Space Marines!

I'd seen the rumors that Congress was discussing the creation of a United States Space Corps. And now it seems that the House of Representatives has actually included the proposal in the latest budget. The House Armed Services Committee added a provision for the US Space Corps and a new separate joint command: the US Space Command.

First off, all previous coverage on this subject has made crucial errors. By including images from the film Starship Troopers or Guardians of the Galaxy they have completely missed the boat. The correct image is the one at the top of this article. Failing that, the only other option would be:

IMAGE(/sites/default/files/pournellemarines.jpg)

A distant third would be this:

IMAGE(/sites/default/files/colonialmarines.jpg)

Now that we've got that out of the way, what are the merits of this proposal?

Space is big, as has been noted often. Now that we are finally poised to begin moving into space in a big way, it is a reasonable proposition that we should take steps to guarantee our security, space-wise. A US Space Corps could conceivably undertake to accomplish that. Mike Snead on The Space Review argues exactly that:

To use a term not now in fashion, the United States is a great power and must remain so to preserve the security and freedom of future generations of Americans. Millions of past Americans fought, often with great personal sacrifice, to enable the United States to forge its future on its own terms. Preserving America’s great power status is a key responsibility of Americans today.

A key attribute of a great power is the ability to project national power beyond its borders in its defense and to undertake national policies. Last century, “Earth-space”—the region of space around the Earth—became a region of vital national military and economic interest. The United States uses Earth-space for reconnaissance, intelligence, communications, geopositioning, and nuclear deterrence, and for the command and control of US forces actively engaged in defending the United States and our allies. As I have explained in several articles here, Earth-space will also become the primary source of energy for the United States as we unavoidably transition this century from fossil fuels to space solar power.

Reasonable Americans increasingly understand that the extension of active US military capabilities into Earth-space is essential to provide the ability to project American power for our nation’s security. It’s time for the United States to have a permanent human military presence in Earth-space—starting with a US Space Corps, followed soon by a US Space Guard and leading to a US Space Force.

That's the upside.

The downside is rather larger. In roughly descending order of imminent pragmatic concern:

  • It's opposed by the Air Force
  • The Army and Navy will likely also resist having their space assets absorbed
  • As will the civilian intelligence agencies like the NRO
  • The Air Force is not the proper model for a space force
  • It's too early
  • When we do create Space Marines, they'll be the US Space Corps Marine Corps, which is retarded and sounds like it was named by the Chinese.
  • Sooner or later, we'll have a space navy, so we should just go there and get it right the first time

Let's take a look at some of these points.

Bureacratic Crib Death

From the 80s to the present, we've had an Air Force Space Command. This is a component command subordinate to U.S. Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM). From 1985 until its 2002 merger with USSTRATCOM, USPACECOM existed as a Unified Combatant Command. Currently, US Space activities are managed by the Joint Functional Component Command for Space which is part of, again, USSTRATCOM.

To the extent that any military (and more to the point, Air Force) program is ever well run, this jumble of awkward acronyms has mostly gotten the job done. Satellites didn't fall from the sky, space assets worked with ground assets with only moderate friction, and we have a robotic spaceplane that does sekrit missions for years at a time. (And will soon be launched by SpaceX.)

In other words, what we have is adequate for the job at present.

Given the resistance from other branches of the military, and the additional fact that this new force won’t ever have operational control of the National Reconnaissance Office’s satellites, what is the likelihood that this new Space Corps will actually control a significant fraction of our space, you know, forces?

Past history is not terribly encouraging. Bureaucratic infighting will leave one branch of the military without crucial assets it needs to accomplish its mission. Which one loses is more an indication of its skill and lethality at the infighting rather than its prowess in outfighting.

Back in the late 40s we spun off the Air Force from the Army. One of the unfortunate side effects of that birth was the all-helicopter Army Air Force. The new Air Force insisted that it have control over all fixed-wing aircraft because it was the Air Force, goddammit and therefore it should have control over all airplanes. The Air Force got its way, but that left the Army struggling to provide Close Air Support. Because it was no longer allowed to operate airplanes, the Army settled on helicopters. For some roles helicopters are well-suited, but the constant attempts by the Air Force to kill the A-10 are a perfect example of how the division of labor between the Army and the Air Force was poorly thought out, if at all.

