Thursday, August 23, 2018

Buck Rogers and President Trump - an Out-of-This-World History of Space Force

Redlands Daily Facts, September 23, 1959, page 1.

On March 13, 2018, President Trump floated the idea that he might create a new branch of the military – the “Space Force.”

The reaction was predictable.  At his next campaign rally, supporters lustily chanted “Space Force! Space Force!” in unison, as though a “Space Force” would be the “Best Thing Since Sliced Bread.”

[(see my earlier piece about the best thing BEFORE sliced bread)].

Critics and the “Resistance”, on the other hand, reflexively mocked it as something dumber than comic-book crazy.  Even such formerly serious news giants as Time and Fortune, as well as the Huffington Post, didn’t pull any punches.  HuffPo “hilariously” proclaimed that “Trump’s Call for a ‘Space Force’ Makes Him the Laughingstock of the Galaxy.” 

Fortune magazine compared Trump’s “Space Force” proposal to a long-forgotten, failed sitcom from the late-1970s, “Space Force.”

Gene Roddenberry said that Star Trek was pitched as “a Wagon Train to the stars”.  “Space Force”, on the other hand, could have been pitched as an “F-Troop in space.”  I’m no military or space expert, but I think it’s safe to say the existence of the show is otherwise irrelevant to the “Space Force” debate.

Even the once proud Time magazine dispensed with providing any historical context or reasoned analysis, opting instead to recount Stephen Colbert’s comedy routine, blow-by-blow, as though it were serious news.

Colbert joked that the Space Force came from an idea President Trump “got from a Buzz Lightyear Happy Meal toy.”

He then played a clip of President Trump waxing on about the new sixth arm of the military. “We may even have a Space Force,” Trump said in the clip. “Develop another one. Space Force. We have the Air Force, we’ll have the Space Force. … Think of that. Space Force!”

“Yes, think of that,” Colbert said. “But not too hard, ’cause it’s stupid.”

“We don’t need Space Force,” he added. “Please wait until NASA finds life before you try to kill it.”

Well, if current military force structure is a guide (and I assume it is), it is clearly not “stupid” to have military forces dedicated to defense in space.  The three major services already have their own, separate commands devoted to space warfare; the United States Army Space and Missile Defense Command, the Navy’s Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command, and the Air Force Space Command. 

The United States even has a history of combining many of the separate space functions under a joint command.  From 1985 through 2002, the United States Space Command (which sounds suspiciously similar to “Space Force”) oversaw space defense.  Those responsibilities were transferred to the joint United States Strategic Command in 2002 at the direction of then-Defense Secretary Rumsfeld. 

All of which doesn’t really answer the question of whether “Space Force” is as great as the Trump-rally chanters seem to think, but it does clearly suggest that the “Space Force,” in and of itself, isn’t as fanciful or “stupid” as Colbert and the “Resistance” like to make it out to be. 

But the resistance may be right about one thing – “Space Force” originated in a comic book – or at least a comic strip.

“Buck Rogers in the 25th Century,” The Bakersfield Californian, October 13, 1942, page 13.

Buck Rogers described himself as a “Space Force Pilot” in an episode of “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century”, published in October 1942, the earliest reference to “Space Force” I could find.

A few years later, the Navy Captain and prolific author, Walter Karig wrote a sci-fi novel, War in the Atomic Age, in which the “Space Force” played a part in futuristic warfare.  An image from the book shows a “Space Force” pilot remotely guiding a cruise missile or drone with the help of a video feed, in a manner similar to that used in the modern Air Force.

Captain Walter Karig, USNR, War in the Atomic Age, Wm. H. Wise & Co., Inc., New York, 1946, page 38.

Life imitated art about a decade later when rocket expert/science fiction author, Willy Ley, advocated for the creation of a “space force” to break through the creative gridlock caused by Ley three space programs run separately by the Army, Navy and Air Force..

A single program wrapped into a new space force with one man in charge is the shakeup that is necessary.  It will take drastic simplification of organization.[i]

In addition to having been a leading member of the German rocket association that solved the problem of liquid rocket propulsion in the late-1920s, Ley worked as a consultant to the United States government for fifteen years after leaving Nazi Germany in 1935,[ii] after which he turned his talents to writing pop-science and science fiction.

But despite his new career, his suggestion was serious.  Within less than a year, the powers-that-be took his advice (to some extent), consolidating most of the space-related mission within the Air Force, which was a “jolt” to the Army and Navy.

Paducah Sun, September 23, 1959, page 4.

While the Air Force’s prominence in space defense for several decades may have put the idea on the back burner, the perceived need for a separate “Space Force” never disappeared. 

