by Dr. Bleddyn Bowen
The Trump-Pence administration was very busy in space. In 2017, they reconstituted the National Space Council (NSC) to coordinate political, civilian, and military policies and efforts in space. With high-profile Presidential support, Congress established a new branch of the United States (US) military within the US Air Force, turning a new page on a decades-long debate within American airpower on whether American spacepower needed to have its own bureaucratic structures.
In 2020, the US finally formalised international cooperation on the Lunar Gateway and kicked off international debate on the Artemis Accords, its flagship post-International Space Station crewed spaceflight project. Significantly, an emphasis on sustainability in crewed spaceflight made its way into official documents in a welcome exorcism of the crash-programme spirit of Apollo. A new National Space Policy was published in December that replaces the last one from 2010, and new Space Policy Directives were still being released into the final days of the Trump administration in January 2021.
Debates on space policy are often on the finer points of means, and not on ends. Maintaining US ‘leadership’, military pre-eminence, and commercial competitiveness in space is a common refrain of US space policies and rhetoric, and can be easily traced back through the Obama and Bush Junior administrations. Like US foreign policy on Earth, space policy documents are often a loose assortment of key phrases and general talking points that reiterate and reinforce articles of faith and legitimate talking points within certain policy communities and interest groups, not unlike ‘The Blob’ of US foreign policy and grand strategy.
However, policy documents do have value in outlining any new areas of conversation and the channels of authority in the making and implementation of space policy. During the Trump years, what were once niche topics became more mainstream: the norms of space exploration and resource extraction; GPS alternatives and backups to Position, Navigation, and Timing services; Space Traffic Management; and the reconvening of the NSC.
Looking ahead into space activities in the Biden-Harris administration, there are several areas to build on some beneficial activities that occurred during the Trump-Pence years. The Space Force is one change that should not be undone merely because of Trump’s infatuation with it (or its kitsch imagery). Significant momentum in multilateral, long-term, and sustainable crewed and robotic lunar exploration goals should be built upon, and the high quality Space Policy Directives issued from the NSC provide a reasonable template for continued work over the next four years.
The fact that there are things that have changed for the better in US space policy over the last four years does not acquit the Trump-Pence administration from its reprehensible policies and rhetoric towards vulnerable people and minorities of all kinds both at home and abroad; a disastrous pandemic response; and the trashing of democratic and constitutional norms which led to two impeachments and an insurrection. Yet space policy achievements of the past few years in the military and exploration space sectors should not be undone just because they are currently associated with the Trump administration. In particular, complaints about the Space Force often amount more to its clumsy, inflammatory rhetoric and tone in public communications, rather than the substance of American spacepower which remains consistent across Presidential administrations.
The creation of the Space Force was the culmination of a decades-long debate within the US Air Force about establishing a ‘space corps’ within the US Air Force and years of bi-partisan legislative efforts in Congress to reform military space acquisitions at the Pentagon prior to Trump’s interest in the idea.
Only the ignorant can complain about the Space Force ‘militarising space’ given that it is merely taking on the duties of military space activities that the US Air Force, and many other military forces around Earth, have delivered for almost the entirety of the Space Age. Space has been militarised for the entirety of the Space Age. In substance, the Space Force is neither that new nor especially dangerous. America is not necessarily a war monger for having a Space Force, and a Space Force is not necessary to be a warmonger in the 21st century either.
For good and ill, the creation of the Space Force does not change the routine military satellite modernisation and acquisition programmes already in motion – the substance of military spacepower. It is easier to conjure clicks and get retweets on an alarmist article about the supposed inevitability of space warfare or poke fun at the Space Force’s kitsch imagery and clumsy doctrinal language from Trump administration officials rather than explaining why GPS-III is years behind schedule and massively over budget. Delayed next-generation GPS technologies is a significant issue in US space security, military power, and global infrastructural competition. This will remain so no matter the uniform of the military service that controls it and is a far cry from the turgid language surrounding commentary the militarisation of space and American warmongering.
Those that complain about the battle-centric language of the US Space Force are right to question the centrality of battle in strategic thinking in space and in public communications. In my own book I explain the limits of battle-centric thinking about space warfare and encourage spacepower and military space services to be thought of first as logistical and infrastructural support systems for terrestrial wars.
But battle-centric thinking about space predates the US Space Force, just as the militarisation of space is as old as the Space Age itself. The problems of excessive battle-centric military culture in space will exist with or without a US Space Force. Despite that, military forces do still need to think about space warfare and anti-satellite operations because it is their job to think through how to win wars in every environment, and whilst modern military power is so reliant on space-based systems, satellites will remain fair game in open warfare and is tacitly accepted in most military forces around the world.