Into the fifties, each of the branches of the US military (not counting the Marines) had their own nuclear deterrent. The Army had the rockets, the Air Force had the bombers and the Navy had the ballistic missile subs. Moderately sensible. But the Army lost again, and the missiles went to the Air Force. While the Navy has been able to resist the Air Force’s otherwise all-conquering bureaucratic acumen, what other branches - especially new ones - will be able to do the same?

And more to the point, what new inter-service rivalries can we imagine will arise with the creation of the Space Corps? Unlike the Navy and Marines who have a centuries long understanding of how to manage their respective roles, this will not be the case with the Air Force and the Space Corps, and this will be the primary bureaucratic battleground as the institutional Air Force struggles to hold on to assets, programs and funding.

There isn’t enough space activity to give the new Space Corps enough power to fight off the lethal and voracious Air Force joint task force budget and appropriations terminators. The Corps will likely flounder absent some Space Pearl Harbor.

Too Soon?

Look at it this way: how successful would the Air Force have been had it been created ten or twenty years earlier? In 1947, the US Army Air Corps had thousands of planes, thousands of airmen and mechanics, pilots and navigators. They’d just played a major part in winning the biggest war in history, and they’d been the means by which the first atomic bombs were delivered to their intended recipients.

In ’37, let alone ’27, the Army Air Corps was a tiny appendage of the Army, and its role in warfare was largely theoretical. Strategic bombing advocates were making absurd claims (that, absurdly, are still believed today) and the mechanics of CAS were still being worked out. But even here, there was the example of air combat in the First World War to draw on.

Right now, there are two military space vehicles. Two. (Yes, there are countless communications, surveillance and other satellites operated by the military. And all the ICBMs. But the X-37b is the only military space vehicle in any sense that makes sense. It could have guns, and possibly even crew.) Space weapons have never been used in anger. There are no Space Aces. Standing up a Space Corps is most akin to setting up a USAF in 1911, when the US Army had a few experimental aircraft and little else.

IMAGE(/sites/default/files/x37b.jpg)

wright 1908 military flyer

Space Fighters or Space Battleships

For the near future, space operations will be conceptually similar to air operations. Small crews, short duration missions. For the long term though, how long will this be the case? Distances between worlds are rather long. The model of getting in a plane and flying for a few hours just doesn’t fit.

There’s a reason why most science fiction has used a naval analog for warcraft in space. Even where space fighters are a thing, the model is not so much Air Force as Naval Aviation - squadrons of space fighters flying off space carriers. Long duration missions will require the traditions and methods of the Navy, not the Air Force. Soon enough, most space missions will necessarily be long-duration missions. That being the case, the sensible thing to do is to stand up a space navy and get it right from the start.

Assume that there is still a United States a hundred years from now, and that space travel is commonplace. (One of these speculations is crazy. But which one?) If there are American bases, outposts, and colonies on other planets then there will need to be an American Space fleet. Having a space fleet would mean that most of the nuclear deterrent that we’ve laboriously created will be moot - attack from space is cheaper, cleaner, and easier. Our strategic deterrent will *be* the space fleet.

In this scenario, its easy to imagine a suitable force structure, and their respective roles.

  1. Army: combat on the ground. Ground troops, fully capable, fixed-wing drone CAS, and artillery to include missiles and nukes.
  2. Navy: combat on, below, and above the seas. Subs (and missiles), surface combatants, and squadrons of drone fighters/bombers.
  3. Aerospace Force: combat above the earth, out to Earth orbit. What is now strategic bombers, air superiority missions, etc. But also space fighters launched from earth or orbital bases and designed to operate in near earth space.
  4. Space Navy: Combat in space. Cruisers of the void, battleships and the like. Capable of strikes to planetary surfaces as well as fighting opposing fleets.

And, having created a United States Space Navy, it wouldn’t be a stretch to go a bit further and create US Space Marines, which is the logical and desirable end for the United States, its military, and space travel.

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