Last year, when the Trump administration unveiled plans to create a Space Force—originally conceived as an independent branch of the military to oversee operations in the great beyond—public responses to the idea tended to fall into one of two extremes. Champions celebrated the move as essential for promoting U.S. dominance in space and protecting national security; critics warned that it would unnecessarily militarize a domain where peaceful cooperation should prevail and that it could spark a space arms race. China’s landing of a rover on the far side of the moon last January—a first-of-its-kind feat—further stoked this debate.
But in reality, the image of space as a zone free from military competition is as fanciful as the notion that it can be subject to outright American dominance. Space is already militarized, and it has been since the start of the space age six decades ago. Competitors such as China and Russia are already capable of threatening the United States’ military presence there—namely, the satellites that provide the information backbone of U.S. military power. President Donald Trump’s February directive to establish the Space Force as a sixth branch of the military under the U.S. Air Force—a modification from his original proposal to create a fully separate service—changes nothing in this regard.
Arguing over whether Washington should create a Space Force misses the point. Since space is already a competitive and a militarized domain, the task now is to protect U.S. and allied military interests in space to guard against catastrophe. That means both strengthening U.S. capabilities to deter and defend against strikes on its satellites and working with other nations to strengthen norms. The most important norms are against attacks on so-called strategic-warning satellites, which underpin nuclear deterrence by detecting missile launches in real time, because such attacks could be interpreted as a prelude to a nuclear strike and result in unintended nuclear war. Ignoring these problems will
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