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General News    H3'ed 9/25/18

Tomgram: William Hartung, To Boldly Go Nowhere?

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Like many in my generation, undoubtedly including Donald Trump, I went into space early (and I'm not even counting all those hours in my early teens I spent reading Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy or H.G. Wells's War of the Worlds by flashlight under the covers while supposedly asleep). I'm thinking of 1966 and 1967, when I crossed the Great Barrier (in Star Trek episode three), landed on Alpha 177 (in episode five), and traveled with Mr. Spock to Talos IV (in episode 12). And yes, I still remember those cloaked Romulan ships and that close encounter with the Klingon Empire. In fact, on July 20, 1969 (my birthday, no less!), when Neil Armstrong first set foot upon the moon and then raised the American flag there, saying (in the era before women existed), "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind," I have to admit that I was a little disappointed. On my small black-and-white TV, at least, the moon with Armstrong on it looked (as I remember thinking at the time) a bit like the blurry inside of a working washing machine through its small glass window. What it sure didn't look like was any part of the galaxy in which James T. Kirk, commander of the USS Enterprise, touched down weekly.

Now, Donald Trump is clearly, if I can coin a word, a nostalgiac. He longs for the 1950s and 1960s, the years of his youth, and since entering the Oval Office he's been trying to take us all back -- lock, stock, and barrel -- to that highly fossil-fueled, deeply polluted age when you didn't have to put "again" after "great" while mentioning this country. Having already done his best, in a globally warming world, to burn yet more fossil fuels, he's now adding to his nostalgia for that ancient era of American preeminence by proposing that we all revisit Star Trek (with him, of course, as Captain Kirk). He's ordered the creation of a sixth branch of the U.S. military, a Space Force, for which, in language redolent of that distant age, he invoked "our destiny beyond the Earth." As TomDispatchregular and expert on Pentagon spending William Hartung points out today, that means one thing: money, money, money, and yet more money. I think it's clear what his once-vaunted plan for funding the rebuilding of this country's failing infrastructure will have meant on his departure from office: nothing built or rebuilt on this small planet of ours -- not a mile of new high-speed rail, for instance -- but plenty of new weaponry in outer space. Let Hartung fill you in on the future according to our own Captain Kirk. Tom

Trump's Space Force
Smoke and Mirrors or a Step Towards War in Space?
By William D. Hartung

On June 18th, President Trump announced that he was directing the Pentagon to develop a new branch of the U.S. military, a "Space Force" that would give the U.S. "dominance" in that realm. It would be, he said -- and here he used a classic phrase from the Jim Crow era of racial segregation -- "separate but equal" to the U.S. Air Force. Much of the rest of his announcement sounded like it came directly out of a Star Trek episode. ("My administration is reclaiming America's heritage as the world's greatest space-faring nation. The essence of the American character is to explore new horizons and to tame new frontiers...") And like Jean-Luc Picard captaining the USS Enterprise, he promptly (if redundantly) ordered the "Department of Defense and Pentagon" to make it so.

The president's sudden enthusiasm seemed to come out of the blue. Even advocates of the Space Force concept were surprised. His Space Council, chaired by Vice President Mike Pence and advised by a flock of space and defense industry executives, was only informed of Trump's decision to proceed with what he called "the sixth armed service" shortly before the announcement was made.

Nor was it greeted with universal enthusiasm in either Washington or the U.S. military, to put it mildly. Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who had written a letter to Congress in July 2017 opposing an earlier, less ambitious version of the plan, had little choice but to go along with the new scheme (though his reluctance was obvious). However, its reception among key Republicans was, at best, decidedly mixed. A number of them were skeptical, like Texas Senator John Cornyn who said, "I have not yet heard a compelling case why we need a separate force."

On the cultural front, the Space Force was roundly ridiculed on late night TV. And even Fox News gave air time to critics like former astronaut Scott Kelly, who called the move "political" and indicated that "adding another layer of government bureaucracy [to the military]... is probably not a good use of our taxpayer dollars." David Cloud and Noah Bierman of the Los Angeles Times summed up the president's decision-making process as a prime example of "the chaotic way Trump sometimes makes key decisions, often by bypassing the traditional bureaucracy to tout ideas that work well as applause lines but aren't fully thought out."

If, however, the skeptics have their doubts, one thing is clear: Donald Trump loves the idea of boldly going where no president has gone before in the same way a child might cherish his favorite toy. And his interest in such a force was evidently piqued in part by his fascination with model spacecraft he was shown by Pence during a March 2018 White House briefing.

Practical or not, the Space Force concept meets Trump's two biggest needs: stroking his own ego and pumping up his political base. Calling for "space dominance" via a nifty new force makes for another great get-tough slogan for the president, not to mention a good distraction from his earthly troubles. He first used the term publicly in an address at Miramar Air Base in San Diego last March and it is now a standard part of his stump speech, as are cries of "Space Force! Space Force!" from adoring crowds at his rallies.

"Space Force!" may eventually become the futuristic rhetorical equivalent of "the wall" -- a big idea that appeals to Trump's base but would be wildly impractical and hugely expensive to implement. And just as that "big, fat, beautiful" wall remains a symbol of a larger immigration policy whose impact continues to be devastating, the call for a Space Force could open the door to genuinely dangerous ideas -- like placing weapons in outer space, which one Pentagon official recently suggested would be "relatively easy."

"This Is About Money"

Trump's sudden childlike attachment to the concept of a Space Force isn't the only factor pushing it. As Alabama Republican Congressman Mike Rogers, a Space Force advocate whose state includes Huntsville (aka "Rocket City"), the military space capital of the world, put it in an interview with the Los Angeles Times: "I mean, this is about money. As long as space is in the [Air Force] portfolio, they can move money from space to support fighter jets, bombers, or whatever. The Air Force is run by fighter pilots. Space will always lose."

Rogers, who has received hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions from defense contractors, has relentlessly pressed Trump to make space a separate armed service. His allies in the administration include Pence, a long-time space enthusiast, and Undersecretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, a former Boeing executive who presided over that company's missile defense division. Among the projects Shanahan oversaw was the disastrous Airborne Laser system, a laser mounted on a Boeing 747 aircraft that was supposed to be able to zap missiles in flight but failed miserably, while chewing up $5 billion worth of taxpayer funds.

A future Space Force could waste money on a scale that would make the billions squandered on that Airborne Laser look like chump change. Initial set-up costs over the next few years have been estimated to be at least $8 billion. But once space is fully established as a separate service the price tag could go far higher over time. In "Space Force: Spending At Warp Speed," the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense suggests that -- worst case scenario -- it could, in the long term, cost as much as $190 billion annually "to establish a new military service and the enormous bureaucracy of a new department." Even by Pentagon standards, that's a massive sum. Among the questions that remain are: Will there be enough spoils to go around? In other words, will Space Force funding come at the expense of the Air Force and the other services or will it be a staggering add-on to the Pentagon budget, pushing it even further into the stratosphere?

A Complex Divided

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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