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With Biden’s Backing, Space Force Threatens to Accelerate the Arms Race

With Democrats and Republicans now both firmly behind the Space Force, it seems there is no going back.

The official flag of the United States Space Force is presented in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, D.C., on May 15, 2020.

Republicans’ recent loss of control over the federal government means it’s fake outrage season in Washington, D.C. Last week, conservative lawmakers marked the occasion by lambasting White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki for allegedly failing to show sufficient reverence for the Space Force, the new branch of the U.S. Armed Forces established in 2019 under the administration of Donald Trump to assert U.S. military dominance in outer space.

At a press conference on February 2, Psaki responded to a question about President Joe Biden’s support for Trump’s creation by joking about the Space Force being “the plane of today” — a reference to how she had fielded questions about the color of Air Force One during the previous day’s press conference, and how the questions about the Space Force were subsequently taking center stage.

“It is an interesting question. I am happy to check with our Space Force point of contact,” Psaki added. “I’m not sure who that is. I will find out and see if we have any update on that.”

While most wouldn’t have batted an eyelash at those remarks, Republicans flew into a fury. Rep. Mike Rogers of Alabama, the leading Republican on the House Armed Services, accused Psaki of using “an entire branch of our military as the punchline of a joke, which I’m sure China would find funny.” Rep. Michael Waltz of Florida charged Psaki with “demeaning the incredible work of Space Force personnel.”

In response to the GOP attacks, Psaki clarified the Biden administration’s staunchly pro-Space Force position. “We look forward to the continuing work of Space Force and invite the members of the team to come visit us in the briefing room anytime to share an update on their important work,” she said in a tweet posted hours after her plane quip.

“They absolutely have the full support of the Biden administration,” Psaki said of Space Force personnel at the next day’s press conference.

But while Republicans were publicly sweating the future of the military branch, or at least pretending to, it’s unlikely that the defense industry was worried. The bill establishing the Space Force passed Congress in 2019 with overwhelming bipartisan support. Several Democrats in both the House and Senate also crossed the aisle last year to form bipartisan Space Force caucuses in each chamber.

Four Democrats who still serve in Congress co-founded the caucuses: Senators Kyrsten Sinema (Arizona) and Martin Heinrich (New Mexico), and Reps. Charlie Crist (Florida) and Jason Crow (Colorado). Within days of co-founding the House Space Force caucus, Crist received $3,000 from the Political Action Committee (PAC) of Blue Origin, the spaceflight contractor founded and owned by billionaire Jeff Bezos. Crist also received $2,500 from aerospace giant Northrop Grumman’s PAC early last September, weeks before the establishment of the House Space Force Caucus.

The two companies are among top Space Force contractors that have preferred donating to Democrats over Republicans in the past few years. In the most recent election cycle, individuals employed by Blue Origin and the company’s PAC gave Democratic candidates for federal office $209,103 while giving Republicans $95,494. Northrop Grumman’s PAC and individuals employed by the company gave Democratic candidates $1,449,859 while giving Republican candidates $1,153,363. And employees and executives and the PAC run by SpaceX, the company owned by billionaire Elon Musk, gave Democrats $468,772 while giving Republicans $274,914.

The Pentagon has relied on these three companies alongside United Launch Alliance (ULA), a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, to get Space Force off the ground, both figuratively and literally (ULA donors preferred Republican candidates last election cycle). The four firms have each been paid hundreds of millions of dollars to develop space launch technology for the U.S. military.

The Space Force announced last August that it would end launch technology partnerships with Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman, but the latter still has plenty of business with the branch, including a $2.3 billion contract to develop satellites for a missile warning system. In December, Bezos’s firm reacted to its loss by establishing an advisory board staffed by seven ex-NASA and military officials to help compete for “lucrative government contracts,” in the words of Reuters.

Though the Space Force is heavily associated with President Trump, Democrats have been pushing the U.S. military for years to ratchet up its celestial presence. In January, The New York Times published a lengthy piece detailing how the Obama administration boosted the Pentagon’s “offensive space control” capabilities by churning $7.2 billion in contracts through 67 companies.

“The beneficiaries included Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla, and Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon,” the paper noted (Musk was not actually one of Tesla’s founders, for the record).

The push to militarize space started under the Bush administration in response to the Chinese military testing anti-satellite weaponry in 2007. In the years leading up to the test, however, the U.S.government repeatedly voted against U.N. General Assembly resolutions proposed by Russian diplomats, which sought to affirm that outer space should only be used for “peaceful purposes.”

In 2005 and 2006, the resolutions “enjoyed support from an overwhelming majority, with only Israel abstaining and the United States objecting,” as the Nuclear Threat Initiative noted. Three years before the first resolution, Russia and China had released a paper entitled: “Possible Elements for a Future International Legal Agreement on the Prevention of the Deployment of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force Against Outer Space Objects.”

But with Democrats and Republicans now both firmly behind Space Force, it seems there is no going back. In December 2019, days before Congress first advanced legislation to create the branch, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the U.S. military’s new focus on outer space would force the Russian government “to pay increased attention to strengthening the orbital group, as well as the rocket and space industry as a whole.”

The call from Putin reinforced warnings from critics of the Space Force worried about the proliferation of weapons in the thermosphere and beyond. Laura Grego, a physicist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the establishment of the U.S. military branch “would prompt a space arms race that would threaten U.S. military and civilian satellites, not protect them.”

“Creating a new military service focused on space will create bureaucratic incentives to hype the space weapons threat and build new weapons,” Grego added.

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