The potentially profound consequences of the Space Force will not be seen for a long time. The development of spacepower culture, careers, and acquisitions have just been put on different paths. It is too soon to tell how and to what extent these paths will differ from the preceding 60 years of US military space history. It remains to be seen whether the Space Force will allow the generation of a better military spacepower culture within the Pentagon by reducing the dominance of the Air Force in military space bureaucracy.
I do not expect Biden and Harris to undo the Space Force. Since the Space Force enjoyed bipartisan Congressional support and requires Congress to undo, reversing it is probably not a political battle worth having even if the White House has reservations about it. The further bureaucratic disruption caused by undoing the Space Force for strategically illiterate reasons as ‘they are militarising space’ or the highly partisan grounds of ‘it was Trump’s thing so we should not do it’ would show a great error in judgment by the new administration. Particularly as the core duties of the Space Force will still be carried out by some uniformed service. The Space Force (or Corps) was already a plan in motion in Congress before Trump , and will likely outlast Trump’s own legacy.
Rhetoric, Diplomacy, and Artemis
There are many valid complaints to be made about the tone and rhetoric of the Trump administration and the Space Force. Clumsy language and debate creates the wrong impressions in general audiences both within and outside the United States, and fails to educate audiences on the realities of the military and intelligence dominated nature of Earth orbit.
The language of ‘space dominance’ had gone from niche doctrine documents with specific meanings from the US Air Force and into the vernacular of the President and became a mainstream talking point and may reveal masculine insecurities more than anything else. This conjured the image of a more aggressive United States, even though the substance of such thinking and doctrine in the US military is decades old. Additionally, the language of dominance or the control of space in a time of war is merely the same attitude the US Navy and US Air Force have to dominating or controlling their environments during open hostilities. Why should warfare in Earth orbit against machines be beyond acceptability when the perceived necessity of killing people and breaking things at sea or in the air proceeds unchallenged?
That is what much of the national security commentariat pick up on because the realities of spacepower has remained unnoticed for decades by many mainstream national security and Pentagon analysts. Popular narratives of space as a place of peaceful exploration, commerce, and cultural symbolism have blinded many to the military and intelligence uses of Earth orbit which predate them all. The Obama administration ‘spoke more softly’, but carried the same ‘big stick’ that Trump did for four years, and space security experts know it well enough.
Mainstream observers and commentators need to come to terms with the fact that space technologies in Earth orbit have been ever more important to the state’s ability to kill people and break things since the 1960s, despite the principles of the peaceful uses of outer space enshrined in the Outer Space Treaty of 1967.
The responsibility however is on the US Government and the Pentagon to avoid feeding into negative images conjured by their own words on ignorant populations and those who wish to feed unduly alarming negative images of the United States. It also did not help that Space Force recruitment commercials have included astronauts and fictional space station imagery – things that have very little to do with modern American military spacepower. Tact and moderation in explaining the mission of the Space Force should be a priority for the Pentagon in the new administration lest the Space Force continue to be an object of ridicule, technofetishism, ‘space cadettery’, and association with the bruising language of the Trump administration. Yet nobody should be under the illusion that the softer language of a Democrat administration changes the reality of the militarised nature of Earth orbit and the role space technologies play in delivering violence and suffering on Earth for political purposes, both in the US military and in foreign military forces.
America’s allies are able to conduct military space operations and talk about it in ways that do not invite alarmist, simplistic, and turgid visions of an ‘inevitable’ war in space. In the last 20 years America’s allies have been persuaded of the argument that they need to do more in military space activities and need to consider the threats of space warfare. Now, allied capitals are discussing what should be done about threats to their space systems, not whether something should be done at all.
A curious aspect of the Trump-Pence administration that showed more tact and achievements on the diplomatic front was the activities of NASA in pushing forward the Artemis programme. I would hope that it survives a Biden administration because the fundamental elements of it and related projects have been committed to by international partners and the US Congress.
Building on the groundwork laid during the Obama years, commitments have been made in real, tangible terms for the Lunar Gateway – a crewed space station to be placed in Lunar orbit. The European Space Agency (ESA), Japanese Space Exploration Agency (JAXA), and Canadian Space Agency (CSA) have signed formal agreements and committed funds and industrial contracts to the project. This makes the Lunar Gateway a ‘real’ project, as opposed to simple policy declarations, artist renderings, and idle space cadet fantasies that defy the laws of politics and economics.
Over the past four years, the US has managed to solidify international participation in America’s post-ISS crewed spaceflight plans to a degree that the Obama administration did not. US space exploration policy has been outwardly more multilateral in the Trump years than in Obama-era policy on focusing crewed efforts towards a Mars landing by 2035. The US has staked political and diplomatic capital on the Artemis Accords – its rules of the road for joint lunar exploration. Several states have signed on and we can expect more to follow.
