U.S. President Donald Trump’s desire to create a Space Force might sound a little out of this world, but the idea of making military use of space is not new.
“We already, in fact, have a kind of Space Force,” says Ilya Somin, a professor of law at George Mason University. “We have military satellites that already exist. They’ve existed for a long time. It’s just that they’re controlled by the Air Force and sometimes by the Navy. So if Trump succeeds in persuading Congress to create a Space Force, all that will happen, at least initially, is that the sort of thing that was previously done by the Air Force will now be done by the Space Force.”
The U.S. military is currently composed of five armed services – the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and Coast Guard. President Trump wants the Space Force to become a sixth military service branch focused on space warfare.
Constitutional scholars are debating how such a force would come into existence. Some question whether the U.S. Constitution, the nation’s founding governing document, allows for the establishment of a Space Force.
The Constitution grants Congress the power to “raise and support Armies” and also to “provide and maintain a Navy.”
Originalists, scholars who believe the Constitution should be interpreted as it was understood at the time it was enacted back in 1787, might argue that even the Air Force, which became a separate branch of the U.S. Armed Forces in 1947, should be considered unconstitutional.
Yet originalists could defend a Space Force if it were to be part of the Navy or Army, as the Air Force once was.
“A Space Force, like an Air Force, under modern conditions, is essential to conducting ground operations. It’s just another weapon for ground operations and sometimes naval operations,” Somin says. “The Constitution nowhere limits the kinds of weapons the Army or Navy is allowed to have. So if they’re allowed to have bullets that fly through the air, they can have planes that fly through the air and even spacecraft that fly through space.”
Originalists could also make a case for a completely separate Space Force organizationally because the Constitution gives Congress powers to do what is “necessary and proper” to enable lawmakers to execute their powers.
Agreeing that a Space Force is constitutional might come easily to “living constitutionalists,” scholars who believe that the meaning of the Constitution can change over time to account for modern conditions.
There is, however, one kind of Space Force that both originalists and living constitutionalists might have a problem with – a deep Space Force along the lines of Star Trek’s science fictional Starfleet, which conducts interstellar warfare, exploration and colonization.
“If you’re talking about the Starship Enterprise and it’s light years away from Earth and it’s fighting the Klingons or something in space, that has little or no connection to ground or naval warfare,” says Somin, adding, “I think there is a genuinely strong argument that that kind of deep Space Force would not be permissible under the original meaning of the Constitution.”
But what if aliens in a galaxy far, far away, plan to attack Earth?
“Any such thing, [our ability to use technology for deep space interstellar flight], if it ever happens at all, is many decades away probably, so we have plenty of time to discuss it and debate it, and if we decide this is something we really need, we can do a constitutional amendment,” Somin says. “It’s not like the Klingons or the Romulans are about to attack us tomorrow and we have to immediately authorize Starfleet to defeat them.”