Donald Trump, Space Commander

Dec 07 2019

You’ve probably heard the big news from this week’s NATO summit. As reported on the front page of the New York Times and the Washington Post, several European leaders were captured on video talking about President Trump, over beverages and hors d’oeuvres, in a less-than-reverential way—and Trump, needless to say, got in a huff about it. 

What you probably haven’t heard—because it was reported almost nowhere—is this news from the summit: NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced, "We have declared space as the fifth operational domain for NATO, alongside land, air, sea, and cyber."

There may be a hidden link between these two developments. One reason leaders of NATO countries dis Trump behind his back is that he spends so much time dissing NATO. And according to some observers, one reason NATO decided to expand its mission into outer space is to get Trump to cut down on the dissing. 

After all, Trump this year, amid great fanfare, created the US Space Command—which, Congress willing, will soon beget the US Space Force, a military branch equal in status to the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines. So what better way for NATO to get some Trump love then to say that it, too, thinks the final frontier could use more policing?


"President Trump's repeated NATO bashings have definitely left the allies worried," Michael John Williams, director of the International Relations Program at New York University, told Al Jazeera. "His declaration of a US Space Force was taken as a sign of interest, and thus advancing space as a fifth military domain is a way of adding to NATO's value."

The thought that NATO may be following Trump’s lead as it expands its domain into outer space is not reassuring. Here is how Trump last year described the process of reflection and analysis that led to the idea of a US Space Force: “I said maybe we need a new force, we'll call it the Space Force. And I was not really serious. Then I said, ‘What a great idea, maybe we'll have to do that. That could happen. That could be the big breaking story.’ ”

Trump later fleshed out the contours of the big breaking story. He said that the Space Force’s mission will be to “organize, train and equip warriors” who can defend America’s interests in outer space, which is “the next war-fighting domain.” Trump is of the view that, “when it comes to defending America, it is not enough to merely have an American presence in space. We must have American dominance in space.”

This doesn’t sound like a movie that’s guaranteed to end well. 

In fairness to Trump: There’s a legitimate concern here. America’s military readiness depends heavily on its infrastructure of satellites. Surveillance satellites, for example, keep us informed about what adversaries are doing with their military forces. You’d hate for an enemy to have the power to blind you with anti-satellite weapons. It’s only natural for Trump to want to make sure that doesn’t happen. 

But before deciding how exactly to indulge that impulse, we should ponder an ironic property of surveillance satellites. In a world with numerous nuclear-armed nations, it can be in our interest not just to keep our surveillance satellites functioning but to keep our adversaries’ surveillance satellites functioning. After all, if an adversary with nukes is suddenly blinded, its leaders might think that signifies an impending attack from us—a perception that could make their trigger fingers itchy. 

You might even say, at the risk of some oversimplification, that it’s in the whole world’s interests for everyone’s surveillance satellites to remain secure. And not just because clear vision keeps nuclear-armed nations from imagining an attack that’s not happening—but also because if all nations know they’re being watched, they’ll be less inclined to think they can get away with surprise attacks, since the standard preparations for attack (massing troops at borders, taking missiles out of mothballs, etc.) will be visible. 

Regular NZN readers may sense the imminent appearance of the term non-zero-sum. And, indeed, what I’ve just described is a world where  a win-win outcome is possible. If nations agree to refrain from developing and deploying weapons that threaten satellites, that could be good for the globe broadly.  

Unfortunately, advocating as much is a good way to get a reputation for naïveté. 

The main reason is that verifying compliance with an anti-satellite weapons (ASAT) treaty would be challenging to say the least. In sci-fi movies these weapons are exotic—space-based lasers, or insidious satellites that cozy up to one of their fellow orbs before detonating a suicide bomb. But in the real world many ASATs are so prosaic that it’s hard to distinguish them from regular weapons; some ground-based or sea-based missiles can, with only modest adaptation, become satellite killers. 

This is one reason that, though there hasn’t been a whole lot of testing of anti-satellite weapons, four countries—the US, China, Russia, and India—have already conducted at least one successful test. And, unsettlingly, if you look at all the weapons that have been tested or are known to be under study, there is a lot of variety—ground-based, sea-based, air-based missiles, ground-based lasers that blind satellites, the aforementioned suicide orbs, and so on. Isn’t banning all this, and verifying the ban, plainly futile? Isn’t it naïve of me to even bring it up?

Maybe. But naivete can be a two-edged sword. Arguments for the futility of banning anti-satellite weapons are arguments for the futility of Trump’s “American dominance in space.” Given the variety of potential anti-satellite weapons, and given how prosaic some of them are, it is naïve in the extreme to think that the US could, through strength alone, ever be confident that its satellites are secure from all possible attacks. 

But one thing we can be confident of: If Trump proceeds with his plan to pour tons of money into a Space Force whose mission is eternal dominance, that will supercharge the incentive of other nations to develop space weapons—anti-satellite weapons, anti-anti-satellite weapons, and so on. It’s hard to predict exactly how this unbridled arms race would play out, but it’s a lot easier to imagine it being destabilizing than stabilizing, easier to imagine it amplifying the anxieties and insecurities of the US and other nations than subduing them. 

In other words, there probably wouldn’t be a “winner.” And even if there were one, it’s kind of mystifying why Trump is so confident that the winner would be America, given the current pace of economic and technological development in various countries, most obviously China. 

Which leads to a point that goes beyond space weapons. As globalization proceeds, and less developed nations continue to develop, America’s economic and technological power will decline in relative terms even if America continues to flourish. So the smart thing to do, you’d think, would be to use our power to forge international laws and norms that will keep us secure even amid that decline. If your days as king of the jungle are numbered, maybe you should use your fleeting dominance to make the world less of a jungle.

Which leads us back to the question of whether there’s any form of international cooperation, in the realm of space weapons, that a non-naïve person could embrace. Well, for starters:

One good thing about the anti-satellite tests that have been conducted by other countries is that we know they’ve been conducted. Verifying an ASAT ban is hard, but verifying a ban on ASAT testing is much less hard. 

So one prudent thing for the most powerful nation in the world to do, at this moment in history, might be to propose (1) a moratorium on ASAT testing; and (2) a serious discussion among world leaders about (a) the prospects for heading off a new kind of arms race—a race involving both space-based weapons and weapons that, though not based in space, threaten the fundamentally stabilizing infrastructure of space-based satellites; and (b) other ways to give nations reasonable confidence that their assets in space are secure. 

That’s a challenging goal, and reaching it will call for progress not just in international law—that is, in arms treaties—but in international norms. It will probably also call for the emergence of a fundamentally different kind of world—a world in which there is less military conflict, less economic conflict, less gratuitous nationalist posturing, less grassroots hatred, and so on.

It’s tempting to add that such a world must await the departure of Trump from the White House. But that, though true in so far as it goes, lets too many other people off the hook. The fact is we’ve never had a president who spent enough time preparing us for the true threats of the future. And all recent presidents have spent time fueling military conflicts that make it harder to reckon with those threats anytime soon.     

And it’s not as if European leaders are doing much better (though the European Union did, a decade ago, give the world a good conversation starter). Secretary General Stoltenberg, having announced that NATO would indulge Trump’s Space Commander cosplay, reassured us that NATO’s activities in space wouldn’t violate international law. That’s safe to say, since there’s virtually nothing about the militarization of space that’s currently prohibited by international law. If NATO wants to do something constructive, maybe it should focus on that problem.

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