A retreat from that by the Biden-Harris administration would portend dire consequences for American space diplomacy and its claims to be a reliable, trustworthy leader in space exploration. Not only would it hollow out Washington’s credibility in setting new norms (or exporting US norms as some might call it) of international space exploration management, but also those states that have already signed onto them.
Whilst we can expect the deadline of a 2024 lunar return to slip , a course is now set and real resources need to be spent in critical areas now to make commitments to the Lunar Gateway happen. We can expect NASA funding requests for Artemis be consistently less than what is asked for, but that was already the case with the Trump administration. The question is: how much diplomatic and economic capital will the Biden-Harris administration pour into Artemis?
Climate Science and The National Space Council
The largest changes in space policy in the new administration would be on climate and Earth science at NASA, as well as the fate of the NSC. The Trump White House has persistently tried to reduce the funding and capability of NASA’s Earth science division (and other Federal agencies’ work towards climate change and environmental protection).
Biden has recognised climate change as a major crisis facing all of humanity and recommitted America to the Paris Climate Agreement. Therefore we can expect all Federal agencies to enjoy a return to increased climate science and monitoring activities, not least NASA. Of the many policies of the Trump administration that must be reversed, this is arguably among the greatest.
The fate of the National Space Council is unknown at the time of writing. The fact that the NSC has not been singled out in any way is perhaps a positive in that it has not suffered major criticisms from any part of the Biden-Harris teams as yet. In my view, the NSC has proven its worth in developing successive Space Policy Directives and outlining major areas that need consistent technocratic thought and direction from across Government.
The commercial reforms of the NSC’s Space Policy Directives will likely continue. Whilst some details are of course ‘new’, such as transferring space tracking and traffic monitoring duties away from the Pentagon and to the Department of Commerce, these are realising longer term trends and putting more details on the bones established by previous administrations. The NSC has also pushed for the use of new commercial space technologies for defence purposes given the speed at which new small satellite capabilities are coming online. It is difficult to think of a reason to change this goal in a new administration, however, new staff may conjure new ways of doing so.
Scott Pace’s previous writing on space exploration and international partners should leave no doubt that America’s diplomatic results and emphasis on sustainability in crewed spaceflight came about in large part thanks to his role as the head of the NSC, and his long-held concern about the lack of American ‘leadership’ leading to a post-American future in space exploration. The NSC, if it persists, will now be under the leadership a new chief executive officer. Kamala Harris has inherited the chair of the NSC from Mike Pence. Harris’ views on the finer points of space policy are unknown. Biden has appointed the head of the Office of Science and Technology Policy to his Cabinet, but what this move means for space activities and the NSC remains to be seen. Whilst the tasks of the NSC could be moved around into other departments if disbanded and the larger drives of US space policy can continue regardless, it would be a symbolically significant move if it was disbanded.
In sum I do not expect major shifts in the substance of US space policy based on the continuation of the use of outer space for the purposes of war, development, and prestige. Congress has set up the Space Force and the rest of the military-industrial complex is already adapting to that new reality. The Lunar Gateway has financial and political commitments with some of America’s closest and most capable partners in space, and the Artemis Accords are a sunk cost for US space diplomacy and need a targeted diplomatic drive to get countries such as India, Brazil, and Nigeria on-board to solidify a new space exploration regime that Russia and China cannot ignore in the future. Biden-Harris will also need to ensure the goal of sustainability is not lost in crewed spaceflight programmes if it wants to remain a reliable partner for other space powers, whether they are long-established or only now emerging. Rhetoric will likely soften, but the substance of military and economic self-interest of the US in space will continue unabated – but space experts and diplomats know to expect that.
A Biden-Harris administration risks large domestic political costs to overturn this largely bipartisan and non-election issue inheritance from the Trump-Pence administration, and would risk losing international credibility too if it reneges on them. It is up to Biden-Harris to recognise the substance of US space power that needs continued development rather than a complete overhaul, and to cut through the chaff of poor rhetoric and ignorant commentary on space policy in order to make the most of what little good has come from a mostly regrettable and terrible Trump-Pence administration.
Dr Bleddyn Bowen is Lecturer in International Relations at the School of History, Politics, and International Relations at the University of Leicester, UK. He is the author of War in Space: Strategy, Spacepower, Geopolitics published by Edinburgh University Press. Bleddyn has published research in several peer-reviewed journals, and is a regular columnist for SpaceWatch.Global. He frequently presents to and advises practitioners including civilian and military personnel and agencies in the UK and internationally on military, intelligence and strategic space policy issues. He frequently appears in media reports and news items on space policy and the politics of outer space as an expert source. You can find his professional profile here and his personal website here. He can be found on Twitter via the handle @bleddb