget is so expensive that it has energized opposition in Congress. The chair of the House Military Personnel Subcommittee, U.S. Representative Mike Coffman (R-Colo.), reportedly called the “Department of Space” “a really bad idea,” noting, “I feel confident we can block this. The President will not have the votes.”
A draft report that emerged from the Pentagon a few months ago “heralds seismic changes in how the Pentagon buys, launches, and develops new technology for its satellites,” including “a bigger role for private sector space companies.”
For example, the draft report discusses using the unpoliced commercial contracting method for purchases. This method invokes a loophole in the regulation of government contracting: Purchase prices will not be set by competitive bids—not even from real commercial sources—but by what contractors charge for their own readily provided versions, deemed commercial. It might work if contractors were taking part in an active market setting competitive prices for American-made military satellites, but, of course, there is no world trade system in which a competitive market sets a market price for military satellites. Lockheed Martin and other contractors can charge virtually what they want.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO), which polices the shortcomings in defense cost regulation, has had much to criticize in space programs. A GAO representative testified in 2017 that many of the Defense Department’s “major…space programs have experienced significant cost and schedule increases.” The representative cited “program costs for…a projected satellite communications system,” which “had grown 118 percent since its first estimate,” and the first satellite in that system launched more than three and a half years later than anticipated. Moreover, the Defense Department has been “experiencing problems in overseeing and managing contractors.”
Currently, major weapons systems like those of a Space Force must pass a series of milestones from development through production. The Defense Department may withhold payments until the achievement of milestones. Withholding payment avoids late-discovered major problems that would be very costly to try to fix late in production. To speed up the process, however, the Space Force would likely make it easier to get favorable milestone-achievement decisions, and hence to move ahead even without having fully solved problems. This approach is a formula for disasters of waste.
President Trump’s call for complete dominance of space, along with the swift timeline within which he wants to achieve that dominance, will likely make the creation of a Space Force cost many billions of dollars. But considered against the background of the increasing militarization of space by a Space Force, the bottom line will be less real security, not more.