In 1965, space expert Erik Bergaust noted:

It may still take a few years before the Air Force will change its name from USAF to USSF, but a U.S. Space Force is more than a gleam in the eyes of our Air Force leaders.[iii]

Space Force History and the Plattsburgh Air Base,, August 16, 2018.

In 1980, U. S. News & World Report suggested that the Air Force might someday become the “Space Force.”

Honolulu Star-Bulletin, July 7, 1980, page 11.

Shortly afterward, elements of the three major military branches and civilian consultants advocated the creation of a separate “Space Force”.

Naval War College Review, Volume 34, Number 2, March-April 1981, page 48.

 A separate U. S. Space Force would be in a much better position to increase and certainly to consolidate the military space budget. [iv]

Military Review, the Professional Journal of the Army, Volume 65, Number 7, July 1985, page 48.

For future US space planning and operations, a separate US space force should be seriously considered. [v]

The Daily Spectrum (Saint George, Utah), January 13, 1984, page 5.

C. Richard Whelan, a California military and aerospace consultant, thinks the time has come for establishing a U. S. Space Force.

In the years after the creation of the joint United States Space Command in 1985, all phases of warfare became increasingly reliant on space-based technology.

Santa Maria Times, December 18, 1998, page 1.

The increased value of space defenses brought the “Space Force” debate back to the table during the Clinton administration.

Florida Today (Cocoa, Florida), March 6, 2000, page 1.
On Capitol Hill, and at the White House and the Pentagon, the debate is expanding over whether to carve a separate U. S. Space Force that mostly would come out of the U. S. Air Force’s hide.

Ironically, while the Air Force is under threat of having much of its mission taken out of its hide, the Air Force itself was carved out of the Army’s hide more than seven decades ago.  You know all of those airplanes you see in the WWII movies? – apart from the Navy planes taking off and landing on the carriers, all of those planes were in the Army Air Corps – there was no Air Force. 

The Air Force came into being in 1947, less than fifty years after the invention of the airplane, and barely thirty-five years after Lieutenant Jacob Earl Fickel of the 29th U. S. Infantry, who conducted some of the earliest air warfare experiments with Glenn H. Curtiss in 1910, stressed the importance of becoming proficient in the new art of warfare:

It is a certainty that the next war is going to be fought with armies having aeroplane forces and the first great battle will be a battle in the air.  The aeroplanes will not all be on one side, and as they will be used for advance scouting they will meet before the armies come within distance of them.[vi]

It took more than three decades to carve out a separate Air Force.  Some observers think that advancements and changes in technology and warfare in the ensuing seventy years merit at least consideration for carving out a separate "Space Force".

In 2016, the former head of Space Command gave a sober assessment of the United States’ readiness in space:

So is the US moving quickly enough to respond to the new threats in space? “I would say the answer was no,” said Gen. Willam Shelton, former head of Space Command.  “Could we provide active defense of our own satellites? The answer’s no.”

In 2017, Representative Mike Rogers (R-Alabama), the chairman of the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee, proposed a “Space Corps” (to be separate part of the Air Force, similar to how the Marine Corps is part of the Navy):

Rogers' argument is that the US military is losing ground to Russia and China in space by having its space programs within the Air Force, when the Air Force's primary focus is on fighter jets like the F-35. "The Chinese literally have a space force today. Yet the Air Force would continue to force space to compete with F-35s. And we know who's going to win that competition," Rogers said.[vii]

"I am thrilled that the Space Corps idea is gaining traction at the White House. Congressman Jim Cooper (D-TN) and I have worked tirelessly on the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) Strategic Forces subcommittee level on the need for a Space Corps outside of the Air Force for over two years now," Rogers said in a statement to CNN. [viii]

But the proposal was removed from the military budget before it was passed.

Today, President Trump has upped the ante, proposing a fully separate branch of the service – Space Force. 

Is it necessary? 

I don’t know. 

Is it bat-stuff crazy? 

I’ll let the Generals and the politicians hash it out.

[i] The Daily Oklahoman, January 10, 1958, page 5.
[ii] The Daily Oklahoman, January 10, 1958, page 5.
[iv] “2001: A U. S. Space Force”, Lieutenant Colonel Dino A. Lorenzini, U. S. Air Force and Major Charles L. Fox, U. S. Air Force , Naval War College Review, Volume 34, Number 2, March-April 1981, page 62.
[v] “Space, the Army’s New High Ground,” Colonel Jan V. Harvey, US Army, and Colonel Alwyn H. King, US Army, Retired, Military Review, the Professional Journal of the Army, Volume 65, Number 7, July 1985, page 48, referring to endnote 24, “The Secretary of Defense announced presidential authorization of a unified US Space Command, 30 November 1984.”
[vi] The Bridgeport Times (Bridgeport, Connecticut), May 1, 1911, page 2.