Sadly, the proposal for a new U.S. Space Force is has become a punchline on late-night TV. It is being battered as a needless new bureaucracy, a competitor for the private sector, and an idea that will lead to a vicious militarization of space. None of these arguments is correct.
Many of those denigrating the idea are under-informed and spring-loaded to dislike the idea because it is proposed by President Donald Trump. I have plenty of policy disagreements with the Trump administration, but on this issue it is boldly going in the right direction.
And while the idea of a space force is smart, the new service component we really need is a Cyber Force. And it makes a lot of sense to bring both of these small, elite, high-tech branches to life right now.
The idea of a space force - a new service branch like the Army or Navy, not merely a combatant command - has been around for decades, but the entrenched military services have vigorously fought it. Each has some space expertise, and likes having some level of control over “its” space assets. But the Air Force has the most to lose in terms of bureaucratic resources, and it has been predictably the most resistant to the concept.
This is ironic: In the mid-20th century, the Army and the Navy fought tooth and nail to prevent the creation of … the Air Force. The arguments at the time were much like those we hear today: We don’t need to create another bureaucracy; we are doing this just fine with the Army and Navy each having its own operations; this isn’t really a new theater of operations, only a zone in which maritime and land strategies achieve their objectives. Those were faulty arguments then, and today.
We need a space force because we will be safer with true specialists who are completely focused on that important zone of operations. Combining the various service space bureaucracies into one branch would create a streamlined single point of focus, likely saving manpower and money. And space deserves its own strategy, especially given the competition from Russia and China.
None of this means space has to be any more militarized than it already is (there is a huge amount of military and intelligence activity already). A space force would be capable of military operations, both defensive and offensive, in space itself. It would also support and reinforce operations here on earth from space. Both are crucial.
And with a single command driving policy in the heavens, there might actually be better opportunities for long-term cooperation with other nations, along the lines of the International Space Station.
Still, as important as a space force is, there is a greater necessity for focus on different unique zone of operations: cyberspace. Military activity in the cyber realm is currently a pick-up game, with each of the services offering a small cadre of cyber warriors on a temporary basis to the Pentagon’s newest combatant command, U.S. Cyber Command. Its leader, General Paul Nakasone, and his predecessors have done a good job of marshalling these individual service contributions, but it is a cumbersome process and those assigned to the command usually return to their parent service after their tour of duty at the National Security Agency headquarters in Maryland.
Not only do the same arguments for a space force apply in cyber, but the threats we face there are currently larger. The digital world is already highly militarized; the size of a cyber force would be tiny compared to the vast bureaucracies of the Army, Navy and Air Force; and the individual armed forces do not have adequate incentives to pay attention to the job - they are very busy training, equipping and organizing their force to do the traditional warfighting tasks in the land, sea and air.
China and Russia have huge offensive cyber-capabilities. We’ve watched Russia use these tools in attacking Georgia in 2008 - which will go down in military history as the first nation attacked not only kinetically but simultaneously in cyber - and Ukraine, paralyzing part of the electric grid. Other nations, notably Iran and North Korea, also have significant offensive cyber capability. North Korea hacked Sony Pictures in 2014, an American corporation that made a film that mocked the dictator Kim Jong Un. Iran has made several forays against the U.S. in cyberspace, including attacks on utilities, and was behind the large-scale attack on Saudi Aramco in 2012, forcing the world’s largest oil company to shut down its internal computer network.
A cyber force does not have to be a huge undertaking; somewhere in the range of 5,000 to 10,000 dedicated personnel, as opposed to the half a million in the Army alone. The key is putting them under a unified command with a unique service culture and keeping them working in this sphere indefinitely, just as we do with a nuclear submariner or a fast-attack jet pilot or any other specialized military occupation.
And it would make a great deal of sense to create the space and cyber branches at the same time: the technological synergies between these two cutting-edge initiatives would be significant.
Trump is right to warn that we might be attacked from space someday, and of the need to be ready for it. But we are being attacked from cyberspace right now, and that demands an immediate response.
James Stavridis is a columnist with Bloomberg.